What comes to your mind when I say “Beethoven?” Famous classical composer? Giant St. Bernard? Maybe something about deafness or that one tune from the old Blockbuster commercial where the choir sings “MOVIES MOVIES MOVIES MOVIES!”? All of these things are true, but today I wanted to discuss a bit about the composer himself, and something of his that haunts me as a composer in my own right, as an artist, and as a human being; something that I see in my own heroes and those I admire most, that I aspire towards.
A touch of academic background: Ludwig van Beethoven was an Austrian composer in the late 18th & early 19th centuries who ushered in a new era of classical composing that, for the first time, focused on the composer as an ARTIST™. The major names before him - Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi, etc - tended to be artisans, who worked for a court or patron and composed as a matter of course. Beethoven’s symphonies, however, upended this system and began treating music almost as a living being all its own. His (in)famous Fifth was the first symphony in which all movements were related through thematic material, that tells a story from beginning to end, rather than simply moving the affectations and exciting the humours. In short, Beethoven was the first to force his audiences to focus on his art, to listen with a synthesis of heart and head, in a meaningful way.
His other great claim to fame is his deafness. Its true: Beethoven was almost totally deaf for the final 10 or so years of his life. This is often cited for making his achievements all the more remarkable (which it does), as well as fueling the lone-genius persona he is often given. Biographers have been guilty of painting him as this “person apart,” a brooding apparition scouring the depths of human darkness so that we may look in his musical mirror and see our true natures reflected in its aching beauty, his deafness exacerbating the difficulty of social interaction. This is almost true. Just after the turn of the 19th century, he wrote a famous letter, never sent, called the Heiligenstadt Testament, wherein he admits his increasing deafness and suicidal thoughts surrounding it. But then: a resolve to live, with his art as the guiding purpose. He would go on, after this document was penned, to write some of the most monumental works in the Western classical canon.
So here’s the thing. This person, who is notorious in socialite circles for being awkward and unattractive, has increasing health problems, knows only how to make music and is going deaf… he should have been miserable, and probably was in his everyday living. But as he gets older and his problems get worse, his music is increasingly about joy. The final movement of his glorious Ninth Symphony is the famous ODE TO JOY, a great crashing ecstasy of instruments accompanying voices shouting praise to happiness itself. He chooses to share his life as an artist with us, teaching us to listen with intent and emotional clarity, but he doesn’t drag us into his misery or take us into the darkness of the human condition, he flings us, boundless, into the throes of rapture. It is this paradox that haunts me - that in the midst of tremendous suffering, we may celebrate joy.