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Culture

Beethoven's 'blood, sweat and tears' keep audiences coming back

Composer Ludwig van Beethoven moved the masses with his music and still does today. As the 2010 Beethovenfest gets underway, DW asks what is it about the composer that draws people back to his works decade after decade.

Beethoven bust with earphones and red scarf

Beethoven's music and biography fascinate all generations

Skepticism is in order when it comes to claims like "Beethoven has been performed more than any other composer!" Reliable statistics on the issue would be nearly impossible to assemble. But those who see the great composer as one of the most influential musicians in the world - both then and today - are certainly not far from the truth.

"Even today, Beethoven remains of contemporary interest across the world," Michael Ladenburger, director and curator of the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, told Deutsche Welle.

"Beethoven's music hasn't been reduced to just a cultural artefact that people occasionally listen to when they're in a certain mood. Instead, there are people across all societies who would say, 'This music enriches my life in a very personal and direct way. In a sense, Beethoven is necessary for my life.'"

Beethoven worldwide

There's no shortage of examples of the composer's enduring power: In the central African city of Kinshasa, a group of amateur musicians founded the region's first symphony orchestra and performed Beethoven. The composer is also a fixed part of the curriculum in Venezuela's "El Sistema" youth program for music education. Even the prisoners in gulags and concentration camps during World War II banded together and played Beethoven's works as a way to help cope with their anguish.

Beethovenfest logo

Bonn's 2010 Beethovenfest showcases international interest in the master composer

But why does his music inspire such an impassioned response?

"It's partly due to the fact that people know Beethoven's life - the health problems, his deafness, the bad twists of fate and his struggle against all of those things," said Ladenburger.

But that's not all: "Even more than most composers, Beethoven exerted an enormous amount of blood, sweat and tears to find the ideal form for his works."

Timeless moral message

Beethoven composed works for specific occasions or events, but many of his works also give expression to a moral or ethical ideal, and his fans and followers sense that. That may help explain why Beethoven enthusiasts get together and perform his pieces again and again.

But Ladenburger doesn't support every tradition when it comes to performing Beethoven's compositions.

"It's regrettable that the Ninth Symphony is performed so much and often so thoughtlessly. Beethoven would have rolled over in his grave if he knew that people performed the Ninth and other works for pleasure, with total disregard for the message behind them."

Millionaire and a hobby fisherman?

The Beethoven House in Bonn is world renowned as a place to get to know the composer better. And ever since the museum put its collection online, more questions about the master musician have come in than ever. In the Beethoven Forum, people can ask whatever is on their mind, like whether Beethoven liked to fish (he didn't) and how he might experience life today.

A violin lies on top of sheet music

Today, royalties could save Beethoven from the financial problems he once faced

According to Michael Ladenburger, Beethoven himself reflected deeply on the question of dealing with fame and being a public figure. "He asked himself what it meant for him to be an extraordinarily gifted person, and what obligations and practical consequences that brings."

But Ladenburger has reason to believe Beethoven would have been able to get by in contemporary society, "and not just because he wouldn't have to subsist on occasional payments from his publishers anymore. Instead, he'd be a millionaire several times over from royalties!"

Beethoven makes money for Bonn

Hopefully Beethoven wouldn't be against his hometown profiting today from the heritage of its famous son - both financially and in terms of image.

Bonn's mayor Juergen Nimptsch confirmed that Beethoven brings hefty returns. "It's more or less the case that for every euro we invest, three to four come back into the region and stay here in Bonn."

Top classical musicians from all over the world are scheduled to perform at the 2010 Beethovenfest Bonn, including pianist Helene Grimaud, cellist Sol Gabetta, conductor Kent Nagano and many others. The festival runs from September 10 - October 9.

Author: Anastassia Boutsko (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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