No, really I do.
Unless you’re the sort of person who avoids classical music, it’s unlikely you’ll have missed the fact that we’re in the midst of a big Ludwig van Beethoven anniversary year. Like the legend of the phoenix, Ludwig van Beethoven III towers above these most eminent of musicians; a virtuoso pianist and canonical composer of dozens of symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets.
Influential, innovative and inspirational. This composer was a revolutionary, breaking the rules, stretching musical forms to unleash emotion, and catapulting the Classical Era into the Romantic. Only on the 250th anniversary of his birth you’d think he’d be less grumpy about it.
Born in Bonn, western Germany around 16 December 1770 (Records indicate he was christened on 17 December, and eighteenth-century Catholic babies in the Rhineland were generally baptised the day after their birth.), after having performed brilliantly for much of his youth and into his early thirties, the musician would slowly lose his hearing and ultimately focus his efforts on composing alone.
Even after he’d lost his most precious sense, Beethoven would create some of the most moving works of all time.
Many would argue that Beethoven is the greatest of all composers, and perhaps he is. Today, he is certainly the most famous. When we hear the word “composer,” it is probably Beethoven’s brooding countenance that comes to mind. The pianist Glenn Gould once remarked that Beethoven is the only composer whose fame depends entirely on “gossip.”
Gould was right, but as today‘s popular culture is about social media (dominated by the physical body, humble brags and narcissism), Beethoven’s fame is justified all the same, even if find myself wondering how much is his work truly appreciated by the masses?
Besides, Gould meant the biographical details we all know: the composer’s deafness, his fierce independence and stubborn demeanour, his moodiness — that brooding countenance.If you need to read it in books, Jan Swafford’s excellent Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph chronicles the life of the master musician, painting the picture of a dramatic character who loved and hated ferociously (today we’d just say bipolar, would we not?).
From Brussels, Bonn and Barcelona, he’s in demand in homes and concert halls the world over. It’s always a good time for some “Ludwig van”, as Alex from A Clockwork Orange might say. And as we enter the quarter-millennium celebrations it would be really strange if I didn’t listen to at least some Beethoven over the course of the next year.
2020 vision and all that.
First priority, I suppose, is the Bavouzet traversal of the piano sonatas that I discovered a few years ago, but never got around to listening to all the middle and late ones. So far, it’s a good middle of the road set.
His most famous piano piece is undoubtedly the beautiful Für Elise (that one featured in the movie Morbius), but if we’re talking about personal Beethoven’s greatest hits, I re-listen most to Symphonies 3, 5, 7, and 9, the piano sonatas (especially the later ones), the middle and late string quartets, the last two violin sonatas, and the violin and later piano concertos.
Like many children of the 1970s and ‘80s, I first became aware of Ode To Joy, the final (fourth) movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony via David Bowie’s pre-concert use of Walter/Wendy Carlos’s electronic rendering from the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange. It’s such a stirring, uplifting anthem that it’s a surprise to no one the composition was adopted as a so-called unifying Anthem of Europe in 1972 and subsequently by the European Union.
Oh, I bet the Brits loved that.
Following a prolonged multiple infection illness, Beethoven died in his apartment in the Schwarzspanierhaus, Vienna on 26 March 1827, at the age of 56.
His last recorded words were “Pity, pity—too late!”, as the dying composer was told of a gift of twelve bottles of fancy wine from his publisher.
Beethoven was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Währing, although his remains were moved in 1888 and interred at the much more prestigious park-like Vienna Central Cemetery (Wiener Zentralfriedhof). His imposing but comparatively unostentatious tomb stands alongside Brahms in so-called Composers Corner that also houses Schubert, Strauss, Schoenberg, Salieri and lots of other people beginning with S.
As you can probably make out, this S visited quite recently, in August 2019. It’s a peaceful and dare I say beautiful setting. The grave sits among flowers, shrubs, trees and greenery. In spring or summer, you can bask in sunlight, close your eyes, and seem to catch the sounds of a piano floating through the air.
Bring on the wiener.
BONUS BEATS: In case you were puzzled by the startling cover image, in 1987 Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart a.k.a. Eurythmics released the most extraordinary piece of music as the first single from what many consider their pop masterpiece, Savage.
Constructed from pounding drum loops, a shuddering synth line and stabbing synthetic strings, the track captures the listener’s attention and imagination from the start, with a gradually building crescendo leading you to the curiously transposed lyrics of the title: “Listen to. I love to.” I literally couldn’t believe my ears the first time I heard it. What on earth was that?
Imagine if you had a Tardis and went back to play this to Beethoven himself?
Helpfully, Lennox went on to discuss the nature of the lyrics in Record Mirror magazine the following year.
“The whole thing is very symbolic. That line ‘I love to listen to Beethoven’ was just something I wrote down one day, and for me it’s a symbol for when people feel bad they listen to classical music. They shut the windows, shut the door and listen to Wagner or something, and it’s symbolising feeling very bad. There is a meaning behind it for me: I feel very bad – I listen to Beethoven. The song itself is like going into this person’s head and seeing all these fractured thoughts and emotions and everything been torn apart. The song is about crisis, it’s cynical and nasty and it’s like an abstract painting. I always see songs in visual terms.”
Say goodnight to the folks, Malcy.