Why is it that Ludwig van Beethoven, who died in 1827, still tops every list of the most popular classical composers?
It’s a perennial question that came back into focus when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recently announced that it would open the 2010-11 season with a mini-Beethoven festival and would close with the No. 1 classical hit of all time: his Ninth Symphony. The annual DSO gala on Sept. 11 was to have featured pianist Jeffrey Kahane playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Op. 58 paired with the Eroica Symphony (No. 3 in E flat Op. 55), which will repeat on September 9, 10 and 12. (Kahane canceled because of illness, though.)
Then, on September 18, the DSO will present the superstar pianist Lang Lang playing Beethoven’s massive Piano Concerto No.1 Op. 15 (Beethoven’s first piano concerto to be published). The German composer will also be heard when the Fort Worth Symphony opens their new season Sept. 10-12 with pianist Di Wu playing his Emperor piano concerto (No. 5 in E-flat Op. 73). That’s a lot of music that is nearly 180 years old.
But the bond between the famous composer and musicians is still very strong, according to one local conductor. "[Beethoven is popular] because musicians love to play his music and we always do better with works we enjoy playing," says Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Fort Worth Symphony Music Director.
He is on to something here. Beethoven’s music is incredibly difficult to play. It is exceedingly rewarding, once mastered, for both performer and listener. All the craft and complexities that graduate students love to analyze seems to vanish into beautiful and moving music.
Beethoven had the luck of the historical draw with the era in which he was born. Haydn had done the groundwork in developing all of the musical forms that are now so familiar: sonata, symphony, concerto, and so on. Mozart refined and expanded them. Thus, Beethoven had the architecture―which still serves composers up to the present day―handed to him.
With the formal aspects set, he had the freedom to experiment with the other elements of music: harmony, melody, rhythm and development. His aim was originality. For example, the C sharp at the end of the opening motive in the Eroica Symphony is a surprise, but that note opens a treasure trove of possibilities for development later on. His Symphony No. 7 in A Op. 92, which opens the DSO season, is an exploration of rhythm, much like Picasso if he was only using blue paint.
Professor Joseph Klein, who is Chair of the Division of Composition Studies at University of North Texas College of Music, summed it up when he said, “In contrast to the refined elegance of his immediate predecessors Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's bold experimentation as manifested in rough-hewn textures, striking dynamic contrasts, unorthodox orchestrational choices and quirky harmonic language may be considered the hallmark of individualism.”
Beethoven was one of the first “freelance” composers. With no royal patron to please, he wrote for himself, and for the audiences to come in the future. He was writing for the great “us.” Composer Jorge Martín, whose opera Before Night Falls was such a hit in Fort Worth last summer, says “We are optimists, and Beethoven’s music is deeply optimistic, even as it knows humanity's failings.”
Joseph Illick, maestro of the Fort Worth Opera, agrees that the composer wrote timeless music, saying, "Beethoven is direct. He is humane, passionate and bold. It’s very life-affirming music, and it leaves the listener feeling uplifted."
Some of this uplifting effect is because Beethoven did most of his composing while taking long walks outdoors. When asked where he got his ideas, he is quoted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, as saying that he can grasp them in his hands, "out in Nature’s open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at the earliest dawn."
That silence of the night was to descend on the composer in a most tragic way, as he became totally deaf. While this affliction caused him no end of anguish as a person, it didn’t stop him as a composer. In fact, the ever-popular Symphony No. 9 was written near the end of his life, when he was profoundly deaf. Because of this, Beethoven achieves a feeling of vastness, especially in the opening and slow movements. Nothing as trivial as the mundane sounds of the everyday world have interfered with the universe of sounds in his mind.
But Beethoven was sick and in pain most of his life, so much so that he considered suicide at one point. This being the case, Beethoven’s remarkable output of “life-affirming” music is even more astounding. The power and passion of his compositions have become a social instrument. Our ears are accustomed to 20th-century sounds we hear today, so Beethoven’s music no longer seems new or "revolutionary" to most of us, and may now sound actually old-fashioned. This was not the case when his works first appeared, and some of his later music arguably belonged to the musical dawn of the world’s next century. It’s conceivable that had he lived longer and continued his musical growth, his last works, viewed in proper historical perspective, might have assumed characteristics approaching the avant-garde.
Nevertheless, on the musically informed listener Beethoven’s late works now make an eloquent impression. If his music no longer answers our aesthetic wants, it surely serves our aesthetic needs.
►This story originally appeared in the September issue of Arts+Culture Magazine, which is on stands around town now.