By Courtney Suciu
In his early life, Ludwig van Beethoven didn’t set out to be a great composer. Originally, he was devoted to studying music and performance. This made him a master of technique and gave him a profound understanding of the deep connection and joy that only music can inspire.
While he became a renowned teacher and was sought by talented musicians and prestigious families, Beethoven also possessed a rebellious streak and despised authority and the hierarchies of social class.
Ironic then, that as a composer, his legacy is integral to a form of music often associated with elitism. Classical music has long been unjustly stereotyped as music that can only be enjoyed by the aged, wealthy or highly educated.
But contemporary composers, performers, music students and researchers continue looking to Beethoven for many of the same reasons his own pupils did: to study his mastery of technique, but also to have a part in his extraordinary experimental, transcendental musical vision.
Through interviews with contemporary classical luminaries, the documentary What Would Beethoven Do?1 dispels many of the faulty assumptions associated with the genre.
The film features award-winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin, conductor Sonia Marie De León de Vega and composers Eric Whitacre and Dinuk Wijeratne among many others who defy what radio host Rich Capparela describes as the stereotypical classical music aficionado: “You had to be at least 100 years old, you have to have a degree in musicology and you had to have a stick up your butt.”
Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra acknowledges, “There are people who think classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think: you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Through his work with young students, Zander sees hope that classical music can be reinvigorated in ways which can appeal to a wider, more diverse audience and bring people closer together. He says, “we have lost the joy, the energy, the excitement of connection, and I’ve dedicated my life to awakening that in people,” by training the next generation of classical performers.
Meanwhile, musicians like Charith Premawardhana are committed to making classical music more accessible to a variety of people by bringing it into non-traditional, less formal spaces. He is the founder of Classical Revolution, a chamber music organization with chapters across the U.S. that facilitate performances by local musicians in venues like coffee shops and bookstores.
These casual settings are welcoming to artists and audiences who might not have access to fancy halls and theaters, including younger people. Premawardhana’s goal is to “instill in people’s minds that this is vital music, and young, energetic musicians are playing it.”
While the case can clearly be made that classical music studies are still relevant to contemporary students, performers and audiences, can the same be said about Beethoven in particular?
This query is at the heart of Mark Whale’s article “How Universal is Beethoven?: Music, Culture, and Democracy.”2 Whale points out, “in today's multi-cultural classrooms, educators and students question the relevance of western art music,” and he wonders if it is possible to take an apolitical approach to music education for students from diverse backgrounds.
One way to study music is by examining it simply as the product of a culture, according to Whale, but from this approach, a piece of music becomes tethered to a specific history or people and may seem to belong only to those educated in that history, or who are part of that culture.
This approach is likely at the root of the elitism often associated with the genre. To focus on music exclusively as a cultural product is “prejudiced and closed to growth,” which is the antithesis of education, argues Whale.
Rather, he writes, “Education is about growth – the tending of natural growth,” and the complexity and emotional intensity of Beethoven’s compositions transcend cultural limitation to encourage “[participation] in a kind of musical self-awareness” for students – and audiences.
Whale concedes that “Beethoven’s [Ninth] Symphony is a product of a particular time and place – a particular culture – but I also believe it invites its participants to take part in a process which exceeds time, place, and culture.”
This process, Whale argues, can help music students be more attentive to their own growth, “a process which lies at the heart of what it means to be human.”
In other words, in focusing on the visceral, blood-and-guts emotional dimension of Beethoven’s body of work, his music belongs to all of humanity.
Whale isn’t alone in his perceptions of Beethoven’s widespread relevance.
“Beethoven’s music has been seen almost universally as a celebration of human worth and independence, symbolizing freedom and dignity,” writes Jeremy Yudkin in the introduction of the book The New Beethoven: Evolution, Analysis, Interpretation3, a collection of essays by contemporary Beethoven scholars.
Witness the performances of the Ninth Symphony at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the singing of the “Ode to Joy” as a symbol of protest in Tiananmen Square, the conversion of the lyrics of that music to connote solidarity in Chile for protestors against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and “flash mob” performances of the music in town squares, railway stations, and public spaces around the world.
According to Yudkin, today’s music scholars are returning to Beethoven, after decades of assuming there was nothing more to be said about the composer or his compositions, and discovering new avenues of inspiration and understanding, as well as “a vast landscape of intellectual and artistic opportunity.”
“[A]ll of these essays shine new light on Beethoven as a composer fighting with all his strength to create unprecedented modes of expression through music, never to repeat himself, to reach out to future generations—to us—to appreciate what he was trying to lay before us,” he writes.
Topics in this collection run the gamut from Beethoven’s creative process to scrutiny of the markings in the composer’s manuscripts, and include analysis of his life, influences and inspiration, as well as close, comparative examination of different works from throughout this career.
In addition, Yudkin notes, essays by modern Beethoven scholars “shine new light on Beethoven the man— the imperfect, damaged, remarkable man, who continues so vitally to enhance our lives two hundred and fifty years after he was born. And counting.”
Discover how your library can support the next generation of classical musicians and Beethoven scholars with special offers on digital music scores from ProQuest. Designed in response to the high demand for distance learning, the E Now digital Music Scores Program supports music researchers and students with more than 53,000 titles and 1.3 million printable pages from the Music Online Classical Scores Library, ranging from the Middle Ages to the 21st century.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu