By Nancy Spannaus
Two hundred and fifty-one years ago, on December 16, 1770, the world welcomed the birth of the man I call the “Composer of Freedom,” Ludwig van Beethoven. Let us celebrate Beethoven today for his historical and ongoing contributions to liberating mankind from tyranny and ugliness, including in our own republic.
Although Beethoven was born a German, and lived most of his adult life in Vienna, Austria, there is a sense in which he was the quintessential American in spirit. The composer was well known for his revolutionary sympathies, writ large in his stirring composition on the subject of the Dutch Count of Egmont, who died fighting against Spanish oppression in the 16th century, and his opera Fidelio. The latter deals with the liberation of a political prisoner by his wife, and bears striking similarity to the story of the Marquis de Lafayette, who suffered imprisonment by the Austrian empire, and was ultimately freed by the efforts of his wife and the American government.
However, to Beethoven, as to other Classical artists and many of the American Founding Fathers, freedom was not just the idea of liberation from political oppression. It also involved liberation of the individual’s creative powers, a commitment to the brotherhood of all mankind, and the determination of uplift mankind to a life worthy of a species infused with a spark of the divine.
To experience this passion of Beethoven’s, one need only listen to his setting of Friedrich Schiller’s master-poem The Ode to Joy, the Ninth or “Choral” Symphony, which continues to be at the apex of popularity among Classical music listeners in the United States.
It should be no surprise, then, that Beethoven has also been credited with “democratizing” musical performance in Europe, by making his concerts open to the public, rather than just in the salons of the aristocracy. Indeed, his wide popularity in Vienna is credited to his 1795 performance of his Second Piano Concerto, which was held as a benefit concert for the Vienna Composers Society, which was established for the support of musicians’ widows and orphans. We could use more of that same kind of “democratizing” of Classical music today.
Beethoven in America
A more-than-400 page book has been written about the rich history of Beethoven’s influence in America. The earliest reported performance of his works was in Charleston, South Carolina in 1805; it featured his Second Symphony. His popularity grew rapidly over the subsequent decades in locations as diverse as Philadelphia, Boston, and Lexington, Kentucky, along with that of composers such as Handel, Haydn, Bach, and Mozart.
The first Beethoven Society was established in Portland, Maine (my hometown) in 1819. Such societies were largely devoted to concertizing with Beethoven’s choral works, as choral societies were then very popular in the United States. According to today’s Beethoven Society of America, the most popular work was Beethoven’s oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, which deals with the story of Christ’s hours in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest.
If you have never listened to this work, I urge you to do so.
I have a very personal connection to this oratorio, which I listen to every year during Easter week. It just so happened that my college chorus, of which I was a member, had the honor of performing the work under the direction of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Eugene Ormandy. I unfortunately don’t recall the exact year—but it was sometime between 1962 and 1964. I can’t find it online. My Bryn Mawr women’s chorus combined with the men’s choir from Princeton University for the performance, which featured professional soloists. It was an unforgettable, glorious experience.
Beethoven’s Mount of Olives oratorio was written and first performed in Vienna in 1803, at a point when the composer was trying to come to terms with the fact that he was going deaf, and determined that he would continue to dedicate his life to his art. “Oh God, you look down on my inmost soul, and know that it is filled with love of mankind and the desire to do good,” he writes in the document known as the Heiligenstadt testament which otherwise reflects his struggle against despair.
One cannot but hear the same passion in Beethoven’s writing of Christ’s duet with the angel in the Mount of Olives, where He becomes reconciled to sacrifice Himself for the love of mankind.
The Power of Beauty
In the midst of the dangerous, roiling turmoil that currently pervades our political and social life here in the United States, we need the power of beautiful music more than ever. Classical music has the ability to convey beauty and truth in a way that no political speech or tract can possibly do.
The idea that Classical music lifts the mind to the realm of true beauty and freedom hardly seems popular in the United States today. But if this post can encourage its readers to experience at least one of the Beethoven masterpieces I have mentioned, it will have accomplished some good.
 The one most cited is Beethoven in America by music historian Michael Broyles, Professor of Music at Florida State University and former Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University. It was released in 2011.
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