Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Celebrating Beethoven's Humanity on his 250th Birthday

Artwork by Carl Schloesser, via Wikimedia Commons
Beethoven at his piano

This year, refresh your relationship with Beethoven's music by making it personal again.

On December 16th, the world celebrates Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Were this any other year, every orchestra would be playing months of blockbuster Beethoven concerts in celebration, and indeed, that had been the plan for this autumn, before everything about everything changed.

Luckily for us all, this worldwide birthday party is still happening, only the venues are slightly different: instead of packed concert halls, we have smaller, quieter, more private virtual celebrations to look forward to. This gives us all a unique chance to really sit with the music we love, strip it from its trappings of greatness and grandeur, and make it something personal.

These pared-down celebrations also make it possible for us to reconsider what it means to call composers "great." Personally, I think it's infinitely more exciting that Beethoven was a man -- just a man, the same way you and I are just people -- who also happened to write some of the most stunning and beloved music of all time.

An example: before I’d ever heard a Beethoven symphony, I knew he was “great,” because Schroeder said so in Peanuts cartoons (as a music-y kid myself, I always sided with Schroeder over Lucy).

It wasn’t until much later that I heard his music and recognized it for what it was: beautiful, sensitive, witty, dramatic, evocative, heartbreaking, and deeply, deeply human.

All of the stories that mythologize him are sort of beside the point, which is that Beethoven makes us feel because he felt. Seeking out ways to communicate better with each other, sharing thoughts and feelings with people and having those thoughts and feelings reflected right back at you – that’s what being human is all about, right?

Some of us just manage to communicate, and keep communicating, for centuries after we’re gone.

This December, I invite you to listen to Beethoven with fresh ears. Pretend you’ve never heard the Fifth Symphony before; turn the Moonlight Sonata up loud and let it make you feel something.

We’re lucky enough to live in a world where Beethoven lived, to feel as Beethoven felt, and to love and share his music in ways that still enrich our own lives, 250 long years after his birth. Take this chance to really experience something remarkable. 

I'll leave you with a piece of music that still manages to bowl me over every time I hear it, even though I'm sure I've heard it a million times. It's one of the most tender, beautiful melodies I know -- one that shows Beethoven's genius, sure, but his humanity, too. 

Here's pianist Igor Levit, with the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8, "Pathétique."

And the best news is that this is just the tip of the iceberg -- there is so much more Beethoven to discover. But set aside your preconcieved notions, first. Just let the music connect you to yourself. 

Kendall Todd is the Content Manager for GBH Music.