A peal of thunder was heard when German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, above, died in his Vienna home on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56.
A lot of his music will be heard throughout this year as cities around the world are organising concerts and events to celebrate the 250th birth anniversary of this master born in Bonn on December 16, 1770.
Why are Beethoven’s compositions still a hit among people exposed to different genres of Western music evolved since then?
No composer has influenced Western classical music the way Beethoven did. Mozart and Joseph Haydn too made a deep impact. But people found in Beethoven something more — a tormented artiste striving to touch the divine with his music despite his frailties as a human being.
Many may find his music unfathomable but the choral movement, ‘Ode to Joy’ in his Ninth Symphony praising universal brotherhood is eminently hummable. Beethoven aimed at perfection and sublimity and avoided lighter music that war-weary people of Vienna were yearning for.
While Beethoven is known for his nine symphonies, musicologists regard his piano sonatas, string quartets and violin and cello sonatas as path-breaking compositions that defied Vienna’s conventions.
Musicologist Donald Tovey described the second movement of the last Piano Sonata as “an infinite variety of quivering ornament” while Nobel-winning German novelist Romain Rolland, who had written a biography on Beethoven, compared it to a frozen lake with its timeless quality bringing to his mind the impassive smile of Lord Buddha.
At the other extreme, a contemporary critic called the Second Symphony a wounded monster writhing in pain and refusing to die.
Beethoven is a master of surprise who can throw an audience off balance by making his music roar like a waterfall and then murmur like a brook. It may be a reflection of the composer’s inner rage, rapid mood swings or rare sense of humour.
Beethoven neither married nor had any children although he was desperately in love with a married noble woman, Josephine von Brunswick. His growing deafness, which he first felt at 27, isolated him and stopped him from performing in public at 41.
Beethoven never heard several of his compositions and he even thought of suicide in a letter to his brothers Kaspar Anton Karl and Nikolaus Johann in 1802.
He loved Kaspar and Johann and took care of them ever since their mother died and father, a singer, took to drinking. When Kaspar died, Beethoven took care of his son Karl after a custody battle with his sister-in-law.
Beethoven regarded music as a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. For him, it was a glorious wine to make mankind spiritually drunken.
He loved nature and used to wander Austria’s countryside enjoying the meadows, rocky cliffs, wooden paths and rivers. These walks inspired his pastoral Symphony No 6. The symphony’s ‘Scene by the brook’ was composed with a deep feeling enhanced by the subdued play of violin and cellos.
Symphony 3 was initially dedicated to the French revolutionary, Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven admired for his Republican ideals. The composer was planning a concert tour to France after the symphony’s premier in Vienna.
But Beethoven’s admiration for Bonaparte turned to disgust when the Corsican declared himself as French emperor in 1804.
He cancelled the French tour and dedicated the ‘Eroica’ symphony to his royal patron Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz with a sub-title ‘Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.’ The original title was ‘A grand symphony dedicated to Bonaparte.’
Eroica is an epic journey Napoleonic in spirit with a sweeping orchestral music. In it, Beethoven composed a Funeral March although Napoleon died much later in 1821. For him, the French revolutionary ‘died’ when he became the dictator in 1804.
Some musicologists see Eroica as partly a self-portrait of Beethoven in pursuit of pure happiness and ways to change the world while defying his growing deafness.
As celebrations begin, one has to salute the genius who elevated music to an ethereal level despite his sufferings.