Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.
–Ludwig van Beethoven
Two hundred fifty years ago today, Ludwig van Beethoven was likely born.
We don’t know if this is his actual birthdate. All we can surmise is that he was likely born on this date because he is known, by church records, to have been baptized on December 17, 1770, and it was common practice in his time for infants to be baptized the day after their birth.
I’m not done with Beethoven yet, not by a longshot! I’ll be celebrating his life and music for the rest of this month, right up until December 31. But for now, here are some things that others have written about him.
Harold Schonberg, from his book THE LIVES OF THE GREAT COMPOSERS:
The difference between Beethoven and all other musicians before him–aside from things like genius and unparalleled force–was that Beethoven looked upon himself as an artist. Where Mozart moved in the periphery of the aristocratic world, anxiously knocking but never really admitted, Beethoven, who was only fourteen years Mozart’s junior, kicked open the doors, stormed in, and made himself at home. He was an artist, a creator, and as such superior in his own mind to kings and nobles.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven”:
Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain.
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs a-sprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like the scullions in the fairy-tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds; oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spell-bound under the aging sun.
Music my rampart, and my only one.
Beethoven had decidedly revolutionary notions about society, and Romantic notions about music. “What is in my heart must come out and so I write it down,” he told his pupil Carl Czarny. Mozart would never have said a thing like this, nor Haydn, nor Bach. The word “artist” never occurs in Mozart’s letters. He and the composers before him were skilled craftsmen who supplied a commodity, and the notion of art or writing for posterity did not enter into their thinking. But Beethoven’s letters and observations are full of words like “art”, “artist”, and “artistry”. He was of a special breed and he knew it. He also knew that he was writing for eternity. And he had what poor Mozart lacked–a powerful personality that awed all who came in contact with him. “Never have I met an artist of such spiritual concentration and intensity,” Goethe wrote, “such vitality and great-heartedness. I can well understand how hard he must find it to adapt to the world and its ways.” Little did Goethe understand Beethoven. With Beethoven, it was not a matter of adapting himself to the world and its ways. As with Wagner later on, it was a matter of the world adapting its ways to him.
Jan Swafford, from THE VINTAGE GUIDE TO CLASSICAL MUSIC:
Above the proscenium in Boston’s Symphony Hall, one name rests in a marble medallion, presiding over the music like a resident demigod: Beethoven. In many concert halls around the world that design is repeated in one form or another. The reason for this single-minded iconography is that most of these halls were built in the nineteenth century, when Beethoven was the unquestioned sovereign of composers, seeming to epitomize all music. Common opinion in this century has inherited that attitude.
It would be possible to describe absolutely everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.
[In Beethoven’s music] the dreamer will recognize his dreams, the sailor his storms, and the wolf his forests.
In the life of an artist thunderclaps sometimes follow each other in quick succession as in great storms, when the clouds, charged with electricity, seem to bounce lightning around and blow up a hurricane.
I had just had a double vision of Shakespeare and Weber, when immediately on another point of the horizon I saw the immense figure of Beethoven arise. The shock I received was almost comparable to that from Shakespeare. He opened up a new world in music, just as the poet had unveiled to me a new universe in poetry.
Leonard Bernstein in THE JOY OF MUSIC:
Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But that is all mere dust–nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard. When really did it–as in the Funeral March of the Eroica–he produced an entity that always seems to me to have been previously written in Heaven, and then merely dictated to him. Not that the dictation was easily achieved. We know what agonies he paid for listening to the divine orders. But the reward is great. There is a special space carved out in the cosmos into which this movement just fits, predetermined and perfect…Form is only an empty word, a shell, without this gift of inevitability; a composer can write a string of perfectly molded sonata-allegro movements, with every rule obeyed, and still suffer from bad form. Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. Rightness–that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen in that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms–leave them to the Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.
Here is what might well be the most famous piece of classical music ever written. Try and listen to it anew, if you can: not just to the thundering opening that is almost a cliche now, but to the varying moods of the slow movement, and the scintillating way the scherzo builds into the soaring chords that dispel the clouds and return us from the land of C-minor to that of C-major. There’s a reason that the Fifth Symphony is one of classical music’s foundational stones. If Beethoven had written nothing else in his life but this symphony, his place would be ensured.
Thankfully, he wrote so much more than this.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven! Your music endures, and thus, so do you.