32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday)
“Ludwig van Beethoven is the most frequently performed of all classical composers. He was also a radical artist who constantly reinvented himself, expanded the boundaries of music and posed questions to society. Even today he inspires people all over the world.” So proclaims the homepage of BTHVN 2020, an organization that joins in this year with hundreds of others worldwide to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most famous, beloved, and—indeed—frequently performed composers in the Western canon.
The festivities will be wide-ranging and immense. Beethoven’s symphonies, overtures, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets will appear on programs the world over, and, in many cases, entire cycles of these works will be presented. New recordings of time-tested favorites will be made, and classic recordings will be remastered. (Case in point: a recently-released, 123-disc box set claims to offer “the most complete Beethoven anthology ever produced.”) Symposiums, lectures, essays, articles, and books will seek to reveal new insights about the composer. In all, Beethoven will receive a truly comprehensive celebration that he could have only imagined during his lifetime.
Yet, amidst all this merriment, there’s something about this whole celebration that’s a bit overwhelming, redundant, and even fatiguing. And there are some things that I feel need to be said about this. Below, I have compiled a list of 32 miscellaneous thoughts about Beethoven, his music, and his 250th birthday celebration. Why 32? It’s mostly inspired by the film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, but it’s also because Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas. (Come to think of it, those two things are probably connected…) These musings are wide-ranging and in no particular order. I would also like to emphasize that many of these express my opinions. Some you may agree with, others you may disagree with. And that’s 100% fine! At the end of it all, though, it’s clear that there’s still much left to be said about Beethoven…
- John Eliot Gardiner’s 1994 recording cycle of the symphonies with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is still my go-to choice. These performances are thrilling, surprising, and dynamic (and all played on period instruments, too). Fantastic stuff.
- Beethoven’s music has never really fallen out of favor or disappeared from concert programs since his death in 1827. So, as one of the “most frequently performed of all classical composers,” isn’t every year already a “Beethoven year” by default?
- To be quite frank, celebrating Beethoven even more this year seems a bit uninspired, giving performers and classical music organizations an easy excuse to do more of what they do so much of already.
- Alex Ross seems to agree (source):
- Before I give the false impression that I hate Beethoven (I don’t) and that I will only be making statements like #3 throughout the remainder of this post (I won’t), here are some of my personal favorites by Beethoven:
- Coriolan Overture
- Second movement of the 13th Piano Sonata (particularly Glenn Gould’s interpretation)
- The last of the “Razumovsky” string quartets (op. 59, no. 3)
- 32nd Piano Sonata (Beethoven gets jazzy!)
- Eroica Symphony (the third movement gives me life)
- Last movement of the 5th Piano Concerto (heard it for the first time in a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright, instantly fell in love)
- 4th Symphony (highly underrated, IMHO)
- There are also several pieces by Beethoven that I don’t care for. Once again, these are my personal opinions:
- 9th Symphony (*gasp* OK, OK… To be more accurate, I go through phases with this piece. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I don’t. That being said, it does have some amazing moments. For instance, I absolutely adore the bassoon countermelody in the last movement.)
- Violin Concerto (too long and rambly)
- 5th Symphony (generally overplayed, though I must say that it’s much better in live performance)
- Für Elise (same as above)
- Turkish March (memories of playing a band arrangement of this in middle school. Yeesh…)
- Wellington’s Victory (Beethoven at his corniest and kitschiest)
- Random thought: the first four notes of the oboe solo from the Egmont Overture always reminded me of Judas’s betrayal theme from Jesus Christ Superstar. Is it just me?
- One of my earliest exposures to Beethoven: the children’s book and film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. Though, the kid in the film version kinda annoyed me back then and still does. (Can’t you just let a half-naked Beethoven pour water over his head in peace??)
- Whoever decided to use the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony at the end of The King’s Speech deserves a medal:
- One of the most stunning concerts I’ve attended was in 2012—John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Missa Solemnis with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Absolutely breathtaking.
- I’ve realized that there is a good amount of Beethoven’s music that I don’t know too well. For instance, I’m not super familiar with his string quartets, and I’d like to dig into those more at some point.
- That being said, this string orchestra arrangement of the middle movement of the 15th String Quartet (Heiliger Dankgesang) is phenomenal.
- Why don’t we (i.e., classical musicians) celebrate the birthdays of living composers more? Why do we feel the need to almost exclusively emphasize the birthdays of dead composers? Part of me can understand why (privacy concerns, embarrassment), but practically every single time we acknowledge a composer anniversary, it ends up reinforcing a canon that’s predominantly dead, white men. Maybe we just shouldn’t celebrate composer birthdays at all…
- How I imagine most orchestra patrons reacting to the announcement of yet another Beethoven symphony cycle (source):
- How about instead of all-Beethoven programs or cycles this year, we hear some unusual and/or creative combinations? Beethoven paired with his contemporaries, both well-known and lesser-known (Haydn, Hummel, Weber, Spohr). Beethoven paired with his predecessors (Stamitz, Mozart, J.C. Bach). Beethoven paired with his favorite composer (Handel). Late Beethoven paired with early Romantics (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Hensel). Beethoven paired with Stravinsky. The possibilities are endless (see #22).
- What about performing the “hypothetical” reconstruction of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony? (Yes, this is a thing.) That would give people something to talk about!
- This sounds like a really cool program by Brooklyn Rider (check it out here). Anchored by Beethoven, but in a way that’s also fresh and different. (I will actually be hearing this program live in April.)
- Here’s another one of my earliest exposures to Beethoven. You’re welcome:
- Can we please acknowledge that one of Beethoven’s favorite foods was macaroni and cheese? That’s just so sweet.
- Instead of performing each of Beethoven symphonies, how about programming Louis Andriessen‘s 1970 work The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven (for orchestra and ice cream bell) and call it a day? That way, everybody hears their favorite(s) in one, less-than-10-minute sitting! (I’m kidding, but also kind of not…?)
- There’s no shortage of pieces—particularly contemporary ones—out there that are inspired by, respond to, and/or riff off of Beethoven. Caroline Shaw’s Watermark. Christopher Rouse’s Fifth Symphony. John Adams’s Absolute Jest. Michael Gordon’s Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze. The first movement of Joan Tower’s Peanuts Gallery (“Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy”). There are a few from P.D.Q. Bach as well, specifically the Missa Hilarious and the “Erotica” Variations. This list, too, goes on and on.
- How I imagine many patrons and classical music lovers reacting to the notion of—heaven forbid—programming slightly less Beethoven than usual (and perhaps, this blog post) (source):
- Musicologist Andrea Moore recently wrote a provocative article for The Chicago Tribune. In it, she proposes that musical organizations ban Beethoven’s music entirely during his 250th birthday year, and commission major new works instead. It’s not going to happen, but an intriguing concept, nonetheless.
- Speaking of articles, here’s a fantastic blog post by the pianist Sharon Su in which she humanizes and contextualizes Beethoven a bit. The late musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason has also written some thoughtful posts about Beethoven on her blog, Not Another Music History Cliché!
- You know who’s a wonderful composer that doesn’t get programmed very often? Louise Farrenc. A lot of her music was clearly inspired by Beethoven’s, but it also displays her own artistic voice. Hear for yourself in her astonishing First Piano Trio.
- This meme makes me LOL (source):
- Next year (2021) marks 230 years since Mozart’s death. Can we really think about this before we celebrate his “death-versary”?
- Did you know that Beethoven made over 150 arrangements of various folk songs? Some of these are so delightful.
- Schroeder’s song “Beethoven Day” from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is a total bop. (Amongst the gang’s lavish ideas of how best to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday, I love Charlie Brown’s sheepish interjection: “We could have a bake sale!”)
- Here’s some food for thought: what would Schroeder think of the whole Beethoven 250th celebration this year? Would he love it, or would he think it’s all “too commercial”? Maybe he’d be too busy pounding away on his little piano to care.
- What’s the takeaway from all this? This anniversary year gives us—listeners, performers, scholars, etc.—a unique opportunity to reexamine Beethoven’s legacy and what he means (and perhaps should mean) to us in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Let’s take advantage of this and find new ways to both talk about and program his music going forward.
- How on earth are there so many of these movies??
In December 2020, I published a postscript to this blog, after most of Beethoven’s anniversary celebrations were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to check it out.