by Stephen Cera
above: portrait of Beethoven (1823) by Ferdinand Waldmüller
After recently experiencing live performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and his late Quartet in c-sharp minor, in the acoustical splendor of Toronto’s Koerner Hall, I thought more about why this composer’s music remains so central for us, and so firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness.
The composer’s reputation and prestige are unassailable…he is always with us. An entire season without a note of Beethoven’s music is almost unthinkable. The musical world is a perpetual Beethoven festival, an ongoing, globe-spanning binge of concerts, recordings, videos, books, articles and complete cycles (symphonies, quartets, sonatas, trios, etc.)
Recognition and acknowledgement of recognition come more easily than shock. Yet Beethoven’s music did shock when it first appeared, and some of it should jolt us even today. The problem with great familiarity is that, for most listeners, when the Fifth Symphony begins they go on auto pilot, and respond as habit has taught them to react to it. Some may even respond more to the fact of a performance than to the performance itself, not to mention the actual music. The danger occurs when the music becomes “reassuring” – exactly what it ought not to be.
The challenge for performers is no less than for listeners. We need to remember that, to his contemporaries, Beethoven (1770 – 1827) was a shocking artist. Some contemporaries rejoiced in that quality; some resisted it from the beginning; some went along up to a point, only to become critical later. E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776 – 1822) — an original writer, musician and artist — recognized the shocking newness of Beethoven’s music.
We should ask ourselves what makes the Eroica Symphony a great piece, and re-explore works such as the seldom-heard Choral Fantasy and Consecration of the House Overture. Too many of our reactions are ones of habit and repetition. Some of us may be too comfortable with Beethoven, who wanted to challenge and unsettle us, as well as to lift our souls.
Goethe’s concise description of the composer resonates: “More concentrated, more energetic, more warmly and tenderly emotional I’ve never seen an artist.”