The man that was born on this date in the year of our Lord 1770, the namesake of this blog, Ludwig van Beethoven, the “mighty thunderer,” quite possibly the greatest musical genius that ever lived, changed the course of Western music. Today marks the start of the Beethoven Year 2020 when we will celebrate the master’s semiquincentennial. 250 years ago, next December 16, 2020.
Beethoven’s music has meant so much to me and has been such a part of my life for over half a century. My earliest (and strangest) Beethoven memory relates to a party my parents had when I was a young man of 14 or 15. The guests brought over all manner of LPs to listen to on our old Grundig console. One of the guests, and I cannot fathom why, brought the old pink RCA Victrola set of the complete Beethoven symphonies conducted by Toscanini, as his musical selection. A very odd choice for a party. That bizarre mental image has never left me and just underscores that the power of Beethoven’s music is such that someone thought it a good idea to bring to a party!
The very first time I heard the famous 5th symphony was a recording by the under-appreciated and under-recorded Erich Kleiber conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It’s been reissued on CD and is highly recommended. To my young mind, Erich Kleiber’s Fifth was, and still is half a century later, a thunderbolt. (As is the Fifth recorded by his also under-recorded son Carlos for DG.) I had never heard anything like it. That record started me on my life-long love affair with Beethoven.
In 1972 or 1973, I started collecting the Time-Life Beethoven Bicentennial Collection. This was the Deutsche Grammophon complete edition issued in 1970, reissued on (crappy) American pressings. I had several of the box sets. I discovered the piano sonatas and string quartets with these sets. I also had a couple of the original German pressings with the cover in red fabric and a little gold label that was attached to the spine. One of my first obsessive efforts in collecting Beethoven.
The work that has stayed with me, however, over all the years I’ve listened to Beethoven, is his masterpiece, the Symphony No.3 “Eroica” in e-flat major, Op.55. The slow movement, the “marcia funebre,” always make me well up with tears. On the masthead of this blog is a photo of the original score where Beethoven, in a fit of pique, violently scratched out his dedication to the pre-imperial Napoleon of his political fantasies, and instead dedicated it to the “memory of a great man.”
There is very little I can write about his music except to urge you listen to as much of it as you can: The late piano sonatas, the ethereal late string quartets, the Missa Solemnis, his incredible piano trios, and, of course, the symphonies. All of them.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig!