On the 250th anniversary of the birth of composer Ludwig van Beethoven, the writer contemplates what Beethoven has meant — both to him personally and to the world’s culture.
When I was six or seven years old was probably the first time I encountered any of Beethoven’s music and then I really listened to it over and over for years. The second movement of his Ninth Symphony (the Choral Symphony), was used as the sign-off music for some 15 years on the dominant US evening news broadcast, The Huntley Brinkley Report, five nights a week on the NBC television network.
The particular performance’s recording had been conducted by the redoubtable Arturo Toscanini back in 1942, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. (How many commercial television networks still have a resident orchestra these days, hey?) This was all back in a day when even a weekly shoot-’em-up western television show aimed at children, The Lone Ranger, would use an abbreviated version of the overture to Gioachino Rossini’s opera William Tell, instead of some synthesiser-generated nonsense.
Or perhaps my first exposure was seeing a television broadcast of one of the segments from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the feature-length, animated film. The film offered a retelling of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral” – that instead of a depiction of the composer’s wanderings through the countryside near Vienna as described by Beethoven, made use of animated characters from the classical Roman/Greek world, complete with centaurs, satyrs, a Pegasus or two (of all colours, nogal), and, finally, Apollo driving his chariot across the sky to carry the sun to sunset. (Here is an excerpt)
Or, maybe, it was Leonard Bernstein’s televised lecture/demonstration for the Omnibus television series, way back in 1954, in which that still-young conductor/composer deconstructs and reassembles Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with live musicians. In his discussion, there are no concessions, there is no dumbing down of explanations for what surely was an audience composed almost entirely of non-musicians and people just being introduced to classical music. Seeing it as a small child, this broadcast opened my eyes to the internal struggles Beethoven engaged in as he created his compositions. Music was not just sound that came from a radio or a record player. Somebody had to write it.
Or perhaps it was on Sunday morning walks through our neighbourhood in Yokohama, Japan, with a small daughter in tow, as we heard, coming from dozens of different houses throughout the streets of those tightly packed houses, numerous young pianists practicing Beethoven’s short work Für Elise at different skill levels. That piece was obviously a required work in Japan for piano students just beginning to strut their stuff with an actual composition by a famous composer.
Maybe it was the fact Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became the unofficial celebratory anthem of freedom, marking the end to the division of Europe between East and West (with the word “joy” changed to “freedom” in the choral section that concludes the work), with a performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Berlin. A magnificent, full performance of the entire work by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti can be seen here. Beethoven had adapted Friedrich Schiller’s poem, The Ode to Joy, to help convey his universalist, humanist aspirations, expressed musically. As the words go:
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic binds again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where thy gentle wing abides.
Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend,
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Yes, and also whoever has just one soul
To call his own in this world!
And he who never managed it should slink
Weeping from this union!
All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breasts.
All the Just, all the Evil
Follow her trail of roses.
Kisses she gave us and grapevines,
A friend, proven in death.
Salaciousness was given to the worm
And the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, as His suns fly
Through the heavens’ grand plan
Go on, brothers, your way,
Joyful, like a hero to victory.
Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss to all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Are you collapsing, millions?
Do you sense the creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy!
Above stars must He dwell.
Or perhaps it was one of our own family’s experiences with Beethoven’s music. My wife was in a concert, conducted by Bernstein in Carnegie Hall, bringing together the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The two main works for the evening were Bernstein’s own Chichester Psalms (a setting in Hebrew of three biblical psalms) and, inevitably, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “The Choral”.
Midway through the concert, Bernstein paused the music, turned to the capacity crowd audience, and announced that at that very moment, (Bernstein is a theatrical genius, after all) US President Jimmy Carter had brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s leader, Menachem Begin, to the US presidential retreat of Camp David, and the two leaders had agreed to a historic peace accord between their often-warring Mideast nations. The accord was soon named after that location. The audience went, to put it mildly, wild. The musicians and singers performed their hearts out. This music has power.
Or maybe, more recently still, it was our attendance at a live performance during a chilly, misty evening on Robben Island, of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. (Watch it here.) The Robben Island performance was a joint production of the Cape Town Opera and the Norske Opera, and this particular performance took place in an actual prison exercise yard. Given that the opera takes place in a Spanish prison where a young wife has impersonated a prison guard in order to watch over and protect her imprisoned husband, who is a man accused of trying to carry out a freedom struggle against despots, one couldn’t get more realistic for a setting than the one in front of us on that evening.
When all the prisoners are finally freed at the very end, the Cape Town Voice of the Nation Choir sang their music with such fervour and belief, while waving small South African flags that appeared magically from their sleeves, it was impossible to avoid shedding a few tears. Nearly 200 years after its composition, this message of a just demand for freedom still resonates.
Thursday 17 December 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s christening, following his birth in Bonn, Germany. Presumably, he was born the previous day, on the 16th, but there is no extant birth certificate. His father was a professional musician for some local bigwig, as well as a tavern keeper, but he was given to imbibing his product too often and lost his paying gig. Recognising the enormous musical talent in his son, Beethoven’s father pushed the boy very hard, to the extent that in our own time such treatment would be labelled child abuse.
As soon as he could, young Ludwig van Beethoven decamped to Vienna, then the centre of the world for Western music. He soon gained public notice as a performer and began serious efforts at composition, studying for some time with royal court favourite Joseph Haydn. Beethoven was referred to rather dismissively by another genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but Haydn seems to have been a better judge of musical talent, telling Mozart that the world would come to know of this unkempt, still rather raw, bumptious, pushy young man.
Increasingly ensconced in Vienna, piano sonatas, and other chamber works, symphonies, concerti, art songs, incidental music for theatre works, overtures, ballet music, masses, and that one troublesome opera poured from him, but not without a struggle, as he wrestled to find just the right notes and phrases. The concrete evidence of these struggles comes through in his voluminous notebooks in which he scribbled musical phrases and ideas, and seemingly endless variations on them, before finally settling on the final – just right – form of the works in question.
But in the midst of this growing creativity and output, he was struck by the worst imaginable medical condition for a composer and musician – he was losing his hearing. By the time of his late works and by then nearly completely deaf, standing in front of the orchestra as if to lead it, at the end of a concert, a concertmaster would gently turn him to face the audience to at least see the applause. In his apartment, he had the legs of his piano sawn off so the instrument rested closer to the floor, to allow him to feel the vibrations of his music in his body as he composed. He must have been great fun to have as an upstairs neighbour. He also sometimes forgot to bath – or to bother with clothing when he was in the zone.
But, unlike pretty much every other composer of his age, he was not a hired hand for some church or cathedral, or a kept court musician on a salary. Instead, he sought patrons who would subsidise his music, hired halls for concerts he organised, and sold the rights to compositions to performers at a time when copyright law was a sometime thing. And he taught, often young aristocratic women of promise, with whom he sometimes became deeply but unsuccessfully infatuated.
Along the way, he became the great exponent, musically, of artistic independence, and societal and political freedom and justice. It is said that, deeply impressed by Napoleon’s remaking of Europe and breaking up of the old regime, he had dedicated his Third Symphony, “Eroica”, to that French leader, but then angrily tore up the dedication page when he learnt Napoleon had crowned himself emperor. This did not stop him from occasionally dedicating a work, such as the “Archduke Trio”, to one of his royal sponsors. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and all that, and a man’s gotta eat….
By the time he finally died, his works – and his life – had become the symbol of a rebellious spirit, and the musical launch pad of the Romantic Age in European culture. It was only years later that Beethoven somehow became transformed into a kind of stolid musical deity whose works must be worshipped. In recent years, this has triggered a movement among some critics who would declare a moratorium on his works, so that those of other composers could finally get their due, or even, to tear down the barriers of classical music entirely as representing a kind of dead weight of tradition and musical authoritarianism.
Ironically, the cancellation of hundreds of live concerts in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth because of the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed people to recognise how poor the world would have been without his music, his revolutionary spirit, and his shattering of musical forms. The internet is, at least, filling up with large numbers of home concerts and small recitals of his music and rebroadcasts of great performances worldwide.
Here is a collection of articles at The New York Times on Beethoven, his life, music and impact.
Beethoven rewrote the rules for the sonata, symphony, concerto, oratorio and opera, musical forms that had become perfected, but ultimately limited, in the latter years of the Classical era, in the hands of masters like Haydn and Mozart. But Beethoven managed to turn music into a vivid expression of the urge for freedom on the part of humankind. We should celebrate that. DM