A majority of the population woke up this morning and the first thing they thought of was getting a cup of coffee, or hitting up the bathroom, or complaining that they had to get up at all — or all of the above!
My first thought this morning when I awoke was: it’s Beethoven’s birthday. Now why would that be the first thing I would think of? Well it’s quite simple really, Beethoven is probably one of the greatest influences in my life after God. As a composer myself, I have come to love many composers: Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Haydn. But only one composer has grabbed my attention and fascination, that would be Herr Beethoven. Only one composer has eight books on my book shelf, piles of scores in my closet, a marble bust in my living room along with a casting of the 1812 life mask. I am a collector of all things Beethoven. But how did I come to love this man and his works?
On a cold October afternoon in 1987 I walked into a mall and to the record shop there. This was back before compact discs and iTunes existed, this was the era of vinyl and cassette tapes, albeit the end of that era. I was looking for a record of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. You see I had been listening to some very bad music at the time and at the behest of my psychologist, I needed to find other music to listen to. I had been playing piano since the age of 7 and decided I would embrace classical music, since it was really the only thing I appreciated. But in those days I didn’t know the difference between a symphony and a concerto. So when my eyes caught sight of something number 5 by Beethoven, I took it and bought it. When I got home and played it, it was not Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but rather his Piano Concerto No. 5. Because of that mistake, I became enraptured by Beethoven’s music and yes, even the man himself.
Today is Beethoven’s 245th birthday and I cannot help but hold onto this incredible admiration for him. His father was an alcoholic, he wanted Beethoven to be like Mozart and paraded him around Europe, but Beethoven was no Mozart. He made plenty of mistakes, broke the quills on harpsichords and his father punished him brutally for not being a wunderkind — beating him to within an inch of his life every time Ludwig made a mistake of any kind. When Beethoven was in his late twenties his hearing began to fail. Because of this, Beethoven contemplated suicide. After all, how could a composer craft his art without hearing? After writing an enormous document called the Heiligenstadt Testament, which expresses his most heartfelt emotions about losing his ability to hear, Beethoven made a choice. He chose to live, to persevere and overcome his condition. Shortly after making this decision he went on to write some of his most incredible compositions. He chose to seize fate by the throat and be its master. By 1822 Beethoven, now completely deaf, began working on what would become one of the greatest compositions ever written: his 9th Symphony. Now in his early 50’s, Beethoven was suffering from many ailments and despite them he pushed forward and on May 7, 1824 the 9th Symphony was performed for the very first time. It seemed like all of Vienna turned out for the concert and during the last movement, Beethoven himself walked up on stage and began observing the performance with his back to the audience. When the last movement ended, the Theater an der Wien exploded in applause and cheering. But poor Beethoven was still standing there with his back to them, in his mind the symphony was still going. The conductor, Michael Umlauf, walked over and gently placed his hands on Beethoven’s shoulders and turned the composer to face his adoring public. Beethoven saw all the people cheering and clapping with great vigor and bowed to them, with tears in his eyes. It would be the last great performance by the maestro. Three years later, on March 26, 1827, Beethoven breathed his last and passed from this world to become immortalized for all time as one of this world’s greatest composers. As you can see, I have studied Beethoven’s life a great deal, I have read his letters which have survived. That is the impact Beethoven has had on me. I strive in my life to overcome the challenges and trials thrown in my path, just as Beethoven did – because Beethoven did.
So while you enjoy your cup of coffee today, let’s give thanks to God for bringing such an incredible soul into this world, 245 years ago today.