One of the most important composers in the history of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven also suffered the bitterest of all blows a musician can face. In his late 20s, Beethoven realized he was going deaf.
In a fit of despair, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers, even contemplating suicide over the loss of his hearing. The letter known today as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” was never sent. It was discovered among Beethoven’s papers after the composer’s death.
In the rambling prose, the composer who later would be known as one of the most important artists in the history of Western Civilization pours out his anguish and despair.
“But in the end, he declares his will to go on for the sake of the art he has yet to produce,” said Alexander Miller, an oboist with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
It’s a sentiment that Miller, a nationally known composer, understands all too well.
In 2009, Miller was diagnosed with a papillary craniopharyngioma, a rare brain tumor leading to surgery to remove a golf ball-sized mass behind his sinus cavity. That was followed by a long, difficult recovery involving persistent headaches, low energy, quirky and unreliable vision, and a ringing in his ears, rather like Beethoven suffered.
When Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 was premiered in May 1824, the 54-year-old composer was completely deaf. Though he was seated next to the conductor, the alto soloist had to turn Beethoven around so that he could see the thunderous applause he no longer could hear.
When the Grand Rapids Symphony premieres Miller’s latest work, “Testament,” on Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19, its composer, who will celebrate his 50th birthday in September, will be in the hall to hear the music as well as the audience reaction to it.
The Grand Rapids Symphony closes its 2017-18 season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plus the premiere of Miller’s “Testament,” Beethoven’s 1802 ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ for Bass-Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra.
Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will conduct the two works that also feature the 140-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, prepared by Pearl Shangkuan. Soloists for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor John Matthew Myers, and baritone Richard Zeller.
The Ninth Symphony, which the Grand Rapids Symphony last performed in 2011, is Beethoven’s only symphony that uses vocal soloists and chorus. Considered one of Beethoven’s greatest works as well as one of the most important compositions in the history of classical music, it’s a revolutionary piece of music that uses the text of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which celebrates the universal brotherhood of all humanity.
“When I conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, I’m always immersed in these emotions that Beethoven’s music does like no other,” Lehninger said.
Miller’s “Testament,” a 16-minute piece, features Zeller, who has spent 12 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and has performed with orchestras of Boston, Cleveland and Chicago as well as internationally with the orchestras of Toronto and Montreal and the philharmonics of Tokyo, Czech and Korea.
The Grand Rapids Symphony commissioned Miller to write the piece for the program to be paired with the Beethoven Symphony No. 9. Lehninger suggested Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” as a possible source of inspiration.
The statement has a “raw energy,” according to Miller who became GRS assistant principal oboist in 1992.
“Questions about what it takes to go on living despite a deteriorating condition are topics I can relate to,” said Miller, who blogs about his experiences with brain surgery and recovery at HusbandAmused.com. “Especially after two brain surgeries, the never-ending follow-up care, and the side conditions I have since developed.”
The “Heiligenstadt Testament” is a document that Lehninger said he rereads regularly, especially before performing a work by Beethoven.
“Beethoven knew he was a very difficult man, personality wise,” Lehninger said, adding that the composer became even more difficult in his later years as his hearing slowly deteriorated.
“He knew it would be better for the people he loved to be away from them because he knew he would hurt them,” Lehninger said.
Nevertheless, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was chosen to be performed on Christmas Day in East Berlin. Leonard Bernstein conducted an international cast of soloists, choristers and instrumentalists in a performance broadcast throughout the world.
“We should all be friends and get along and respect each other and fight together for a common goal,” said Lehninger of Beethoven’s intentions.
The concert opens with another contemporary work inspired by Beethoven. “Variações Temporais, Beethoven Revisitado (Temporal Variations, Beethoven Revisited)” by Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda.
Composed in 2014, it’s a witty, 10-minute series of short, orchestral portraits, each inspired by a particular work of Beethoven’s. Lehninger conducted the world premiere performance of this work with the most important orchestra in Brazil’s largest city the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in July 2014.
Tickets for the Grand Rapids Symphony Classical Series concert start at $18 adults or $5 students. Call (616) 454–9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org. “Inside the Music,” a pre-concert conversation, will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in the DeVos Recital Hall.
Besides the Grand Rapids Symphony, Miller’s music also has been performed by the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Alabama and Santa Barbara among others. Many have performed his “Fireworks,” which the Grand Rapids Symphony played for its first performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in May 2005. His 1998 work “Let Freedom Ring” for Narrator and Orchestra, based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, has been performed by such celebrity narrators as James Earl Jones, Danny Glover, William Warfield and Harry Belafonte and was recorded by former President Bill Clinton prior to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Since his 2009 surgeries and recovery, Miller has composed “Scherzo Crypto” for the San Antonio Symphony and “Rocomoji for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston. In 2013, the Grand Rapids Symphony opened its season with Miller’s ‘Madam Bovary’ Concerto for Cello and Orchestra featuring principal cellist Alicia Eppinga.
“Living with a difficult medical condition becomes a decision,” Miller said. “One decides to endure, to go on. Holding onto the knowledge that we actually have a choice in the matter — that ace up our sleeve — is often the coping mechanism that saves us from ourselves.”