Ludwig van Beethoven, by Joseph Karl Stieler, from 1819–20
The musical world this season celebrates the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. During the last big party, for the 1970 bicentennial, Leonard Bernstein declared, “It’s almost like celebrating the birthday of music itself.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra ambitiously leads the festivities with performances of the concertos and nine symphonies. The month-long BeethovenNOW symphony cycle, consisting of four consecutive programs beginning on March 12, honors the composer’s revolutionary originality by placing his symphonies in dialogue with world premieres of pieces by contemporary composers, thereby promoting equality and diversity by featuring voices of today. This approach honors the innovations that Beethoven made in his age as we encounter new works from our own time. Affirming that “Beethoven’s music was groundbreaking, original, and provocative,” Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducts the complete symphonies, believes that “To celebrate his legacy in 2020, we must pay attention to the voices of today through music that sheds a light on contemporary struggles and aspirations.”
The featured composers—Gabriela Lena Frank, Iman Habibi, Jessica Hunt, and Carlos Simon—were chosen by Frank, the Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. The other three are alums of her Creative Academy of Music. They were commissioned to write pieces to complement the Beethoven symphonies with which they are being paired. Frank is perhaps uniquely qualified for this as she is also hearing impaired—born partially deaf but with perfect pitch—and has a personal relation to Beethoven’s physical struggles. She observes that “he passionately decried the forces of intolerance at play in his own lifetime, and he coded both his dismay and ardent optimism in music. … I set out to create an environment where emerging composers from a vast array of styles can come together for mentorship, readings of works in progress, and world premiere performances from master musicians. While forming new friendships, diversity has proven to be both abundant and authentic as we embrace all contemporary voices to best honor the voices of the past.”
Manuscript of the title page of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony with the crossed-out dedication to Napoleon.
From the start of his career in the 1790s, Beethoven continually challenged audiences’ expectations, and his symphonies particularly changed the musical landscape forever. Haydn, his teacher, composed over a hundred symphonies and Mozart, his idol, some 50, but Beethoven, no slacker, wrote just nine. This gives an indication of his ambition and accomplishment in the face of a changing musical world; few significant composers in his wake surpassed the magic number nine. Haydn had written most of his symphonies for the private pleasure of his employer, the fabulously wealthy Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Mozart composed dozens of modest ones early in his career, beginning at age eight, few of which are performed today.
When Beethoven began to tackle the genre of the symphony, it was expected that he would continue in this illustrious Classical tradition. But he surprised performers and listeners alike, beginning with the “wrong key” opening chords of his Symphony No. 1. It is fitting that he premiered the work in 1800, at the dawn of a new century, on a concert featuring music by just two other composers: Haydn and Mozart. The 29-year-old Beethoven was inviting comparisons. His contemporaries soon realized that he was transforming the genre. Beethoven’s symphonic legacy eventually cast an imposing shadow that composers had to contend with for the rest of the century—and beyond. Johannes Brahms, for example, long delayed completing one; when he finally did, it was quickly labeled “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Some composers avoided writing symphonies entirely or called them by other names. In certain respects, Richard Wagner, who never wrote a mature symphony, transferred Beethoven’s compositional devices to his own symphonically conceived operas.
Beethoven’s unveiling in 1805 of his Symphony No. 3, the mighty “Eroica,” proved momentous. Critics consistently pointed to what they considered the extreme length and difficulty of this “Heroic” Symphony. Some praised its “originality,” while others found much of it “bizarre.” Within a few years, however, the piece was embraced, especially by musicians. Although the “Eroica” was unusually demanding for players and audiences alike, a critic remarked that “one must not always wish only to be entertained”: to appreciate such music required thought and study as that heightens the “spiritual enjoyment.”
Max Klinger’s statue of Beethoven, depicting the composer as an Olympic deity and first exhibited at the Vienna Secession’s 1902 Beethoven Exhibit.
One reason Beethoven wrote many fewer symphonies than earlier masters was that the Romantics placed such a premium on originality. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s BeethovenNOW concerts offer the symphonies not chronologically but in groups that highlight some of his pivotal advances. Beethoven was constantly expected to do new things, not to copy other composers or himself. He composed some of his symphonies in pairs, and premiered or performed them together, such as the Fifth and Sixth, and the Seventh and Eighth. These unidentical twins showed different sides of his musical personality and of the man himself, of his character, struggles, and beliefs.
It is with Beethoven and the emergence of Romanticism that music became perceived as far more subjective. Listeners sensed a heightened degree of self-expression and became ever more interested in the lives of composers. Few people had cared about the biography of earlier figures like Bach and Haydn, but intense fascination with artistic genius escalated in the 19th century. Many of Beethoven’s contemporaries were aware of his struggles with deafness and of his eccentric personality. The famous “Heiligentstadt Testament”—an unsent letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers in 1802 in which he revealed his hearing loss and the implications for his career and life, going so far as to contemplate suicide—was published in journals across Europe within months of his death in 1827 at age 56.
It is not just that some of Beethoven’s symphonies seem to relate to his life, for example his struggles with fate in the famous Fifth or his love of nature in the Sixth (“Pastoral”), but also that his music engaged so powerfully with life, culture, and politics more broadly. The “Eroica” was inspired by the heroic figure of Napoleon (although Beethoven grew disillusioned and suppressed his dedication). The Seventh Symphony captured the celebratory mood in Europe during the Congress of Vienna and the use of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the final movement of the Ninth resonated with the spirit of the Enlightenment.
Beethoven’s funeral on March 29, 1827, in Vienna. It was reported that some 20,000 people attended.
The originality and subjectivity of Beethoven’s symphonies also elicit efforts at grasping their “meaning.” Earlier symphonic music was primarily intended as entertainment and was “beautiful.” Beethoven’s symphonies, through their vastness and difficulty, often explore the realm of the “sublime.” The challenges of his music prompt listeners to ask what it all means. The “Eroica” and “Pastoral” have programmatic titles that align them both to an earlier tradition of the “characteristic symphony” and foreshadow the rise of program music with such composers as Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s recourse to the human voice in the Ninth Symphony was another innovation that had overwhelming impact. But even in his more abstract symphonies, listeners are frequently compelled to ask why the music unfolds in a particular manner. Beethoven consistently demanded something more of himself, of players, and of audiences encountering his music.
After composing eight symphonies in the first dozen years of the century, Beethoven’s productivity greatly diminished and he did not write another for more than a decade, when he brought forth his monumental Ninth. Its premiere in 1824 was a signal event in music history and few compositions have exerted a greater influence on later generations. Although some critics felt the Ninth and other music from Beethoven’s last years evidenced a sad decline in a once-great artist now afflicted with severe health problems, eventually these late works were recognized as among his greatest.
The legacy of Beethoven’s nine symphonies is extraordinary in the history of Western music. They were largely responsible for the newly elevated status of instrumental music, in contrast to the earlier dominance of vocal genres. Composers after Beethoven struggled with the dilemma of where to go from where he had left off; they often claimed legitimacy by casting themselves as his rightful heirs. His compositional legacy, presented here in dialogue with new music of our own time, makes his 250th anniversary an occasion to celebrate.
Christopher H. Gibbs, James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College, has been program annotator of The Philadelphia Orchestra since 2000. His books include The Life of Schubert, The Cambridge Companion to Schubert, and The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition, co-authored with Richard Taruskin.