“Art alone deterred me. How could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”
—Ludwig van Beethoven
Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Well, nobody knows for sure what day he was actually born, but he was baptized on Dec. 17th, so Dec. 16th is generally accepted as the day we celebrate him. (Check out all the Peanuts strips about Beethoven’s birthday on this wonderful site about Charles Schulz’s use of classical music. I would love to turn this into a book.)
Classical music can be hard to get into for a lot of people. One thing that has helped me is to read stories about the composers and what they got up to. (Composer Jan Swafford’s Language of the Spirits is a great starting point.)
Beethoven is ridiculously fun to read about. He’s one of those musical artists who is so ubiquitous and popular that I never really got around to studying him, but once I did, holy moly, he became one of my favorites. Not because his tumultuous life is something to emulate. He was abused as a child and was notoriously difficult and ugly and sometimes abusive in his personal life. (The last musical notes Beethoven ever wrote were next to the words, “We all err, but each one errs differently.”) Like Bach, who also had a rough childhood, the fact that he was able to make such beautiful music out of such emotional chaos is remarkable.
The problem with Beethoven biographies are that some of them are absolutely massive. (Swafford’s acclaimed bio is over a thousand pages.) Years ago, I picked up John Suchet’s 300-page Beethoven: A Man Revealed, and it felt more than enough to whet my appetite. (The excerpts below are all Suchet.)
The rest of this post is some of my favorite Beethoven stories:
The funny thing about Beethoven is that many of the myths you’ve heard are actually true.
First off, it’s true that he was mostly deaf when he wrote his most glorious music, including the 9th symphony and the late quartets, which is totally freaking mindblowing to me.
Another thing people overlook when they get hung up on the deaf-guy-writing-music thing; they see the music through an abled lens, in which the deafness is something that Beethoven overcame, not something in which the deafness actually led to unique creative decisions!
— ? sharon su ? (@doodlyroses) December 17, 2019
He was so deaf he carried a notebook around and had people write their questions in it so he could have conversations:
…his deafness led him to carry a notebook, so-called “conversation books,” for people to write down their questions. His nephew Karl wrote in one of these, “You knew Mozart, where did you see him?” And in other conversation book a few years later, “Was Mozart a good pianoforte player?” It [the instrument] was then still in its infancy.”
Of course the utterly maddening, infuriating, frustrating fact is that Beethoven spoke rather than wrote his answer, so we have no idea of what he said.
It’s also true that Beethoven was sort of a slob and he looked totally crazy at times, waving his arms, composing in his head, and shouting to be heard.
In fact, he once got arrested by the police when he got lost in the suburbs of Vienna and he started peeking in people’s windows to try to orient himself. A local musician had to be brought into the police station to identify him.
You did not want to rent a room to Beethoven:
There were, certainly, instances of him being expelled from a lodging because of complaints from other residents about his habit of working through the night, pounding on the piano keys to try to hear his music, banging on the apartment walls. He had to leave one apartment after getting in a stonemason to knock a hole in a wall and install a window to give him a decent view, without permission from his landlord.
(My kids adore the Beethoven Lives Upstairs, which is based on these stories.)
You did not want to challenge Beethoven to a piano duel: he once embarrassed a guy named Daniel Steibelt so bad that Steibelt had to leave Vienna. He never came back.
Me: Do you think Beethoven drove a pickup truck?
Toddler: No, he just played the piano.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 6, 2016
You probably didn’t want to mess with Beethoven in general.
He once told a critic: “What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought.”
He once stood outside of a palace shouting that his patron, living inside, was a donkey.
Another time, he broke a chair over a patron’s head and then got mad when the dude wouldn’t give him any more money.
But my all-time favorite Beethoven story is one of sibling rivalry.
Beethoven’s brother once ended a letter, “From your brother Johann, Landowner.” Beethoven ended his reply with, “From your brother Ludwig, Brain Owner.”
Sick music and sick burns!
Speaking of siblings: one of the reasons I know so much about Beethoven and I’m a classic geek now is that my sons got obsessed with Welcome To Symphony, a book that explains the orchestra by using Symphony No. 5. Here’s an orchestra drawing they collaborated on:
My oldest hummed the opening Symphony No. 5 so much I put little pieces of cheat tape on his tiny toy piano:
Of course, nothing compares to hearing an orchestra perform Beethoven. One of the highlights of my musical life was watching Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic rehearse the 9th symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2015:
Anyways, I dig Beethoven and you should check him out if you haven’t.
The one tricky thing about his music, his symphonies in particular, is that they’re terrible background music. They’re so dynamic and intense they demand your attention.
Kid at playground: Jesus is dead!
My kid: So is Beethoven!
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) October 1, 2017
This playlist Teju Cole made is also lovely:
The stories are great, but nothing beats the music.