In this strange year of 2020, many things work a bit differently. One of these are big celebrations: weddings, funerals, anniversaries, festivals, birthday parties – all of these have scaled down, postponed or cancelled all together. All kinds of events are affected, from the Olympic Games and the European Football Championship, to the Cannes Film Festival and John Hume’s funeral or the Queen’s 94th birthday celebrations.
In between all of this, one particular anniversary is almost forgotten. 2020 marks the 250th birthday of one of the most ingenious musicians of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven. Although I am sure that the grumpy, choleric and socially awkward Ludwig would not mind that all the many concerts, festivals and celebrations are cancelled this year, nevertheless, I am a bit sad that we failed to place this brilliant, complex and inspiring man back in the public focus. Obviously, we all know him, or at least his music, it is ubiquitous. We hear it in TV-ads, hotel lobbies, lifts, supermarket aisles and those five-hour YouTube videos called “Classical music for studying”. Every child knows the melody of that little piano peace “Für Elise”, the Moonlight Sonata, the “Ode to Joy” or the most famous four beats of music history, the opening of the 5th symphony: ta-ta-ta-tam. However, one does not have to be a life-long classical music admirer or Beethoven aficionado (like me), to find the personality of the man behind this great music fascinating.
Born in Bonn, Germany and drilled by an over-ambitious father, he took his first post as court musician when he was only 14. Shortly later he had to flee his home city due to the advancing French Revolution and settled in Vienna, the European capital of music. There the incredibly gifted young musician was rising to early fame, until, already in his late twenties, the first signs of the condition appeared, that would mark him for the rest of his life: He, the pianist, conductor and composer for whom music was not only his source of income but his vocation, the essence of his life, was losing the ability to hear. In the first years his deafness progressed rapidly. Soon he had difficulties taking part in conversations and withdrew himself more and more from public life.
The first major crisis came in 1802.When he could not hear a bird’s song that all his friends around him could hear clearly, he realised that life as he knew it was over. That night he wrote his testament, he was vacillating between life and death. In an act of determination, of hope against all hopelessness he pulled through and did not resign to his fate but bore his cross. His hearing kept worsening and for the last ten years of his life he was completely deaf. However, he never stopped fighting and never stopped writing music. His life and his music would never be the same.
For his contemporaries Beethoven was the aggressive, moody, prematurely aged, solitary man. They acknowledged his musical genius but shunned the odd person behind it. For me, the one could not have come into being without the other. What is it that fascinates us about Beethoven’s music, even today, more than 200 years later? It is the deep humanity and individuality that speaks to us through it. In it we see suffering and vulnerability of someone just like us, who managed not to be bowed down by the cross that was placed upon his shoulders but to transform his loneliness and grief into an ecstatic beauty that touches the heart and brings comfort to so many people around the world and through the centuries.
After he was forced to retreat from the outside world and was not even able to hear his own music anymore, he drew his inspiration from an inner life that sustained him, a realm beyond that which we can see and touch where he could hear harmonies and melodies deep within him. When this world was causing him so much pain and misery, he built his hope on a faith in a different world, that became his true home, even while he was still here. In the exultant final of his 9th symphony, written three years before his death which is now known around the world as the “Ode to Joy” the choir sings the following lines:
“Thus, brothers, you should run your race, like a hero going to victory! / You, millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world! / Brothers, beyond the starry canopy there must dwell a loving father./Do you fall in worship, you millions? World, do you know your creator? / Seek Him in the heavens; beyond the stars must he dwell!”
In this year of 2020, full of crosses that we have to bear, we might do well to remember this troubled genius Beethoven, this truly humane hero, see him in people around us who are suffering at this time, take them as an inspiration and, like Beethoven, put our trust in the loving Father who dwells beyond the stars and deep within us.
Willy Krause came to Derry in 2017, from Leipzig, Germany. to join the www.derryyouthcommunity.com (DYC) He is a seminarian for the Diocese of Derry.