BY DR. DAVID B. LEVY, PROFESSOR OF MUSIC, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY
As we join the world in observing and celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the great composer, it is not unreasonable to ask why people ought to care. For musicians, the answer is self-evident. Beethoven’s music represents a standard of excellence whereby his music speaks as vividly and directly to the heart and mind now as it ever has. As the composer noted on the score of his setting of the Catholic Mass, the Missa solemnis of 1822-3, “May it go from the heart to the heart.” Those, such as I, who are deeply involved in Beethoven studies, marvel at the ingenuity he applied to stretching and even breaking the bounds of convention, setting the history of music on a new path.
Virtually no composer after Beethoven has escaped the power of his influence—not merely by means of imitation (his style is ultimately inimitable!), but by the seriousness of purpose that lies behind nearly all his compositions. Beethoven’s music compelled audiences to take heed of it, transcending the idea of mere casual entertainment.
Not that the world of more popular entertainment has ignored Beethoven. Chuck Berry’s 1956 hit single, Roll Over Beethoven, is, in its odd way, as much a tribute to the cultural significance of the composer as it is a challenge to high culture. For all we know, had Beethoven lived in our own time, who knows if he might not have become a composer/performer of rock ’n’ roll?
Looking at recent films such as Die Hard and The King’s Speech, how many of us are aware of the role that Beethoven’s Ninth and Seventh Symphonies, as well as his Fifth Piano Concerto, play in the soundtracks? I could offer many more examples, including Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. From a political perspective, how many realize that Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy was chosen in the 1970s as the official hymn of the European Union, a role that it continues to play today? Interestingly, the citizens of the UK in recent months have used this tune as a rallying cry against the Brexiteers.
Staying in the political realm, the year 1989 saw two events in which Beethoven’s ode played a central role. The first was the rebellion in China that took place in Tiananmen Square, where students constructed a rough model of the Statue of Liberty while blaring Beethoven’s music through their loudspeakers. After the fall of the notorious Berlin Wall later that year, Leonard Bernstein pulled together an orchestra and chorus of East and West Germans for a celebratory performance of the Ninth Symphony on Christmas Day. On that occasion, Bernstein changed the word Freude (“Joy”) to Freiheit (“Freedom”).
Even if we set aside all the political and sociological baggage that Beethoven’s music has accrued, the music itself stands as a symbol of the highest levels of human achievement. It is for this reason that NASA included Beethoven’s music on the “Golden Disc” that is part of the Voyager space mission. In its wisdom, the committee that chose the content of this disc wanted to show the culture of the world at its best.
Audiences continue to thrill and be deeply touched by this human being, whose life itself is a source of inspiration. Suffering from physical maladies throughout his life, Beethoven learned to adjust to them all, most famously, his incremental loss of hearing. If nothing else, that triumph of the human spirit alone is reason to admire the man and offers us a relevant lesson in how we might conduct our lives.
David B. Levy is the author of Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony and has been engaged in Beethoven scholarship for 44 years. He is one of the organizing forces behind “Beethoven Rocks Winston-Salem.” The presenting partner of “Beethoven Rocks Winston-Salem” is Mercedes-Benz of Winston-Salem, which is marking its 50th anniversary in our community in 2020. For more information, go to mbwspresents.org.