Today marks the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of all time. Beethoven’s name is usually mentioned in a triumvirate of major composers, the musical holy trinity that also includes Bach and Mozart. (curiously, composers I’ve never written about in their own right on this blog).
Beethoven was a key figure in the transition from the Classical period—the time of Mozart, Haydn, et. al.—and the Romantic period, which saw the emergence of composers like Chopin and Saint-Saëns. Classical music is renowned for its preciseness, its almost mathematical symmetry. Romantic music, on the other hand, is less predictable, more flowing and emotive. It was Beethoven who expanded classical music’s possibilities—for example, stretching symphonic form to unforeseen lengths (his symphonies are, on average, much longer than those of Mozart and Haydn, and Beethoven wrote substantially fewer of them)—and introduced new extremes of mood and dynamics into music.
Beethoven’s life reflected the turmoil of Europe at the time: the churnings of the French Revolution unleashed waves of radical idealism throughout the Continent, and Beethoven was famously a major fan of Napoleon’s reforms—until Napoleon began conquering the various principalities and bishoprics of the Holy Roman Empire (Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Eroica, considered to be the first “Romantic” symphony, was originally dedicated to the French emperor, before Beethoven angrily removed the dedication from the original score). Napoleon’s invasions sparked the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism, which incorporated its way into the music of the Romantic period. To this day, Germans and Austrians revere Beethoven’s music as an expression of their national identity, but the world embraces and celebrates his universally beloved works—a beautiful example of music’s transcendence.
In his personal life, Beethoven is no one to admire or emulate. He was sloppy, slovenly, unkempt, so much so that when he took time to clean himself up, his friends expressed shock. He was also sullen, due in large part to his early deafness, which drove him to the brink of suicide—a fate he forestalled only because he had more music to get out. He engaged in a lengthy, expensive, destructive custody battle, which he ultimately won, to steal his nephew away from his sister-in-law; Beethoven was so overbearing with his nephew that the boy attempted suicide.
The Lord uses even the most imperfect vessels to create Beauty. He endowed us with a scrap of His Creative potential—a reflection of His Original Act of Creation. Beethoven received a larger scrap than most, and the world is better off for it.
2020 has been a difficult year, and the Beethoven-inspired events that were scheduled to celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday have been far more muted than expected. Nevertheless, it’s a birth worth celebrating, especially during this season of celebrating the Birth of Jesus Christ.
Post-script: it’s also my sister-in-law’s 35th birthday today. Happy Birthday! Love you. —TPP
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