After 250 Years: Why do we still find Beethoven so Irresistible?
The composer’s music and faith in humanity still inspire us 250 years on from his birth, says Ivan Hewett
“Roll over, Beethoven,” sang Chuck Berry, in one of those periodic rebellions against the cult of Beethoven that sometimes sweeps over the culture. Well, Beethoven refused to roll over. His position at the very top of the ranks of immortal geniuses is as secure as ever.
Next year is the 250th anniversary of his birth and already the music industry is gearing up to celebrate. The Barbican is first off the block, with its Beethoven 250 season starting on Sunday. At venues around the country there are plans to perform all the symphonies, quartets and sonatas, as well as uncovering the lesser-known corners. The major record companies are planning blockbuster releases of all the works, and BBC Radio 3 has a year-long series entitled Beethoven Unleashed.
What is it about Beethoven that has such a hold over us? First and foremost it is the music, of course. It ventures to extremes in a revolutionary way that his contemporaries found shocking and which can still stun us today with its sheer force. The ear-splitting dissonant trumpet-call that tears into the last movement of Ninth Symphony (Wagner called it a schrekensfanfare, a “shrieking fanfare”) is one example. The driving percussive beginning of the Waldstein piano sonata is another.
Yet his music also glows with radiant humanity. Beethoven wrote some of the most sublimely calm music ever composed, in the Pastoral Symphony, and some of the most pitilessly concentrated and fierce, in his so-called Quartetto Serioso. He could be tenderly lyrical, as in the Spring Sonata, and had a mode of aristocratic suavity and elegance that could top even Mozart, as in the Andante con Moto. He could be gruffly humorous in a way that startles even now, as in the finale of the Eighth Symphony. He could strike an antique note of solemnity, as in the Missa Solemnis, and yet often he seems to anticipate the future, as in the amazing Grosse Fuge, which, as Stravinsky rightly said, will always sound like contemporary music.
Genius: next year marks 250 years since Beethoven’s birth with special events from the likes of Sir Simon RattleCredit: PA
If the music is one thing, then there is also Beethoven the man. There is something incredibly moving in the story of a person tragically stricken with deafness and who leaves a heartbreaking message to posterity where he confesses to suicidal thoughts but adds defiantly, “I will take fate by the throat.” The genius Beethoven was the rack on which the fallible, eccentric, difficult human being Beethoven was stretched.
He gave up everything to serve his calling; fame, domestic happiness, and love, all had to be left behind in his efforts to elevate his music to ever greater heights. And yet failure in the life was rewarded with total success in the art. He became the model for every genius that came after; as Roland Barthes put it, “Beethoven won for artists the right to reinvent themselves.” So part of his appeal is that his life comforts us with the thought that there is justice in the universe. He suffered, but in the end triumphed, and is triumphing still.
Central to Beethoven’s significance is the way he represents the idea of the hero. He scorned social conventions, showed scant respect to his aristocratic patrons, and rose triumphant over every obstacle of health or poverty or deafness. And Beethoven’s compositions embody his unstoppable will. This was a phenomenon never encountered before in music, but in truth only a small fraction of Beethoven’s output exemplifies that aspect of the composer. It’s the blood-and-thunder works like the Third and Fifth Symphonies, the Emperor Piano Concerto, the heroic overtures like Egmont, and perhaps some of the piano sonatas such as the Appassionata – and, of course, his great opera Fidelio, which is about heroic self-sacrifice triumphing over political oppression.
Inseparable from the indomitable willpower is a huge ethical force, which had never been heard before in music, and has hardly been heard since. Listening to a piece such as the first movement of the Eroica symphony is like witnessing the ardent self-fashioning of a human personality, throwing off shadow and doubt, pulling disparate elements into a whole by sheer force of will. It has an irresistible power because we internalise the music’s own struggle and make it our own. As Victor Hugo put it, in Beethoven’s music “the dreamer will recognise his dreams, the sailor his storms, and the wolf his forests.” Adding to this sense of ideal freedom is the fact that Beethoven seems to stand outside the musical categories of his time, being neither wholly classical nor wholly romantic but somehow transcending both.
All this means that Beethoven has provided an ideal symbol for all those thinkers and agitators of a later age who were impatient of brute reality and wanted to transcend it. And because he expressed himself in notes rather than words, he could be an inspiration to ideologues of every stripe. The anarchist Bakunin declared that he would happily throw the whole of bourgeois culture on the fire, apart from the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. French Republicans were inspired by the universalism of his message, the idea that (as the Ode to Joy says) “all men will be brothers”. One of them actually described the Ode to Joy as “the Marseillaise of all Mankind” – but naturally German nationalists claimed him too. Bismarck declared of the Ninth Symphony that “if I were to hear that music often I would become very brave”, and was himself described by the great conductor Hans von Bülow as the “Beethoven of German politics”.
In 1927, the centenary of Beethoven’s death, both the capitalist West and communist East were determined to claim him. At a centenary celebration in New York, the state governor declared that “Beethoven was a true democrat whose high ethical aspirations makes his message vital for our time”. At the same moment the cultural commissar of the Soviet Union Anatoly Lunacharsky praised the Ninth because its “world vision coincides with that of the proletariat”. The conflation of Beethoven’s ethical striving and political virtue has continued right up to our own day. The EU adopted the melody of the Ode to Joy as its anthem – but not the words. Schiller’s paean to universal brotherhood was thought to be insufficiently European in sentiment. Not everyone has bought into the Beethoven myth. Some Communists, including Maoists hated his “bourgeois heroics”, and Debussy fought against the Germanic profundity that Beethoven embodied.
As for Beethoven’s stock now, it seems both completely secure and also somewhat uncertain. At one level he’s ubiquitous. He is the establishment “genius” par excellence, his symphonies and chamber music are played everywhere, his greatest hits are constantly recycled on Classic FM. But do we actually want to hear the message behind the music? Enlightenment optimism is now seriously out of favour, indeed hope of any kind is in short supply. Around us there seems to be nothing but crises, political or environmental, and within us there seems to be a constant gnawing anxiety. Every day brings more evidence that we are “fragile” in some way.
But perhaps this is precisely why we need Beethoven now. His blazing music reminds us there is such a thing as hope, and that obstacles, however immense and crushing they may seem, can actually be overcome. Far from being “irrelevant”, as some would have us believe, Beethoven’s music and its rousing optimistic message are more inspiring than ever.
Five ways to listen to Beethoven on his anniversary
Monster concert of 1808
The famous four-hour concert in Vienna in December 1808, when no fewer than eight works were performed, is being recreated by BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Welsh National Opera in Cardiff on Jan 19 2020, and Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on March 15.
The Complete Edition Deutsche Grammophon, in collaboration with the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, is releasing a complete recording of every note Beethoven composed this November.
Radio 3 celebrates his life, work and legacy in 2020 in a series of programmes entitled Beethoven Unleashed, including 25 editions of Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week.
Battle of the Beethovens
London’s Barbican and South Bank are squaring up for major Beethoven fisticuffs, with year-long celebrations both entitled Beethoven 250. South Bank will see the likes of Vladimir Jurowski, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Marin Alsop, while the Barbican offers Sir Simon Rattle, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Matthew Herbert.
Beethoven’s mighty opera is given two contrasting interpretations. The Royal Opera unveils a new production by Tobias Kratzer opening March 1, and David Lang’s interpretation premieres at the Barbican on Jan 11.