Beethoven, Happy 250th!
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Martin Luther King’s oft quoted statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” reminds us change takes time but the nature of our existence means that positive change will happen. Those words resonate with me as I think of Beethoven, the second historical figure in this series of posts bound by inspiration. Here is why I think of Beethoven. The year 2020 was going to be a big year for Ludwig Van, as it commemorates his 250th birthday and celebrations across the musical globe were planned. Beethoven occupies a transcendent space in our universe. The music rises at once thunderous, glorious and awe inspiring in the genre busting Third and Ninth symphonies and lushly intimate and poetic in the Moonlight Sonata. And that is but a small sampling of his genius. His string quartets, many written in the last creative period of his life, inspire awe. His violin concerto, the only one he wrote for the instrument, blows you away. Forgive my highly technical explanation! And do yourself a favor and find the Adagio section (the second section) of the Piano Concerto No. 5, known as “The Emperor” and listen to perhaps the most sublimely beautiful nine minutes of music you will ever hear. I was not a music major, but a music lover. So, forgive my amateur ramblings. I am overcome by emotion when listening to great music, especially the music created by Beethoven.
We know that music speaks a language that evokes feelings and sentiments often unavailable to the spoken or written word. Music, particularly classical/romantic music, finds a place in me unreachable by other musical forms. What really inspires me about Beethoven comes from the 9th Symphony. In the chorale section, the 9th features a poem put to music, perhaps for the first time in a symphony – although not the last, thank you Gustav Mahler! The “Ode to Joy” comes from a poem by Friedrich Schiller and epitomizes the spirit of the Enlightenment (1715-1789.) You will remember that Enlightenment principles heavily influenced revolutionary sentiment across western Europe and the United States – think the American and French revolutions.
Philosophers Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and John Locke among many other Enlightenment thinkers, wrote forcibly about equality, the rights of man, self-determination and breaking the chains of bondage still represented by the Aristocracy and the last remnants of feudalism, although long since seemingly dead. We might forget how revolutionary the belief that man (and woman!) had a right to his (or her) own labor and to his thoughts. We have much to owe to this period for the freedoms we enjoy and must defend to continue to enjoy today.
To underscore the point about Beethoven, think about the story behind the dedication of his monumental (forgive my hyperbole!) Third Symphony, the Eroica. Ludwig Van famously scratched out the dedication he planned to give the work, the Bonaparte, when he found out that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France on December 2nd, 1804. Why did he scratch out his name? Because up to this point, Napoleon had represented all the positive aforementioned attributes of the Enlightenment. But, when he crowned himself Emperor, he symbolically and tangibly restored the old guard Aristocratic power structure. Beethoven, devastated and enraged, scratched out his original dedication and replaced it with the term: Heroic or Eroica.
While slavery and other forms of servitude and oppression remain for centuries post the Enlightenment, that period in history led directly to the progress we make and continue to make today. Again, MLK reminds us, “the arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice.” When you listen to Beethoven’s music, you can sense the rising tide of history over two hundred years ago, as well as the optimism of the ideas booming from the choir. Listen to the entire Symphony if you can, but at a minimum feel the inspiration from the moments here courtesy of YouTube and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra directed by Sir George Solti. Wow!