A 250th birthday celebration is a big deal. Only a miniscule number of figures from history merit a worldwide outpouring after so much time. So what is it about Beethoven that elicits such a personal reaction from masses of people? Even during an overwhelming pandemic, when people are wondering about whether their beloved holidays are actually worth celebrating, Beethoven birthday celebrations are still planned, virtually, all around the world. Why Beethoven?
In the late 90’s, I had the privilege of meeting one of the most observant, perspicacious, and expressive people in our culture, Charles Schulz. As is well-known, Schulz’s young pianist character Schroeder nearly always played works by Beethoven, and both creator and character admired Beethoven wholeheartedly. Schulz regularly used excerpts from his piano sonatas in his strips. The great cartoonist couldn’t read music, but he loved the look of the notes, and he reproduced them faithfully and precisely. I am sure I’m not the only music nerd who spent their childhood trying to guess which Beethoven sonata yielded the little snippet over Schroeder’s toy piano. Perhaps because Schulz didn’t read music, but chose the notes for their looks and occasional comic potential, this little guessing game was at times quite difficult! The excerpts were rarely the ones a musician would have picked.
Beethoven looms so large in Peanuts that there is a countdown to his birthday as elaborate as an Advent calendar. When I was a teenager, this countdown inspired me to listen to all nine of his symphonies every December 16th. I know I’m not alone.
When I met Schulz, who turned out to also be the kindest, most generous, thoughtful and empathetic conversation partner, I had to ask him, “Why Beethoven?” He told me that although Brahms was his favorite composer, Beethoven was “just funnier.” I’ve spent over 20 years thinking about that answer and why it is so true.
Of course, it’s built into the name. Especially in English, the two “e”’s look silly next to each other, the fact that someone would be named after a root vegetable is hilarious, and that his name ends in an “oven” is riotous.
But it’s much more than his name. This creator—who overcame a severe disability and nevertheless out-composed all of us and all of his contemporaries; who refused to budge on his ideals, but held himself equally to the strict standards he held for others; whose genius was incomprehensible to most and yet who could barely master basic grooming; who defied all the conventions he thought were unnecessary but reverently studied and adapted those he deemed worthy; who was gruff to some but a loyal friend to those who had earned it; who believed in our intrinsic rights, our equality, our human brotherhood; who sought to uplift, just as much for himself as for the rest of us; who never hid his struggles from us, both great and petty, whether they were over a lost penny, over a revered leader who caved under the dark magic of power, a manuscript that was worked and re-worked (though to us the final version seems inevitable); who wasn’t afraid to share his sadness with us—this creator was quintessentially a member of the human race. Like us, he aspired to something greater than himself, and was often frustrated by his own perceived shortcomings. Like us, he went after that football again and again, believing deep down that someday he would surely kick it to infinity. Did he ever!
Beethoven is funny because we are. Those jagged sforzandi, the overwhelming dynamic contrasts, the relentlessness of pulse, the endless, obsessive struggles over whether a pitch is this one or that one, over and over again within a piece, the drawn-out, arduous efforts to bring a dominant FINALLY down to the tonic after 20 minutes of music–these resonate with us as labors we deal with throughout our lives, within ourselves. Beethoven reminds us that occasional transcendence is possible.
It’s no surprise the creator of Charlie Brown understood this long ago. Beethoven captures, in his music and in our imagination, the essence of what it means to be human, and that is Why Beethoven.
© 2021 Musical America Worldwide, used by permission. View original publication.
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