Among the most heartening side-effects of Beethoven's 250th birthday has been the number of new works commissioned in the great composer's honour.

Many Aucklanders will be rightly excited by the prospect of a Beethoven symphony cycle from the APO, but the orchestra is also offering three supporting concerts, Reflecting Ludwig, where four composers take Beethoven as a starting point and let their imaginations fly.

The second of the shows, on March 25 as part of Auckland Arts Festival, includes a short piano trio from Chris Gendall featuring performers from the APO's young achievers programme and drawing inspiration from Beethoven's Piano Trio Op.70, No.2.

Gendall says after intense listening, he based his work – Disquiet – on Op.70, No.2, rather than the more famous Ghost or Archduke trios but don't expect large tracts of Beethoven to dominate the new piece.

Chris Gendall is among composers taking Beethoven as a starting point and letting their imaginations fly. Photo / Supplied
Chris Gendall is among composers taking Beethoven as a starting point and letting their imaginations fly. Photo / Supplied

"I like to look at a fragment, take a small kernel of an idea rather than something larger," says Gendall, pointing to a particularly notable snippet in Beethoven's third movement.

"That movement is glorious and there's a major/minor moment that gets extrapolated a lot in my piece. There are interesting points of tension, especially harmonic tension. I saw potential for extracting little nuggets and making that explode on the page in my way."

On the face of it, Gendall's way doesn't have a lot in common with Beethoven's.

"Beethoven's a wonderful composer who wrote challenging music, and in his own time it was incredibly confrontational," says Gendall, who's originally from Hamilton. "But we live in a different time and it's a different world, so what contemporaneity means to Beethoven is very different to what it means to composers today."

Besides, Gendall says, for this project he has been influenced less by Beethoven's notes than the emotional state that produced them.

"I wanted to explore the psychology of Beethoven's artistry especially that of a man who was going deaf; a very talented, exceptional and famous composer who was losing the one interaction he had with his art."

Was he, though?

The Symphonies New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Photo / Supplied
The Symphonies New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Photo / Supplied

By 1809, when Op.70, No.2 was published, Beethoven had lost 60 percent of his hearing, but many of his greatest works were still to come. Dense, complex pieces like the late string quartets and the seventh and ninth symphonies represent high water marks in Western classical music, yet the composer never heard a bar of them. Is composition then an act of imagination and construction, for which the composer doesn't need to hear?


"If you're Beethoven you don't need to hear but I'd think a lot of people would," suggests Professor Suzanne Purdy, head of psychology at the University of Auckland. Purdy's research interests include auditory processing, hearing and neurological conditions and as a complement to Gendall's piece, she gives a pre-concert talk about Beethoven's progressive hearing loss in relation to his music.

Beethoven famously sawed the legs off a piano and placed his cheek against the floorboards; Purdy speculates that he might have been trying to do more than merely increase the sound.

"We know that speech perception is affected by proprioception, picking up on things through the skin; we have an integration between what we see and hear and feel," she says. "I've read papers that said there was degeneration of the nerves [in Beethoven's ears], which means he was somehow amplifying the sound, but also perhaps taking advantage of that other sensory information and combining that with his remembered hearing sensation."

Like Gendall, Purdy is interested in the emotional effect of Beethoven's hearing loss.

"His hearing loss affected his communication with people, his speech perception and by looking at the challenges he was having in conversations, you could get a sense of what his hearing was at different times."

We have extensive writings outlining those struggles. For about a decade Beethoven kept journals in which he would have to-and-fro written conversations with friends. Similarly revealing is the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter from 1802 to his two brothers, in which Beethoven poured out his feelings about his deafness and where he admits that he'd considered taking his own life.

"The Heiligenstadt Testament is incredibly emotive and his terror of social interactions and hiding his deafness really stuck with me, the pure anxiety," says Gendall. "[In Disquiet] I've tried to sustain that sense of angst and discomfort."

Is Gendall an angsty, discomfited person?

"I think we all are in parts of our lives," he says, cautiously. "But I think the arts love to explore that. We examine the parts of ourselves that are harder to express outwardly or harder to say in words."

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Ludwig Reflected - music by Beethoven and Chris Gendall, with a talk by Suzanne Purdy
Where & When: Town Hall Concert Chamber, March 25