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Beethoven: The First Rock Star

Thumbing his nose at authority and whipping crowds into a frenzy, he changed music forever.

Ludwig van Beethoven was often mistaken for a vagrant. With wads of yellow cotton stuffed in his ears, he stomped around 1820s Vienna, flailing his arms, mumbling as he scribbled on scraps of paper. Residents would frequently alert the police. Once, he was tossed in jail when cops refused to believe he was the city’s most famous composer. “You’re a tramp!” they argued. “Beethoven doesn’t look like this.”

The city was crawling with spies—they lurked in taverns, markets, and coffeehouses, looking to suss out anti-aristocratic rebels. Since Beethoven seemed suspect, these spies followed him and eavesdropped on his conversations. But authorities didn’t consider him a real threat. Like the rest of Vienna, they thought he was crazy. It had been nearly 10 years since he wrote his Symphony No. 8, and just as long since he’d last given a public concert. “He is apparently quite incapable of greater accomplishments,” the newspaper Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung concluded.

Little did they know, Beethoven was composing like a man possessed. At his apartment, he stomped out tempos and pounded his piano keys so hard the strings snapped. Sweat-stained manuscripts littered the room. He was so focused, he often forgot to empty the chamber pot under his piano.

The piece would be his grandest yet: Symphony No. 9 in D minor. With it, he planned to give those spies reason to worry—not only would the piece be political, but he intended to play it for the largest audience possible. The music, he hoped, would put the nobility in its place.

Born to a family of Flemish court musicians in 1770, Beethoven had no choice but to take up music. His grandfather was a well-respected music director in Bonn, Germany. His father, Johann, was a not-so-well-respected court singer who gave young Ludwig piano lessons. Some nights, Johann would stagger home from the tavern, barge into Ludwig’s room, and make him practice until dawn. The piano keys were routinely glazed with tears.

A decade earlier, 7-year-old Mozart had toured Europe, playing music for royal courts and generating income for his family. Johann dreamed of a similar course for his son. He lied about Ludwig’s age to make him appear younger, and for a time, even Ludwig didn’t know his real age.

But the Beethovens saw neither fame nor fortune. Johann’s drinking debts were so deep his wife had to sell her clothes. When Ludwig turned 11, his family pulled him from elementary school to focus on music full-time. The truncated education meant he never mastered spelling or simple multiplication.

By the time he was 22, Beethoven’s world had changed. His parents passed away, and he left Bonn for Vienna, where Mozart, the aristocracy’s most cherished entertainer, had recently died too. The nobles were desperate to find his replacement, and Beethoven, who improvised at the piano for royal soirees, quickly became regarded as one of Vienna’s most talented musicians—and Mozart’s heir.

But the more Beethoven hobnobbed with aristocrats, the more he despised them. Musicians were treated like cooks, maids, and shoe shiners—they were merely servants of the court. Even Mozart had to sit with the cooks at dinnertime.

Beethoven refused to be put in his place. He demanded to be seated at the head table with royalty. When other musicians arrived at court wearing wigs and silk stockings, he came in a commoner’s clothes. (Composer Luigi Cherubini said he resembled an “unlicked bear cub.”) He refused to play if he wasn’t in the mood. When other musicians performed, he talked over them. When people talked over him, he exploded and called them “swine.” Once, when his improvisations moved listeners to tears, he chastised them for crying instead of clapping.

Most musicians would have been fired for this behavior, but Beethoven’s talent was too magnetic. “He knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break into loud sobs,” Carl Czerny wrote in Cocks’s Musical Miscellany. So Archduke Rudolph made an exception: Beethoven could ignore court etiquette.

But Beethoven wasn’t alone in his resentment. A few hundred miles to the west, in France, aristocrats were being queued up for the guillotine, and a stiff anti-royalist air was sweeping in toward Vienna. While not a fan of bloodshed, Beethoven supported the Revolution. He loved the free thought it encouraged, and he toyed with the idea of setting music to Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” a call for brotherhood and liberty.

But he never wrote the piece. Harboring revolutionary sentiments left him in a pickle: His career depended on the people he wanted to see uprooted. So he kept quiet. As the decade wore on, Viennese nobility continued to lionize him—he rose to be one of the city’s biggest celebrities. Then his ears began to ring.

It started as a faint whistle. Doctors advised him to fill his ears with almond oil and take cold baths. Nothing worked. By 1800, his ears were buzzing day and night. Beethoven sank into depression, stopped attending social functions, and retreated to the countryside, where loneliness drove him to consider suicide.

Music kept him going. “It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me,” he wrote. At 31, he was known as a virtuoso, not as a composer. But it seemed he had little choice. He snuffed his performing career and dedicated himself to writing.

Artistically, isolation had its benefits. Every morning, he woke at 5:30 a.m. and composed for two hours until breakfast. Then he wandered through meadows, a pencil and notebook in hand, lost in thought. Sketching ideas, he mumbled, waved his arms, sang, and stomped. One time, he made such a ruckus that a yoke of oxen began to stampede. He often forgot to sleep or eat, but did pause to make coffee—counting precisely 60 beans for each cup. He sat in restaurants for hours, scribbling music on napkins, menus, even windows. Distracted, he’d accidentally pay other people’s bills.

He started grumbling more openly about politics. He admired Napoleon and planned on publicly naming his third symphony for the general. It was a daring move: Napoleon was imperial Austria’s enemy. But when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of the French, Beethoven was disgusted. “Now he will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition. He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant,” he wrote, ditching the dedication. In 1809, Napoleon’s troops stormed into Vienna. The booming of his cannons hurt Beethoven’s eardrums so much he retreated to the cellar and buried his head under pillows.

In 1814, Napoleon’s empire collapsed and Austria’s nobility attempted to restore order. Within a few years, Prince Klemens von Metternich had established the world’s first modern police state. The press was banned from publishing without the state’s blessing. The government removed university professors who expounded “harmful doctrines hostile to public order.” Undercover cops infested Vienna. Beethoven’s contempt for power grew.

Although he still had royal patrons, Beethoven had fewer friends in high places. Many were missing or dead, and his ordinary friends were just as unlucky—briefly jailed or censored. Thankfully, Beethoven wrote instrumental music. For years, listeners considered it an inferior, even vulgar, art form compared to song or poetry. But as tyrants returned to power, Romantic thinkers like E.T.A. Hoffmann and Goethe praised instrumental music as a place for solace and truth. “The censor cannot hold anything against musicians,” Franz Grillparzer told Beethoven. “If they only knew what you think about in your music!”

That’s when the composer made the brash decision to return to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Censors in Vienna had banned Schiller’s works in 1783, then reauthorized it 25 years later only after some whitewashing. (The original says, “Beggars will become the brothers of princes.” Beethoven had stronger feelings, writing in his notebook, “Princes are beggars.”) Adding words to a symphony would destroy the safety net of ambiguity that instrumental composers enjoyed, spelling Beethoven’s motives out for all to hear.

On May 7, 1824, Vienna’s Karntnertor Theater was packed. Beethoven had spent months preparing for this moment, corralling nearly 200 musicians and dealing with censors who quibbled over a religious work on the program. They did not, however, complain about Symphony No. 9. No one had heard it yet.

Beethoven took the conductor’s baton, beating time for the start of each movement. The musicians’ eyes were glued to his every move, but in reality, none of them followed his lead. They had been ordered not to. Stone deaf, Beethoven was an unreliable conductor, so a friend actually led the orchestra.

The piece was four movements long and lasted a little more than an hour. The first three movements were purely instrumental; the last contained Schiller’s ode. But when one of the movements finished, the hall exploded with applause. Modern audiences would scold such behavior, but during Beethoven’s lifetime, a public concert was more like a rock show. People spontaneously clapped, cheered, and booed mid-performance.

As the audience hollered for more, Beethoven continued waving his arms, oblivious to the cheering and sea of waving handkerchiefs behind him. The applause was so loud, and lasted for so long, that the police had to yell for silence. When the performance finished, a teary-eyed Beethoven almost fainted.

The Ninth was a hit. But not with the aristocracy, who never showed up. Undeterred, Beethoven kept with tradition and dedicated the Symphony to a royal, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. He sent the King a copy of the score and, in return, the King sent Beethoven a beautiful diamond ring. It appeared to be a gift of gratitude, but when Beethoven took the ring to a jeweler to sell it, the jeweler had bad news: The diamond was fake. Beethoven had clearly pushed some buttons.

The Ninth would be Beethoven’s last, and most famous, symphony. When he died in 1827, some 20,000 people filled the streets for his funeral. Schools were closed. Soldiers were called to ensure order. Five years later, people suggested erecting a Beethoven monument in Bonn. In the 1840s, Bonn celebrated its first “Beethoven Festival.” Salespeople hawked Beethoven neckties, Beethoven cigars, and even Beethoven pants.

All of it was groundbreaking. Never before had a musician garnered so much attention. It indicated a larger cultural sea change: A society that reveres artists and makes them celebrities. In a way, Beethoven was the world’s first rock star.

Beethoven-worship changed the course of art history. Isolated. Autonomous. Rebellious. Sublime. He was Romanticism’s posterboy, and his stature elevated the meaning of artist: No longer a skilled craftsman, like a cook or carpenter, an artist became a person who suffered to express emotions, genius, or—in drippier language—their soul. Beethoven’s success helped cement ideas that now define Western art.

And, of course, his influence on classical music is vast. The bigger, stronger modern piano emerged partly to accommodate his pieces. The first professional orchestras appeared in his wake, many with the goal of preserving his work. He was one of the first musicians to be canonized. Some argue the movement to immortalize his work eventually made classical music turn stale.

Before Beethoven, the works of dead composers were rarely played. But by the 1870s, dead composers owned the concert hall. They still do today. Aaron Copland would complain that “musical art, as we hear it in our day, suffers if anything from an overdose of masterworks.” John Cage bemoaned that “[Beethoven’s] influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.” Indeed, attending a classical music concert can be like visiting a museum.

It’s often forgotten that the piece that secured Beethoven’s status as an icon and reshaped the course of classical music was, at its heart, a powerful work of politics. In concentration camps during World War II, prisoners took solace in Beethoven’s message of freedom. In one heartbreaking tale, a children’s choir rehearsed “Ode to Joy” in Auschwitz’s latrines. It’s been sung at every Olympic Games since 1956. When the Berlin Wall fell, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth with musicians from both sides of the divide. Today, it’s the national anthem of the European Union, and the message remains relevant. The same problems that plagued Vienna nearly 200 years ago—war, inequality, censorship, surveillance—have not disappeared. Perhaps it’s naive to believe that “all men will become brothers,” as the piece proclaims. But Beethoven, who never heard his own symphony, didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it for others. It’s our job to not only hear his message, but also to truly listen.

(YouTube link)

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The above article by Lucas Reilly is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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