On Sunday afternoons in Vienna at the time of Beethoven, pianos were parked outside in the squares around town and in front of concert halls where pianists would improvise for the Viennese civilians. Beethoven showed up and caused widespread panic. There are journal entries from pianists at the time threatening to lock their doors and cut off their hands. Others claimed LVB was possessed by the devil.
Aside from the piano Beethoven was also an accomplished violinist. When asked to compose something for another house of royalty’s visiting violin gunslinger Beethoven would agree and then write something the new guy in town couldn’t play. When confronted, he would play the piece himself.
My favorite professional story might be how, in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, he wrote a varying number of bars of introduction where he would weave the themes around each other, exposing the “colors” of the key. He got a lot of critical flack for it. By God, composers were to state the key on the front end, not fart around getting to it. In response to the critics Beethoven begins the Seventh Symphony with the entire orchestra making a one note WHAM of A major. He proceeds to beat us with it several times in the intro. Dum dee dum dee WHAM. Carl Maria von Weber, a contemporary no one remembers, said of the Seventh –
“The extravagances of Beethoven’s genius have reached the ne plus ultra in the Seventh Symphony, and he is quite ripe for the madhouse.” To which Beethoven responded, “I quite liked your last opera. I’m thinking of setting it to music.”
There are far too many stories to tell about Beethoven. Poet, romantic, insane genius, rock star, ladies man. Now, 24/7 two-hundred and fifty years later, someone, somewhere is listening to or playing Beethoven. On piano, violin, cello. On YouTube, on the radio, in school, a movie, a church. However, possibly the closest we may come to immortality, musical genius and artistic vision are not the major takeaways from Beethoven.
What Beethoven wanted to show through his music was a way to a better, enlightened world. He dedicated much of his music to a concept of the Heroic Age called “benevolent despots.” Rulers who with wisdom and charity would bring the whole of humanity up out of ignorance by the bootstraps for the common good. We all know how that worked out. It was down to the artists.
His answer? The Ninth Symphony. In which Beethoven declared that the ideal society, Elysium, was not going to rise from heroes, benevolent despots or from God, but it was something we must do for ourselves. As brothers and sisters. As citizens in the brotherhood of humanity.
Even without the music, that right there? Pure. Genius.
Happy Birthday, wild man.