This year on December 16, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrates his 250th birthday. That’s a lot of candles on the cake. If he were alive to blow them out. His music, however, is very much alive and well. And I’ve been thinking about his music the last few weeks, as I’ve turned to it more and more during this year of pandemic, civil unrest, important election, and climate change weather.
When did I first hear Beethoven’s music? I don’t know, really. I think it was in the background of my childhood probably from the beginning. But I do recall the first time I heard his symphonies as specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. I think it was either the summer between 9th and 10th grades or between 10th and 11th grades. My piano teacher generously loaned me her complete set of Beethoven symphony recordings on 78 rpm vinyl records for the summer. Fortunately, our summer house had a record player that could play those records; and being summer, with open doors and windows, I could play them as loud as I wanted. I could not tell you now how many times I listened to them all, but I’m certain it was more than ten times. The first two symphonies are full of sunshine, youth, and optimism before Beethoven decided to go off in his own direction, different from everything that had come before. He began his Third Symphony with two loud chords. Heaven forbid! The Fourth is full of humor and slyness. And of course, the Fifth, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it and still makes me laugh. So full of Sturm und Drang!
The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in a live orchestra concert was in Vienna, Austria at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was on a big national holiday, and I managed to get a seat way in the back of the balcony. The Austrian President was in attendance as well as other government officials. I wondered if hearing Beethoven in Vienna would be a different, special experience compared with hearing him in concert in America. He had lived and worked in Vienna. You can walk around Vienna in the First District and note the number of decorative signs on buildings that announce Beethoven had lived there and composed such and such there. He had been well known in the city, and it was still possible when I was a student there, to hear stories about Beethoven. But I still wondered what the music would be like performed there. Well, I remember it being crisp, with that opening phrase in the Fifth Symphony demanding everyone’s attention. (Yes, I did giggle.) It said, “Listen to me. Now. I want your undivided attention.” Then Beethoven takes the listener on a journey through determination, a pleasant lilting stroll from shadow to sunshine (2nd movement), a five-minute scherzo of heroic music followed by one of the most amazing crescendoes in music that crosses the bridge of the scherzo to the triumphal joy of the final movement. I remember getting goosebumps when that crescendo began, and I realized that there really is nothing like Beethoven live in concert. Anywhere.
I have walked along the path in Heiligenstadt where Beethoven walked, inspired by the nature that he saw all around him to compose his pastoral Sixth Symphony. Then he turns his attention to the universe, that which is larger than any one life, in his last three symphonies. Again, he breaks rules right and left of musical composition, and especially with his final, Ninth, symphony, the Choral Symphony. I have this delightful memory of sitting in a half-filled movie theater watching Immortal Beloved, the movie about Beethoven’s mysterious love affair late in his life, when a scene of Beethoven’s nephew Karl, who lived with him, sitting in a cafe with a friend, telling his friend about his uncle’s obsession with a melody that was driving Karl crazy. And he sings the melody of the famous “Ode to Joy” that is in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. He sings it with derision, though, and I laughed. It amazed me that I was the only one in the theater who got the joke.
To play Beethoven’s music is to spend time inside his beautiful soul. During my college years, I played some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and to this day they are favorites. I came late to his string quartets, and I’m still a student. His piano trios are especially sublime, and I am partial to the “Archduke.” I attended a performance of Fidelio, his only opera, at the State Opera in Vienna, and it’s the only Beethoven music that hasn’t filled me with awe. And believe it or not, I’ve not listened to his Missa Solemnis. I guess I’m holding that for a future moment of discovery.
After all this music, you’d think I’d have read a biography of Beethoven a long time ago, right? But no. I don’t know why. I know the general outline of his life, I have a copy of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and I heard my share of Beethoven stories when I was a music student in Vienna. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I began reading a biography of Beethoven, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. It’s considered the definitive biography, the work that everyone else cites. I decided that I needed to celebrate his 250th by learning more about the man himself. Not the myth.
And maybe when I’ve finished reading the biography, it will be time to listen to his Missa Solemnis.