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Friday, September 20, 2019

After 250 years: why do we still find Beethoven so irresistible? | Classical music -

The composer’s music and faith in humanity still inspire us 250 years on from his birth, says Ivan Hewett

“Roll over, Beethoven,” sang Chuck Berry, in one of those periodic rebellions against the cult of Beethoven that sometimes sweeps over the culture, says Ivan Hewett, Classical Music Critic.

Photo: Alamy
Well, Beethoven refused to roll over. His position at the very top of the ranks of immortal geniuses is as secure as ever. 

Next year is the 250th anniversary of his birth and already the music industry is gearing up to celebrate. The Barbican is first off the block, with its Beethoven 250 season starting on Sunday. At venues around the country there are plans to perform all the symphonies, quartets and sonatas, as well as uncovering the lesser-known corners. The major record companies are planning blockbuster releases of all the works, and BBC Radio 3 has a year-long series entitled Beethoven Unleashed.

What is it about Beethoven that has such a hold over us? First and foremost it is the music, of course. It ventures to extremes in a revolutionary way that his contemporaries found shocking and which can still stun us today with its sheer force. The ear-splitting dissonant trumpet-call that tears into the last movement of Ninth Symphony (Wagner called it a schrekensfanfare, a “shrieking fanfare”) is one example. The driving percussive beginning of the Waldstein piano sonata is another.

Yet his music also glows with radiant humanity. Beethoven wrote some of the most sublimely calm music ever composed, in the Pastoral Symphony, and some of the most pitilessly concentrated and fierce, in his so-called Quartetto Serioso...

All this means that Beethoven has provided an ideal symbol for all those thinkers and agitators of a later age who were impatient of brute reality and wanted to transcend it. And because he expressed himself in notes rather than words, he could be an inspiration to ideologues of every stripe. The anarchist Bakunin declared that he would happily throw the whole of bourgeois culture on the fire, apart from the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. French Republicans were inspired by the universalism of his message, the idea that (as the Ode to Joy says) “all men will be brothers”. One of them actually described the Ode to Joy as “the Marseillaise of all Mankind” – but naturally German nationalists claimed him too. Bismarck declared of the Ninth Symphony that “if I were to hear that music often I would become very brave”, and was himself described by the great conductor Hans von Bülow as the “Beethoven of German politics”.