Back in 2013 I had the great pleasure of spending a summer in Lower Austria as composer-in-residence of the Grafenegg Festival. On a free afternoon, my wife and I went driving to visit the nearby town of Krems on the Danube River and on the way found ourselves intriguingly waylaid by roadsigns pointing towards a “Beethovenhaus" in the small village of Gneixendorf. We then discovered what has to be one of the most mysteriously fascinating, yet largely undocumented episodes in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Having accepted an invitation from his brother Johann and wife Theresia to spend some time away from Vienna at their spacious Landhaus in this quiet hamlet of vineyards and fruit orchards, Ludwig van Beethoven and his troubled nephew, Karl, arrived in Gneixendorf in late September of 1826. After only a few days, a heated argument between Ludwig and his brother led Beethoven to leave his brother's house and take up rooms at a nearby house owned by the wealthy businessman, Ignaz Wissgrill. Wissgrill was honoured to host the famous composer and offered a suite of three rooms on the first floor at no charge. To this day, these rooms still retain significant original features from the time of Beethoven's lodging, including remarkable decorative hand-painted ceilings and wallpaper, a piano stool, a table and the original wooden floorboards.
Beethoven ended up staying in the house at Schlossstrasse 19 for more than two months, going for regular walks and composing his final string quartet, op.135, as well as completing revisions and metronome markings for his 9th Symphony. He returned to Vienna on December 1st on an open horse-drawn carriage in freezing conditions. He never fully recovered from the severe pneumonia contracted on that journey and the ailing composer succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver the following March.
My piece takes this extraordinary and unexpected brush with cultural history as one of its starting points. Its commission is part of American pianist Jonathan Biss's large-scale project, Beethoven/5, in which he has commissioned five different composers to write companion pieces to the five Beethoven piano concerti. As Biss himself has stated, "One of the central tasks for any musician — composer or performer — is to come to terms with Beethoven." I couldn't agree more, and it's a task I've engaged with on several previous occasions, resulting thus far in my works "Pastoral Symphony" (2001), "Testament" (written in 2002 and inspired by his Heiligenstadt Testament from 1802) and a piano etude, "Hommage a Beethoven" (2018). I've also been invited to take part in "Diabelli 2020", a multi-composer commissioning project by Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in celebration of Beethoven's 250th Anniversary year.
My new piano concerto is the last of Jonathan Biss's set of commissions and is thereby written in response to the remarkable 5th or "Emperor" Concerto, op.73. While this was Beethoven's last ever work for solo instrument and orchestra, dating from 1809 and revised two years later, it's not really a late work. However in finding inspiration not only from this great piece but also from the remarkable biographical story of his ill-fated time in Gneixendorf, my new concerto is an attempt to enter into the state of mind of the composer as he confronts profound familial conflicts as well as failing health towards the very end of his life.
© Brett Dean, July, 2019