Beethoven at work on his Missa Solemnis, in an 1820 portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler.

In Brief | Beethoven is both foundational for orchestras and the great orchestral game changer—an iconoclast who became an icon. He’s been studied, documented, put on the silver screen, fictionalized, turned into a trope and a meme. His 250th birthday in 2020 will unleash a torrent of Beethoven mania at orchestras across the U.S. But does Beethoven—despite his place in the Pantheon—remain “universal” in the 21st century?
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Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of modulations
driven time and again off course of his theme, while he developed
and plumbed the depths of the symphonic form… 

[with apologies to Homer] 

The epic myth of the scowling, hot-tempered, iconoclastic Ludwig van Beethoven, who this year would have turned 250, continues to loom over the classical arena and its programs. His epic is recited to patrons nightly in the concert hall, namely through his nine most celebrated tales: The Symphonies. Beethoven made strides in every form he put his hand to—notably the piano sonata and the string quartet—but it is, then as now, the symphony that he lifted to the Heavens. 

Let’s begin with the Beethoven Basics, with a focus on how he revolutionized the Symphony. Ludwig van Beethoven’s (~1770–1827) early achievements found him transforming and transcending 18th-century models, which is to say extending the Viennese Classical tradition inherited from Haydn and Mozart. Whereas those two gentlemen wrote piles of symphonies, Beethoven wrote only nine (the first eight written in a span of thirteen years), united in their individuality, and thereafter nine became a loaded number for any symphonist in his wake, from Schubert to Mahler, if they even managed to crawl out from under his shadow to pen their first. (Brahms, the greatest of orchestrators, miserably pondering his plunge into the form: “You have no idea how it makes me feel to hear the footsteps of a giant such as Beethoven marching behind me.”) As Beethoven’s style grew more and more personal, his work grew increasingly profound; he composed many of his masterworks, including Symphony No. 9, at the end of his life. 

Orchestras across the country are planning all manner of Beethoven celebrations, cycles, and traversals that run reactionary to radical. 

The rise of the Beethoven Symphony contributed to and paralleled the rise of the Artist and the rise of Individuality via originality and invention. To wit, Beethoven infected Classical form with Romantic diversion and side trips—famously in the Fifth, where a bursting, outsized Development muscles Theme off the stage, eschewing form for content. His approach contaminated Classical music to the point where we see the genre through Romantic-colored glasses. Beethoven’s radical approach to composition ushered in a new “Symphonic Ideal” that expanded the range of music itself in the form of a goal-directed framework, interrelated movements, and overarching narratives. His symphonies, generally unencumbered by programmatic concerns, freed him from any direction other than where his own vision took him. And while Beethoven eventually rejected Napoleonic imperialism (most famously in Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica”), he subscribed to that conqueror’s notion of self-made greatness. The composer’s slow churn between the cheerful Eighth and the joyful Ninth yielded expression of high philosophy, spirituality, and ideology. His (successful) journey of exploration and personal expression led to his stature as the dominant classical composer of the 19th—and perhaps the 20th? and the 21st?—century.  

While the luster of popular music fades with subsequent hearings, a masterwork only gains in brilliance. Yet a masterwork achieves its greatness not through rote repetition but because of a richness of craft and substance that permits it to be viewed from so many angles that a fresh interpretation is always within the realm of possibility. 

Beethoven and Cultural Specificity 

The interpretative possibilities for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 will be tested in February, when the San Diego Symphony performs composer/conductor Steve Hackman’s Beethoven V. Coldplay (premiered in 2015), “transforming [the] Eroica Symphony into an oratorio, weaving the melodies and lyrics of Coldplay into the original Beethoven and pairing them together based on context,” per the press release. If this seems a bold idea, orchestras across the country are planning all manner of Beethoven celebrations, cycles, and traversals that run reactionary to radical. Carnegie Hall will offer two (2) [ii] cycles of Beethoven symphonies, one on period instruments (Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique), and one for conventional modern orchestra (Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia Orchestra). And that’s just the tip of the Beethoven iceberg for those navigating the concertizing waters this year.  

Beethoven’s radical approach to composition ushered in a new “Symphonic Ideal” that expanded the range of music itself. 

So, given his everlasting influence and dominance and legacy, what will this chockablock Beethoven season across the country yield? In any given year, Beethoven and Mozart already vie for most-performed composer worldwide, so what will an assured #1 ATP ranking in the 2019–20 season do for the street rep of Ludwig on the hardcourts of the USA? Will he score winners beyond the concert hall? Will his music find market penetration beyond the rich, the white, and the established? Does he have a shot at Drake/Rihanna numbers on YouTube? Will a performance of the Ninth at the Kennedy Center this season pierce a congressman’s heart and move him to take action on immigration reform? 

These questions are rhetorical but point toward an actual one being raised at American orchestras about cultural specificity. In the United States of America, per the 2010 U.S. Census, 64 percent of the population self-identified as Non-Hispanic White—meaning that nearly 40% of the population identifies as another race. How, some cultural critics ask, do we justify organizations receiving disproportionate funding for celebrating Western European high-culture art with mostly all-white orchestras, conducted by mostly all-white conductors overseen by mostly all-white orchestral board members performing the works of mostly all-white (and mostly all-dead!) European composers? Beethoven is, for better or worse, the poster boy for the Classical Establishment.  

In “Are Orchestras Culturally Specific?,” a roundtable conversation published in the Winter 2018 edition of Symphony, Chris Jenkins, associate dean for academic support at Oberlin Conservatory, posed the question: “I’m wondering what this field will look like if in 50 to 100 years a classical music fan can be someone who says that they like Julius Eastman and William Grant Still and David Baker [all black composers], and they don’t like Beethoven that much—but that’s okay. What if that can be the paradigm of a classical music fan? That is what actual diversity looks like.” In the discussion, Alex Laing, principal clarinet at the Phoenix Symphony, stated: “In performance at the Phoenix Symphony, I’m the only black person on the stage, one of the handful of black people in a room…. What I heard Chris saying was an imagined future whereby other groups could be affirmed culturally, if you’re not white, within this art form and its presentation. The displacement of Beethoven Chris is talking about isn’t necessarily a clapback or some sort of reparative act. It’s people just feeling that Beethoven doesn’t resonate with them in the same way as this other music that they’re getting this other thing out of.” 

Beyond Beethoven 

I came here to praise Beethoven, not to bury him. He has withstood the test of time like few others. There is always something to be gleaned from his symphonies; seek them out and hear them live performed by an American orchestra near you. But be assured there is no shortage of Beethoven symphonies to be heard in a non-anniversary year. And there are so very many voices, dead and living, to hear. Let’s ask Toni Morrison, America’s own recently departed Homer, to close. Here, in an excerpt from a 1981 interview with The New Republic, Morrison responds to a suggestion from writer and critic Thomas LeClair that white readers will not be able to understand a certain scene in her novel Sula: 

There is a level of appreciation that might be available only to people who understand the context of the language. The analogy that occurs to me is jazz: it is open on the one hand and both complicated and inaccessible on the other. I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you.

Morrison acknowledges the potential barrier to entry in her language (and to jazz!) while asserting the impossibility of creating a universal message without specificity, owning that she is writing the particularity and specificity of an African-American existence, which is the only one she knows. 

My fellow Americans, step out of your comfort zone and seek out the voices and stories of those who don’t look or talk like you. Reach out, empathize, and discover the universal in their very particular stories: in Homer’s The Odyssey, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Preludes, in Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, in Melville’s Moby-Dick, in Björk’s Homogenic, in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, in Joni Mitchell’s Blue, in Berg’s Wozzeck, in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, in Scott Joplin’s “Solace,” in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, in Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet, in Bright Sheng’s The Nightingale and The Rose, and in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Genius knows neither color nor genre. Freude is universal.   

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Symphony magazine. 

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