Ludwig Van's still da man
by Bob Margolis
October 15, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Back in 1956, Chuck Berry's hit song "Roll over, Beethoven" told the composer to get out of the way. But Beethoven still isn't budging. And if Leon Botstein, his American Symphony Orchestra and the folks up at Bard College have anything to do about it, ol' Ludwig will go nowhere.

Themes from his best-known works are heard everywhere, from TV commercials to cell phone ringtones. His life is the subject of books and movies. And live concerts continue to showcase his achievements - including the start of the ASO's season, in which the first two of Beethoven's symphonies will be performed. In addition, over the course of the next two years, the orchestra will present all nine of those classic works.

"Engagement with these nine pieces - the most influential and important set of symphonies in the canon - can help each listener orient himself or herself within the world of music, not only back in time to the works of Haydn, Mozart and Bach, but also forward to the music of the 19th and 20th centuries," explained Botstein. "These large works provide an unusual mirror by which history is reflected."

This Friday and Saturday, October 16 and 17, the American Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 and Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Shulamit Ran's The Show Goes on: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (US premiere), with Laura Flax on clarinet; and Harold Farberman's Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, featuring Jonathan Haas on timpani. The concerts will take place at the Fisher Center, on the Bard College campus.

All this hubbub is only a shard of evidence that, 180-plus years after his death, the German composer remains a cultural icon with remarkable clout. The guy was the ultimate rebel: Hollywood could hardly have devised a more fascinatingly complex character. Beethoven was a romantic who never married; an idealist with a bad temper; a musician so distraught by his deafness that he considered suicide; and a towering genius who challenged traditional expectations. More than anyone, he defined the musician as an artist instead of as a servant. He felt that music was as elevated as philosophy: a search for truth and morality.

Can't get enough? If Beethoven had only written his nine symphonies, his reputation would be secure. But he composed so much more in genres ranging from sonata to song, concerto to opera. Beethoven's themes can be magnificently tragic (think of the Allegretto of the Symphony No. 7) or irresistibly beguiling (as in the "Archduke" Trio). There's also humor and heartache, passion and playfulness.

His upbringing was no picnic, having a musician father who was an abusive alcoholic who sometimes hauled young Ludwig out of bed at night to entertain his pals with piano- or violin-playing. His mother, who was stricken with tuberculosis, died when Ludwig was 16, leaving him to care for his two younger brothers.

When he was 21, Beethoven moved to cosmopolitan Vienna, Austria, where he studied composing with the eminent Franz Joseph Haydn. Unlike Haydn, however, Beethoven didn't work for an aristocratic court. He became one of the first successful freelance musicians, earning his living as a composer, conductor and pianist.

Add to that, that there has been considerable speculation - but no definitive diagnosis - regarding the hearing loss that began during Beethoven's 20s. In a letter written to his brothers that has become known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament," he confessed his frustration and despair, yet also resolved to continue composing. In the years before his death at age 56, Beethoven composed some of his most profound works, including the Ninth Symphony. Ludwig van Beethoven reigns - still.

A pre-concert talk by Richard Wilson, composer-in-residence with the ASO, begins at 6:45 p.m. Individual tickets are $20, $30 and $35. A subscription to the three-concert series is $80 per person. Call (845) 758-7900 or visit the Fisher Center website at for further information.

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