Beethoven’s Birthday

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770.  That probably means that he was born on December 16, 1770 — by tradition, babies were baptized within 24 hours of their birth — but no one knows for sure.

The Sirius XM Symphony Hall channel has been celebrating the occasion by playing all Beethoven, all the time, for the past few days.  It sounds like it would be boring, but it isn’t.  If anything, the extended playlist reveals, instead, the sweep and scope of his compositions and his musical interests.  It’s amazing that one man, who lived only to age 56, created such a staggering body of work.

When I was a kid, my parents had a “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits” record that included a tiny fraction of his work.  I loved listening to that record and looking at the brooding, almost angry picture of the composer that appeared on the back cover.  I wondered how that intense man created something as delicate and lovely as Fur Elise.  I also remember that, in the liner notes, they quoted a musical scholar as saying:  “He was a titan, wrestling with the gods.”  As I grew older, and listened to more and more of Beethoven’s music, I began to appreciate the accuracy of that statement.

For those of us who love music, but can’t play a note, the most amazing thing about professional musicians and songwriters is the notion that they could just hear a song in their heads — a song that no one else had ever thought of.  With someone like Beethoven, of course, the impulses that spurred the creative process seem even more impossible, because his works largely reimagined the prevailing compositional forms and were remarkable for their daring and innovation.  We can only wonder what it must have been like when the stirring strains of the Ninth Symphony were first heard in the head of this profoundly deaf genius, who then presented this colossal piece of music to a world that has relished it, and its creator, ever since.

Happy birthday, Mr. Beethoven.  You changed the world.

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