Beethoven’s 250th birthday: His greatness is in the details

Beethoven’s dominance of classical programming is a little crazy. Yet he was indisputably amazing.
Last Updated : 14 December 2020, 22:32 IST
Last Updated : 14 December 2020, 22:32 IST

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The classical music industry had planned to go all out commemorating Beethoven’s 250th anniversary this year, culminating in his birthday this week. As it happens, the precise date of his birth is uncertain. Records indicate that he was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 17, 1770. Since it was customary then to carry out that ritual within 24 hours of a birth, it has been assumed he was born on Dec. 16 — but we don’t know for sure.

Performances were scheduled throughout the year and around the world. The Boston Symphony Orchestra planned to open its season this fall with a cycle of the nine symphonies. The Barbican Center in London was presenting a yearlong festival. Carnegie Hall said it would devote roughly a fifth of its 2019-20 season to his music.

But when the pandemic hit, Beethoven’s birthday party was largely canceled, along with the rest of the global performing arts calendar.

Have no fear, though: He’s doing just fine. As Carnegie’s promotional materials put it, Beethoven “rouses our spirits, moves us to tears, and inspires our most profound thoughts”; he is “without challenge the face of Western classical music.” Whew. Indeed, I was impressed that the New York Philharmonic chose mostly to <em>ignore</em> the anniversary. Instead, this February the orchestra began Project 19, commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment by commissioning works by 19 female composers. Here was an important venture that would honor the heritage that Beethoven epitomizes by bringing it into the present and empowering fresh voices.

Beethoven’s dominance of classical programming is a little crazy. Yet he was indisputably amazing. He cultivated the mystique of the composer as colossus, as a seer and hero striding the earth, channeling messages from on high and revealing them to us mere mortals.

In person, he may not have advanced this image. Unkempt and ornery, he had delusions about having royal blood, kept falling for women of the upper ranks in Vienna who were unattainable matches, and, in a pathetic attempt at having a family, spent years in court fighting to gain custody of his nephew from the boy’s widowed mother, whom he considered morally unfit. (He succeeded, with predictably fraught results.)

Yet perhaps his odd appearance and manner, as well as his valiant struggle with deafness, actually contributed to the spell he cast. And whatever his personality, his music does seem to define grandeur and heroism.

What do we hear in the film “The King’s Speech” when George VI of England addresses his subjects at the start of World War II? The slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony — music that sounds like a solemn, steadily determined march.

Still, there is a long tradition of debunking the heroic trappings of Beethoven’s works. In a 1945 review of George Szell conducting the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Virgil Thomson acknowledges the history of hearing the piece as expressing victory, fate, the hope of conquered nations to resist tyranny, and the like. Sure enough, he writes, Szell conducted a “thoroughly demagogic and militarized version of it.” But not to worry: “The piece will recover from its present military service just as easily as it has from its past metaphysical and political associations.”

Yes, Beethoven wrote heroic pieces. But those scores are often filled out with audacious flights. And he wrote just as many brazenly humorous, even hilarious works, like the Presto finale of his early Piano Sonata No. 6 in F, which could be the score for a slapstick silent film.

Even the finale of the “Eroica” Symphony, for all its Promethean energy, is boisterous and full of musical jokes. Beethoven takes a kind of comic tune and puts it through a series of improbable yet triumphant variations. Yet all these works, whether riotous, near-crazed, strangely mystical or sublime, somehow embody greatness and come across as inevitable, as if the music simply must be the way it is. Why?

It’s all in the details. Beethoven was a master — maybe the ultimate master — of the technique of using small motifs (a few notes, a melodic fragment, a rhythmic gesture) to generate an entire movement, even an entire composition. This is something he learned in part from Haydn during the time he spent with the older master in Vienna, as well as from studying and copying out Haydn’s scores, which he continued to do for years.

But Beethoven took the technique to a new level of sophistication. Concertgoers may not consciously pick up all the recurrences and manipulations of motifs in a Beethoven piece. Still, those interrelated elements come through subliminally, even for those not trained in music. That’s why a wild romp, like the frenetic, dancing final movement of the Seventh Symphony, also seems a cohesive, coherent entity, a truly great piece.

Achieving motivic coherence in his scores was not easy for Beethoven to pull off. Leonard Bernstein made a few attempts to explain this in his televised lectures, including once in a famous 1954 Omnibus program on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when he examined how the opening four notes — the “fate” motif — are used like a “springboard for the symphonic continuity to come.”

Then, at the piano and with an orchestra, Bernstein performed passages reconstructed from sketches Beethoven had discarded; he wanted to show how ineffective some of these rejects were — until Beethoven got it right. Bernstein dug deeper into Beethoven’s procedures during one of his 1973 Norton Lectures (broadcast in 1976), when he took apart the first movement of the “Pastoral” Symphony. He asked the audience to get rid of all its notions that the piece is about “birds and brooks and rustic pleasures,” and proceeded to reveal how the whole movement is constructed out of materials contained in just the first four measures.

Composers after Beethoven were powerfully influenced by this technique, and not just Brahms and Mahler in their symphonies. Wagner adapted Beethoven’s approach in his operas, using “leitmotifs” to organize works that lasted hours. Puccini had his own version of the procedure.

Stephen Sondheim, fresh from college, studied the scores of Beethoven quartets, among other works, during private lessons with 12-tone composer Milton Babbitt. The most important thing he learned from these lessons, Sondheim told me in an interview many years ago, was the principle of “long-lined composition.”

“How do you organize materials to last for three minutes, 15 minutes, 33 minutes?” he said. “This turned out to be very useful when I started writing long songs and scenes, like ‘Someone in a Tree’ (in ‘Pacific Overtures’) and the opening of Act II in ‘Sweeney Todd.’”

In “Merrily We Roll Along,” the songs are “interconnected through chunks of melody, rhythm and accompaniment,” Sondheim wrote in the liner notes for the original cast recording. Surely that’s the way Beethoven would have written a score for a Broadway musical.

Even today I’ll often read, for example, a composer’s program note explaining that a new chamber music piece written in a single 15-minute movement and an essentially atonal language is based on a five-note motif. Beethoven would approve.

In his late period, Beethoven entered a sphere that seemed almost mystical, and considered himself not just a composer but also a “Tondichter” (“tone poet”). Yet even when exploring new realms of structure and sound, Beethoven generated these late scores from small motifs. Wagner studied the seven-movement Op. 131 String Quartet obsessively, seeing in it a model for ways to structure a music drama.

It is telling that the last concert I heard before the pandemic closed theaters worldwide was at Carnegie Hall on March 8, when violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax played, yes, Beethoven, ending with the majestic and awesome, searching and impetuous “Archduke” Trio. Even if Beethoven’s big birthday has not been what we expected, that superb performance of his trio, just before everything stopped, has kept coming back to me, a lasting party.

Published 14 December 2020, 22:30 IST

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