STILL the most important single artist in our cultural heritage, the one who most closely defines and inspires our modern sense of individual personality, the primacy of emotion, the acknowledgement of suffering and struggle, and the longing for glorious, joyful resolution — the convictions about the subject of Being Beethoven (BBC4, Monday of last week) which I have long held were wonderfully reinforced by this programme.
This was the first of three, celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth. As befits its subject, this is a serious endeavour, setting the artist in his social, political, and cultural context. Musicologists, psychologists, and performers analyse the roots of Beethoven’s genius, and are happy to present contrasting, even strongly opposed, interpretations.
It is a strongly psychological account, giving full weight to his unhappy childhood: beloved mother, dying young; prodigal musical skills apparent in early childhood and forced into development by alcoholic father; his subsequent ambivalence towards all authority figures. He eagerly embraced the revolutionary fervour of the age, his music stretching, more than any others, the boundaries of sensation, excitement, and dissonance — and yet he revered the counterpoint of Bach.
He longed for a redemptive hero who would achieve a new world of equality and justice; but every candidate was a bitter disappointment. He longed for affection and love, and yet fixed his attentions on unattainable and unsuitable women.
Fortunately for us, all these ambivalences and reverses were worked through in the most wonderful music: music of struggle and becoming, its joy and glory reached through a hard journey. In Beethoven, as in the best religion, we lose ourselves so that we may truly find and know ourselves.
Where, by contrast, might you hope to find a place that inspires silent contemplation, with monumental architecture rippled with reflections of sunlight on still waters? Not, I suspect, at the point where the Wey Navigation canal and the main western railway lines are traversed by the M25 thundering overhead. Yet the naturalist Helen Macdonald persuaded us that it was so.
The Hidden Wilds of the Motorway (BBC4, Sunday of last week) contained many such paradoxes. Surely, the M25 is the greatest single destruction of wildlife? Not so: perhaps the contrary is true. The verges around junctions are, thanks to policies of planting and let-alone, far more species-rich than the idyllic farmland that they cut through.
The supposedly ancient beauties of the English countryside are themselves a human creation through millennia of destruction, management, and control. Already, the liminal spaces of this latest, colossal intervention are encouraging new natural variations and colonisations.