Happy Birthday Ludwig Van!
by David Royko
(Warning: I end up devolving pretty quickly into being a real pedantic ass with this one. And if you are already a serious Beethoven nut, there will be nothing new here anyway. So either way, you’ve been warned.)
By coincidence, I probably will listen to some Beethoven today, but that’s because I am deep into a great bio of the dude (by Jan Swafford), and frequently stop reading to listen to a piece the author is writing about if it seems like I might gain a bit of insight, or a lot of insight.
That’s Beethoven for you -- after decades of being the ultimate God in my personal musical pantheon, and having listened many, many, many times to all of his masterpieces and most of the rest, there’s always more insight to be gained. His genius was bottomless, topless and sideless.
But I won’t be tuning in to any celebrations on the radio or online. He’s not somebody I want to run into casually, via whatever piece somebody else has chosen for that moment. Vivaldi? Sure. Beethoven? Hell no.
Blame Dad. And Mom. They were both Beethoven-bonkers (and I knew that if Dad thought something was great, it usually was). As I wrote in a piece about Dad and music for an online publication a decade or so ago (I keep it on my website if you give a hoot: <https://www.davidroyko.com/mikeroykoclassicalmusic.htm>):
“When Dad [Mike Royko] referred explicitly to Classical music in his column, it usually was humorous, like admitting he’d love to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, chorus and soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but only if he could be hoisted up in the air and use all of his limbs. That word-picture was hilarious.
But his true feelings for the Ninth were anything but. He adored it. It was almost sacred to him (almost, because he was an atheist), as were the rest of Beethoven’s great symphonies.
Nobody ranked above Beethoven in Dad's personal pantheon. Not Shakespeare. Not even Algren. I’ve been told by old friends of his that, when he was a young reporter on the night shift and a Beethoven symphony was scheduled to air on WFMT, Dad would go to a room with a radio, shut the door, and disappear until it was over.
By the mid 1970s, I was a progressive rock nut (Gentle Giant, Yes, Genesis, ELP, King Crimson), and while I ‘respected’ classical music, I hadn't paid much attention to it. On my 17th birthday, Mom and I were at the local grocery store where a rack of Funk and Wagnall's ‘Family Library of Great Music’ LPs was on display, and the first one in the series was only 69 cents, Beethoven's Pastoral symphony. I asked my mother if it was any good, and she said it was one of her favorites. Within a week I loved it, and that Christmas, Dad gave me the newly-issued box of Solti and the Chicago Symphony’s Beethoven Symphony cycle. My next birthday, Dad gave me Toscanini’s RCA Beethoven Symphonies set, knowing it would be a great contrast to Solti’s. Dad was not a casual listener, and differences between interpretations were a big deal to him. His all-time favorite Seventh was Mengelberg’s live 1940 Concertgebouw recording.”
So my own Beethoven-love began 44 years and 188 days ago. But that’s nothing.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about a woman, Betty Hinchliff, who had a deep background in music, like rubbing shoulders with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. (And that one’s also on my website: <http://juggling-autism-the-chronicles-of-ben-royko.com/2018/10/24/berkshires-bernstein-and-betty-in-1940>)
In one of our conversations about music, she paused, looked at me and said:
“You know, after all these years, and all of the music I’ve known and loved [and played], I’ve come to a conclusion: It’s Beethoven.”
Betty was 103.
And the funny thing is, even though we’re all celebrating him turning 250 today (and he doesn’t look a day over 56), Beethoven didn’t know how old he was for most of his life. It wasn’t unusual for stage moms and dads in those pre-child labor law days to lie about their kids’ age and shave off a year or three to make their amazing little prodigies seem even more amazing.
And Beethoven WAS an amazing prodigy. Long before becoming known as a composer, he was a big deal as a pianist. Most of his earlier works were dazzling showpieces he’d pull out while on an out-of-town trek, or for some prince or duke or count, or when other piano superstars would come through Bonn and wanted to throw down with one of the best around.
Many of those pieces are in the theme-and-variations category, often simply written-down versions of stuff he’d make up on the spot in those piano duels or command performances -- because that was another of his famous fortes. He was like the Art Tatum of his era, a guy who applied his dazzling technique to an extraordinary gift for improvisation. This aspect of his genius was a big part of what made him unsurpassed as a composer. Many of his greatest works feature theme-and-variations more brilliant, and more profound, than anybody had ever heard back then -- and really, ever since. His last piano sonata, Op. 111, is a work that leaves our temporal plane and ascends, in it’s theme-and-variations second movement, into another sphere, another world. Yeah, it sounds like hyperbole. It isn’t. At all. In that way, Art Tatum can’t touch him. Nobody can.
And as always happens with Beethoven, I meant to write a short paragraph along the lines of, “He was awesome!” Because really, who needs more blather about Beethoven today, right? Oh well. And I was going to link to some piece or another from YouTube to display his awesomeness.
But as I was thinking about what piece to pick, and driving myself a little nuts, I realized, that would be asinine, no better than the radio programmer picking this or that for me to hear. It just doesn’t work with Beethoven. His range, his depth, the variety of ways his inexplicable genius exploded out his brain -- no one piece can come close to summing him up, to showing why we still care about him, a quarter-millennium after he was born. And unless it’s being listened to with full attention, and more than once, it might be nice, even really, really nice, but Beethoven’s a heck of a lot more than really, really, even super-duper-really nice.
So if you want to celebrate his 250th, and you aren’t already a Beethoven nut, I strongly recommend spending some serious time over the next year with a handful of his greatest works, and then party your musical brains out for his 251st.
Try his middle-period Op. 59, #3 string quartet, and only after that’s been absorbed (with many hearings), start to fathom his late quartet, Op. 131.
Or learn his popular middle period piano sonata, Op.53 (“Waldstein”). Then begin a lifetime with #32, Op. 111.
Or maybe the best place to start are with his symphonies. I’d recommend absorbing his 7th. Nobody has ever written a symphony as great or greater. Except him. (But I could say the same about his piano sonatas and string quartets.) And after that, there’s the 9th.
I know, all this has basically been me saying, like some boring and stuffy old professor you (and I) couldn’t stand, “Take this seriously!” But there’s the crap in life we have to “Take seriously,” like earning a living or dental hygiene or the maladies of growing old.
This is the other kind. The kind of “seriously” taken for joy and pleasure and the nourishment of your soul. The kind for which you will be forever grateful. The kind that makes life worth living.
And I can make that a promise. Because it is Beethoven. He never fails. And he never will.
December 16, 2020