Beethoven’s 250th Anniversary of Birth

By Nicolás Isasi

Much in the same way we understand that tango was born in Buenos Aires while walking along the streets of this capital city, or we clearly see why bossa nova was born in Rio de Janeiro’s beaches while stepping on their magic sand, spending winter in Bonn, we understand and feel why Ludwig is Beethoven.

He composed music with an immeasurable force that perfects the human spirit, leaving a unique legacy for those who make and love music. His music is so powerful even in the slightest details (such as the beginning of his fifth symphony with only 4 notes) that everyone can recognize his genius, even without having heard his complete work. Beethoven’s first period, also known as the early period, was influenced by Haydn and Mozart. During the middle period, we find Beethoven as a hinge composer who moves from classicism to romanticism with great heroism, as he goes through a personal crisis due to his increasing deafness. The late period is the last one, with deep and intellectually charged works, making clear his own style. There is a fourth period called «WoO» (Werke ohne Opus, works without opus), which comprises his first works composed during his childhood before his arrival in Vienna. Beethoven composed 398 pieces of work in less than half a century. Chamber music, trios, quartets, quintets, numerous Lieder, 32 piano sonatas, nine concertos, nine symphonies (the last of which, the 9th also entitled Hymn to Joy, for choir and orchestra), 5 piano concertos, 1 for violin, 3 cantatas, 2 masses, and his only opera: Fidelio (1805).

He is often portrayed as a deaf and disheveled musician with an awful temperament. But that is only the outer layer because his deafness appeared towards the end of his life. It was this suffering for not being able to hear, work and flow properly with his passion, vocation and profession that caused his bad mood. On the other hand, his talent developed in particularly unfavorable conditions from his childhood and youth, so his remarkable success is even greater if we think about the complex problems of his life and how he managed to overcome them.

Ludwig inherited his name and talent from his grandfather at an early age. In 1782, when he was eleven years old, Beethoven published his first composition. A teenager who worked for the court in Bonn until he had the opportunity to travel to Vienna to study with Franz Joseph Haydn. In 1787, at the age of 17, Beethoven found a little escape from the family pressure thanks to the patron, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who paid for the trip to the Austrian capital and convinced him of his chances of success due to his talent. But soon after, his mother became seriously ill with tuberculosis and his father asked him by letter to return to Bonn immediately. His mother died in 1787, shortly after Beethoven’s first visit to Vienna, where he stayed for about two weeks and almost certainly met Mozart. After this, his father became depressed and his alcoholism worsened, was forcibly retired from the service of the Court (as a consequence of his alcoholism) and it was ordered that half of his father’s pension had to be paid directly to Ludwig for supporting the family.He also contributed further to the family’s income by teaching music lessons in the family of a wealthy widow and by playing viola in the court orchestra for five years, while his father was still in prison. His father finally died on 18 December 1792.

Unexpectedly, Beethoven’s work gained recognition of the Austrian composer Haydn, who once again invited him to Vienna.  Beethoven accepted the invitation and left his hometown forever. He was one of the first musicians in history to become professional, and he obtained an extraordinary contract because of his talent: he was allowed to compose whatever he wanted, in the way he wanted and he could deliver it when he wanted. The one condition imposed upon him was that he had to stay in Vienna. He could not move from there, and he did it (and there he stayed).  He was one of the first great piano composers, an instrument quite new at the time. Beethoven managed to bring out all its splendor, through the use of the pedals, harmony and intensity. He preferred the new English piano because its construction was stronger than that of the light Viennese, and it was more suited to his energetic way of playing. He was aware of his musical gifts and perfected them over many years, by studying and developing his own unique style. It is difficult to imagine a greatest tragedy for a composer, perhaps one of the greatest of all times: having to compose and play for ten years without being able to listen to his work. There he forged his temperamental personality. This can be seen in the wonderful film Copying Beethoven (2006) directed by the Polish Agnieszka Holland.

In a letter to a friend, he expressed his wish that, after his death, his remains would be used to determine the cause of his illness so as to prevent others from suffering the same fate. In 2005, analyses of a lock of Beethoven’s hair and a fragment of his skull tested high concentrations of lead. Beethoven apparently drank lead contaminated water over the years. His departure was mourned by the Viennese and by all theatres, those that paradoxically today remain closed, as the European music capital was in mourning. According to reports, an estimated of 30,000 people attended the funeral procession, including Schubert, and Mozart’s Requiem was performed.

In this current year 2020, although several performances were able to take place, many other concerts and galas had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. This 250th anniversary is coming to an end and I wonder if after the next 250 years, today most listened artists with millions of reproductions on YouTube and Spotify playing modern urban styles (hip hop, trap or reggaeton) will be celebrated at all alongside Ludwig’s 500th birthday. I certainly do not have the answer, but leaving aside musical tastes, I think it is important to preserve the intangible heritage that Beethoven’s music left to us all.

To this day Beethoven’s legacy lives on in music and popular culture, in the dozens of concerts held each year, in the monuments, statues and paintings of the musical genius, in the more than 1.500 films and TV shows that played his music, there is even a crater on Mercury named after him. Walt Disney used part of his Sixth Symphony for the legendary film Fantasia (1940). In December 1944, Fidelio was the first complete opera performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. In 1971, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe proposed adopting the prelude to the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the “Anthem of Europe”. Even the capacity of the first compact disc (74 minutes long) was set to match the duration of the emblematic ninth symphony.

His birthplace is nowadays a museum located at the center of Bonn, and the Beethovenfest has been held there every year since 1845. Beyond all that, in honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth, I hope with this humble homage to motivate readers to listen and delight with the music of one of the most talented musicians in the history of mankind.

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