Houston Matters

The Classical Music World Will Be Celebrating Beethoven’s 250th Birthday All Year — But What If We Didn’t?

A music professor recently drew ire for pondering this question. She explains her thinking, and we learn why UH is hosting a two-week celebration of the composer.

Beethoven Portrait
A portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, a friend of the composer, painted during 1804-1805.

Composer Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770, and so it's little surprise that 250 years later in 2020, a number of performing arts organizations and music institutions want to celebrate this milestone with performances of his music. One such institution is the University of Houston, which will be hosting a two-week festival of performances and lectures about the legendary composer Feb. 17-29.

Now, that legendary status has ensured that Beethoven has a place in just about any given orchestra season or classical music compilation album. So what does performing his music even more for a year really accomplish?

Smith College musicology professor Dr. Andrea Moore considered this question in a recent op-ed she wrote for the Chicago Tribune, in which she proposed a rather radical idea: instead of performing Beethoven's music all year — what if we didn't perform any of it?

Beethoven, with his pounding chords, intense composition style, and notoriously difficult personality, could be considered one of the bad boys of musical history, which lends to a performer’s desire to "rock out” long before the electric guitar ever existed. Multiple interpretations of his music can be found online these days, from a child learning the piano, to entire playlists of Beethovan's Fifth played at different speeds.

Also, many genres of music borrow from his work, ranging from traditional concert halls, to flash mobs performing “Ode to Joy” to dubstep versions of “Moonlight Sonata” to “Fur Elise” performing using a rubber chicken.

And, of course, Beethoven dominated classical music to the point that he can be immediately conjured in four notes.

Or conjure the name of a dog in a 1990's movie franchise.

There is not a field of art and culture that has not been in some way impacted by the late great composer. So, reactions to Dr. Moore's op-ed have been divisive, including accusations of attempting to disregard Beethoven's legacy. But she maintains that the intention comes out of a profound love for his work and tradition.

"There's no shortage of Beethoven in classical music life,” she said. “There's never a time really that you can't go out and find Beethoven...so how one can amp that to the point that it can match the intensity of the idea of an anniversary year is a little bit hard to see...Ubiquity doesn't necessarily speak to love or regard to Beethoven."

Beethoven
In a portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, the composer can be seen with his iconic hairstyle working on the Missa Solemnis.

Dr. Andrew Davis, dean of the McGovern College of the Arts at the University of Houston, agrees with Dr. Moore's concerns about over-saturation, a lack of diversity and new composers in music, and new ways to celebrate Beethoven's legacy. But he reaches a different conclusion — more Beethoven is better, especially on the educational side.

That’s why the College of Arts is hosting the Beethoven 250 Houston 2020 festival Feb. 17-29, which contains performances of the composer’s music as well as classes, lectures, and guest scholars as an opportunity for the public to understand the cultural and compositional nuances and messages throughout his music.

"If you're simply listening to Beethoven as all the old familiar tunes that you heard a hundred times or more, and you don't need to hear them again, that's fine,” Davis said. “But once you can understand the message and meaning and the reason this music [is] so transcendent, you must be able to understand it...we need to be listening in different ways."

Davis points out to the UH Wind Ensemble premiere of “joyRiDE” by Michael Markowski, a new work inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony — aka “Ode to Joy" — as a new way to better understand and embrace Beethoven.

"We are trying to understand why this music is so important – why have you heard all these tunes a hundred times...and why is this meaningful?" he said.

Davis said that celebrating Beethoven and celebrating diversity in the arts is an "and" conversation, not an "or" conversation — meaning that Beethoven is a fundamental part of the equation of classical music and it's an educator’s duty to explain why Beethoven is so fundamental.

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