Does adversity benefit artists?
It’s widely believed that great artists must suffer greatly in their lives in order to create great art.
I don’t believe that. I can think of a number of very gifted artists whose lives were relatively uneventful and comfortable, even placid.
But for others, life was difficult and sometimes ended prematurely. That was true for some of the greatest of the greats. Two examples are Beethoven and Chopin, both of whom remain at the pinnacle among western civilization’s musical composers.
Like Schroeder in the “Peanuts” comic strip, I’m a huge fan of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Beethoven had a hard life from early childhood until his death at age 56.
His father, a musician and an alcoholic, was a hard taskmaster, beating the small child daily for each mistake he made at the keyboard, flogging him, throwing him in the cellar and depriving him of sleep for extra hours of practice.
But young Ludwig was truly a prodigy, both as a pianist and as a composer. He published his first composition at the age of 12, and soon received a regular stipend from the government at Bonn, where the family lived.
By the time he was 17, he was sent to Vienna to study music, and after a brief interlude back in Bonn, he returned to Vienna as a young man, where he spent the rest of his life.
His mother died when Beethoven was in his late teens, driving his father deeper into drink. Beethoven secured from the court half of his father’s salary in order to take care of his two younger brothers, which he did until they were well into adulthood.
He was terribly shy, lonely and often miserable. Some of that was because he was also short-tempered, absent-minded, greedy and suspicious. He never married.
But probably his saddest burden was that in his late 20s, around 1797 or so, he started to lose his hearing, possibly from contracting typhus in 1796.
Blind musicians are not uncommon — Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, for instance. But a deaf musician?
Beethoven’s hearing loss grew rapidly worse, and by the early 1800s it was almost totally gone. From then on he composed what he heard in his mind, not through his ears.
His popular “Moonlight Sonata” for piano, written in 1801 as his hearing problem deepened, emphasizes lower register notes because those sounds were easier for him to hear by then than were the higher notes.
And yet in the nine years from 1803 to 1812, despite his life’s growing silence, he turned out a body of composition unrivalled before or since: an opera, six symphonies, four solo concertos, five string quartets, six string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets and 72 songs.
Beethoven composed his ninth and final symphony, with its “Ode to Joy” theme as the final movement, from 1822 to 1824.
He was totally deaf.
When he directed its maiden performance in Vienna in 1824, the alto soloist had to gently turn him around so he could see the wild ovation from the packed house audience.
Death came three years later from cirrhosis of the liver.
Frederic Chopin, born in 1810, was even more a child prodigy than Beethoven, and died at the even earlier age of 39, in 1849.
Of a middle-class Polish family, he published his first composition at age 7 and started performing on piano a year later. His body of work was almost entirely for the piano.
Chopin’s early life was much easier than Beethoven’s. He received piano instruction for a number of years in Poland, then like Beethoven was sent to Vienna, where he soon became well known for his technical virtuosity and compositions.
In 1832, at the age of 22, he settled in Paris, which became his home and base of operations for nearly the rest of his life. He was accepted into that city’s high society and received deserved acclaim for his prodigious body of piano compositions, which he preferred to perform to small audiences in salons and tiny concert halls.
In Paris, Chopin had a string of short-lived love affairs. But life changed dramatically for him in 1836 when he met the author Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known then and since as George Sand. They became lovers.
Chopin had a pretty tempestuous relationship with Sand. The winter of 1838-39 they spent on the Spanish island of Majorca along with Sand’s two sons, where they hoped to escape the cold temperatures of Paris.
But the traditional Catholic island populace recoiled when it discovered that Chopin and Sand were living together but not married. They had great difficulty finding lodgings, and were finally forced to set up housekeeping in an abandoned, drafty monastery for the winter.
And the winter was not balmy as they had hoped. To the contrary, it was cold and dreary. Chopin contracted tuberculosis as a result, which tortured him for the next 10 years and which caused his death in 1849.
He also probably developed epilepsy, which sharply altered his personality and contributed to his estrangement from Sand by 1846.
But like Beethoven, Chopin’s artistry did not suffer from his affliction.
One of his greatest achievements, his “Preludes” cycle for the piano, was written mostly that winter on Majorca.
The “Preludes” collection consists of 24 pieces, one in each of the 24 possible musical keys, 12 major and 12 minor (C, C-sharp, D, etc.).
Each is a signal achievement.
The prelude in D-flat major — known as “The Raindrop” — is one of the most popular piano recital compositions yet today.
It’s hard for me to imagine Chopin sitting at the piano in a cold monastery, shivering and coughing continuously from TB, but creating two dozen piano masterpieces.
Whether life’s challenges produce great artists has been debated for centuries, likewise how much those struggles contributed to Beethoven’s and Chopin’s artistic achievements.
But for me, the wondrous thing is that Beethoven could have done what he did while deaf, and that Chopin could have composed “The Preludes” while suffering from TB in a drafty abandoned monastery.
Makes my occasional challenges seem pretty small.