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Great Composers - Beethoven
Weekend Special

Great Composers - Beethoven

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Dominating a period of musical history as no one else before or since, Ludwig van Beethoven’s body of musical composition has been compared with William Shakespeare’s plays at the outer limits of human brilliance. And his phenomenal creative music output with a severe hearing handicap can probably be compared with the stunning artistic achievement of John Milton, who was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost.

An unmatchable music genius who widened the scope of sonata, symphony, concerto and quartet with his innovative compositions, Beethoven blended vocals and instruments in the most wonderful manner-- despite his tragic battle with deafness. In fact, he found it difficult to hear his own compositions during the last 10 years of his life, when some of his most important works were composed.

‘BTHVN2020’

The world is coming together in 2020 to celebrate the 250th birth anniversary of German pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), considered one of the world's most famous classical composers of all time, with his Ninth Symphony on the UNESCO World Heritage List. No wonder, music aficionados will witness a Beethoven crescendo, so to speak, in 2020 when musicians worldwide will celebrate his string quartets, piano works, violin sonatas, songs, and of course, the nine symphonies. With its epicenter in his birthplace, Bonn, the ripples will be felt from New York to Shanghai, from Sao Paulo to Cape Town, in Moscow and throughout Europe. Likewise musicians in Turkey, Iraq and India will be immersed in projects and performances.

Interestingly, cooperative projects across continents are bringing together people who love Beethoven's music, and who share his values of freedom and brotherhood. As the composer put it in Ode to Joy — ‘All men become brothers.’

Symphony No. 9 — Ode to Joy (Excerpt)

While old timers will cherish fond memories of the good times they enjoyed courtesy Beethoven, a new generation of music lovers will get enthralled by some of Beethoven’s best-known compositions : Eroica: Symphony No.3, Symphony No.5, Fur Elise, Symphony No.7, Missa Solemnis, Ode to Joy: Symphony No.9, String Quartet No.14 …

Germany is taking the lead in instituting ‘BTHVN2020’, an umbrella brand to coordinate this jubilee event across the world by way of concerts, exhibitions, operas, ballet and theatre productions or symposia and outreach programmes. The aim is that Beethoven’s music will be performed from a great many different perspectives: from historically informed performances to contemporary cultural activities.

The alphabets in the logo ‘BTHVN2020’ is an acronym for five key aspects or "pillars," of the composer's character: Beethoven as a citizen (‘B’ for Burger or citizen); as a composer (‘T’ for Tonkünstler or composer); a Humanist (H), a Visionary (V) and a Nature-lover (N). The year-long events will correspond to these five pillars in a variety of hues and manifestations.

Some examples: To showcase his life in Bonn, there will be a Beethoven procession, illumination of the city and extension of the house Beethoven was born. His complete works will be presented at the Beethovenfest; and importantly, new music will be commissioned; and jazz, rock, pop and club music will be given a Beethoven twist.

His Humanist side will be projected through 2,500 concerts throughout Germany—along with an exhibition on Music and Politics highlighting the significance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in various cultures in the world.

It is also planned to have a choreography project on the art of dance in ‘Beethoven Moves.’ Another orchestra festival named ‘Ladies versus Beethoven’ at the Stockholm Konserthuset concert hall, is presenting Beethoven's nine symphonies with works by important female composers.

‘A lover of nature and country life, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, known as the Pastoral Symphony, praises creation, and also urges its protection,’ says BTHVN project manager, Elvin Ruic. Thus the Beethoven Jubilee Society, Bonn, has initiated the global ‘Pastoral Project’, in collaboration with the Bonn-based UN Climate Secretariat.

Symphony No 6, 4th movement -

The Goethe Institute, Germany, is broadening the celebration horizon by looking at the celebrated composer's works from a non-European perspective. Beethoven was interested in ‘exotic’ sounds from Asia and the Orient. The Goethe Institutes in India and Istanbul have initiated an "Eastern Variations" project — musicians are playing the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with traditional Indian and Turkish instruments.

Beethoven lived in Bonn for 22 years, and then moved to Vienna for the rest of his life. Both cities plan to pay tributes to Beethoven the composer and Beethoven the man. The Beethoven House in Bonn and Vienna as well as national archives and libraries in Europe and the US are making rare Beethoven autographs and letters accessible to the public. Radio and television stations, including the BBC, Radio France, Arte and Germany's Westdeutscher Rundfunk plan to broadcast audio and video gems from their archives.

A snapshot of prominent orchestras' programs reveals that the Ninth Symphony will be the most frequently performed work in Beethoven's anniversary year. Well-known orchestras in Paris, Chicago, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Vienna, Bonn, Salzburg , Beijing, London and Hamburg have mostly scheduled all nine symphonies; besides piano sonatas as well as his symphonies.

Für Elise -

Another landmark concert that music lovers will be looking forward to is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra & Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, travelling around five continents with ‘All Together,’ a project that will conduct the Ninth Symphony with orchestras in New Zealand, the US, Brazil, England, Austria, Australia and South Africa. Uniquely, in each performance, the final chorus, the Ode to Joy, will be sung in the respective local language. In Sydney, indigenous people will present their traditional music as part of the performance. The series ends with a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in December 2020, with 250 singers from all over the city and guest artists from various genres.

Media reports suggest that ‘the German federal government is funding the anniversary to the tune of €27 million ($33 million), the City of Bonn is contributing €5 million and the Rhein-Sieg-Kreis rural district is adding another €1.5 million.’

Enduring Legacy

Music aficionados talk about the ‘three Bs’ of classical music comprising three stalwarts—Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. The fact that Beethoven was a pivotal figure is evident from the fact that two Voyager probes sent to outer space had a Voyager Golden Record (phonograph record) which features his music, along with the Earth’s sample sounds, languages, images and music.

Beethoven, who composed in several musical genres, had a rich spectrum of compositions for piano – 32 piano sonatas and innumerable shorter pieces; and his works with piano accompaniment included 10 violin sonatas, 5 cello sonatas and a sonata for a French horn, besides writing an appreciable quantity of chamber music, among others.

Beethoven’s genius flowered as he evolved, and which was also influenced by his personal life’s challenges. In what is known as the Early Period of his life, his compositional career was deeply influenced by his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, wherein he explored new avenues. This period witnessed the birth of the first and second symphonies, including the well-known Pathetique sonata, Op.13, the first dozen piano sonatas, the set of string quartets, Op.18, the first two piano concertos…

The onset of deafness and personal tribulations coincided with the Middle Period of his music journey. Termed also as a heroic period, to denote his struggle and heroism, this phase saw the outpouring of six symphonies, five string quartets, several piano sonatas (Moonlight, Waldstein and Appasionata sonatas), the last three piano concertos, the Kreutzer violin sonata and Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio.

Moonlight Sonata, 3rd Movement "Presto Agitato" -

The Late Period witnessed the String Quartet, Op.131 with seven linked movements, and the Ninth Symphony adds choral forces to the orchestra in the last movement—and other compositions such as Missa Solemnis, the last five piano sonatas and the last five string quartets. All of these creations, in a way, represent an intense personal expression with intellectual depth and unique innovations.

It was over 200 years ago that Fur Elise was composed. Ironically the composition was found 40 years after his death. It is unthinkable how a person who had acquired deafness, could transform into one of the most profound composers on this planet. There are stories that while his final masterpiece Ninth Symphony was being premiered Beethoven had to look at the clapping of the audience, as he had by then become deaf. Beethoven underwent considerable suffering in the years leading to his death at 56.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music says of his immortal contribution, ‘Don’t be surprised if his works do not immediately reveal their depths. Beethoven unveils his elemental strength over time, the music growing with one’s own spirit and understanding. He becomes part of one’s joys and tragedies, attaches himself to them; because he was one of us, he was there, he knew and captured it all. One’s journey through his work is the same as the journey of life, at its highest and wisest and most passionate.’

No wonder then, that even after two and a half centuries, the timeless magic of Beethoven, continues to capture the imagination of successive generations.

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Siddharth Kumar holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London, and conducts weekend Classical Piano classes. Siddharth is Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year MNC stint, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music.