Beethoven’s Message, article by Terry Teachout


Reference books usually steer clear of overstatement, but the article on Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians opens with a sentence that would seem fulsome were it not also self-evidently true:

“For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.”

Beethoven’s audience is so all-encompassing as to include those whose familiarity with his work is limited at best. Indeed, he is the only classical composer whose name is generally known to people who do not listen to classical music. It is as revealing that the cartoonist Charles Schulz chose Beethoven as the favorite composer of one of the characters in Peanuts as it is that Lorin Maazel chose the Ninth Symphony to perform last fall at his inaugural concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

What is striking about this mass popularity, though, is that it has not diminished in the slightest the respect in which Beethoven is held by musicians. A few major composers and performers (among them Benjamin Britten and Vladimir Horowitz) have found him unsympathetic, but most see him as a creator of commanding stature, and his music is performed and recorded regularly, even routinely, throughout the world.1 He would appear prominently on any list, however short, of the key figures of Western culture—though that, too, is an understatement. No painter, sculptor, or novelist, not even Michelangelo or Tolstoy (who wrote a novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, about one of his compositions) is more widely renowned. Only Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible have burrowed as deeply into the collective consciousness of the human race.

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