Celebrating Beethoven

by Leon Botstein

Written for Beyond Beethoven, which will be performed on January 31, 2020 at Carnegie Hall.

Our habit of marking anniversaries in our culture of concert programming has to inspire some ambivalence. Mathematical symmetries in chronology are superstitions. If we want to exploit them to attract the attention of the audience, we ought to celebrate composers who need remembering, those whom we have forgotten but should not have, or those in the process of being forgotten unfairly.

We certainly need no reminding about Beethoven. One can hardly think of a figure in Western music who has so completely and consistently eluded obscurity, both in his lifetime and after. Even Bach and Mozart had their brush with oblivion. Luckily there was a Mozart revival at the end of the 19th century, an inspired antidote to the unrelentingly heavy diet of post-Wagnerian romanticism. And there were two significant Bach revivals, a hundred years apart, first in German-speaking Europe in the late 1820s, and then after World War I in Paris. But Beethoven’s presence in the repertory and history of music has never ceased to be overwhelming. It is said that his funeral in 1827 was the largest public event in Vienna’s history. Were he to be reburied, that event might again break the record for public gatherings.

The essential meaninglessness of marking anniversaries should, therefore, properly be reserved for those for whom it might do some good. Anniversaries can provide neglected figures from the past some overdue attention. That happens to be the case for Galina Ustvolskaya, whose hundredth birthday the ASO is marking with a rare performance of her piano concerto. Ustvolskaya (1919–2006) was a remarkable iconoclast. Her music is strikingly original and gripping in its use of sound. We need to stop remembering her, if at all, in the context of her teacher Dimitri Shostakovich, towards whom Ustvolskaya had decidedly ambivalent feelings. Ustvolskaya produced a wide range of works but ended up condemning most of them to oblivion. Of the handful of works Ustvolskaya agreed to sanction, the piano concerto is among the earliest. One hundred years after her birth, here is a composer who is original and compelling and whose music should be played and heard.

We ought to be marking the anniversaries of more Ustvolskaya and fewer Beethovens, even though there are precious few in his league in terms of historical influence. Although music of Beethoven needs no further exposure— except perhaps for the lesser works, many of which are shockingly bad (in contrast to the so called “minor” works of Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, which are all startlingly well made). We did not want to be left out of the party this year. So the ASO has decided to look into Beethoven’s impact and legacy in the first hundred years of posthumous fame.

In the decades that immediately followed Beethoven’s death, his music and the legend of his life and personality gained enormous international currency among musicians and the rapidly growing audience for music of amateurs and listeners. The recognition of Beethoven’s centrality was audible already in the work of his younger contemporaries, Schubert and Spohr. The generation of composers born in the early nineteenth century—including Mendelssohn and Schumann—went further and saw him as a titan whose shadow they could not escape. Despite the burden of being heirs to Beethoven’s achievement, they sought to honor him by emulating his own artistic example and making their own distinct mark. That sense of having Beethoven standing closely over one’s shoulders was shared as well by Brahms.

Two of Mendelssohn and Schumann’s contemporaries, Berlioz and Liszt, led their own campaigns to establish Beethoven as the starting point of a new musical culture in the contemporary world. Berlioz pioneered in creating a pivotal place for Beethoven in French musical life. He succeeded. The high point of the French enthusiasm for Beethoven was marked by the publication in 1904 of the monumental novel, transparently drawn from the life of Beethoven, Jean Christophe, by Romain Rolland, which earned the author the Nobel Prize in 1915. And Liszt’s tireless championing of Beethoven, through piano transcriptions of the symphonies and festivals he organized led directly to the transformative re-imagining of Beethoven by Richard Wagner, his future son-in-law. Wagner’s writings on Beethoven as musical dramatist would dominate Beethoven interpretation and reception between 1870 and 1945.

By the turn of the twentieth century Beethoven was firmly established in European and American culture as the ideal synthesis of the romantic and the classical, as the master of instrumental music that conveyed intense emotion and profound meaning, and as the embodiment of the artist as free spirit and rebel against authority and convention—the quintessential artist as outsider and prophet. The founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Henry Lee Higginson (who died a hundred years ago) was inspired to create a symphony orchestra in 1881 because he was a Beethoven fanatic. The first great comprehensive (and still standard) biography of Beethoven was written in the 1860s and 1870s by an American, Alexander Wheelock Thayer.

At the same time, the 19th century cult of Beethoven, precisely because it was so wide and deep not only among musicians and connoisseurs, but in popular culture, fueled German national pride and cultural chauvinism. Gustav Mahler and Max Reger—two of the leading composers in German-speaking Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century had no doubt that Beethoven was a central figure in a uniquely German cultural achievement. Beethoven, at one and the same time, became appropriated on behalf of universalist ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, as well as on behalf of ideas of German superiority. Beethoven’s music was therefore central to Nazi cultural policy during the Third Reich. The 9th Symphony, the best-known example of Beethoven as proponent of universalist humanistic ideals, was performed to celebrate Hitler’s birthday during the war years at the same time as the opening bars of the 5th Symphony were being used as an emblem of Allied victory.

In 2020 musical organizations all over the world will mark and exploit the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. But to what end? Leonard Bernstein performed the 9th Symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin War and the end of communism and the Soviet empire. That was in 1989. Where are we today? Was the conceit that Beethoven represented the triumph of human solidarity and freedom over tyranny justified? Now that we are facing the rise of illiberalism and autocracy all over the world, rising economic inequality, and witnessing the spread of intolerance and violence, in the name of what cause do we perform and listen to Beethoven? What is the purpose of doing so? And what will we do, and why, in seven years when we confront the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s death?

There are no neat answers. But the good news is that Beethoven’s music has resisted all efforts to harness it to tyranny and inhumanity. His achievement is a tribute to the resilience of the human imagination and the power of individuals, through the aesthetic dimension, to resist and sustain freedom, originality, courage, and the sanctity of all human life. Beethoven needs to be celebrated as an experience of what may still be possible within the human community; his is a language of aspiration and hope. That is how the composers who came after him on this program understood him: as an exemplar of greatness who communicated the best of humanity through a sacred medium, music. In celebrating Beethoven through performance this year we must remember that in performing his music, and music inspired by his work, there is more at stake than embracing music as an experience divorced from the human condition.