Happy Birthday, Ludwig

This is intended as a postscript to my January 2020 blog post, “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday.” Click here to check it out.

On January 27, 2020, I published a blog post entitled “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday).” In it, I expressed my lifelong admiration for Beethoven and his music, but also my mixed feelings on the celebrations planned for his 250th anniversary year.

“Happy Birthday Jesus Beethoven. Sorry your party’s so lame.”

Turns out that most of it hasn’t aged well. In early March, a little under two months after publishing the post, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Live performances with packed audiences became all but impossible, and one by one, individual concerts and even entire seasons were canceled in the interest of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Now, nine months later, the situation has improved very little, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Any hope of an all-encompassing Beethoven celebration in 2020 has been extinguished, yet another casualty of this dumpster fire of a year.

Some people are lamenting the loss of the Beethoven year, while others are celebrating it. Personally, I feel somewhere in the middle. Yes, it’s absolutely true that Beethoven didn’t really need all the hubbub of this anniversary year in the first place. His music is performed so much already and would have continued to appear on concert programs either way, anniversary or not. The celebrations that were planned seemed, in some cases, overblown, unimaginative, and even a tad lazy. And of course, there was the very real possibility of it all becoming excessive. As Aesop allegedly said, “It is possible to have too much of a good thing.”

On the other hand, yes, it is a loss. Though I waffle back and forth in my opinions on Beethoven 9, there’s absolutely nothing like experiencing it live and I was greatly looking forward to hearing at least one performance of the work in August. I was also excited for other performances that juxtaposed Beethoven with newer or less-performed works, such as Brooklyn Rider’s striking program that was to pair Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang Quartet (No. 15) with newly-commissioned works by contemporary women composers. The pandemic has made me—and millions of others—hungry for live performance, and though I may not have been enthusiastic about the idea of sitting through an all-Beethoven concert back in January, honestly, that sounds pretty great right now (even if it did include Wellington’s Victory!)

Perhaps it’s OK to feel a mix of emotions at the loss of the Beethoven 250 year. A few days ago, KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen posted a great Twitter thread that encapsulates this very feeling. My favorite Tweet of the bunch reads: “It is possible to simultaneously adore Beethoven’s music, revel in your favorite moments, chafe at its programming oversaturation, and lament the fact that Beethoven’s music isn’t presented more with more creativity and less reverence.”

So, that being said, I’m going to own my middle-of-the-road stance. As I made clear in my January post, I love Beethoven, and will always love Beethoven. (Again, the Scherzo from the Eroica Symphony gives me life.) His music holds a very special place in my development as a classical musician and I for one cannot wait to experience it in a concert hall once again.

But I am still frustrated by the lack of creativity when it comes to programming Beethoven, the sidelining of other composers (especially underrepresented ones) at his expense, and the “hero worship” mentality that seems to follow Beethoven and his music all-too-easily and all-too-frequently. I remain hopeful, though, that the pandemic—as terrible as it is has been—has created an unexpected, but serendipitous, opportunity to reexamine what Beethoven’s music truly means to us right NOW in the hopefully-soon-to-be-post-COVID era, and how it can be presented in more innovative and thoughtful ways going forward. And perhaps, when all’s said and done, we’ll appreciate him even more.

For now though, happy 250th, Ludwig! Enjoy your birthday from quarantine (be sure to wear a mask), and here’s hoping we can celebrate with you in person soon.

One thought on “Happy Birthday, Ludwig

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