Today is the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most important alcoholic, angry deaf man in history. Physically and emotionally abused by his own alcoholic father, Beethoven's life was one of unremitting anguish and enormous loneliness. And yet, very few people can claim to ever have made more gold with the dregs and despair of their lives. Beethoven defines- and some would say, even created- the very idea of the Heroic Artist by transcribing his inner experiences into artistic expressions that ultimately changed the world. He died never married, rejected by the many women he pursued, a social failure. "Beethoven can write music," the composer wrote of himself, "Thank God: he can do knothing else". Desperate for a family, he adopted his nephew Karl but drove the boy to the brink of suicide with his irascible temper and bullying. And yet, his music became the symbol of the voice of humanity: over one quarter of the population of Vienna turned out in the rain for his funeral. Despite his own social difficulties, his Ninth Symphony became the clarion call for the brotherhood of man. It is evoked time and time again as the call for transformation and hope: performed as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, as students faced army tanks in Tienenman Square, and as millions of bewildered and grief stricken citizens poured into concerts halls of the world in the wake of 9/11.
"Prepare the way" is one of the themes of Advent. In the decades that Beethoven labored on what was ultimately to become his most famous work, he experimented with other forms that pointed the way to the Ninth. The inventive "Chorale Fantasy", a quasi-piano concerto is one prototype; the Missa Solemnis, written between 1819-1823 is another. Beethoven could not be called conventionally pious. Though he was occasionally quite morally conservative, his own spiritual inclinations were ambiguous and impossible to pin down. A child of the Enlightenment who had pantheistic leanings, his personal library contained many works of Eastern philosophy, while a close look at the text of the celebrated "Ode to Joy" reveals that it is actually an invocation to Dionysus, with copious references to the Orphic Mysteries.
NPR music critic Jan Swafford has adroitly described the Missa Solemnis as "the greatest work never heard". A sprawling and musically taxing 90 minute chorale work, it is impractical for the concert hall and too massive for a church service. And yet, hovering in this liminal space are moments of incandescent beauty and luminous splendor. Below is an excerpt depicting the Incarnation, all the more poignant and astonishing when one realizes that Beethoven wrote it all during a period in which he couldn't hear a single note.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig. You point the way for all of us, daring us to dream the impossible, to break any barriers necessary, and to open our arms to embrace the heartbreak and the glory of being human.