Thursday, February 06, 2014

Beethoven and Shakespeare

On Sunday, and I am not making this up, we went to a lecture on Shakespeare in the morning and one on Beethoven in the evening. Both lectures were at Netanya AACI, the morning lecture was "Will the real William Shakepeare please stand up" by David Lawrence Young, a former English teacher and author, and "Beethoven, from tragedy to triumph" by Harvey Bordowitz, a former orchestra conductor, as part of his lecture series on music. We did not plan it this way, but that is what happened. I would like to talk about these two cultural giants, each geniuses in their own field, who together symbolize the founding origins of western civilization.

Young's thesis and something known to all Shakespeare scholars, is that little is known about the man named William Shakespeare, and what little is known does not seem to be consistent with him being the author of the famous plays. As has been said before, there are no known mss. that can be attributed to William Shakespeare, no letters or drafts of plays, etc. Also, there is not a stitch of evidence that he actually wrote the plays that are attributed to him. The First Folio of 36 collected Shakespeare plays was published in 1623, 7 years after Shakespeare's death, and half of them had never been seen or heard of before. There are several other famous men who have been variously preferred as the actual playwright, such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlow, Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Rutland, etc. But, that is not the issue here. It is that these plays had such an influential role on English and world literature, and so if we leave aside the authorship question, the real question is, what is it about these plays that makes them stand head and shoulders above everything else that has ever been written by the hand of man?

Ludwig van Beethoven was an irascible, anti-social loner, who as is famously known suffered from deafness. His father was a violent lout who regularly beat him. He grew up with only one saving attribute, he was a musical genius. He studied with Haydn for two years and then progressed well beyond him. Beethoven's music is characteristically infused with a sense of emotion, of pathos and joy, that was unique in the annals of music.

These two men, so far removed from each other in space and time, represent two of the main pillars upon which western civilization is based. Shakespeare, whoever he was, was one of the first men to write of real flesh and blood people, who had both good and bad characteristics. He infused his characters with psychological traits that no-one else had done before him. It has been claimed that Shakespeare invented the concept of modern man, with all his worries and concerns. Beethoven revolutionized music by making it a reflection of his inner struggles and presenting music as a psychological landscape as no-one had done before him. Beethoven exposed his personal vulnerabilities for all to hear. These two men then elevated western culture above its previous purely descriptive level and contributed to the development of secular civilization.


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