Was Beethoven Really That Great?

Image source: www.musicwithease.com



One of the pet questions I ask to amuse myself from time to time is “Would Beethoven have made the same impact if he had been alive today?”  Beethoven was more than a great composer.  We have to look at him in several ways, all of which add up to why he is one of the big names in Classical (and other genres of) music.


As a performer of his time, he was legendary.  Had he never composed any music of note, he would be remembered for his fantastic virtuosity and showmanship.  Of course, the music he wrote was the perfect vehicle for his performance reputation.


It’s safe to say that Beethoven’s originality as a composer is unmatched during his life, and the range of his growth is matched by very few at any time.  His early music sounds like the best Mozart or Haydn could have produced, and his mature music broke all kinds of ground in terms of the way a piece was put together and the daring directions it went.  Finally, in his last years, he was writing music so weird for his time (and yet still profound and rock solid) that it still has the power to baffle us.


And, of course, most people know that while he was writing his greatest music, he couldn’t hear a thing.  Not a single sound.  He overcame a musician’s most dire nightmare while creating his masterpieces, the 9th Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the late string quartets and piano sonatas.


As creative people, if we aspire to change the world to the extent that Beethoven did, we have to consider all of the elements that make up what we know as Beethoven: performer; creator; human.  Then we have to apply them to ourselves like this:


  1. Have I got my talents together?  Have I managed to produce the best work I’m capable of?  If so, what direction can I go that is unique to my particular abilities and outlook, so that I am of the most use to the world?
  2. Do I have an interesting story to tell?  Have I overcome some adversity that would either impress people, gain their sympathies, or create a bond between myself and them?  Can I share my story in a way that is honest and compelling without being manipulative?


The kicker is that Beethoven, with all these plusses, was helped by being born at the right time.  Put him in another era and his particular gifts, tragedies, and triumphs would appear very different.  Today he’d just have gotten a hearing aid, or might never have lost his hearing at all, his original, revolutionary voice might have seemed strident or tiresome, and his best music might have languished on the internet.


Who knows if Beethoven would have overcome these obstacles?  What we do know is that the revolutionary spirit he displayed and the unrelenting drive he had in promoting it was exactly what his world needed while he was alive in it.  Our world might not need a Beethoven, because it just might very well need you instead.

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