The Art of Change with Stephen Fry - Episode 1

Nothing Concrete text
6 May 2020
28 min listen

Join writer, actor, comedian and campaigner Stephen Fry in conversation with journalist Chris Gunness for a four-part series taking Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament to spark conversations on music, art, mental health and the healing power of art. 

We realise he was, as the music tells us of course, that he was so human, that he was so desperately needing to love and be loved, as all of us are

In episode one, Stephen reads Ludwig van Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament and the great composer’s inner struggles, musing on the link between genius and mental illness, popular modern images of the Romantic artist, and Beethoven at the forefront of a revolution of the heart.

The Art of Change is a series where we meet artists and performers who are passionate about changing the world.

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The Art of Change with Stephen Fry - Episode 1

In part one of our series with Stephen Fry, Stephen reads Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament and the composer’s inner struggles, musing on the link between genius and mental illness and Beethoven at the forefront of a revolution of the heart.


CG: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican’s podcast. I’m Chris Gunness, this is the Art of Change, a series featuring artists who are passionate about changing the world. Today Stephen Fry, writer, actor, comedian and campaigner on many issues, including mental health about which he’s been paint-stripper honest, discussing publicly his own manic depression and suicide attempts. Our starting point is Beethoven’s own cry for help, the Heiligenstadt Testament, written to his brothers in 1802 as he struggled with his deafness and isolation.

SF: For my brothers Carl and Johann Beethoven. 

O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this.

O how harshly I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed — O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society, I must live like an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed — thus it has been during the last half year which I spent in the country, commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, in this almost meeting my present natural disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life — only Art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence — truly wretched, an excitable body with a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state — Patience — it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to break the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else — Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that you did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You my brothers Carl and Johann as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death. At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called), divide it fairly, bear with and help each other, what injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. To you brother Carl I give special thanks for the attachment you have displayed towards me of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide. Farewell and love each other — I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid — I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you but let no quarrel result from this, so soon as they can serve you better purpose sell them, how glad will I be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave — with joy I hasten towards death — if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later — but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this of you in having often in life thought of you how to make you happy, be so.
Ludwig van Beethoven

Heiligenstadt October 6 1802

CG: Stephen Fry, thanks for that. Let me ask you first of all, what does the Heiligenstadt Testament mean to you when you think about Beethoven?

SF: Well it makes me think of our stereotype, our common image of the artist being turned on its head in a strange sort of way, because we love this idea of Beethoven – the busts and the portraits of him with his hair and his moody eyes and this kind of tempestuous temper that we think of. You know, we imagine him walking down the street with a cane and barking at children and somehow being in his head with thunderstorms when he dies and all this kind of thing. And we realise he was, as the music tells us of course, that he was so human, that he was so desperately needing to love and be loved, as all of us are. It’s the only thing we have in common, everything else is peripheral and a detail, but our need to love and be loved. And that’s what music does for us, and that’s what Beethoven – primus inter pares – first among equals – it’s what he does more and more powerful than any composer that I know and this testament shows the misery and the pain of his isolation due to his deafness, the huge and monstrous irony of being given such a gift, that only Mozart before him had had. I mean from the age of ten, eleven, well in fact younger, I think he was eight or seven in fact when he first gave concerts. He was a true prodigy and he’d been given such remarkable attributes as a composer and pianist. Everyone around him you know, thought he was the equal of Mozart really. Then to have that taken away, not taken away, but to have it compromised by the loss of hearing. Had he lost his sight it would have been a blow, but nothing like as much, clearly. The images we all have, I expect people know the story of him conducting the Ninth Symphony, one of his last great, great works – the Choral Symphony – he had to be turned round on the podium to see the audience.

CG: Turned round to see the applause.

SF: I mean that’s heartbreaking. And of all… you know he straddled the centuries – the 18th and 19th centuries – and he straddled classicism so called, and romanticism, he was a child of reason and the enlightenment and he believed in the human spirit. Famously he had no truck with aristocrats. He was just that bit later than Haydn who taught him, and Mozart who had how to bow and kowtow to emperors and so on. And he did a bit, but mostly he happily bit the hand that fed him. Which is what most artists do and have done ever since.

CG: Do you think it’s fair to say that our idea of the romantic artist actually goes back to Beethoven himself, and indeed this note, the Heiligenstadt Testament.

SF: Yep. I think in music it’s Beethoven and then Schubert, who had a similarly kind of miserable life but was also such a profound human spirit and such an amiable soul – much more amiable perhaps than Ludwig who might have barked at us had we met him. And van Gogh is another I suppose we think of.

CG: What are the attributes of that romantic artist?

SF: Well, it’s that you write music for yourself, not for your patron, not for a medici, not for a prince. Although he did write for princes, and princes of the highest blood possible, Prince Rudolph the archduke, and Prince Lichnowsky, whom he mentions in the testament because they were the equivalent of what would now be you know, being commissioned by Facebook or something I suppose [laughs] or something equally horrifying. You know, artists have to have money. They have to eat, and they have to have enough to be able to work on their next piece. And in those days there was no other option, it was either the church or it was the aristocracy. It was before business had established itself as providing millionaires, and sponsors and patrons. So, most of them wrote whatever they were asked to write. And he did, but particularly as he moved on and perhaps as a result of the deafness and as a result of his anger at fate if you like, he seemed to create works of music that somehow were for the individual listener and they told stories about the human spirit and about human love and passion, even politics in a way that music hadn’t before. You know, there were hints in late Mozart – you know, the D minor Piano Concerto and things like that, which were greatly influential on Beethoven, suggested something of personal passion, personal frustration, personal agony to be present in music. But this was a new idea. Rembrandt earlier had been perhaps the first painter to paint for himself rather than for the commercial masters of Amsterdam. So that’s one of the things we think of as romantic, is this idea that the artist lives for their art.

CG: They’re independent souls.

SF: Yes

CG: But what about the suffering and the isolation, to what extent is that a component part of this romantic notion of the artist.

SF: It’s part of the notion of it, no romantic artist would want it to be a necessary artist of their practice. [laughs]

CG: [laughing] Of course not.

SF: But yes, there is, I mean, famously in one of the late quartets he wrote above it the German for ‘must it be, it must be’ – ‘muss es sein, es muss sein’. It’s this do we have to live under the terrible conditions of fate and society and being misunderstood and not achieving love, not being able to express our self socially. Music frees us from the fact that language is to do with class and gender and education and upbringing and nationality – language is naturally, you know, sort of ghettoised into the compartments from which it springs, the discourses. Whereas music is an open language, it allows… So it always sounds pretentious to people who haven’t been let in to so-called ‘classical music’ when one talks about it telling stories or suggesting conflicts because it’s a matter of interpretation and how can you think that, but one of my favourite lines in any film is a River Pheonix film, a Sidney Lumet film called Running on Empty and River Pheonix plays this boy who’s a piano virtuoso, but he’s on the run, or at least his parents are on the run because they’ve committed a crime, they were kind of hippies who were against the Vietnam War and they accidentally killed a security guard in a napalm factory that they sabotaged or something like that. Anyway, they’re on the run, constantly having to change identities. Meanwhile, he’s just got a keyboard in which he practises on the piano. And he arrives at this school and he’s led into this music class which happens to the class going on while he’s registering under a new name and the music teacher is playing two pieces of music to the class. One is a Madonna track, and then this piece of Beethoven. He doesn’t say it’s Beethoven, he just says it’s a piece of classical music. And he says to the class ‘what’s the difference between the two?’, and one of the sort of greasy kids says ‘One’s good, and one’s not good’, and the music teacher says ‘Well that’s a matter of opinion, surely’, anybody else? And River looks up and says ‘You can’t dance to Beethoven’, which is very profound. Now, music as we know is rooted in dance, the Seventh Symphony famously is called the Apotheosis of Dance, and they had gigues and partitas and all these dance terms but the time signatures change, there isn’t a backbeat – it isn’t for dance, it’s for listening to. The same thing happened in the 20th century with jazz. It stopped being… after swing came bepop and then later iterations of jazz suddenly became music you had to listen to. You put your head into the music and you follow a line, you follow a rhythm, a subject of questions and answers – a tennis match. Particularly… Sometimes, when people say… Not that I have answers, I’m certainly not musical enough to, but people say how do I listen to a piece, I’ll say well take a piece like the Emperor Concerto, one of Beethoven’s absolute masterpieces, he was too deaf at the time to be able to play it I think, or at least he didn’t trust himself to, I think it was Carl Czerny, one of his great pupils, who played it and I say ‘well imagine, it’s not the only way to listen to a concerto, but just imagine the instrument, the single instrument is a human, and that the orchestra is either fate or society, and that they have a relationship with each other, a battle, a fight.

CG: Wow, what a wonderful way to look at the concerto.

SF: Yes, and if you do that you think Goodness! The piano’s saying ‘no no no no’ and society’s saying ‘yes yes yes yes, join us’. And with Beethoven, wonderfully, usually, he does join in. There is a kind of acceptance of the noise of fate, or the noise of society, and the individual voice that you’ve been hearing in pain joins in. Now, some people say that’s a ridiculously simplistic way of listening, of course! But there again, I think it was Bernard Shaw who was a great music critic of course, he said ‘I shall now analyse one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare the way most music critics analyse music. The soliloquy begins with an expression of the verve of existence in its indicative and infinitive form, to be. The subject is then followed by a conjunction of alternative, or, which then offers the negation of the original subject, not to be’. He said ‘what kind of arse would do that to Shakespeare, but why do they do it to music?’.

CG: [laughing] Absolutely.

SF: And of course, you know, I was sort of holed by that. But of course it’s not what is known as programme music, he wasn’t inviting… Unless it’s Wellington’s Victory or one of the more obvious pieces that you could say is programme music. But nonetheless, it’s very hard not to feel that. And it’s true, in the Ninth Symphony, but because he works it to a famous poem by Schillers, the Ode to Joy, and this cry of ‘All men must be brothers’, is still the most powerful cry that you can have. And music of course can do coming together and going apart better than a drama, better than a painting, because a painting can’t suddenly disintegrate into its primary elements and then come back again, but music can do that because it exists through time.

CG: I want to come back to this idea, because I know it attracts you, this idea of Beethoven as a humanitarian. But before we leave behind the Heiligenstadt Testament, I want to ask you about this idea of genius. The idea that you’ve got to suffer, be isolated, and of course we touch here on the notions of mental illness – I mean is genius intrinsically part of mental illness and vice versa?

SF: Well it’s an interesting question and with musicians there are many examples of those who clearly were inflicted with mental illness: Robert Schumann is perhaps the most extreme where it’s so clear to see the bipolar, but there’s also a reference to it in the Heiligenstadt Testament where Beethoven talks about the highs and the lows which maybe for some indicative of that. But the isolation, the constant sense of darkness inside him must have made him a terrible companion – we know it did, he drove his beloved nephew Carl almost to suicide because of his over-anxiousness and so on. Is it a necessary ingredient of genius? It’s so hard to say because in order to produce the kinds of thing that Beethoven did under the conditions he lived in, from being an abused child, a beaten child, all the way through his life this illness, this hearing loss, created conditions that you can’t say for certain – how can one have the confidence to say that without those he would have written just as good music – it’s hard not to feel that his suffering is in his work, and that we experience it, his boldness and so on are part of that genius. But for all we can tell, Shakespeare for example, he had a comparable genius, but there’s no real evidence that he was anything other than a rather larky fellow who liked pubs and worked very hard, clearly. I mean he had the terrible tragedy of the loss of his son Hamnet of course, so his life wasn’t easy – no-one’s life ever was or is. But I think… Sherlock Holmes was fond of quoting whoever it was who said that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. I think if there is something particular about these geniuses they simply care more. They really care, and he cared for his art. He called it his art. There’s no arrogance in that, he did know how good he was.

CG: Yeah. I’ve seen you’ve quoted too, there’s a line of Orden – ‘throw up my devils and you throw up my angels also’, or demons or whatever it is.

SF: Yes,that’s right. It’s hard, it’s hard to have confidence that without this clash inside you, without this darkness, this constant sense of being on the edge, edge of reason sometimes, that that is helpful in… Because there’s the technique you know in understanding music, which is a miracle that a human can have this, an understanding of the theory of music, and the ability to play the piano or the whatever instrument it is at sight, to read a score. But as any professional musician will tell you that’s ten a penny – a lot of people can do that. But that extra thing, that extra thing, to create and to speak to strangers thousands of miles away in our time, or hundreds of years away.

CG: We talked about his genius, but what about his deafness. Do you think he could have written the late quartets unless he had been deaf? That music was just so inside his head.

SF: I think you’re exactly right there. It is the interiority – if that’s the right word – of the music. I’m pretty obsessed with those quartets and I often put them on and think I’m going to do some work or something and then I find myself, I have to listen to them, you really do because they tell a story. They go somewhere and they come back and they weave in and out of your mind. You know some people are very put off by them, because they’re not a merry Mozartian or even Schubertian kind of thing, they have a darkness and they have a pain in them. But they also have that… I think one of the most famous pieces of writing on music is in Howard’s End by E M Forster, where Helen – the heroine I suppose she is – goes with her sister to hear – I think it’s to Wigmore Hall – to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which Forster famously describes as ‘the sublimest sound ever to penetrate the ear of man’ which is quite a good phrase isn’t it? 

CG: Wow

SF: And he takes us through a way of listening to it which I think – if anybody hasn’t read it – is wonderful. He talks about goblins stalking the universe from end to end at the beginning of the third movement and so on, and the fantastic moment which turns into the major. There’s a drum passage and then the trumpets and it’s suddenly in C major, after having been famously obviously in C minor, which was the dark and more mysterious key with a slightly threatening sound. And then the goblins come back, and then it ends in sun. And he said ‘it’s so glorious, the sunshine and the glory… is so magnificent in the major that you begin to wonder whether the goblins were there, and that’s why he brings them back, and that’s why you can trust Beethoven. And I think that’s the point, you can trust him. Of all the artists, let alone composers, perhaps with the exception of Shakespeare, the one who’s most on our side.

CG: Wow. Why do you say that, could you just explain?

SF: I don’t know, it’s a feeling. He’s the people’s composer, it sounds silly I know. But there’s, you know, one of his earlier works, 1801 I think it was, the Creatures of Prometheus for example, which is exactly about the thing that obsessed people of the enlightenment. As religion was slowly being unshackled from society, from the human soul and we were allowed to think for ourselves for the first time, and science, philosophy and art were encouraging us to believe in the self rather than the hierarchy to which we were told we belonged, and the place we were supposed to have in society and in the great order of things. It may be people look back at this Prometheus myth, this idea of this titan who was the champion of mankind, who made us and then Zeus punished him, because he gave us fire. 

In other words, the creative spirit. He gave us divine fire, and this was more than the Gods could take. And that was like to them suddenly an analogy for what had happened to mankind, that we had discovered our own inner spark. We’d stolen our spark from God, which was supposedly the only thing we should worship and found that we were gods. Humanism had come of age and so the Prometheus myth… Around the same time, or not long after of course, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a modern Prometheus, and Shelley, her husband, wrote Prometheus Unbound. So there was this obsession with this idea that mankind suddenly was you know, the human was in charge of their soul, their own being, their own destiny. They made their own mistakes, they were not beholden to dukes and then kings and then bishops and then popes, those people had lost their voice, had lost their power. And that’s why he admired Napoleon after the revolution in France so much and why he was so devastated when Napoleon proved himself to be going backwards, crowning himself an emperor. So this was important to him and to his whole generation of artists. Wordsworth was around the same time of course, 1798 he published lyrical ballads and wrote about the French Revolution ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven’. So you can imagine what that generation… They really were for the first time… Yes there were still dukes and there were still cardinal bishops and so on who were in charge of things but for the first time poets and writers – Shelley called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world – this was a new revolutionary spirit. There was not a political revolution, it was a revolution of the heart. And Beethoven’s music above all, led this revolution.

CG: That was Stephen Fry, and there we end this edition of The Art of Change on Nothing Concrete with me, Chris Gunness. Next time, the second part in our four-part series in which Stephen talks about his own struggle with manic depression and his failed attempts to take his own life. You can subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help get the word out. Until next time, from me Chris Gunness, goodbye. 

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