250 years after his birth, Beethoven and his music reign supreme

Ludwig van Beethoven

In 2019, a substantial lock of Beethoven’s hair, tied with a silk thread and preserved in a glazed oval frame, was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London for roughly $44,500 — far above the original estimate of $15,000 to $19,000, and outclassing the $35,000 paid for John Lennon’s hair three years earlier. “Other locks of Beethoven’s hair that we have seen have invariably been taken from the composer on his deathbed in 1827,” Sotheby’s reported in the catalog for its June 11 sale of Important Manuscripts, Continental Books, and Music. (Beethoven’s hair was in such demand, even in 1827, that he was buried nearly bald.)

Beethoven apparently gave this lock to Anton Halm, a pianist, in 1826, but only after the composer’s factotum Carl Holz tried to pass off a clump of goat’s hair as Beethoven’s own. When Beethoven learned of the deception, he snipped some hair from the back of his head, wrapped it in a sheet of paper, and handed it to Halm. (Another lock of Beethoven’s hair, auctioned at Sotheby’s for $7,300 in 1994, was sent to the Health Research Institute in Naperville, west of Chicago, where scientific analysis revealed a concentration of lead 100 times in excess of the norm, indicating that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning — explaining his constant complaints of bad digestion, chronic abdominal pain, irritability, and depression — but shedding no light on his deafness, the cause of his death or the miracle of his genius.)

Collecting locks of hair from famous people was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, just as art museums and concert halls were once ringed with the names of artists and composers rather than the people who gave the money to build them. When Orchestra Hall was built in 1904, it was Beethoven’s name that was carved over the central front door, and it was his most famous symphony — the Fifth — that was included in the inaugural concert. Beethoven is still the cornerstone of our musical life, a fact that did not escape Pierre Boulez, the pioneering musical figure who was once the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s conductor emeritus, when he called Beethoven “the least discussed, most accepted and acknowledged symbol of our musical culture.” Notice the emphasis on our. To Boulez, a composer famously entrenched on the front lines of contemporary music, Beethoven’s unquestioned preeminence nearly 200 years after he transformed his own musical culture was perhaps the most astonishing thing of all about this most astonishing of composers.

This season, in honor of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays all nine of the composer’s symphonies, and visiting pianists present the 32 sonatas — two complete cycles that are among the very cornerstones of music. Riccardo Muti is only the orchestra’s third music director to conduct all of Beethoven’s symphonies in a single season, following Frederick Stock in the 1926-27 season and Désiré Defauw eighteen years later. (Although Sir Georg Solti recorded the complete cycle twice with the Chicago Symphony, he never performed all of them in one season. Bernard Haitink led the nine symphonies in the span of just three weeks, in June of 2010, when he served as the orchestra’s principal conductor.)

Beethoven has now dominated our thinking about great music for two centuries. Many of his works have helped us to define the term "masterpiece," and although that word has taken a beating lately, Beethoven’s music itself has not lost its value. Today Beethoven is still as widely performed as any composer, and unlike Mozart or Schubert, for example, nearly all his major works are in the active repertory. The Chicago Symphony has not let a single season pass without playing some of his music.

Of all the popular composers, Beethoven’s is the face we know best — despite the popularity of "Amadeus," Mozart’s whimsical image is still overshadowed by Ludwig’s forbidding scowl. That is apparently the way he actually looked, although some of the paintings and drawings made of him during his lifetime seem to us to border on caricature — when he posed for Joseph Karl Stieler in 1819, it looks like he didn’t even bother to comb his hair. The image of the composer as tormented genius is one that Beethoven liked and possibly cultivated, and it has endured to our day, from cartoons to high art, in pictures, movies and in myth. There is surely not a more tragic story in music than that of a brilliant composer going deaf in the prime of life. Beethoven was the first to comment on the cruel irony of his own plight: “How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others?” he wrote as early as 1802, shortly after he turned 30.

Even during his lifetime, Beethoven became an almost legendary figure — the personification of defiance in the face of adversity. Day after day, he struggled with chronic illness, money, loneliness, deafness and perhaps most astonishingly, composition itself — the very act of putting notes on paper. Communication — an artist’s essential gift — became torturous and ever more precious as neither music nor, ultimately, everyday conversation, came to him easily. He left us more than 60 sketchbooks that record his daily struggle for artistic perfection and nearly 400 conversation books, in which his visitors tried to “talk” with him once he was totally deaf. As he failed to make a life of satisfying normalcy for himself — he was bad at friendship and pathetic at romance — and as his hearing failed completely, cutting him off still further from the world around him, he kept on composing.

Although he was inevitably misunderstood in his own time, he also was widely admired for the grandeur of his vision and the intensity and expressive range of his music. Even Goethe, who never came around to really liking Beethoven’s music, marveled at his temperament: “more concentrated, more energetic, more warmly and tenderly emotional I’ve never seen an artist.”

Although Beethoven led a solitary life in Vienna — “Live only in your art,” he wrote in his diary, “the only existence for you” — 10,000 people from all over Europe showed up at his funeral, and Franz Schubert, the only equal among his contemporaries, carried a torch in the procession. (Popular myth claims that it was Beethoven’s name Schubert muttered on his own deathbed, just one year later.) Like Byron, Beethoven had become the archetypal romantic hero, a fearless and defiant revolutionary, and this image dominated music for decades. A new book by John Clubbe, Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary, suggests that it was the composer’s involvement in the political unrest of his time, along with his rebellious spirit, initially inspired by Napoleon, that freed him to write such revolutionary music.

Beethoven’s popularity grew steadily throughout the 19th century (even Mozart’s star waned periodically). Every composer worked in his shadow, sometimes with reverence and sometimes with frustration, and none with greater difficulty than Brahms, who took nearly 20 years to finish his First Symphony, grumbling that “you can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you.” Ultimately Brahms succeeded because he understood the paradox of Beethoven’s influence: It was useless to imitate him; only by striving for originality did one truly follow in his footsteps.

As much as our picture of Beethoven continues to shift with the times, his music never seems to lose its edge — it continues to sound fresh and unsettling — despite its familiarity and its age. It reminds us that nothing of significance is accomplished without struggle, and in fact, the very act of conquering these scores, the physical challenge of bringing them to life — in passages that two hands can barely manage, that push voices to their limits — re-creates, time after time, Beethoven’s own battle to harness the music in his head.

Beethoven was perpetually striving for ideals — musical and societal — that have not yet been achieved, and which may, in fact, be out of reach. In that sense, his is the music not only of our culture, as Boulez predicted, but of our future. Perhaps Beethoven’s greatest achievement was, as Igor Stravinsky remarked, to have written music “that will be contemporary forever.”