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7 - Beethoven at Heiligenstadt in 1802: Deconstruction, Integration, and Creativity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

Beethoven's sojourn in the village of Heiligenstadt near Vienna from May until October 1802 marks a pivotal phase in his artistic creativity that coincided with his despair over his incurable deafness. Until recently the biographical circumstances have been better understood than the artistic ramifications. On the advice of his doctor Johann Adam Schmidt, and in response to alarm over his loss of hearing, Beethoven moved into seclusion in this village of four hundred inhabitants, whose thermal spa was already known to the Romans two millennia earlier. The moving Heiligenstadt Testament, dated October 6 and 10, vividly conveys Beethoven's depressive and suicidal thoughts, which he held at bay in favor of renewed commitment to his art. Our understanding of the chronology of the compositional projects that occupied him at Heiligenstadt can be made more precise through reevaluation of the surviving sketchbooks. This clarification gives us enhanced insight into Beethoven's creative process.

The term “deconstruction,” which is associated particularly with Jacques Derrida, can be applied not only to literary criticism but also to music analysis. Deconstruction implies not a fixed methodology but a dynamic approach to examining cultural works, an approach that in Lawrence Kramer's words is “exemplified in other-voicedness, keep[ing] discourse circulating and thaw[ing] frozen positions… [as] a sign of life.” An investigative attitude resistant to a priori structures and conventions is proposed. This general notion of deconstruction may be adduced to describe Beethoven's innovative treatment of compositional materials, as is well documented in the succession of three sketchbooks he used during the half-year he spent in the countryside: the Kessler sketchbook, which was nearly filled with entries when he arrived in Heiligenstadt; the Wielhorsky sketchbook, whose musical contents are closely interwoven with Kessler; and the Eroica sketchbook, a source that he seems to have begun using as early as October 1802, shortly before his return from Heiligenstadt to Vienna. As we shall see, Beethoven's process of deconstruction is wedded to an integrative impulse, and this interaction enhances the aesthetic boundaries of his music.

At this time Beethoven was especially occupied with the composition of works for piano, including the Prometheus or “Eroica” Variations in E-flat Major, op. 35, and the so-called “Tempest” Sonata in D Minor, op. 31, no. 2.

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The New Beethoven
Evolution, Analysis, Interpretation
, pp. 148 - 160
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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