Online discussion #7 will be available for comments October 10-16. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
Before you even started your journey in Mu 101 this semester, you’d likely heard the music of Beethoven, and probably knew his name.
He’s one of those figures that everybody just kind of knows, right? He’s a figure that, in the back of your mind, causes something to prod you with a nagging sensation that you should be able to at least say something about him, because he’s totally an important historical figure, duh.
You could name your dog after him and no one would bat an eye.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is “one of those guys” because his music has been so celebrated, without pause, since his lifetime. People have turned to Beethoven at various crucial historical moments, using his music to convey the notion of overcoming struggle, unity, and humanity:
- Established in 1845, the Beethoven Quartet Society (London) was one of the first groups devoted solely to the performance and study of the music of a single composer. Their repertoire? String quartets by Beethoven.
- The Nazi Party in Germany regarded Beethoven’s music as the apex of human achievement and of German culture, encouraging performances of it regularly.
- Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was included on the “Golden Record,” a series of recordings to represent the humans of Earth to the universe sent into space with the Voyager I and II spacecraft in 1977.
- At the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which had divided the German capital since World War II, Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra comprised of musicians from the former Allied and Axis powers in a performance of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
- Symphony No. 9 has been adopted by several European nations and groups as its anthem, including the E.U.
During his life, Beethoven’s music was shocking for many listeners. It was bigger, bolder, louder, and more striking than anything that had come before it. More than that, it seemed spiritual for many listeners, especially as participation in organized religion declined during the 19th century—music, especially instrumental music for large symphony orchestras, steps in to fill the void of connecting people with the sense of a higher power.
Descriptions of classical music from the 19th century are a gold mine for juicy, transcendental musical experiences. People believed music could offer them entry into unseen worlds, and composers tried to live up to these expectations. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822), like many other listeners, first felt a connection with things beyond himself when listening to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, and this feeling (even though he doesn’t use the same words as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, since he’s not a 20th-century psychologist), implies that he’s had a flow experience.
“Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens up to us also the realm of the monstrous and the immeasurable. Burning flashes of light shoot through the deep night of this realm and we become aware of giant shadows that surge back and forth, driving us into narrower and narrower confines until they destroy us—but not the pain of that endless longing in which each joy that has climbed aloft in jubilant song sinks back and is swallowed up, and it is only in this pain, which consumes love, hope, and happiness but does not destroy them, which seeks to burst our breasts with a many-voices consonance of all the passions, that we live on, enchanted beholders of the supernatural!… Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and wakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism…”
—E.T.A. Hoffmann, Beethoven’s Instrumental Music (1813)
Leonard Bernstein: the charming Beethoven fanboy
Below is a 1954 episode of Omnibus, a TV program that aired on Sunday afternoons in the US during the 1950s and 1960s. It was funded by the Ford Foundation as an effort to educate Americans culturally. The main speaker throughout this episode is Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), an American composer, conductor, and educator. He hosted several episodes of Omnibus, each about a different musical topic, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, conducting, jazz, and opera.
In the video, Bernstein discusses why he finds Beethoven to be a fascinating and inspiring figure, illustrating Beethoven’s creative process and the difficulty he had in shaping his music into its final form. Bernstein demonstrates excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 at the piano, with scores (sheet music), and a full orchestra. He uses many vocabulary words we’ve already come across in class and in assigned readings—he’s speaking a language you now know!
As a frame of reference, here’s a recording of the piece of music the video dissects:
In the video, I love how Bernstein’s admiration for Beethoven comes through—he’s picking apart Beethoven’s musical ideas with care, respect, and thoroughness, seeking to appreciate (and share with his viewers) Beethoven’s compositional process and skill.
Leonard Bernstein, Omnibus, “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” (1954):
But why Beethoven?
But why has Beethoven been such an inspiring figure for so many musicians and non-musicians alike? The short answer is that his music is really, really good. It’s satisfying to play, it’s inspiring to listen to, and it was a game-changer for Romantic Era music (it’s bigger, louder, longer, more intense, and conveys a greater sense of personal conviction than anything that came before it). (See some musicians’ musings about Beethoven’s music here: 05-handout-quotes-on-beethoven-1805-1862)
The long answer involves aspects of who Beethoven is in the imaginations of his listeners and admirers:
- An independent thinker who defied cultural norms and instead followed his own ideas in both music and society
- A hard worker and perfectionist—Beethoven’s obvious difficulty in getting his music “right” is a big part of what inspires Bernstein, and there’s often something comforting about seeing a person create great work not out of effortless talent but rather out of sheer force of unrelenting will
- A shrewd businessman who made classical music profitable in the free market economy
- A firm believer in the equality of man (an Enlightenment principle)
- Oh, and he was deaf for much of his adult life following an infection—the notion that a person could overcome a physical disability so obviously shattering to his professional career is often one of the biggest sources of inspiration people draw from Beethoven’s biography
In short, Beethoven fulfills the role of a hero.
At a certain point, it stops mattering whether a hero is as good as everyone says he is—it only matters that people think he’s great, because it’s that assumption of greatness, of being inspired, that guides future choices and actions. The more time passes, the more his identity is equated with how people perceived and received his work—the myth becomes the man in our minds. In the case of Beethoven, the awe, the reverence, and the seemingly impossible standards he established guide subsequent musicians to their aesthetic ideals. For us as inheritors of a post-Beethoven world in the 21st century, that means that our musical experiences are shaped by a set of assumptions we may take for granted: orchestral music is big, long, and loud; the notion that music can be spiritually moving; classical music is “serious”; and it doesn’t matter if the audience “gets” it because the creator is assumed to be a genius.
No conversation-starting questions this week—I don’t want to dictate where the conversation goes, and there’s plenty to think about here without them!