Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Roll Over Beethoven

Pardon me, boy -- is this the philharmonic station?

One of the things that should endear Ludwig van Beethoven to all of us who live in this latter day egalitarian culture was his insistence upon being treated as an equal by his "betters," meaning the nobility. Even though he may not have granted that courtesy to others, and even though he was decidedly upwardly mobile himself, still he chafed at the tradition of patronage that decreed musicians had to arrive through the servants' entrance, even if they were the greatest composers of their day.

I like the story that the "van" in his name, a pretension to noble birth, was added by Beethoven himself. It is also said that when his brother added the sobriquet "Land-owner" to his card, Lugwig countered by having some of his own printed with "Brain-owner." If invited to a party as a guest who was expected to perform, he refused; but if not expected, he would perform, like it or not.

I was thinking about him today, as I do almost every weekday, because when I disembark at the Brickell Metrorail station I am invariably greeted with the strains of the first movement to the Fifth Symphony. Due to the efforts of local Beethoven enthusiasts, including the local homeowners association and at least one County Commissioner, this recording has been playing between the security and train announcements for several years now. You might think that it would get tiresome after all that time, or that the endless repetition -- never a full performance, or any of the other three movements -- would have turned the immortal symphony into mindless Muzak by now. But so far it has never failed to strike me as new and vigorous every time.

Surely this is a testament to what an enduring composition this piece is. In a recent biography, Beethoven: The Universal Composer, author Edmund Morris relates a story about being on the campus of Harvard University in the middle of winter. It was the first day the sun showed itself after a week or more of blizzardly darkness. As the snow lit up, someone opened a dormitory window and placed speakers on the sill to blare out the triumphant final movement of -- what else? -- Beethoven's Fifth. Supposedly everyone who was close enough to hear it stopped in their tracks and listened as the music gave perfect expression to their joy at the return of the light.

So I often still find myself with an additional spring in my step as I leave the station, and find myself humming the other movements as I walk to my office -- the lyrically swinging second, the waltzing scherzo that imitates the opening theme of the first movement, and then the victorious fanfare of the finale that emerges from the misty end of the scherzo like a sun cutting through morning fog.

There's another irony about the playing of the Fifth at the metro station, though. At the same time they were memorializing Beethoven, the Brickell Homeowners Association, fancying themselves loftier than the rabble who must ride the bus, engaged in a successful lobbying campaign to nix the rental of some space at their train station to Greyhound. Now the poor slobs who drift into town that way must remain content to disembark among some warehouses near the airport from which it is a long hike to anywhere.

Poor Ludwig, who insisted in his Ninth symphony that "all men will be brothers" and that "this kiss is for all the world," must be rolling over in his grave.


  1. Michael Stevens5:57 PM

    Nice to read about Beethoven sticking up for his right to come in the front door. We tell the same story in the art history world, about Jacques-Louis David, who came back from his long apprenticeship in Rome with the idea that he was a socially acceptable person. Of course the French were able to put these views into practice more dramatically - David became a leader of the radical wing of the French Revolution, and was damn lucky to escape execution with the rest of the Jacobins.

    He got on board with Napoleon, as his many famous portraits attest, but when the Bourbons reassumed power after Napoleon's defeat David went into exile in Belgium and finally cut loose of politics. He was still an active painter - like many artists, in his last few years he wallowed in the richness and sensuality of youth - check out _The Farewell of Telemachus_. Anything like that in the late Beethoven canon? -- MS

  2. Nothing quite so fleshly ... maybe the closest he came to that was the Pastoral Symphony (6) in which he imagined he was Bacchus bringing joyous debauchery to all humankind. Fun!

  3. Correction -- of course I meant to refer to the Seventh symphony, the last movement of which is particularly expressive of wild abandon. I confess I probably muddled the two not only because Beethoven was writing both of them simultaneously, but because in Disney's Fantasia they used mythological figures, including Bacchus, to portray the Pastorale. Warped from childhood!

  4. That's the best way to be warped....