Today we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s semiquincentennial. Born 250 years ago, on December 16, 1770, the namesake of this blog, the “mighty thunderer,” was quite possibly the greatest musical genius that ever lived. He changed the course of Western music.
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 the early seventies 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 boxes in red fabric and a little gold label attached to the spine. It was one of my first obsessive efforts in collecting Beethoven. Today I own two complete editions: the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI (Warner Classics) sets, both released this year. I still own five complete symphony sets on LP: Karajan (1963 and 1977), Szell, Klemperer, and Toscanini.
The two works that have stayed with me over all the years I’ve listened to Beethoven, are his masterpiece, the Symphony No.3 “Eroica” in e-flat major, Op.55, and the Piano Sonata No.8 Opus 13, the “Pathetique.” The slow movement of the Eroica (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.” And, of course, the slow movement of the sonata, the adagio cantabile, is arguably Beethoven’s greatest and most beautiful utterance as a composer.
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.
The end of the glorious Beethoven Year 2020! Happy Birthday, Ludwig!