As we enter a new year with the hope of better days ahead, consideration of universal truths binding humankind together in spite of strife and turmoil seems in order. Surprisingly, hope is revealed upon closer examination of the life of exalted composer Ludwig van Beethoven, a man whose grumpy visage inhabiting one of the stained glass windows adorning Henry St. Clair Memorial Hall symbolized my view of the genius as a dour man trapped in deafness, deprived of the joy to be felt at the sound of the music he created.
The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth was marked on Dec. 16, 2020, leading many writers to contemplate the man and his music and its meaning for our current time. In an ode to the redemptive power to be gleaned from Beethoven’s work, writer Harvey Wasserman reminded me of a fact that I had long overlooked in my evaluation of the personality of the iconic German composer: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, written and first performed near the end of his life, is a powerful statement of endless possibility, of optimism, of hope culminating in the pure promise offered up in “Ode to Joy!”
Beethoven’s tragic life story includes the death of his mother and a beloved younger sister at an early age; his first music teacher was his father Johann, an alcoholic whose cruelty to his talented son is sadly well-known. Although several theories exist, it is speculated that his father’s physical abuse may have contributed to the deafness that began to plague Ludwig at a young age. His romantic ambitions were met with disdain by the women he favored with attentions, although one such ill-fated liaison is believed to have culminated in the lovely “Moonlight Sonata,” a piece dedicated to a young countess at its writing in 1802. Additionally, the delightful “Fur Elise,” beloved by generations of piano students for its simple beauty, may have been inspired by Austrian singer Therese Malfatti, who rejected a marriage proposal from the composer in 1810.
Living mostly in social isolation and silence, the former child prodigy briefly considered suicide, but never stopped composing — or believing in his ability to create transcendent sounds, reinventing contemporary musical genres as he composed. Although some speculation centers on how much greater Beethoven may have been without his deafness, the defect may have actually enhanced his genius, allowing him to apply his vast talents without distraction and thus creating a legacy that lives on to this day. Twentieth-century composer Igor Stravinsky described Beethoven’s work as “music that will be contemporary forever,” a statement that accurately describes the master’s unique achievement and continued relevance.
Beethoven’s Ninth encapsulates his genius and commitment to constant renewal and reinvention; a vision of universal brotherhood, the symphony culminates in individual voices and instruments coming together to create joyous noise. First performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824, the Ninth was the first major composition to include a chorus and vocal soloists in the final movement. The composer wanted to be part of the performance, and was on stage while the piece was performed, his animated actions demonstrating the style and dynamics that he wanted from the performing musicians. However, his efforts were ignored by the musicians, as instructed by the orchestra conductor who understood that Beethoven, unable to hear the music actually being played, would only be in sync with the sounds and rhythm inside his brain. When the symphony was completed, Beethoven remained facing the orchestra until the mezzo-soprano soloist, with tears in her eyes, gently tapped the composer’s arm, who only then turned around to receive, accept, and acknowledge the thunderous applause recognizing the magnificent sound that he had created but could not hear.
Today, we are enduring a dark time. Ludwig van Beethoven endured much darkness in his life, but never lost his belief in the transcendent power of music to uplift and unite humankind. Despite current concerns and turmoil, his legacy resounds today inspiring hope, joy, rekindling belief in the possibility of a happy future.