“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”
— Ludwig van Beethoven
I am a Beethoven groupie. If he were alive today, I would follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, download his music and never miss a promo appearance on Today.
Alas, I can only enjoy him (and oh, do I ever) through listening to my collection of CDs, by watching one of the Hollywood versions of his life (Immortal Beloved comes to mind) or catching an occasional string quartet, piano concerto, or — be still my heart — one of his nine glorious symphonies on the only classical music radio station remaining in the New York City area: WQXR (which you can also stream on your computer, something I do when traveling. And while you’re at it . . . consider making a donation to support the country’s leading, and NYC’s only, classical music station.)
A creature of habit, I rarely vary my routine: Wake up at 5:30 a.m., stumble to the kitchen to turn on the Nespresso machine and radio (such a quaint little thing) simultaneously and sit down with my iPad to find out what happened in the world while I was sleeping (lately, the news makes me want to crawl back into bed). As a writer, I work from home and WQXR stays on until we all turn in for the night. Even when family and I leave the apartment for appointments, work, and school, the dreamy and often melancholy sounds of Brahms and the drama of Verdi can be heard throughout the day until one of us returns. And I always leave it on for Pete the Brittany.
A few years ago, Sir Simon Rattle led (without notes, might I add) the Berliner Philharmoniker at Carnegie Hall, where they performed the Beethoven Cycle (all nine symphonies) over five magical nights. I was there, front and center, with a daughter or husband in tow, every evening. “Thrilling” is the single word that sums up the experience. NOTE TO BEETHOVEN FANS: Carnegie Hall will do it again in 2020, when we celebrate Beethoven’s 250th Birthday! Stay tuned . . .
Beethoven should be adored for his music alone, of course. But there are many things that make him rock more than any other great composer. In honor of Beethoven’s 249th birthday (Dec. 16, 1770) I pulled together a short list of reasons we should be thankful for Beethoven this month … and all year long.
- That wild and crazy hair. We usually think of Einstein as the genius with the most memorable hair, but Beethoven is the clear winner for a few other reasons. Not only did it look as dramatic as most of his compositions, but it truly had a life all its own. After his death in 1827 at age 56, some people stole snippets of it during his funeral. There are many stories surrounding a specific lock of Beethoven’s hair that found its way from Vienna to the United States, but the most remarkable thing was scientists were able to determine what most likely caused Beethoven’s constant abdominal pain and other maladies, including depression. For starters, testing showed his hair contained huge quantities of lead — more than 100 times the normal average — leading experts to believe he probably had lead poisoning. Now if we could only figure out how to build new Beethovens with a few strands …
- He wrote No. 9 after 50. Beethoven’s arguably most well-known and best-loved symphony was composed when he was completely deaf and in his early 50s, making him the official poster child for the post-50 generation. Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” is commonly referred to as “Ode to Joy” (which is only one part of this masterpiece, and was inspired by a poem written in the 1790s by Friedrich Schiller). Beethoven, who conducted the world premiere in Vienna on May 7, 1824, when he was 54 years old, didn’t realize the audience was applauding wildly, as his back was to them and he could no longer hear, prompting a soloist to turn him around so he could witness one of his greatest triumphs.
- He stood up to Napoleon. Another masterpiece (did Beethoven compose anything else?), Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 “Eroica,” was originally titled “Bonaparte Symphony” in tribute to Napoleon, whom Beethoven at first believed to be a kindred spirit in regard to embracing equality and freedom. When Napoleon ripped through Europe, bullying everyone in his path and eventually crowning himself emperor, Beethoven was outraged, thinking the leader had become a tyrant. Beethoven quickly crossed out the title and renamed it Eroica. This made Napoleon feel quite small, indeed. Interesting trivia tidbit about “Eroica”: Alfred Hitchcock incorporated the symphony into one of his most famous movies, Psycho (look for the record on the gramophone in the scene where Janet Leigh’s sister is searching for her in the house behind the hotel).
- He could have (should have) won an Oscar. Who among us was not incredibly moved by the scene in The King’s Speech during which the newly crowned King George VI made his wartime speech to the heightened drama and majesty of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, which was composed in honor of a battle (led by Napoleon’s brother) the British fought against the French? The scene is so stirring it’s hard to turn your ears away from the music and focus on the words. Toward the end, when the royal family greets and waves to the adoring crowds outside the palace, another masterpiece is played: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73 “Emperor.” He so permeated this movie, Beethoven should at least have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
- He makes us swoon with Immortal Beloved. After his death in 1827, letters to someone he referred to as “my angel, my all, my very self” were discovered and have mystified Beethoven scholars ever since. Who was this woman who possessed his heart and soul so desperately and whom he wanted to marry? There’s no proof that he was sexually involved with his Beloved, yet she was clearly the object of his desire. Many women have been put forth as possibilities over the years, but the riddle will probably never be solved. One thing we know for sure: Beethoven never married, but experts believe he fathered at least two children. The three-part love letter was signed, “Ever thine, Ever mine, Ever ours.” Check the movie by the same name for a romanticized but very effective exploration of this mystery.
- His best ideas came to him when he exercised. I’ve written about how running puts me into a Zen-like state, mentally unencumbered by conversation, technology, reading or much of anything. Apparently, Beethoven felt this way about walking and became famous in Vienna for regularly taking long strolls around the city and exploring the neighboring woods. In fact, my favorite piece of music — Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” — was inspired by his walks in the country. It seems he instinctively understood the connection between exercise and creativity. A man ahead of his times.
- He was immortalized in a cartoon strip. In his own words, the creator of the Peanutscharacters, Charles M. Schulz, became an ardent admirer of Beethoven early on in his career. Starting in 1951, Schroeder, one of the Peanuts characters, channeled the genius of Beethoven through his toy piano. Most scenes of Schroeder find him bowed over his piano on the floor, playing incredibly complicated compositions, and woe to anyone who doesn’t know it’s Beethoven he’s playing. I first learned about Beethoven by reading the Peanuts cartoon strips in the newspaper my grandfather brought home, and then the books Schulz published which I collected as quickly as I started collecting Beethoven records. Schroeder was so obsessed with Beethoven he once asked no one in particular, “How can anyone be Beethoven and not be happy?”
Oh, good grief, Charlie Brown, I could go on and on about Beethoven. But I won’t because WQXR is about to play “Für Elise,” which wasn’t written for anyone named Elise, according to Jeff Spurgeon, the always-engaging morning host of WQXR, but for a woman whose name was misread due to Beethoven’s hard-to-read handwriting. Another romantic mystery.
While Mozart, Mahler, Bach and other musical geniuses also deserve special places in our hearts for bringing such beauty to the world, in the final analysis, it is Beethoven … and it’s only ever been Beethoven. After all, as he himself once said, “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”
Just ask Schroeder.