Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

Classical's first 'indie artist': Five reasons why Ludwig van Beethoven is as relevant today as ever

It is 250 years since the birth of the German composer and pianist, and he might just have been the original 'tortured artist'

German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven, captured in an etching made circa 1805. Getty
German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven, captured in an etching made circa 1805. Getty

This year, we celebrate the birth of a musical legend.

It has been 250 years since German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven entered this world, and to mark the occasion, concerts are being held locally, regionally and internationally.

One of the last major concerts in the UAE, before Covid-19 struck, was an awe-inspiring performance of Beethoven’s majestic Symphony No 9, as part of Abu Dhabi Classics in February.

During the pandemic, isolated orchestras, quartets and soloists all took to the internet to perform rallying versions of compositions such as Ode to Joy, Symphony No 7 and String Quartet No 15 in A Minor.

And now that live music is slowly returning – albeit in modified forms – to Europe and the region, Beethoven’s work is once again being used as a soundtrack for our road to recovery.

This was highlighted by two concerts held on Sunday, July 5 in various historical settings. In Lebanon, the Baalbeck International Festival hosted a special performance from the foot of the Temple of Bacchus, where the Lebanese Symphony Orchestra played Symphony No 9.

In the Paestum archaeological site in southern Italy, meanwhile, nine musicians from Europe’s Syrian diaspora joined the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra to perform Symphony No 3 under the baton of maestro Riccardo Muti.

Ronald Perlwitz, head of the music programme for the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi. Supplied by Ronald Perlwitz
Ronald Perlwitz, head of the music programme for the Department of Culture and Tourism. Ronald Perlwitz

There is no denying there is much love and respect for the composer, who died in 1827. But what is it about Beethoven that allows him to command such reverence 250 years on from his birth?

It’s a question The National poses to Ronald Perlwitz, head of the music programme for the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.

“You have to understand that with Beethoven, we are not simply talking about music,” he says.

“Normally, when we talk about an important composer it is often in relation to the way he changed music. Beethoven not only did that, but he went deeper and provided us with a new understanding on how to approach art, the commercialising of art and the philosophy of art. His influence was immense because he was many things.”

1. He was classical music’s first indie artist

Before Beethoven, music was essentially made to order.

A rich benefactor would typically commission a particular piece, provide a brief and the artist would then complete the assignment to make ends meet.

“This is where Beethoven and Mozart were different,” Perlwitz says.

“Both composers were around in the same era and they knew the system. Mozart had no problem working within that system and doing revolutionary things with the music, while Beethoven simply hated it.

“While he also produced some works that way, Beethoven always wanted to get out of the system. His plan was to eventually become an independent artist and compose for the sake of art.”

To achieve creative control, Beethoven created what can essentially be described as his own production company. Supported by benefactors and business associates, he would build finances by crafting hits for that era, in order to be comfortable enough to create his own work.

“It was like a start-up business for composers,” Perlwitz says. “He would write a piece, say Symphony No 1, and that piece would become popular. Then he would teach that piece to rich and powerful students from the aristocracy. It was like a cycle until he became really famous and, with that, found creative freedom.”

2. He knew his worth

But in that journey, every penny counted, and even Beethoven was fighting the scrounge of piracy in the 18th century. Back then, it came in the form of the unauthorised duplication of music sheets.

As a fledgling composer, he knew this was an existential threat.

“While the idea of copyright was around, Beethoven was really the first to enforce it and fight for his rights,” Perlwitz says. “He officially catalogued all his work and made sure editors would pay for each composition.”

Having classes packed with rich students, strong music sheet sales and commissioned works, Beethoven went on to achieve that rare feat of financial independence.

3. He was a conceptual artist

More money meant more questions, particularly the deep and probing notion of “what am I trying to say as an artist?”

It is a query that dogged Beethoven throughout the creation of all his works. He couldn't help it, because he was taught that way.

“He grew up in a time of this philosophy called ‘bildungsmusik’. It’s a German word that means both education and the knowledge you have,” Perwitz says.

“In essence, it is about creating music that was in line with what he learnt from his great teachers and then building upon that by adding his own vision and touch.”

With transmission of knowledge an essential tenant of bildungsmusik, Perlwitz adds, Beethoven’s music needed to be successful.

“It was not about being abstract. It was about the more difficult task of writing music that can please many people, but at the same time be ideas-driven,” he says.

An example of that approach is Beethoven’s popular Symphony No 6. More than simply its elegiac and warm strings, what made this piece an enduring success is its deep humanistic themes.

“Beethoven was known to walk around parks in Austria with a little book and would write down things he saw and things that inspired him,” Perlwitz says. “This piece could have come from those walks. It sounds very pastoral because he is exploring this idea of how nature influences man. What does it trigger in humans? The music here is an expression of that idea.”

4. He was a tough boss

Beethoven was both a perfectionist and self-aware. Those qualities made him a celebrity, particularly in Austria, and an absolute terror to work with.

“It’s not like today where orchestra members view themselves as serious musicians. In Beethoven’s time, the players thought of what they did as similar to craftsmen: they got paid for a service that just happens to be music,” says Perlwitz.

History is full of examples of Beethoven’s outbursts at such a lack of commitment. Rehearsals for his momentous Symphony No 9 – a composition hailed as the first to include a chorus and soloist in such a format – was full of shouting matches between Beethoven and the vocalists.

“He was extremely demanding and he wrote pieces that were just as challenging,” Perlwitz says. “There is this great story that the singers, who had a tough time with the piece, said ‘Beethoven, we can’t sing this. The notes are too high. This is too complicated’. And Beethoven snapped back: ‘That’s because you’re used to singing Italian opera. This is more serious. This is German’.”

5. He always had something to say

Gary Oldman’s tortured portrayal of Beethoven in the 1994 biopic Immortal Beloved suggests the composer’s anguish was down to his impending deafness.

Perlwitz says there is more to it than that. His trademark intensity was down to a core belief that life should have meaning.

“This is why music was so existential to him,” Perlwitz says. “He always wanted to tell you something important.”

And Beethoven's grandest message remains his final Symphony No 9, a towering piece he composed while almost deaf. It had its premiere in Vienna in 1824, three years before his death at the age of 56.

“The first three movements have Beethoven grabbing you for attention. His music tells you the world is full of horrors and is full of pain before asking, ‘How do we react to this pain and how do we adapt to the challenges of life?’” Perlwitz says.

“Then the fourth movement arrives and he answers that question by stating it is achieved through brotherhood. That’s how happiness is found.”

Updated: July 9, 2020 03:28 PM

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