IN DECEMBER 1808 Ludwig van Beethoven amazed Vienna with a four-hour, self-promoted concert. It included premieres of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and of his Fourth Piano Concerto. Shortly afterwards the gruff maestro seemed to have crowned his long search for a stable income with an annuity worth 4,000 florins from Archduke Rudolph of Austria and two other aristocrats. He contemplated marriage and set to work on his next concerto.
Then Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces attacked and occupied the city for the second time in four years. Beethoven, who lived in the line of fire, cowered in his brother’s basement as he tried to protect his already damaged hearing from the din. Worse, his patrons failed to pay up. Distraught and anxious, he wrote of the “destructive, disorderly life” around him, “nothing but drums, cannons and human misery”.
Beethoven was born 250 years ago (his exact birthday is uncertain). Almost from the time he left his native Bonn for Vienna in 1792, setbacks disrupted the keyboard virtuoso’s promising career. Hearing loss struck in 1798, not a quiet slide into silence but an incessant “squealing, buzzing and humming” in the ears. In 1802 he considered suicide, writing that “it was only my art that held me back”.
Yet that art quickly mastered the formal beauty and decorum of Haydn and Mozart before moving into an entirely new realm of innovation and unshackled self-expression. Completed in 1804, his Third Symphony, the “Eroica”, broadcast this leap to a thunderstruck public, alarming some listeners (“strident and bizarre”), transfixing others (“true genius”). By 1810 the Fifth Symphony was being hailed as a landmark in world culture—a gospel of Romantic feeling that “opens up to us the kingdom of the gigantic and the immeasurable”.
Knock him down, and Beethoven would bounce back with another stupendous coup. By 1824 the critic Adolph Marx could write that the composer’s style bore witness to “the struggle of a strong being against an almost overwhelming fate”. It is fitting, then, that the global celebrations of his jubilee have been marked by dismay, resilience and resurrection.
The festivities began before the pandemic struck. Based in Bonn, the BTHVN250 programme scheduled hundreds of events in Germany. Vienna, where Beethoven lived without much affection for 35 years—“From the emperor to the bootblack, all the Viennese are worthless”—forgave the slights to offer exhibitions and concerts galore. In Brazil Marin Alsop, an American conductor, launched her “Global Ode to Joy” project, planned performances of the heaven-storming Ninth Symphony on six continents. Opera houses prepared to raise the curtain on “Fidelio”, Beethoven’s only opera and an evergreen hymn to freedom. “Oh what bliss, to breathe freely in the open air,” sing a chorus of prisoners, in a scene to melt the iciest heart. Then they return to their cells.
This spring, the whole world followed them. Lockdowns forced the anniversary ringmasters to tear up their plans. “Beethoven had to reinvent himself again and again,” notes Malte Boecker, director of BTHVN250. His acolytes followed suit. Events were postponed; performances moved online. Yet “audience numbers grew and grew. It became like a snowball,” says Mr Boecker. The “Beethoven Pastoral Project”, inspired by his bucolic Sixth Symphony, became a virtual network of artists, already reaching a global audience of 30m.
The composer would have winced in recognition. The chronic insecurity faced by musicians today is “very close to the situation in Beethoven’s time”, Mr Boecker notes. War with France raged with little respite from 1792 to 1815; inflation shrank earnings; publishers, promoters and patrons went bust. Laura Tunbridge, professor of music at Oxford and author of a new biography, “Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces”, underlines her subject’s role as “one of the early freelancers”, a hard-nosed jobbing professional.
Lurching between court and market, prosperity and penury, he worked on the cusp between the old musical regime of noble and royal patronage, and the new order of commercial publishing and concert promotion. Between 1809 and 1812 he earned 6,000 florins a year, six times an average civil-service salary. But he ran through it fast and complained that “I have not a farthing left.” His grandest pieces, such as the Ninth Symphony and “Missa Solemnis”, are timeless monuments to genius. They were also properties that Beethoven pitched aggressively (and often simultaneously) to rival publishers. Those two went to Schott and Sons of Mainz for 1,600 florins.
The one and only
He let the snobby Viennese presume the “van” in his Flemish surname denoted noble descent. (It didn’t.) But he despised most aristocrats and, embracing his celebrity status, was not shy about telling them. “Of princes there have been and will be thousands,” he wrote to Prince Lichnowsky, one of his patrons, after a quarrel. “Of Beethovens there is only one.” When he and Goethe encountered Austrian royalty at a Bohemian spa, Goethe doffed his hat and bowed; Beethoven strode on, telling the superstar author, “You did those yonder too much honour.” Like many other children of the Enlightenment, he was filled with hope, then rage, by Napoleon’s ascent from the chaos of post-revolutionary France. Famously and furiously, he scratched out the dedication of the “Eroica” to Napoleon when the Corsican declared himself emperor.
Like America’s Founding Fathers, Beethoven was a republican idealist, not a modern democrat. He once said that he “never believed” in the dictum “Vox populi, vox Dei” (“The people’s voice is the voice of God”). To the ears of posterity, though, Beethoven’s music means heroic liberation and human solidarity. The ominous blows that launch the Fifth Symphony became the Morse-code “V” for victory during the second world war. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth in Berlin as the Wall came down in 1989.
Now, with massed choirs banned on health grounds, such barnstorming showpieces remain unstageable in Europe. In place of the towering icon, an intimate, informal Beethoven has flourished during his plague-hit jubilee year. Ms Tunbridge notes the vogue for small-scale arrangements of his music. Igor Levit, a pianist, has gathered a worldwide audience for concerts streamed from his flat in Berlin.
On December 17th—the date of Beethoven’s baptism in 1770—Daniel Barenboim is due to conduct the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Bonn; BTHVN250 hopes that this flagship concert can go ahead, now as a prelude to delayed commemorations rather than a climax. Suntory Hall in Tokyo still promises several performances of the “Daiku” (Number Nine), which German POWs introduced to Japan in 1918. But as an anniversary anthem in these queasy, isolated times, Mr Boecker recommends not the ecstatic joy of the Ninth but the humbler “Heiliger Dankgesang”—the heartfelt “song of thanksgiving” from a late string quartet, composed during convalescence. Fate has amplified Beethoven’s voice not as a struggler, but as a healer. ■