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Forte: Beethoven and Haydn, conflict and respect


Denise Dillenbeck, Yakima Symphony Orchestra concertmaster.

It’s that time of year when young people say goodbye, graduate and launch into adulthood. As parents and teachers, we watch with pride, hoping we’ve given them the tools to work hard, find meaning and thrive.

The relationship between music teachers and students is complex. Take the tumultuous education Beethoven received from Haydn upon arriving in Vienna. Haydn was a lively, congenial man who got along well with his superiors, and didn’t itch to change his social station. As the beneficent patriarch of classical music, his music reflected the charm and humor of his personality.

Imagine the contrast between this elder statesman with the young ruffian Beethoven.

His experience led him to place his faith only in his own determination, so he did not accept the kindness of others easily — he tended to either demand or reject it. His first success came from his piano performances, not composing. As his popularity swept through Vienna, the nobility were eager to show him off. Beethoven accepted their admiration with ambivalence; he desperately craved approval and at the same time seemed to despise it.

Beethoven’s headstrong, defiant personality made it hard to accept a teacher at this stage of his life, especially one whose greatness eclipsed his own, and whose patronage offended his sense of self-sufficiency.

While Beethoven benefited from Haydn’s music, their interactions on a personal level were tinged with conflict.

Rebellion was inevitable. It wasn’t long before Beethoven had exhausted Haydn’s elegant style, and he struggled to smash boundaries and establish his own voice.

Time helped the brash, young, insecure Beethoven to mellow. Toward the end of Haydn’s life, Beethoven was able to connect with and honor his former teacher, and after Haydn’s death Beethoven spoke of him with affectionate respect.

Rebellion came to eventual harmony in Beethoven’s music as he struck out on his own, thanks to Haydn and many other teachers. I find comfort here; even a rocky journey can lead to great heights. May our young people forge their identities with equal strength and conviction. And may the world be gentle with them as they do so.

• Denise Dillenbeck is the Yakima Symphony Orchestra concertmaster. Learn more at

Reach Tammy Ayer at or on Facebook.

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