When I was a graduate student in the UC Berkeley music department years ago, a fellow student — a composer — told me about a dream he’d had. He’d gone into the restroom during the intermission of an orchestra concert, where Beethoven attacked him and tried to puncture his eardrums with an awl.
My friend struggled and cried for help, but Beethoven was implacable. “You have to do this,” he said firmly. “It’s part of your education.”
I promise I’m not making this story up (and I can only assume my friend wasn’t either). But it feels a little too perfect to be quite believable, doesn’t it? After all, this dream encapsulates one of the major issues for classical music ever since Beethoven died in 1827. He inspires us, but he also overwhelms us.
For composers, he’s a daunting figure. (Brahms, explaining why he didn’t dare publish a symphony until he was in his 40s, famously wrote to a friend, “You have no idea how it feels to hear the footsteps of such a giant behind you!”) For listeners, he’s a perennial presence in the concert hall.
He just takes up too much space.
Now it’s 2020, and Beethoven is about to take up even more space than ever in our musical consciousness. Because it’s the 250th anniversary of his birth, every orchestra, every chamber group, every opera company and record label is about to flood the zone with Beethoven.
The San Francisco Symphony has pulled out the rubric Beethoven250 — a hashtag in all but name — for its parade of Beethoven symphonies, concertos and chamber music programming. In September, the San Francisco Opera is doing “Fidelio,” the only opera Beethoven wrote. And the box sets containing every note Beethoven ever set to paper — even obvious trash like the “Wellington’s Victory” Symphony — are already trundling along the production line.
Yet I’m not convinced that Beethovenmania, as it’s going to be practiced this year, really adds much to our appreciation of the composer’s legacy. For one thing, most obviously, a diet of all Beethoven all the time doesn’t differ very noticeably from ordinary musical life. (I’ve cited before, but can’t resist repeating, musicologist William Gibbons’ tart observation that a Beethoven anniversary year is the “White History Month” of classical music.)
2020 is a "Beethoven year," and, according to my colleague, it's going to be "a big one" because it's the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Nothing against Beethoven, but, for most classical music institutions, what year is NOT a Beethoven year? How much bigger does need to be?
— Mariusz Kozak (@prof_kozak) June 24, 2019
A second, related point is that whatever new revelations may come to light through deep immersion are going to be pretty marginal. This is music that has been raked over exhaustively for the past two centuries, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else. Permit me to doubt that anyone is going to rethink the repertoire, or even understand it any more profoundly, by hearing all nine symphonies, say, in a concentrated spurt.
That’s especially true, finally, because I don’t see much evidence that rethinking anything is on the agenda. Beethoven has been hailed as the GOAT since before his death, and that’s not about to change. The most urgent question up for debate amid the spate of anniversary programming seems to be “Beethoven: Awesome or totally awesome?”
Consider, as just one example, the Symphony’s current marketing campaign, which features members of the orchestra (violinist Chen Zhao and violist Christina King) in full Beethoven cosplay. The pictures are imaginative and hugely charming, but they also contribute to the air of hagiography that surrounds the whole enterprise.
So what’s the alternative?
Musicologist Andrea Moore, in a splendidly hard-nosed December opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune, proposed a full-on moratorium. “Letting Beethoven’s music fall silent for the duration of his 250th anniversary year,” she wrote, “might give us a new way into hearing it live again.”
I like Moore’s thinking, but I recognize, as she does, that performing arts organizations and their audiences are unlikely to go along. It’s an aspirational position. In the meantime, a more modest goal might be to pursue the question of how we got into this situation in the first place.
How did Beethoven’s work — its harmonies, its rhetoric, its formal ideas — become such an exclusive model for what classical music should sound like? What are we going to do to give other models, both past and present, their due? How do we get past our Beethoven addiction?
These are questions that can be addressed both verbally and institutionally — through essays, books, program curation — but also within music itself. I’m thinking of pieces like Jörg Widmann’s Beethovenian jape “Con brio,” which the Symphony introduced to its repertoire in January, or John Adams’ majestic one-on-one with Beethoven, the string quartet concerto “Absolute Jest.”
Each of those pieces finds a major composer coming to terms with the imposing example of his predecessor — Widmann through gentle mockery, Adams through the even bolder and more delightful strategy of addressing Beethoven as his presumptive equal.
There are other approaches as well. Brahms, for instance, faced down the anxiety of writing his First Symphony by systematically undoing, redirecting and outstripping the innovations of Beethoven’s Ninth. Stravinsky wrote music that seemed to blandly deny Beethoven’s very existence, in the face of all the evidence.
For me, these are pointers to the pressing issues that have yet to be adequately dealt with — not finding new things to admire about Beethoven’s legacy, but figuring out how to keep that legacy in its proper place. An anniversary year is the perfect occasion to set about that task.