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Tenacity and Triumph: Beethoven's Enduring Appeal

Oct 27, 2014

by Meg Freeman Whalen

This weekend's Charlotte Symphony program includes three prominent and important orchestral works: Wagner's Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"), and Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, the "Emperor." And yet, while each piece will have its fans (and Wagner's fans are particularly zealous), there is no doubt about which receives top billing. Check out any of the concert's marketing materials, and you will see "Beethoven's Emperor" emblazoned across them. And for good reason: Of all orchestral composers, none has the power of Beethoven.

In an article in last week's New Yorker magazine, music critic Alex Ross used the recent publication of a new 1,000-page biography of Beethoven as an opportunity to grapple with what Charlotte Symphony Music Director Christopher Warren-Green calls "the million-dollar question": How and why did Beethoven assume god-like status in the world of classical music, casting a shadow over not only all that came before him, but all that has come since? In "Deus Ex Musica," Ross points out that Beethoven "shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music," and that his music "molded entire institutions." He notes that the desire to perform and listen to Beethoven's music can be found at the root at least in part of the development of everything from the professional orchestra and the professional conductor to the modern piano, the vinyl LP, and the compact disc.

"The man is a complete genius, and the music is enthralling," says Warren-Green.

Much has been written hundreds of books and even more articles, in fact about the brilliant structure and intellectual substance of Beethoven's music. As Warren-Green notes, "The first movement of the "Eroica" (Third Symphony) alone is longer than any entire classical symphony that came before it." And these mighty works are often tightly constructed from small building blocks, compact musical motifs (such as the famous opening of the Fifth Symphony) that are worked and reworked with astonishing logic and ingenuity.
But while the logic satisfies us, it is the emotion that moves us, says pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha, who will perform the "Emperor" concerto this weekend. "The intellectual part in his music is the servant of beautiful melodies and harmonies, and not the contrary," says the France-based, Lebanese-born pianist. "Each harmonic modulation gives a new color, a new direction of thoughts and feelings."

The 56-year-old El Bacha learned the "Emperor" concerto when he was 20 years old and has since performed it some 75 times. He says he never tires of it, and that each performance produces the same thrill. "Beethoven's music is of the same nature as truth: eternal!," he says. "This music speaks better than words about power, fragility, friendship, love, war, faith, and peace. Forever, I think, these themes will remain a central part in human life."

Beethoven composed his fifth and final piano concerto in 1809, during Napoleon's capture of Vienna. (It is said that the composer screamed defiance at the occupying French troops.) Like the third and fifth symphonies, it is a pillar of his "heroic" period and manifests perhaps better than any other Beethoven work the composer's interest in French military music.

"There is beauty, of course," says Warren-Green, "but also a tremendous excitement. It's an intensity that starts from the very first note."

In his thoughtful analysis of Beethoven's stature, Ross considers the "mesmerizing intricacy" of his music, the political upheaval that informed his work, and the seismic shift in the philosophical attitude toward art and artists that occurred during Beethoven's life. Citing an 1810 review of the Fifth Symphony by the author E.T.A. Hoffman, Ross notes that, as the Enlightenment gave way to Romanticism, music was "accorded powers at once transcendent and transformative." Composers like Beethoven became messengers from the Divine.
One idea that Ross does not fully explore, however, is the power that Beethoven's personal story gives his music. "His destiny brought him a lot of sufferings since his childhood, and music became an ally for his struggles and spiritual aspirations," says El Bacha. Even those who know very little about Beethoven know at least one thing: he lost the "one sense that should have been more perfect in me than in others," as the composer wrote in his despairing Heiligenstadt Testament in 1802. He became deaf. And not only that: He became deaf and wrote the Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Joy."

Perhaps the very act of listening to Beethoven's music is colored by that knowledge. Perhaps what moves us most is not just his tenacity, but his transcendence, the triumph over adversity, the resurrection from death. "Beethoven's music reveals the universal human noble nature and its high and moral aspirations," says El Bacha.

Article at Charlote Viewpoint
Beethoven's life becomes, in fact, "A Hero's Life" that, unlike Strauss's, is not just about the hero, but about others, about humankind, for all of us.