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Beethoven Dead at 250

By Leigh M. Wilson, Contributing Opinion Writer
Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

The event planners had everything ready. Nearly the entire guest list had RSVP'd, from big names to friends-of-friends. A few celebrated early in the evening, but then someone very unwelcome came, many started feeling ill, and just like that, Beethoven’s 250th birthday party was ruined.

2020 marked the year 250 A.B. (Anno Beethoveni), and the classical music world had extensive programming slated to celebrate. Nearly every orchestra — amateur and professional — had plans for a special emphasis on Beethoven’s music — symphony cycles, recording projects, or simply more Beethoven than usual; that is, until a global pandemic shuttered these plans.

Some have bemoaned the postponement, and are diligently planning rain dates to properly fete our German muse. But before any grand return to performances, orchestras should take a hard look at their programming, to realize Beethoven is the last composer that needs any extra olive wreaths.

On his 250th birthday, we find Beethoven dead. Do we resuscitate him?

Ludwig van Beethoven, born on December 16, 1770, is classical music’s patron saint. In a field as subjective as music, Beethoven seems to go undisputed as the best composer to ever live. Though he started in Mozart’s shadow, Beethoven’s grander visions and injections of wide-ranging emotion into his work redefined art-music and ushered in a new era — that of the Romantics. His most celebrated works include 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, five piano concertos, a violin concerto, and of course, nine symphonies. A full-time orchestra like the Boston Symphony wouldn’t dream of a season without several pieces in addition to their annual Tanglewood performance of his Ninth Symphony at the end of their summer season.

His music is well-known by even the most casual classical music listener, and his name and figure are pervasive. In Boston alone, his name seems to be in every major music venue. It’s front and center on the proscenium of Harvard’s Paine Hall, flanked by the names of subordinate composers. It’s rumored that when Boston Symphony Hall made plans for a similar display, Beethoven’s name was the only one the committee members could agree upon, so his name stands alone. New England Conservatory is home to an eight-foot-tall bronze statue holding a score of his Ninth.

So, the opportunity to celebrate a quarter millenium of Beethoven was no small matter.

But the pandemic swiftly silenced orchestras around the globe. For the first time, Beethoven’s voice went hoarse as performances across the world (including at Harvard) were canceled en masse. A performance of the Ninth Symphony, his magnum opus, a work whose large orchestra, choir, and vocal soloists celebrate humanity in all its glory, would ironically be just the thing to spread death and disease. We are living in the music world’s nightmare: a Beethoven-less Beethoven anniversary.

Realistically, we will, in fact, resuscitate Beethoven. As soon as choirs are able to practice without a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notice, chronic performances of every Beethoven symphony and concerto are all but certain. The “Ode to Joy,” our soundtrack of choice for humanity’s unity, will likely peal across the world; the year without Beethoven will probably be a brief pause in our continuous veneration.

We are nonetheless presented with an interesting opportunity. In 2020, we suited up to do what classical music does best: celebrate the already-celebrated. While criticism of Beethoven and calls for his deposition are nothing new, it’s worth noting that we’ve taken the first step of weaning ourselves from his custody. We have the opportunity to take a step back, and reevaluate our relationship with Beethoven. His music is exceptionally important for its historical value, but in terms of aesthetics, he is by no means the greatest composer for orchestra. If Beethoven were truly the pinnacle, we would have stopped writing music upon his death in 1827. Thankfully, we did not.

Was it really wise for orchestras to be spending millions on producing yet another CD set of his complete symphonies? Do we really need to spend more advertising dollars promoting the most performed composer of all-time? No. There is great music out there without a commercial recording to do it justice. Making recordings of unrecorded or under-recorded music, new or old, is every orchestra’s responsibility.

With classical music in such decline, especially in America, we desperately need to try something new. More Beethoven is just more of the same. If anything, doubling down on these old ways would only enervate listeners. As some experienced with Leonard Bernstein’s 100 birthday in 2018, too much of a very specific style of music can founder one’s enthusiasm. The novelty of a musical work is so often what makes the concert experience valuable.

Instead, by putting resources into celebrating other anniversaries, like the birthdays of living composers or the anniversaries of other milestone works, we might expand classical music’s influence in today’s culture. In just the next five years, we have the 100th birthdays of a trio of pioneering avant-garde composers György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, and Pierre Boulez, the 200th birthday of Romantic giant Anton Bruckner, the 300th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The energy we could divert from playing Beethoven’s Ninth over and over again to smaller celebrations of these other musical giants has the potential to bring different music to new people, something classical music desperately needs as the industry struggles to generate new followers. Variety, not uniformity, in programming will accomplish this.

Beethoven already enjoys our constant adulation. To be frank, we dodged a bullet this year, as we were risking exhausting ourselves and overspending on wasteful commemoration that wouldn’t further classical music’s cause. Beethoven, we’ll talk again on your 300th.

Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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