Monolithic reputations in art – the ones you can’t get around, the ones subject to outrageous exceptionalism and deification – come in several varieties. Sometimes they are profoundly time-release and delayed-action. J. S. Bach, who died in 1750, was an insider’s favorite, his scores the secret weapon of almost all subsequent composers until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when his work exploded into the concert-hall repertoire. Shakespeare was a “pop” playwright in his own time whose work did not find its resonant context until the era of Freud and Modernity, 300 years later. But Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born 250 years ago, was “Da Man” in his own lifetime and forever after: the top dog in the word’s greatest music city (Vienna) and the artist who singlehandedly bridged the Classical and Romantic eras. His reputation and achievement stand outside of era, history and fashion, an island of singular importance.
His was not an easy life. While Romantics generally preferred madness and early and tubercular deaths, Beethoven lived a relatively robust 56 years; but his health issues were precisely tragic, targeting his hearing and terminating his lucrative careers as performer and conductor when he was in his early 40s. His family was famously dysfunctional. His mother’s death truncated his first foray to Vienna, and the care of his siblings and his alcoholic father delayed his return several more years. From that point on, legal orders, custody battles, sibling disputes and long intervals of caring for sick relatives routinely suspended his work and taxed his financial resources. Finally, his class status – commoner – again and again thwarted his romantic ardor in the courts and fine houses where composers and pianists worked and taught. He was a fiery chap to begin with, and this could not have sat well with him. For his pains, we get to enjoy some of the most deeply expressive and longing lowercase-romantic music ever written and felt.
Beethoven’s work is typically broken into three stages. In his earliest period, inspired by Mozart but carrying the explicit imprimatur of Haydn, he mastered and advanced the Viennese Classical style. Mozart, they say, goes “twinkle,” Beethoven goes “TUNNNG.” But his early work is clearly and knowingly Mozartean. Not content to be an heir or even the perfection of a tradition, middle-period Beethoven is associated with the Heroic impulse: the expansive, formal grandeur of art that really, really wants to matter. And of course, that bid worked out pretty well. Every symphonic composer thereafter had to answer directly to Beethoven’s nine in the same way that every rock band answers to the Beatles, even if the answer is no.
Beethoven’s late period is loaded with all kinds of visionary Easter eggs for the future. In his final five piano sonatas and his final five string quartets, he set his harmonic, polyrhythmic and formal borders well off into the future in ways that made more sense to Wagner and Bartók than to the critics and listeners of his own age. His late music is also some of his most emotionally naked and suffering, a unique combination of intellectual and raw.
Beethoven’s early work both honors and trumps his heroes, on their own turf. His middle-period work is some of the most self-consciously historic and important music ever penned. The work of that late period was perhaps designed and timed to detonate in the future mind (listen sometime to the second movement of his final Piano Sonata, No. 32, in which Ludwig invents boogie-woogie more than 200 years ahead of schedule). It all gives the great composer from Bonn the distinction of being of the past, of his age and of the future.
Expect a lot of fireworks in celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020. Here’s your local map of observances and events:
Beethoven’s Eroica at Bard
Saturday/Sunday, Feb. 8/9, 8 p.m./2 p.m.
Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson
To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest composers of all time, Bard’s The Orchestra Now goes heroic with the Eroica, Beethoven’s Third Symphony and the flagship piece of his middle period. Leon Botstein conducts a program that also includes Piano Concerto No. 4 with pianist Anna Polonsky. Ticket prices start at $25.
HVP: Beethoven @ 250
Saturday, Apr. 18, 8 p.m.
Bardavon 1869 Opera House
35 Market St., Poughkeepsie
Hudson Valley Philharmonic music director/conductor Randall Craig Fleischer leads this celebration with the Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Symphony No. 1, Op. 21, C Major; and Piano Concerto No. 4, Op.58, G Major with HVP principal keyboardist Yalin Chi. Ticket prices start at $40, with discounts for members, seniors and new subscribers.
Beethoven’s 250th at SUNY-New Paltz
Saturday, Apr. 18, 7:30 p.m.
Julien J. Studley Theatre, Old Main Building
Celebrate the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth with his major works played by SUNY-New Paltz music students. Performances will include the Sonata In C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight,” 32 Variations in C Minor, Woo 80, and the “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano.
Happy Birthday Beethoven at Carnegie Hall
This season Carnegie Hall celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth with one of the largest explorations of the great composer’s music in our time.