Opinion: The pandemic waylaid plans for Beethoven’s 250th birthday. But his spirit of freedom lives on


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in vintage etching circa late 19th century.

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Charles Heller plays viola with Orchestra Toronto and is composer-in-residence at the historic Kiever Shul in downtown Toronto.

The pandemic has given extremists what they have dreamt of for centuries: a ban on performing music.

Throughout history, religious and political leaders have blamed music for social unrest and have tried to curtail it. It’s too noisy. It’s unpredictable and subversive. It’s performed by vagrants and the undesirable classes of society. In some countries, religious fanatics have murdered music teachers and destroyed recordings. And even here, in my own experience, music lessons too often take a back seat to math in Canadian schools; according to a 2017 study by the lobby group People for Education, fewer than half of Ontario’s elementary schools have trained music teachers, part of a marked shrinkage in programs.

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And now it has officially been deemed non-essential. As a result, musicians around the world are out of work and have no income. They have been forced to retrain to do other jobs. Some have had to sell their homes.

So why do we have music at all?

As it turns out, music is a more fundamental channel of communication than language. Babies are born with the ability to distinguish different musical sounds, but they lose this skill through lack of practice. No social event – weddings, parties, funerals – can take place without music. It has been shown repeatedly that the best way to get people from different backgrounds to understand each other is through food and music.

The disappearance of music would be bad news in any year, but it was particularly painful in 2020, when the world was geared up to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday.

There has been some polemic and virtue signalling around the celebrations of this dead white man. But too often lost is the fact that Beethoven was a human being with something unique to offer: his struggle with pain, deafness, depression and difficulty with personal relationships, which almost drove him to suicide, until he realized he had a gift for music that he was desperate to communicate. And so he fought on, refusing to take the pain-killing and mind-dulling morphine he had been prescribed, convinced that through his music he could become strong and show the world the beauty of being alive and free.

Indeed, themes of freedom recur in his music, from his earliest years up until one of his last and greatest works, the Ninth Symphony, with its Ode to Joy. Some believe the ode’s German name, An die Freude, was intended to allude to the word for freedom – Freiheit – which no one was allowed to say out loud during the Napoleonic wars. It was played when the Berlin Wall fell and is now the anthem of the European Union.

I saw the power of the freedom in his music during my days teaching in an inner-city public school, and my classroom was equipped with a set of small keyboards so the students could get hands-on knowledge of music. I remember when the kids first heard Fur Elise, a short piece Beethoven wrote for a teenage piano student (or so the story goes). The opening notes lie naturally under the right hand – all you have to do is put your hand in the right spot on the keyboard and gently wiggle your fingers, and magic comes out. The kids were entranced. They would demand to be shown “the Beet-ho-ven,” this departure from the rap they usually listened to, and play the phrase over and over.

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The power and meaning of Beethoven’s music is unforgettably described in E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, where we find Helen Schlegel at a concert of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The eerie third movement gives way to the triumphant last movement – but then the eerie part unexpectedly returns. Helen senses that the music is telling her about the fragility of her own life.

“The music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end,” Forster writes. “Others followed him … They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world … Beethoven took hold of the goblins … and they were scattered! … They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like President Roosevelt would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return – and they did … A goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! … Beethoven chose to make all right in the end … again the goblins were scattered … But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.”

At this very moment, billions of miles beyond the solar system, there are two spaceships gliding through deep space. Launched more than 40 years ago, their original scientific mission is long over. But each also carries a record album, at the suggestion of astronomer Carl Sagan, who called the spaceships “emissaries of the Earth to the realm of the stars.” The tracks include traditional African music, Chuck Berry and a movement from one of Beethoven’s last string quartets. When the record is finally discovered by intelligent aliens, they will be able to hear what Earth music is like, and Beethoven will be right there.

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