-by Harvey Wasserman
Beethoven’s 250th birthday (December 16th) has sparked a global eruption of relief and joy.
Amidst the ghastly demise of our deranged Caligula, the adulation for Ludwig edges into outright worship.
And rightly so. Each of Beethoven’s nine symphonies is a major masterpiece. His concertos, sonatas, overtures, rondos, quartets, and more are nearly all uniquely immense.
The fugues he wrote at the end of his life are complex, demanding, indecipherable … either centuries ahead of their time, or channeled-- Jimi Hendrix style-- from some other planet.
A humanist to his core, Beethoven thrilled to the original ideals of the French Revolution. He dedicated his Earth-shattering third symphony to Napoleon as their bearer, but angrily renamed it after Bonaparte declared himself “Emperor.” Beethoven’s one opera (Fidelio) is an ode to feminist empowerment that exalts a daring woman who defeats a brutal tyrant. His sixth (Pastoral) symphony remains perhaps the greatest musical tribute to the glories of Nature. His grand masterpiece, the 9th Symphony, with its massive choral uprising and spine-chilling finale, is played with fervor and passion in virtually every country on Earth.
No bigger corner of the musical universe exists beyond that occupied by this relentless revolutionary wonder born in Bonn in 1770.
Some inconvenient truths are missing from many of the biographical works that worship him. But they explain much.
Beethoven lost his beloved mother and younger sister at an early age. His angry, alcoholic father was an obscure court musician whose thwarted ambitions drove him mad. Often (while drunk) he mercilessly worked his boy through the night and beyond exhaustion.
From such cruelty, a virtuoso emerged with a somehow unbroken spirit. By seven, Ludwig was performing in public. In his teens, while supporting his two younger brothers, he began to compose. By his twenties, in Vienna-- the center of Europe’s musical universe-- he became a rock star pianist, especially when playing his own music. To match his power, he hounded piano makers to strengthen and deepen the instrument, transforming it forever.
By then, he may or may not have met Mozart (a well-known painting of the two of them together may be whimsical). But the other titan of his time, Franz Josef Haydn, became his mentor.
Ludwig also taught, frequently falling in love with his much younger students. He wrote some of them seductive pieces (including the Moonlight Sonata). But his love life stayed barren.
Far worse was his health. At 28, he began enduring the unthinkable-- the loss of his hearing. It may have started with his father’s early beatings. But lead has been found in a lock of his preserved hair, possibly from the wine he drank or the pencil tips he licked while writing his music.
By age 45 (he died in 1827, at 56), Beethoven lived mostly in social isolation … and internal silence. He did consider suicide. But fully aware of his transcendent talents, he never doubted a destiny he refused to abandon.
Much writing about Beethoven mourns his deafness and wonders how much greater he might’ve been without it. But in fact, it may have enhanced his genius. Entering that silent, solitary tunnel, Beethoven had a third of a century to apply his vast powers without social or aural distraction.
If one believes in such things, one might say that Karma, or The Fates, or some Higher Power forced this prodigal genius under the intense training of his father’s wrath, put him immediately in the public eye, made him labor as a teen, introduced him to great composers at the vortex of a musical revolution … and then stripped him utterly bare, to do nothing but transcribe undistracted the purest music the Universe could pour through him.
What’s revealed, then, is the core of the man … and of Humanity itself.
The existential spirit still emerging from this relentless lifetime of physical and emotional torment is a primal voice so pure it testifies to the tangible existence of the human soul. Its musical output proceeds through Hell itself without a hint of self-pity or complaint, each epic leap ending with a defiant, transformative aria of optimism and hope.
Never one for false modesty, Beethoven announced his personal revolution amidst the onset of his deafness with the shocking first notes of the Eroica symphony (his third), which he retrieved from Napoleon.
Like a comet, he then headed for two decades … through a voluminous burst of creative genius… straight to the Ninth Symphony, the transcendent pan-tribal chant whose global adoration unifies our species like no other single piece of art.
As we stagger out of the unspeakable Trump’s viral Hell (and as Saturn and Jupiter retreat from their Karmic collision), we desperately seek such common ground.
A quarter-millennium after Beethoven’s birth, we grasp at anything that might prove the worth of our species.
We celebrate the astonishing output from his lifetime of torment, the Hell of his deafness, the glory he made of it, culminating in-- OF ALL THINGS!-- an hour-long mantra called Ode to Joy.
Even today, in the darkest of times, we strive as a species to somehow match his undying belief in the essential goodness of our collective soul.