Prison camp, illness, unrequited love — music that endures over decades and centuries often emerges from difficult situations. These composers turned their personal experiences into symphonies, sonatas and concertos.1. Hard of hearing, then deaf: Ludwig van Beethoven
When Ludwig van Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony in 1808, he was already hard of hearing and suffered from tinnitus. By 1814 he was completely deaf. Desperate over his hearing problems as early 1802, he penned the following line into his last will and testament while spending time at a health resort in Heiligenstadt: “Little was missing, and I would have ended my life — but art held me back.”
Contemporaries perceived the “Fifth,” in C Minor, as dark and powerful. It went down in music history as the “Fate Symphony.” Legend has it Beethoven told his secretary Anton Schindler about the famous opening motif: “Thus fate knocks at my door.”
Researchers have cast doubt on the quote however, noting that Beethoven was not fatalistic. At the time, he was also working on the Pastoral Symphony with its fresh, cheerful sounds. “I want to grab fate by the throat — I don’t want fate to get the better of me,” he wrote to a friend. By the time his famous Ninth Symphony premiered in 1824, he had already been completely deaf for ten years.
2. From Wunderkind to pauper: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was just six when he wrote first short compositions and played piano for enthusiastic nobility. At age 13 he was named concertmaster by the Archbishop of Salzburg. Young Mozart, however, liked his independence, so he quit and moved to Vienna, where he eked out a living with his wife Constanze. Money was always tight.
When he composed his penultimate symphony, the Great G Minor Symphony, in 1788, he was suffering from existential fears and persecution mania. “Dark thoughts” plagued him, he told friends. Even back in the 19th century, that 40th symphony from Mozart’s pen — sometimes dark, sometimes cheerful — was regarded as the “symphony of all symphonies” and is still one of the most popular works of classical music today.
Mozart didn’t live to enjoy that recognition, however. In 1791, aged 35, he died of a mysterious fever, the cause of which has not really been clarified to this day.
3. Torn between love and loyalty: Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms was passionately in love with Clara Schumann, who was 15 years older and the wife of his friend and patron Robert Schumann. Torn between his hopeless love and his loyalty to his friend, he began work on the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, op. 60, in 1855. Mirroring his emotional distress, the opening motif sounds like a sigh.
Brahms continued work on the quartet over a period of more than 20 years, plagued at times by suicidal thoughts. The last movement dates from 1875 and includes a quote from the “fate motif” in Beethoven’s Fifth.
He wrote his publisher Fritz Simrock, asking him to put a picture of a gun held to a head on the title page of the sheet music to give an idea of the music. “I will send you my photograph for this purpose!” Brahms wrote. The work is also known as Werther Quartet after Goethe’s hero of the same name, who takes his own life as a result of unrequited love. Even after Robert Schumann died in 1856, Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann never really became a couple. The composer remained a bachelor all his life.
4. Mentally ill: Robert Schumann
The composer and music critic Robert Schumann put into practice what Brahms had in mind. Troubled by depression, he attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine River in 1854, but was saved. He spent the remaining two years of his life in a mental hospital. In his depressive phase he wrote his last orchestral work, the Violin Concerto in D Minor.
Critics are undecided to this very day whether it is the work of a maniac or a genius. The violin solo long seemed unplayable. Clara Schumann and her descendants regarded this complex work as a “testimony of spiritual ruin” — and decreed that the violin concerto not be performed for 100 years.
It did premiere however with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Karl Böhm on November 26, 1937, more than 80 years after it was written, well before the expiration of the deadline — and against the will of Schumann’s daughter Eugenie. The composer Paul Hindemith had greatly edited and simplified the solo part. Allegedly, Nazi authorities had demanded a replacement for a scheduled piece by the Jewish-born composer Felix Mendelssohn. Today many a renowned violin virtuoso appreciates the work, restored as faithfully as possible to the original version.
5. Forever in Beethoven’s shadow: Franz Schubert
For his entire life, composer Franz Schubert imitated his great role model Ludwig van Beethoven, trying at the same time unsuccessfully to step out of his shadow. During his short life, Schubert wrote 21 piano sonatas, while Beethoven wrote 32. Schubert composed his last three sonatas in 1828, a triad just like Beethoven’s last three. The sonatas are interconnected by themes and motifs. In the Sonata in B-flat Major, his last completed work, Schubert broke away from established norms. “Musically and lyrically, it flows from one end to the other, occasionally interrupted by violent eruptions,” composer and music critic Robert Schumann wrote in a 1838 review.
These last three sonatas are regarded as Schubert’s self-liberation from Beethoven. The great composer of the song cycle The Winter Journey had just established himself in the music business, found publishers for his scores and was performing in public. But for years, he had suffered from syphillis and alcoholism. “I feel like the unhappiest, most miserable person in the world,” he wrote from his hospital bed in 1823. His in B-flat Major sonata was his final work: Schubert died at age 31 after having composed over 1,000 works.
6. Prisoner of War: Olivier Messiaen
French composer Olivier Messiaen is regarded as a pioneer of atonal music. During World War II, he was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940. The camp commanders allowed him to compose and even made sure he had a piano. Messiaen wrote his “Quartet for the End of Time” there. It is set for various instruments that inmates were able to play on-site: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The world premiere was given at the camp.
In 1941, Messiaen returned to Paris. The war had left its mark on his music. As his biographer Theo Hirsbrunner put it, his music “suddenly took on an even greater seriousness that arose from the months of suffering that produced apocalyptic visions.”
Revisiting the apocalyptic visions from the Bible’s Book of Revelation, the quartet has movements with evocative titles like “Tangle of Rainbows for the Angel Announcing the End of Time” and “Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets.”
7. Fear of Stalin: Dmitri Schostakowitsch
Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich wrote commissioned works for the Stalinist regime, including an anthem for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927. People who listened closely detected mockery and ridicule of regime figures. For a while, he was ostracized — Stalin, too, had been listening carefully. Performances were banned and deliberately bad reviews launched, driving Shostakovich into depression and triggering suicidal thoughts. He feared Russia’s intelligence services his entire life.
Shostakovich rose to world fame after World War II. His early works were rehabilitated in the Soviet Union, but he never managed to shake his fear: “Waiting for execution is one of the topics that tormented me all my life, and many aspects of my music touch on that,” he wrote. That feeling is conveyed in his Symphony No. 15 — his last.
In it, Shostakovich quotes his own works and those of other composers, for instance the scene of the annunciation of death in Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie. His last symphony is a review of a life lived between fear and loyalty to the Communist regime. “To relive the history of our country between 1930 and 1970, it is enough to listen to Shostakovich’s symphonies,” a Moscow weekly once wrote. Dmitry Shostakovich died of a heart attack in 1975.
These “Fateful” works are being performed at the 2018 Beethovenfest in Bonn (from August 31 until September 23).