Happy Birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven!

Sometime this week, probably today, is the 250th birthday of one of the world’s greatest composers, Ludwig van Beethoven. (I say probably today because there is no record of his birth. All we know for sure is that Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and the tradition back then was to baptize babies the day after they were born.)

Happy birthday, Ludwig!

A lifetime ago, I had tickets for concerts on consecutive nights to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The pair of concerts was advertised as “The Beethoven Experience: A Most Remarkable Night, Part 1 and Part 2.” Two nights of Beethoven. I was so looking forward to it.

Then came along this little thing called a pandemic, and the concerts, scheduled for March 13 and 14, were cancelled. The VSO generously played part of their planned repertoire on March 15 to an empty auditorium and I listened to the live stream online.

It wasn’t the same.

Fast forward to October when I bought a subscription to the VSO’s digital 2020–2021 season. I’ve listened to the concerts when they are posted, and they are delightful. But, alas, also not the same as being there in person.

Who knew I’d miss live music this much?

The glass mural in the above photo is a facsimile of Beethoven’s original score for the chorale Ode to Joy. The mural is on the façade of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s School of Music, located next door to the Orpheum, the VSO’s concert hall.

Knowing I was going to be writing this post, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that chorale. It’s from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (and last) Symphony. Set to words by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, it is probably one of the best-known anthems in the world.

Ode to Joy is all emotion and power. In 1973, Chilean women sang a Spanish version of Ode to Joy while marching in the streets outside Augusto Pinochet’s prisons to let the prisoners inside know they were not alone. In 1989, the students at Tiananmen Square played the chorale over loudspeakers to drown out the speeches by the Chinese Communist Party. And on Christmas Day of that same year, six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an orchestra and choir made up of both East and West Germans.

It’s too early to say where 2020 will fall in the annals of history, but I think we can all agree that it has been life-changing for everyone living through it. And so I think it’s a happy coincidence that of all the composers we might be celebrating this year, it is Beethoven.

For one, Beethoven lived in turbulent times. So many revolutions. The American one and the French one. Also the Industrial Revolution. And then there was that little man, Napoleon Bonaparte, wreaking havoc across the European continent. The arts reflected the changing times as musicians (including Beethoven), writers, and artists all began to move away from creative works that emphasized elegance and order, hallmarks of the Classical period, to ones that evoked the full range of human emotion, a characteristic of the Romantic period.

For another, Beethoven is the embodiment of the tortured artist. Look up any picture of him — his hair is wildly unkempt and there’s always a scowl on his face. Much of this is likely conjecture, but we do know that Beethoven had a difficult life. He was in his late twenties when he first started having hearing problems. Only a decade later, he had lost the ability to hear speech and music. Although he was able to hear low tones and loud noises until his death at the age of 56, his hearing impairment affected him greatly both professionally and personally.

But back to that chorale. Here’s a line from the lyrics by Schiller: Alle Menschen warden Brüder.

“All people will be brothers. “

If there’s anything we learned this year, it’s that humanity can rally together in times of crisis. That’s particularly evident this week as, defying all expectations, vaccinations to protect against Covid-19 are starting to roll out a mere 11 months after the virus was first identified.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to hear those concerts I missed out on last March, but you can be sure that as soon as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is allowed to perform for the public again, I will be in the audience. Most likely weeping with joy.

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