Jonathan Biss

The reasons Beethoven is my man of the year

The reasons Beethoven is my man of the year
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I could have predicted that music would be the thing to sustain me in this strange, often traumatic year: it can be thrilling or consoling, aspirational or confessional, as the situation requires. It has so much to say about loneliness and, in spite or because of that, can make you feel much less lonely. And it is just the thing when you are one Zoom meeting or White House press briefing away from preheating the oven and crawling in. What I did not expect was that Beethoven would be the music that meant most to me in this time. Perhaps this was foolish: Beethoven has, after all, been my greatest obsession for much of my life. But his innate intensity, his permanently gritted teeth, would not seem to provide the needed antidote to all the tooth-gritting we’ve been doing in 2020. (If you’re looking for a Kafkaesque rabbit hole to go down, google ‘Dental issues during Covid’.)

But for me at least, he really was the man of the year. Aside from its greatness — which hardly needs to be explained, by me or anyone else — the reason Beethoven’s music has had such special significance for me these past nine months is that it is the product of a person who was profoundly alone, and who found remarkable power and possibility in aloneness. We can never know what music Beethoven might have written in a parallel universe in which he was not unlucky in love, misanthropic and, most crucially, deaf. But I can say with absolute confidence that it would not have been the music he did write. His ability to access his inner life so fully (and what an inner life!), to shrug off the musical language of his contemporaries and replace it with the dizzying and dazzling one he used in his last years, is surely at least in part a result of his extreme isolation. Viewed from the cold light of 2020, that is extraordinarily moving and highly instructive.

This is an extract from Jonathan Biss's notebook for The Spectator's Christmas special