What’s the best way to celebrate the 250th birthday of one of the best loved composers in classical music? When it comes to the anniversary years of most composers, the answer is simple enough: devote entire concert series to them, resurrect lesser-known works, present famous ones in non-traditional formats, organise exhibitions and public lectures. In other words, anniversaries are normally an opportunity for classical music audiences to get a fresh perspective on a particular composer’s oeuvre by bringing attention to the unfamiliar and placing the familiar in a new light. As with Haydn in 2009, Liszt in 2011, and even more pointedly with Clara Schumann in 2019, these occasions can allow us to discover unheard music, learn more about their creators’ lives, and revise preconceived notions picked up from half-remembered music appreciation classes.
But when it comes to Beethoven – whose music already dominates concert programs in a normal year – the idea of programming more of him has inevitably sparked resistance. In 1920, the music historian Hermann Abert noted an ‘exasperated attitude’ toward Beethoven among younger people, who ‘find his pathos oppressive, exaggerated, even intolerable.’ In 1970, the composer and filmmaker Mauricio Kagel released the darkly parodistic Ludwig van, whose soundtrack consists solely of a mash-up of distorted soundbites from Beethoven’s most iconic works.
Early this year, before a pandemic shut down live concerts for the foreseeable future, the backlash was already in full swing. One music professor called for a yearlong moratorium on performing Beethoven altogether. In February, the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn hosted a podium discussion whose title asked, ‘Is Beethoven really still important today?’ (broadcast on Deutschlandfunk), to which the contemporary composer Charlotte Seither answered in the negative, reporting that she and her students were tired of hearing about Beethoven, arguing that his traditional image is steeped in a toxic cult of genius that idealises ‘masculine creativity and thinking in categories of dominance.’
As a musicologist who deals with Beethoven, I can’t help but notice that negative reactions such as these, like much of the resistance that appears regularly, deal not so much with Beethoven the historical person and creative artist as with ‘Beethoven’ – a certain ossified avatar of him, that dour marble visage that glowers down at us imperiously from the piano, the city square, or the concert hall. It’s an understandable response to centuries of being told what his life and music are supposed to mean and whose agendas they are supposed to represent, a long and chequered reception history that has seen its share of political misappropriations and – true enough – has sometimes been tinged with toxic masculinity.
Often, the veneration is based on a tiny fraction of his output: behind every performance of the tragically heroic Fifth Symphony, there’s the delightfully zany Eighth that goes unheard. It’s also based on a reductive interpretation of his life, one at times marked by tragedy and defiance, to be sure, but also filled with meaningful friendships and impish pranks. I’m fascinated by Beethoven, but I also get tired of ‘Beethoven.’
In a fabulous little book, Beethoven: Variations on a Life, Mark Evan Bonds refers to this phenomenon as ‘The Scowl,’ a limiting mode of perception that not only influences how we tell his life story, but also how we hear his music, and what music of his we consider worthy of listening to. This is doubly unfortunate, Bonds feels, because as a human being and an artist, Beethoven was not always the grim icon of heroic resistance that posterity has often made him out to be, rather one whose letters and music are filled with bad puns and bizarre juxtapositions between the tragic and the riotously comic.
Its title also reminds us that one of Beethoven’s favourite musical forms, the variation set, depends on these contrasts, on ‘taking an object and looking at it from multiple perspectives and exploring the implications and consequences of those perspectives.’ And since he approached not only his own themes this way, but also saw the music of others as fair game, Beethoven most likely would have no problems with more recent creative appropriations of his music, from Walter Murphy’s irreverent ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ to Nas’s sampling of ‘Für Elise’ in the uplifting ‘I Can’. This year, we could all do with a bit less ‘Beethoven,’ but listening to and learning about Beethoven, in all of his puzzling variety, is always a good idea.
Words by John Wilson.
The three-part series Being Beethoven will be broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 6, Monday 13 and Monday 20 July. Catch up with previous episodes on BBC iPlayer here.