WRITTEN BY NATHAN NGUYEN ANH VO
Every person expresses themselves in a different way. These expressions are what we call art. Art can take many forms, from poems and paintings, to dances and music. Art analysis comes from two main approaches. The first approach is analysis of the art form itself, examining the principles of design such as colors, balance, and proportions. This is a highly objective method, and does not factor in who the producer of the art was. There is often very little meaning found in this analysis, and in this context, art is turned into a concrete subject, almost like a science. On the other hand, there is the analysis of the meaning of the art, a more interpretive process of understanding art. In this mindset, every piece of art is unique to the artist, and unlike other more concrete subjects like math and science, art can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. The appeal of art comes from the emotions that a piece evokes. These emotions could come from the artwork itself, but could also come from the history of the piece and the identity of the artist. This is especially true with Ludwig van Beethoven and his Moonlight Sonata. Moonlight Sonata itself is an impressive work, but realizing that it was composed while Beethoven was deaf makes it even more inspirational. Although it is possible to enjoy art based on its objective principles alone, knowing the creator’s identity helps the audience reach a deeper understanding of the different motives within an art piece and plays a major factor in how the piece should be interpreted.
In order to properly understand art, we must understand who the artist is. This is known as the artist’s identity. A person’s identity is formed throughout their lives, and can change drastically within a short amount of time. An artist’s overall identity can mean his or her social interactions, involvement with religion, or even upbringings. However, identity is dynamic, and because of this, an artist’s style changes along with their identity. Their identity and sense of self is both a product of the situations they are put in, and a their choice of behavior in those situations. Often, major events in artists’ lives change their identity, and those identity shifts can lead to some of the most influential pieces of art that the artist has ever created.
One artist whose identity took a major turn was Ludwig van Beethoven. He was born into a family of musicians, who lived a mostly mundane middle-class life. Having two musicians for parents, he was exposed to musical instruments early in his life, and very often. This early exposure to music became a part of young Beethoven’s identity. However, as was usual for the time, Beethoven’s parents died when he was still a child. When his father died, he was only 3 years old, and when his mother passed, he was 16. Despite these losses, or perhaps in honor of their passing, Beethoven became a wonderful musician himself, learning to play the piano, violin, and organ. These were strenuous situations that Beethoven was put under, as well as the choices that Beethoven made under these situations. All of these transformed his identity as an artist. Soon, Beethoven began composing his own music. His early works showed off his young adventurous mind and identity, by including musical harmonies that were unheard of at the time, creating chords that had not been used in standard Classical music. But soon after composing only a few works, Beethoven was struck with the most catastrophic event in his life. He fell sick to a severe form of tinnitus, and due to infections and other complications, he began to lose his hearing. As a musician as well as a composer, losing his sense of hearing was absolutely devastating to Beethoven. It is even recorded that Beethoven told his close friends that he was contemplating suicide. One would assume that once Beethoven started going deaf, his identity changed so much that he would have to give up his art as a musician and composer. But what is amazing, is that during the process of losing his hearing, Beethoven did not choose to surrender to the loss. Instead, he continued to compose music, creating more artwork. One of his most famous pieces ever, Moonlight Sonata, was composed during this time of initial deafness and emotional turmoil.
Moonlight Sonata is considered by many as one of the most influential creations of art. One of the most popular piano sonatas ever, from the first booming chord of the first movement, to the swift, furious arpeggiation of the melody in the third movement, Moonlight Sonata is considered a musical masterpiece. Examining the music from an objective point of view, Moonlight Sonata begins with a slow movement, followed by a moderate one, and then finally the quick and energetic final movement. Much like how painting the sky green would confuse someone, starting with a slow movement was unheard of at the time. Unlike the formal Sonata form of the Classical period, the Moonlight Sonata explored an inverted form that had never been done before in the Classical era. However, Moonlight Sonata was not just an anomaly at the time. Even today, the atmosphere that the Moonlight Sonata provides is unparalleled. The slow broken triplet chord is pervasive, but undeterred throughout the performance, holding together the rest of the piece. With the broken triplet chords permeating the first movement, the expected Sonata form is completely absent, especially without the contrasting themes that almost every other Sonata of the time had. The second and third movements increase the pace, and as the finale draws closer, the music turns to ascending chromatic scales, a choice usually indicative of a first movement, not a finale. However, all of these artistic elements are simply objective observations. There is another hidden layer behind the artwork of the Moonlight Sonata. This layer is hidden within Beethoven’s identity.
The fact that Beethoven composed the Moonlight Sonata during his darkest hour brings out another level of complexity to the music. By realizing that this was composed as he was deaf, it gives some insight as to why Beethoven chose to invert the Sonata. Perhaps his intention was to create a final piece before he committed suicide, and he wanted his piece to be unique from the standard form of the time. Knowing that Beethoven was the composer allows one to ask more questions about the art, and the artist’s intentions within the art. Of course art can speak to different people in different ways. But there was one specific way that the artist spoke to the art.
Admittedly, knowing who the artist is could cause some biases in the enjoyment of art. However, bias is inevitable, even in simply recommending a certain piece of art. It is inherent in all our perceptions because of our previous experiences. For instance, if a trusted friend was to recommend that you listen to a certain song, or go look at a certain painting, you have already experienced bias. Because you trust that friend’s choice, you are already biased to expect the artwork to be good, or appealing. Knowing who the artist is, and knowing the artist’s identity is not much different in terms of creating bias. The benefits of knowing the identity of the artist far outweigh the small amount of possible bias.
Through the example of Beethoven and Moonlight Sonata, it is evident that without establishing the story of the artist behind the work, the art itself lacks an integral part of its own story. Ultimately, all art is created by someone who had a vision or a purpose for that piece. Although the piece can be enjoyed without knowing the creator, doing so leaves a void in terms of fully understanding what the art means. Because even if the art is a masterpiece, knowing who created the art makes it simply more immersive.
- Hatten, Robert S. Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994.
- Mayner, Kevin. “Beethoven’s Deafness: For Better or Worse – Or Neither?” WQXR, 28 Nov. 2011, http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/172678-beethovens-deafness-better-or-worse-or-neither/.
Do you agree that the creator is significant in the understanding of their art, or do you have a different opinion? If so, why do you believe that the art alone can be important in its own way?
What do you think?