2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. All over the world, and especially in Germany and Austria, huge plans were made for momentous performances of that esteemed composer’s works as well as other commemorative events this year. Then the coronavirus pandemic turned everything upside down, and events had to be cancelled, postponed, or reimagined in virtual form. Though digital performances are enjoyable and many concerts are being rescheduled for 2021 or even 2022, devotees of the quintessential musical revolutionary still may naturally feel disappointment at the unfortunate stroke of fate that has posthumously fallen upon a man so inimically assailed by Fate in life.
Well, for those who lament, this is my response: Beethoven was not just a revolutionary in music. He was brazenly political, despising the smugness of the aristocracy and rejecting the system of patronage that had sustained his teacher Joseph Haydn and pretty much all of his contemporaries, for whom music was primarily a means for bread. He avidly followed the French Revolution until Napoleon, at first a promising insurgent, declared himself Emperor and effectively a tyrant fashioning fetters anew. Increasing deafness sent Beethoven into deep despair that might have ended his life, if not for his deep-felt conviction that he still had music to write for the world – powerful music, music that broke aristocrat-defined boundaries and that insisted upon paradigm-shattering meaning – a philosophy of living as striving, as fighting for life – and liberation.
I’m currently learning Beethoven’s last piano sonata, which consists of two movements of very different character: as my piano teacher described to me, the first is an anthem upon “No!”, and the second is a surrender into death, which would come to the composer just a few years after writing this work. It just happens that my teacher was learning the sonata as a college student herself when the 9/11 attacks happened; she has a flashbulb memory of practicing the resolutely militant first movement while watching the TV to follow the tragic course of events. I am learning it during a time of multilayered crisis, of protests unsettling old orders, of instability stirring up newfound spirit and vigor for profound, visionary change.
Some things we cling upon romantically, foolishly, precariously must be destroyed – must be pushed against incessantly, aggressively, uncompromisingly even when the powers that be – and the complacency of the not as individually powerful but still materially and socially privileged – seem so intransigently to fortify the castle of capitalism that from its very design was foundationally rotten. Some strands of our narratives of self and society must sizzle and die, feeding the ashes from which new verdant tapestries will weave and grow.
There will be grief, there will be growing pains, and there will be greatness yet unrealized in this new story of human that we forge from the flames. In these times of retreat is our moment to imagine, to break free, to create – for we are all composers of life, inscribing meaning to motive and enacting symphonies in the epic of our personal battles and of the heroic fight for freedom, justice, and compassion in our ailing world.
So, lieber Beethoven, mein Kämpfer, happy 250th anniversary. Your life is not forgotten; your fight is not in vain. I shall fight in your memory, shall speak and write and compose and act and live boldly as you did, shall summon up the German Geist and strive fearlessly for my ideals – shall be an artist and activist for the people and among the people in solidarity, integrity, and moral clarity.
Lieber Beethoven, the revolution that you foretold in your music is starting to become.
- Beethoven: man, composer, and revolutionary
- Beethoven Revolution
- Undeterred by coronavirus, the Beethoven anniversary gets another year
- Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas (the first in a series of six Coursera courses by Curtis Institute of Music professor Jonathan Biss explaining the music and historical context of the 32 piano sonatas Beethoven wrote as an adult)
- The Society for Ethnomusicology’s Music and Social Justice Resources Project
- “Coronavirus Capitalism”: Naomi Klein’s Case for Transformative Change Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
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