The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of one of Western music’s greatest composers, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The following article is the first in a series of four articles exploring the life and music of this universally acclaimed musical genius.
Literature, both historical and fictional, is crowded with heroes, but in the world of music there stands but one figure universally known for his “heroic style” of composition — Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven today is regarded as one of the great established composers of classical music, and his works are standard repertoire for orchestras and soloists alike. But in his day, he achieved notoriety not as a stodgy pillar of the establishment but as a revolutionary, pressing the boundaries of commonly accepted musical form.
The “heroic style” represented one way that Beethoven exploded traditional conventions in his music. His “heroic” compositions, the fruit of his middle age, are identified with the period from 1802 to 1812. And the tumultuous energy and emotion of many of these works are suggestive of heroic figures —an identification that Beethoven himself sometimes made explicit. His “Egmont Overture” commemorated the Flemish patriot the Count of Egmont. His only opera, “Fidelio,” celebrated the bravery of its heroine, Leonore, who rescues her husband from unjust imprisonment.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony was originally dedicated to another onetime hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, then serving as first consul of the French Republic. But heroes could disappoint. When Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France, Beethoven reportedly flew into a rage and tore the tyrant’s name from the title page of the manuscript. The work was published as simply the “Heroic Symphony.”
But for centuries now, audiences have known that the real hero of these musical stories is Beethoven himself. Beginning in 1798, Beethoven suffered from hearing loss that progressed to total deafness. The distress this condition caused first drove him to despair, then a renewed commitment to his art. Amazingly, some of his most famous works were composed when Beethoven had lost the sense of sound. At the premiere of his Ninth “Choral” Symphony. which features the astonishing “Ode to Joy,” the composer had to be turned to face his audience and behold its rapturous applause. It was the feat of a musical superhero.
You can experience Beethoven’s heroism in an upcoming celebration of his birthday on the East Central University campus. “Beethoven at 250!” will mark two and a half centuries of the composer with performances by faculty and students. Among the music performed will be pieces from his “heroic” period, including selections from the Fifth Symphony and the “Egmont Overture.”
“Beethoven at 250!” will stride on stage at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in Ataloa Theatre in the Hallie Brown Ford Fine Arts Center on the East Central University Campus. The event is free and open to the public. Beethoven expects you to be there.
Houston Mount is an associate professor of history at East Central University.