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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What Beethoven Means (to Some)

A reflection on the composer's 245th birthday.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Beethoven said it best.
Image from the ironically named
The composer  Ludwig van Beethoven towers over the world of classical music, a colossus even though the man himself stood about five-four. Janus-like, his music looks forward and back at once, drawing on the rigid classical structures of the 18th century and looking ahead to the wild Romantic experimentation of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. But why is this composer, with his nine symphonies, thirty-two piano sonatas and one lone opera held in such high esteem? On the occasion of his 245th birthday, Superconductor seeks some of the reasons that Beethoven will forever be immortal.

Beethoven is revered not only as a melodist but as a musical architect. His Third Symphony (the "Eroica") was built on a bigger, longer and grander arc than anything that had come before. It offered new ideas to listeners: an opening of two blasting chords that are the seed for all the musical material that follows, a funeral march for the slow movement and replacing the traditional dance movement, a courtly minuet, with a two-fisted scherzo that burst with energy--a Bacchic celebration after the funeral. The finale brought all of these ideas together in a set of variations on a deceptively simple theme and proved that something new could be said using very old musical ideas.

He changed the game. Beethoven is regarded the first composer in Europe to succeed in going private: working as a pianist and conductor in his early years and as a composer as his deafness overtook him and made public performance of his works impossible. With no king or cardinal to act as his overseer and demand tafelmusik for after the royal meal, he was able to live life and succeed, mostly on his own terms. If Mozart had lived longer, he might have accomplished the same feat.

He thought big. When it premiered, writers and audiences decried the Eroica as being monstrous in length, demanding more from the listener than past, shorter symphonies of the so-called "classical" period. Beethoven would stretch the symphonic format further in the years to come, incorporating the idea of a "program" for his Sixth (the Pastorale) and finally (clumsily) adding the human voice as a key element in his Ninth with the text being Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy. In addition, the Ninth was one and a half times as long as the Eroica.

He lived large. Beethoven's titanic stature rests not just on the beauty of his music, but on the fiery declarations that he made throughout his life. Stories like the composer's decision to scratch Napoleon Bonaparte's name off the Third Symphony are legend. Documents like the Heilingstadt Testament (in which the composer confessed his deafness to his brothers and considered, then rejected suicide) have inspired those who have followed throughout the centuries. As the man himself said: "Muss ess sein? Sie muss ein!"

He overcame obstacles. Historians are not sure what caused Beethoven's deafness, but it was the defining fact of the second half of his life. However, being deaf may have helped Beethoven hear music that was in his own head, music that enabled him to break new musical ground. Some of his late compositions: the Ninth Symphony, the late string quartets are unlike anything that came before...or since.

His music is everywhere in today's popular culture. Beethoven is one of the great composers to escape to the movie theaters, the airwaves, and later, the Internet. The finale of the Ninth Symphony is a ubiquitous shorthand for joy and celebration, but even its creator could not foresee its use in films like Die Hard and A Clockwork Orange. Nor could he anticipate the popularity of the comic strip Peanuts where the piano-playing Schroeder gives a child's-eye view of the contemporary obsession with Beethoven.

So happy birthday Ludwig. Wherever you are, may joy rest with gentle wings.

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