Happy Birthday, Ludwig!
When is B-day actually? It all begins with the fact that we don't know when we should celebrate Beethoven and his anniversary. It is merely recorded that a child called Ludwig van Beethoven (he didn't have any other first names – unlike his classical peer Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart) was baptized on December 17 in Bonn, Germany. Given that newborns received the sacrament of baptism as soon after birth as possible in those days (infant mortality was high, the church blessing was top priority), only December 16 or 17 seem likely dates.
History doesn't always deal delicately with heroes – in Beethoven's case it describes him as being a misanthrope. Snappy, loud, uncontrolled, energized, impatient, snippy, and not easily tolerated by his fellow human beings. Simply "grantig", or grouchy, as they say in good Viennese dialect. Portraits – often created after his death and therefore imaginary – show a face with deep wrinkles, a wild look, tousled hair. As did the actor Gary Oldman in the lavish biopic "Ludwig van B. – Immortal Beloved" from 1994.
This characterization is probably not entirely false, merely exaggerated, Authentic sources include Beethoven's conversation booklets (... because of his deafness ...), plus letters (such as "To the Immortal Beloved", or his "Heiligenstadt Testament", which reflects his contemplation of suicide) and notes made by contemporaries. Some of whom told fibs at the time, like his secretary and then self-appointed biographer, Anton Schindler. He wrote poetry about his hero as he saw fit. Anyone looking for the latest status of research on Beethoven (or a massive coaster for their bedside lamp) is recommended Jan Caeyer's "Beethoven, A Life.", but they'll need a tear-proof carrier bag.
Anyone who looks at Beethoven's score signature will realize that an introverted ditherer does not write like this. Take Eroica: this had to do with Napoleon. Beethoven was once a pretty big fan of this full-on, charismatic egomaniac. And even dedicated his 3rd Symphony to him, the "Eroica". But then Napoleon crowns himself emperor in 1804 and turns himself – quote Beethoven – into a tyrant. The admiration was over. Maestro Beethoven raised his hand in rage and erased the dedication on the cover page – with such force that he actually made a hole in it. The work was subsequently dedicated to Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, in whose Viennese Palais (today's Theater Museum) the world premiere was given.
Eggs and water
Other impulsive actions handed down include throwing eggs and emptying buckets. On the former: Beethoven's housekeeper at the property on Probusgasse (now the Beethoven Museum) had to put up with a lot from her strict master. He sniffed at the eggs in front of the cook to check their freshness and, in a fit of anger, would sometimes hurl them at the hopefully nimble member of staff. Ludwig was also alleged to have been a bit pedantic: there had to be exactly 60 beans for his coffee. They were counted out.
On emptying buckets: Beethoven was probably not someone you wanted living next door – he moved house around 60 times during his life, much to the delight of the liberated neighbors. Those who lived below him could occasionally expect water to drip through the ceiling. Rumor has it that the maestro – hot from all the composing – cooled off quickly by emptying a bucket of water over himself. That probably did the trick ...
In any case: a genius. Cheers!
Whatever Beethoven was really like as a person, what he left behind for us is revolutionary, ingenious, still relevant, inspiring music. Good reason then for us to celebrate his birthday. So raise a glass, stick a fork in the cake – even in times of the pandemic.
Beethoven loved wine and would have raised his glass, too. Unfortunately, the wine in those days was mixed with lead as a means of preserving it. Not a good idea. Given the quantities he consumed, creeping lead poisoning was probably also a cause of his death. An eye-witness report by Beethoven's friend, the director of music Ignaz Seyfried, confirms the chaos-and-boozing theory:
“In his household a truly admirable confusion … books and music supplies scattered in every corner, – over there the leftovers of a small snack, – over here sealed or half-emptied bottles, … “
Hats off to his creations. – Today's superstars feel the same way, too. We interviewed ten of them about Beethoven:
- Billy Joel was inspired by the "Pathétique" to write his song "This Night".
- Rebekka Bakken compares Beethoven's melodies with pop songs.
- Opera star Valentina Naforniţa is deeply impressed by Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, which she has sung here at the Vienna State Opera.
- And tenor Juan Diego Flórez recommends taking a big breath if you don't want to die when singing Beethoven's song "Adelaide".
- Pianist Yuja Wang admires his resistance to rules and conventions. Long live revolutionaries!
- Violinist Joshua Bell admits to having experienced one of his greatest defeats with Beethoven's violin concerto.
- His colleague Julian Rachlin senses a special "Beethoven energy" in Vienna.
- Music jack-of-all-trades Aleksey Igudesman describes Beethoven's music as heavenly and at the same time sarcastic, crazy, embittered, and defiant.
- Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer is fascinated by the opening of the Fifth, these few notes – "Da da da daaa". (Did you recognize them?)
- Music producer Walter Werzowa hears in Beethoven's music the raging drumming in his soul. Boom-boom in staccato.
All ten interviews are available in the original as videos at musik2020.wien.info
And there's a whole bunch more Beethoven content at www.vienna.info/beethoven