It is October 6, 1802 and we are in a little town called Heiligenstadt, a Vienna suburb. A 28-year old Beethoven is writing of one of the most heart wrecking testimonies ever to come from an artist. His hearing had been faltering, leading to a life of embarrassment and isolation: “…it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others…a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”
Does great suffering lead to great art? Do artists need to experience great pain in order to reach the deepest realms of human emotion? Or can we lead a comfortable life and still produce works capable of creating a profound emotional impact on the listener? Beethoven has come to exemplify the romantic composer par excellence. A tormented genius, often misunderstood during his time, who conveyed his own suffering through his music, creating in the process some of the most sublime music ever written.
Although music has always carried an emotional weight, composers before the Romantic period would not always seek to convey their personal emotions; their music would, more often than not, serve the commissioner’s needs rather than being a vehicle for their own feelings. When asked to write music for the church, a banquet, a coronation or a royal wedding, they were expected to match the mood of the event. However, this didn’t stop them from conveying their emotions in more personal works; such is the case of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8 in A minor, K. 310. Written in Paris during the summer of 1778, it is one of Mozart’s darkest works and it was composed shortly after Mozart’s mother’s death.
There is no doubt that extreme circumstances can bring the best (and worst) out of us. Heroic acts, for example, generally occur during life threatening situations, but such circumstances can also trigger the creation of great works of art. Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is such an example. Written within the walls of a concentration camp, it is a testimony to humanity’s enduring faith in times of war.
If we take a detached look to the forms of entertainment we humans have created, we will notice that we are often in search of strong emotions, but mostly within the safety of our homes or the comfort of our seats. When we go to see a drama, or a tragic opera for example, we want to be moved to tears but we don’t want to suffer ourselves, instead we are content with experiencing someone else’s fictional suffering and being touched by it. When we go to a concert hall we are not only in search of pure and simple entertainment, we are also in search of the transcendental, we want the artist to take us along a journey of joy and suffering that can bring us away from the routine of our daily lives. I would argue that this is what Beethoven exemplifies, the sublimation of human suffering and its transmutation into a tool for achieving transcendence.
Arguably, artists are generally more sensitive or develop a greater sensitivity than the average human being. This sensitivity allows them to experience life with a higher level of intensity. This intensity might lead in turn to experiencing stronger emotions. But unless we have the capacity to convey all these emotions effectively, no one else will be able to experience them but ourselves. In other words, the artist has to take the extra step to learn how to externalize his inner world, which can be an incredibly daunting task.
Few things can be asserted in this topic, but one thing is clear, there is no linear relationship between the suffering an artist experiences and the greatness of his art. Joseph Haydn for example, led a relatively calm and stable life yet he created some of the greatest masterpieces of all time. As important as outer circumstances may be, if they do not resonate within us, nothing we experience will be of use to us or anybody else for that matter. It is the wealth of our inner world what determines our capacity to absorb and process the events in our lives. We can be exposed to the most beautiful of landscapes yet we might be incapable of appreciating it. Our receptivity and sensitivity are crucial. The photograph of a child, the song of a bird or the colors of dawn can be an overwhelming source of inspiration in themselves, yet most people won’t see anything beyond the ordinary in them; the same may apply to suffering. It is not the amount of suffering that we experience what counts (in fact this whole discussion could be about happiness and our conclusions wouldn’t differ much) it is simply a matter of how we go about experiencing every single moment in life. Are we still capable of being marveled at the intricate architecture of a flower? Has the abundance and immediate availability of water in modern society made us forget how dependent we are on it for our survival? Let’s not take things for granted; doing that can lead to unnecessary suffering. It is in this permanent capacity of being awed by simple things that we will find one of the greatest sources of inspiration.
There is no point in trying to create artificially strenuous circumstances in order to find inspiration; if we look intently we will realize there is enough drama and tragedy around us already. Our challenge is in fact the opposite: to strike a balance. Composing is not solely an intellectual activity; it also entails a great degree of emotional involvement. Because of this, we need to keep our emotions under control in order to maintain our mental and psychological sanity.
None of us wishes to be miserable. Every one of us has the right to pursue happiness. Sorrow is an inevitable part of life and we will encounter it whether we want it or not. What matters is what we make out of it. As composers we are privileged to have in music a fantastic tool of sublimation. Let’s take all the anger, frustration and pain that suffering can cause and transform them into something wonderful, something that can positively influence the lives of many. Our sense of self-accomplishment will be greater if we chose this road; or at least we will know that we did not suffer in vain.