Musikverein Festival: Beethoven’s Medicine Spoon
There is something that makes the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna unique as a music institution worldwide: its collection, called “Archive, Library, Collections” according to its broad spectrum. It is the largest private music collection in the world, with about three million objects, instruments, manuscripts, objets d’art and books, and one of the five most important ever assembled. From this unique collection, the Musikverein is developing an entire music festival, with distinctive programs inspired by an object from the collection. In the 2021/22 season, the source of inspiration was a box with historical tuning forks, the whole festival revolved around the tuning tone A.
Handing over the spoon: This is a proverbial synonym for death. For centuries, one’s own wooden spoon was an indispensable companion for the common people, making it possible to tke part in the peasant meal from the common bowl in the middle of the table. Whoever gave up his spoon had enjoyed his last earthly meal: no dacapo was possible after this final act. Is there something disrespectful about the old phrase? Can it be applied to someone like Ludwig van Beethoven – that is, to the composer stylized as a titan, who could no longer and did not want to be satisfied with the role of the skilful servant? To have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, i.e. to come from a noble or at least wealthy family, that certainly did not apply to Beethoven: How long did he try to prove his musical “nobility” on a social level! In vain: there was an insurmountable abyss between his “van” and the longed-for “von”. One could note, however, that he died with a silver spoon in his mouth – if not figuratively, then almost literally. The collections of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna contain an object that proves it: a silver spoon.
This spoon of Beethoven was given to the house by Anton Prokesch von Osten (Junior) in 1906, as a gift. The previous owners can not only be traced back to Johann Baptist Jenger, who was commissioned by Marie Pachler to acquire two spoons together with other utensils from Beethoven’s estate at an auction on 5 May 1827, just six weeks after his death, but are also a small who’s who of art-loving Viennese society, almost “half of the Biedermeier”, as archive director Johannes Prominczel knows: The civil servant Jenger belonged to the Schubert circle; Pachler, once a pianistic prodigy, composer and later salonière, was acquainted with Beethoven and Schubert. She gave the two spoons as a gift to friends, one of whom passed hers on to Anton Prokesch von Osten (senior), a general, diplomat and son-in-law of Raphael Georg Kiesewetter, the pioneer of music research. Immediately after his auction success, Jenger had reported in writing to his client Pachler, according to which Beethoven’s cook had confirmed that these were the spoons “with which he […] received medicine in recent times”.
The spoon with which Beethoven “received medicine in recent times” inspires an entire festival to create concert programmes in which composers deal musically with healing, recovery, transformation and intoxication.
Beethoven’s spoon: sensual pleasure and bitter medicine, states of intoxication and fever, end and beginning, life and death in general are reflected in its oval silver round form – as well as illness and transience, recovery and healing, transformation and transformation through medicine, potions and substances. How did composers reflect on these themes musically? How did they influence his musical creation? This applies to Beethoven’s own work as well as to fascinatingly rich examples across music history. Boiled down, as it were, by the Musikverein Festival, with the spoon as a symbolic relic in the center, this results in a good month, from winter to the days around the beginning of spring in 2023 (which is also symbolic!), a true broth of power from which a crowd of exquisite performers know how to draw and the known as well as the unknown, serving old and new. Here are some examples from the festival’s programme and its performers:
“I call the classical the healthy and the romantic the sick,” Goethe said in 1829. Although we are not allowed to project the cultural epochs from our current language use onto the sentence, it does express a difference that clearly resonates with us from the music. The fact that, on the one hand, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 betrays nothing of the despair of the “Heiligenstadt Testament”, which was written at the same time, and that the Fifth Symphony, per aspera ad astra, flows from the tragic fundamental key of C minor into the radiant C major of the finale (Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Elim Chan), while, on the other hand, the late String Quartet op. 132 (Schumann Quartet) contains as a slow movement the famous, very personal “Holy Thanksgiving of a convalescent to the divinity, in the Lidian key”: This also heralds a turning point. The Romantic era brought the private to light, sublimating some pain into art – for example in the finale of Bedřich Smetana’s quartet “From My Life” (Schumann Quartet), where the composer makes the traumatic experience of tinnitus and incipient deafness shockingly audible. Not to forget the person and work of Robert Schumann, who was driven into a fatal crisis by insomnia, depression and equally enervating ringing in the ears and hearing of illusions. The story of his Violin Concerto, a valuable, long-misunderstood contribution to Romantic concert literature, seems like a dime novel in places and is one of the most bizarre episodes in music history. Even before the premiere, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine, which led to the fact that the friend and violinist Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann increasingly believed that they could discover signs of mental decline in the score. The work remained under lock and key – until 1933, when two of Joachim’s nieces declared that they had been asked to publish the Violin Concerto in séances by their deceased uncle and the dead Schumann himself (Swedish Radio Orchestra, Daniel Harding, Christian Tetzlaff).
Earlier times already listened carefully to suffering. How alarmingly precise and in the truest sense of the word “Le Tableau de l’opération de la taille” by Marin Marais (Baroque ensemble La Ninfea) sounds to this day, a programmatic work in which the master of the viola da gamba translates a (presumably his own) bladder stone operation into plastic sounds in real time! In 1725, anaesthesia of the modern form was not even remotely conceivable, and the procedure was at least as painful and potentially fatal as previous ailments. It is comforting to think of the arbitrarily taken opium with which Hector Berlioz processes his amour fou to the actress Harriet Smithson as a “symphonie fantastique” a good century later: with the lover as a leitmotif depicted as an “idée fixe” in the musical centre, he experiences a death-yearning drug intoxication in the unreality of the piece, in which he is even executed for the jealousy murder of her – whereupon he gives her a grotesque distortion on a witches’ Sabbath (Orchestre de Paris, Klaus Mäkelä).
Mozart was already convinced that death was the “true end purpose of our lives” – and as such, his trace also runs through music, both directly and indirectly. The death clock ticks in the front movement of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth in the 1890 version (Vienna Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann). With his 6th Symphony, the “Pathétique” (Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim), Mozart admirer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky put a seemingly deliberate end to his life with bipolar disorder: nine days after the premiere in 1893, he was dead. In 1935, on the other hand, Alban Berg dedicated his Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel”, i.e. to Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter, who died of polio at the age of 18. The concerto gets its aura from the fact that Berg’s moving commemoration of the dead became his own requiem: the composer’s death four months after completion made it his last completed work (Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Lorenzo Viotti, Augustin Hadelich).
In 1973, Hans Werner Henze wrote a piano piece that gradually grew into a large-format work for piano and orchestra: together with literal and alienated quotations as well as electronic feeds, a kaleidoscopic, monumental round of musical associations with the “Tristan” myth emerged, in which Henze’s personal pain is finally mixed: through the mourning for his confidants W. H. Auden and Ingeborg Bachmann, who both died during the composition (ORF RSO Vienna, Marin Alsop, Igor Levit). A generation later, Gérard Grisey approached the gates to the afterlife, as it were, courageously listening and created the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil”, oppressive and at the same time touchingly beautiful songs for soprano and ensemble – only to die shortly before the premiere in 1998 at the age of 52 (Ensemble Kontrapunkte). All that remains is the hope of the resurrection that Gustav Mahler celebrates in his Symphony No. 2 after the “death celebration” of the first movement in the finale with the combined forces of choir, soloists and orchestra (Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Singverein, Klaus Mäkelä). The Resurrection Symphony will be preceded by the premiere of a new work for orchestra. Mark Andre, to whom the Musikverein is dedicating a comprehensive portrait in 2022/23, composes it on behalf of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.
Many other works are added, from the Passion and Death of Jesus in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” (Concentus Musicus Wien, Stefan Gottfried) to Joseph Haydn’s last string quartet (Chaos String Quartet), which remained incomplete due to old age, and the indispensable “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (MUK concert) to the famous “Fall into the Orcus” in György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” (Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding); accompanied by music by Franz Schubert, Richard Strauss, Jean Sibelius, Arthur Honegger, Olivier Messiaen and Kaija Saariaho. Shamanism, medicinal herbs and magic potions are used, and so-called alternative methods of treatment, such as the dance of the tarantella against the poisonous spider bite, lead to miraculous recoveries.
Many other examples could be cited – the complete programme of the festival will be published in a separate brochure, including Jewgenij Kissin, Martha Argerich, Rudolf Buchbinder, Gautier Capuçon, Herbert Blomstedt, the Vienna Academy Orchestra, the Bach Consort Vienna, the Black Page Orchestra, the Altenberg Trio, the Artis Quartet and a chamber music ensemble of the Vienna Philharmonic.
All the concerts at the Musikverein Festival also tell of the transforming power of music and thus of the strengthening, healing power of art in general. This is exactly what the Danish choreographer and dancer Mette Ingvartsen aims at in her piece “All Around”, which Tanzquartier Wien will present in co-operation with the Musikverein in the festival “Beethoven’s Medicine Spoon”. “I think about how a work of art can be an elixir or a magic potion for the audience, which can act as a remedy for the current state of our bodies, against our physical immobility, against sadness and pain, against irritation and frustration.” In her performance “All Around”, Mette Ingvartsen falls into an “ecstatic and hallucinatory state”, and the audience reports that after experiencing the performance they are “transformed, energized and with an altered state of consciousness”. “The piece feels like a cure for the negative effects that dominate our time,” says Mette Ingvartsen, “it works as an injection of energy.”
It goes without saying that the Musikverein’s programme for children, young people and families also draws on the theme, and in a variety of ways: the production “Clara Sees Ghosts” (Agathe’s Wonder Suitcase) carefully deals with Robert Schumann’s illness and the associated emergence of his “Ghost Variations”. In “Topolina has Aches” (Topolina), on the other hand, small mouse aches and pains have to be taken care of with the help of the audience. The children’s lecture “Creepy from the Archive” (The Musicologists) contains all kinds of curiosities from the museum’s own collections, such as locks of hair of deceased composers or the skull of Joseph Haydn. For Beethoven himself, however, the best medicine in the world was: music. And so the great orchestral concert “Classical Hits in the Golden Hall” (Capriccio) under the title “A spoonful of music. Medicine for the Soul” in search of its healing power. At the end, the theme is expanded to include a fantastic aspect, when “Nele and the Magic Spoon” (Allegretto), a large-scale co-production with the Philharmonie Luxembourg, administers a magic potion to become someone completely different …
Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”, in the subject area of which Beethoven’s medicine spoon could be stirred and drawn from in an exemplary way, concludes with the rhetorical question: “Will love also rise from this world festival of death, also from the terrible feverish heat that ignites the rainy evening sky all around?” Anyone who loves music has long known the answer: illness, delirium and death, cast in sounds, do not plunge us into despair, but offer strength, comfort, healing, confidence on the human path.
Text by Walter Weidringer.
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