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Beethoven at 250

By Jack Sullivan

He rouses our spirits, moves us to tears, and inspires our most profound thoughts. Revolutionary, seminal, colossal—he is without challenge the face of Western classical music. To mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Carnegie Hall presents one of the largest explorations of the great master’s music in our time, including two complete symphony cycles of the composer’s immortal nine, a cycle of his 16 string quartets, and the complete piano sonatas performed by the world’s most acclaimed musicians. Beyond the Hall, public programming, performances, exhibitions, and events at partner organizations—leading cultural and academic institutions in New York City—highlight the many dimensions of this revolutionary composer who redefined music.

In advance of this celebration, Jack Sullivan explores Beethoven’s continued influence on our collective culture more than two centuries since the composer’s works were first published.

For a composer who was born 250 years ago, Beethoven is astonishingly present. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel programmed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the Group of 20 summit in 2017as “a hymn to humanity, peace,and international understanding.” Americans turned to Beethovenfor healing following the trauma of 9/11, including a one-year memorial concert given by the New York Philharmonic. In 1989, young marchers invoked the Ninth in Tiananmen Square, and Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven symphonies during the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Among cultural figures, Beethoven is a symbol of affirmation and triumph over adversity. He is the subject of endless celebrations, parodies, and reimaginations by pop, hip-hop, and disco arrangers, referenced in high and popular culture, on Broadway and in film, most notably Immortal Beloved, Dead Poets Society, Taking Sides, Sister Act 2, and A Clockwork Orange. He is the benchmark for recording technology: the first LP presented Beethoven’s Fifth; the first compact discs were measured at 75 minutes so they could fit the Ninth Symphony in its entirety. Born into the Enlightenment, Beethoven has remained “modern” ever since.

The big question is why Beethoven? Why not Mozart or Verdi or Tchaikovsky? Why have other famed composers in the canon not enjoyed the same sustained—occasionally obsessive—popularity? Beethoven’s struggle with his encroaching deafness is uniquely inspiring, especially since he wrote his greatest works in what he called a terrifying void of silence. That sense of struggle is palpably present in his music, which often culminates in soaring affirmation after long stretches of chaos, anger, and despair. No one before had confronted audiences with such an intense range of emotion and cathartic release, and no one has since.

Beethoven’s political ideals have also had a singular impact through the centuries, greatly enlarging the ability of classical music to heal and unify: Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who conducts a Beethoven symphony cycle with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at Carnegie Hall this February, speaks of the composer’s commitment to the liberating ideals of the French Revolution, an influence evident not only in Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, but in the freedom and affirmation of his symphonic works.

During his lifetime and for years after, however, both the man and the music were regarded by a sizable portion of the music community as bizarre, uncouth, and a bit mad—a hostility that has only added to Beethoven’s allure. Even his mature pieces were a challenge to his supporters. In a remarkable review of a performance of the C-sharp Minor String Quartet, Hector Berlioz reported that “nine-tenths of the audience got up and left, complaining aloud that the music was unbearable, incomprehensible, ridiculous—the work of a madman defying common sense.” Berlioz himself was tempted to leave, but “just when the public’s patience gave out, mine revived, and I fell under the spell of the composer’s genius.”

Now people around the world are under Beethoven’s spell, a metaphor invoked by writer after writer to describe his mesmerizing power. He has been appropriated by different entities, often in contradictory ways. During World War II, the Berliner Philharmoniker played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Hitler’s request, while the Allies used Beethoven’s music, branding him “a champion for freedom.”

Before that, champions of Romanticism—citing his emotional ferocity and frankness—claimed Beethoven as their founder, even though his music was based on recognizable Classical structures. Beethoven’s own words helped their cause: “What I have in my heart must come out. That is why I compose.” His epic fusion of vocal and symphonic writing in the Ninth Symphony redefined what a symphony could do, leading to expansive works like Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Writer E. T. A. Hoffmann declared that he moved music from the Classical world of order and symmetry to the Romanticrealm of the “monstrous and the immeasurable.” His conservative contemporaries speculated that he must have been inebriated when he composed his most innovative works, but his Romantic champions saw this accusation as a sign of inspiration and imagination. Regarding the Seventh Symphony, French dramatist Romain Rolland wrote, “The work of an inebriated man indeed it was, but one intoxicated with poetry.”

Modernists of the 20th century had a very different take. Stravinsky praised Beethoven’s “sobriety,” a relief from the “florid orchestration of Wagner,” and railed against the 19th century’s “sentimental attitudes” about Beethoven’s health struggles and philosophical ideals, attempting to steer the discourse to “what matters, a discussion of the music.” Modernist composers were drawn to Beethoven’s revolutionary starkness and conciseness, both rhythmically and structurally—famously represented by the Fifth Symphony, where a short opening motif (frequently compared toa germinating cell) generates significant portions of the whole.

But Beethoven’s impact transcends the purely musical. Our conception of the tortured artist—a genius touched by madness and a master misunderstood in his own time—begins with Beethoven and reverberates in the mythologies of Schumann, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, and other great innovators afflicted by inner demons and external roadblocks. The difference is that Beethoven survived his suicidal depressions and came out the other end with works of increasing profundity and cathartic release. Nothing stopped him or diminished his powers; rarely has struggle been more productive.

There are endless stories about Beethoven’s tumultuous career, but the most famous is still the most moving: After conducting the Vienna premiere of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven had to be turned around by the soprano soloist to acknowledge applause—applause that became suddenly subdued as the audience was confronted firsthand with his deafness. It was an apt and awesome final curtain for an artist who more than any other relied on his inner ear.

Once a fiery revolutionary, relishing his ability to provoke, Beethoven has become a beloved figure. Like a Bach fugue or a Schubert song, a Beethoven symphony communicates something emotionally palpable and fundamental. It was not always so, and the challenge now, as Gardiner has said, is to make performances wilder and riskier, a little less comfortable, as Beethoven would have wanted.