Ludwig von Beethoven is inarguably one of the greatest composers Western civilization has ever produced. The staying power of his music is undeniable, with pieces like “Ode to Joy,” “Für Elise,” and “Moonlight Sonata” routinely used in everything from movies to commercials even now, nearly 200 years after his death. The dun dun dun DUUUUUN of his 5th Symphony is so well known you likely heard it in your head as you read it, even if those are the only notes you know from the entire piece. Beethoven was, quite simply, a musical genius.
He wrote nine symphonies (a rumored tenth symphony remains elusive); 18 concertos (some of which have been lost to time or remain only as fragments); pieces for soloists with orchestras; incidental music and overtures; chamber music for strings, pianos, and woodwinds; over three dozen piano sonatas; 20 piano variations; shorter piano pieces and duets; vocal works ranging from choral with orchestral accompaniment to folk songs; operas, and even canons and musical jokes. This is a limited list of the works Beethoven churned out in his 57 years on the planet, many of them written after he’d already begun to lose his hearing. Even if you think you’ve never heard anything by Beethoven, you absolutely have, and thus should probably know a little bit about the man.
The first episode of “Piano Talks,” “Becoming Beethoven,” discusses the early years of Beethoven’s life—prior to moving to Vienna to begin his musical career in earnest—until he began to lose his hearing at the age of 27. Host Janara Khassenova, an accomplished pianist as well as the artistic director and jurist of NTD’s International Piano Competition, opens the video with a list of cliches often attributed to Beethoven, noting firmly and sincerely that they are all true. She spends little time arguing that Beethoven was a genius, passionate, and an example of the human spirit triumphing, however. Instead, she allows the composer’s music to prove her points, beginning with an excerpt from “24 Variations on ‘Venni Amore’ ” by Rhigini. According to Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, he used these variations as a way to introduce himself when he arrived in Vienna; a wise choice indeed as the viewer is given a chance to listen to his “calling card.”
Beethoven wrote these variations while still living in his hometown, and indeed there is a youthful quality to the piece presented to the viewer. Khassenova speaks of this period of Beethoven’s life with a glowing smile and clear affection, as these compositions were written before he began to make his way into a musical world dominated by the likes of Mozart and Haydn— before the hearing loss began. The viewer is then given a chance to listen to one of the 24 Variations, played by Shih-Yeh Lu at the 2019 NTD International Piano Competition. The pianist seems to embody the dreamy quality of the piece as his fingers dance across the keys. Despite playing in a competition, he clearly enjoys the light, sometimes playful, nature of the composition. When watching Shih-Yeh Lu, it isn’t hard to see why Khassenova discusses Beethoven with such obvious warmth.
After Shih-Yeh Lu finishes playing the piece, Khassenova returns to talk about Beethoven’s move to Vienna, where he began to establish himself as a piano virtuoso and composer. He studied briefly under Franz Joseph Haydn, and even though the relationship didn’t last long, Beethoven still dedicated his first published sonatas to his former teacher. This revelation segues naturally into the second piece in the video, “Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 (II Adagio).” It is not the well-known “Moonlight Sonata,” and has a decidedly less melancholy sound, as it is written in a major rather than a minor key. It does have its moments of melancholy, though; it just doesn’t linger on them for the entire sonata. Khassenova explains the wonderful versatility in Beethoven’s piano sonatas and how open they are to the artistic interpretation of the pianist. Vladimir Petrov is showcased performing Sonata No. 3, also from the 2019 International Piano Competition. He is as swept away as the first pianist, though his performance is as different as the two compositions.
Becoming Beethoven | Piano Talks [Trailer]
Watch the full episode here.
In the final third of the episode, Khassenova explains some of the hardships Beethoven faced. His childhood was difficult, and then he began to lose his hearing just as he was becoming known. It became harder for him to hear high-pitched sounds, and he was plagued with what we now call tinnitus—a persistent buzzing in his ears. By the age of 44 he was completely deaf, yet he continued to compose. A voiceover reads from a letter written by Beethoven during this period, which conveys his despair at this turn of events (the Heiligenstadt Testament). It isn’t difficult to imagine how devastating it would be to lose something so fundamental to not only your occupation, but your sense of self. Artists are often consumed entirely by their art, whether it’s musicians, painters, actors, or writers. Beethoven was no exception.
Still, he continued to compose even as his hearing faded, and Khassenova leads us into the pieces he wrote as he slowly went deaf. The viewer is treated to brief excerpts from his 5th Symphony, his 3rd Symphony, and his Piano Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata.” This last composition is played in full after Khassenova gives a short history lesson on it. “Appassionata” was the name given to it by a publisher, undoubtedly due to the moments of fury and anguish that appear throughout the course of the piece. It is the only composition featured in the episode that is written in a minor key.
The footage for this final performance is pulled from the 2014 NTD International Piano Competition and features Timur Mustakimov at the Steinway. In a reversal of the first sonata featured in the episode, “Appassionata” has moments of levity, though they do not linger. The piece seems to fight with itself over whether it can hold onto the brighter moments or will invariably sink into hopelessness. Khassenova asserts that the piece is sometimes described as a Greek tragedy, but it struck this writer as closer to a musical retelling of Hamlet; a desperate, outward pull towards happiness on a soul steeped in sorrow. It is the most forceful of the pieces played, and has the saddest ending.
So why should anyone care about a nearly hour-long video focused on classical music if they aren’t a classical musician? First, it’s Beethoven. Listening to Beethoven is never a waste of anyone’s time. Never.
Second, and more importantly, modern art and culture is decaying at a terrifying rate. For every new idea presented on television or in film, there are five reboots, prequels, or sequels, and 10 “reality” series that are anything but real. Songs like “W.A.P.” are being hailed as stunning and brave, while rappers who have made it a habit of marketing to children are putting human blood in designer shoes. There is still art of all forms to be found that has merit, but one must look very hard for it, and it is unlikely to ever rise to the level of popular culture. If it does, Disney is likely to sweep in, buy the rights, and then copyright it into oblivion, all while changing it so drastically from its origins it’s unrecognizable (I’m looking at you,“Frozen”).
Meanwhile, the modern left, which controls popular culture and higher education across the West, is busy dropping the works of white European men left and right under the guise of diversity. That isn’t to say only works of white European men have any merit, but that there is no reason to throw those works in the trash bin of history instead of just adding new works with broader perspectives to the curriculum, unless your aim is to erase history. It’s entirely possible that in another 10 years, Beethoven will be dropped from musical degree programs at colleges nationwide—the same way some English departments have dropped Shakespeare. I wish I could leave politics aside for once, but everything now is political, and so, too, is reminding ourselves why classical composers still matter.
It is therefore incumbent on everyone to listen to Beethoven, to learn his works and appreciate the history behind them. It is incumbent on everyone to watch and share episodes like “Becoming Beethoven” to not only hear some of his lesser known compositions, but to understand the human being who wrote them. It should also help dispel the idea that anyone not left-leaning barely graduated third grade and only dates their cousins. While the left might like to think they have the market cornered when it comes to culture, it’s simply not true. As Khassenova states early on, Ludwig von Beethoven is an example of the triumph of the human spirit against adversity. Even if you aren’t someone who necessarily enjoys classical music, it’s imperative to remember why it not only matters but endures, and must continue to do so.
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Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.