A couple of people mentioned that today is Ludwig van Beethoven's birthday. It's funny, I didn't remember that until I saw other people's posts. I have had an extensive musical education, but I'm not really up on the details of most composer's biographies. I tend to know plenty about their music, though. So here are some of my thoughts on Beethoven.
Beethoven has always been one of my favorite composers. Possibly The Favorite. I love his music - listening to it, playing it, studying it. I never get tired of many of his pieces - Dr. Bell once said that was one of the chief criteria for the greatness of a work. Certainly, I never get tired of the 9th Symphony - the third movement is like being held in warm comforting arms as you drift off to sleep, and the fourth movement never fails to make me feel joyful. Back when I was suffering from depression, I used to listen to the 9th to relieve the pain. If I could take only one piece of music with me to a desert island (in both a recording and a full score), Beethoven's 9th Symphony would probably be it.
Learning to play Beethoven piano sonatas is always a major project for me. First of all, they are very demanding technically, and I am not a professional-level pianist. There are sonatas (e.g., the Hammerklavier) that I will never be able to play, because I just don't have the physical chops to do it. Beethoven always takes enormous physical and mental effort. But his music never fails to reward that effort. And that's not true of every composer (Schubert comes to mind).
A co-worker once asked me if Beethoven was really as great a composer as everyone thinks and says he is. The answer is yes. Even if I didn't like his music, I would have to say so. He was both a master of the classical style and a great innovator within that style. He extended sonata form in both length and conception. He achieved unity between both the larger design and the details of a work. In many of his mature works, for example, the first interval played mirrors the motion of the first harmonic modulation. This may sound simple, but it's very difficult to do well. Plus, Beethoven's music sounds wonderful, IMHO. If you don't believe me on the technical points, check out The Classical Style by Charles Rosen. And if you just don't like Beethoven's music, you're entitled to your opinion. But that has nothing to do with whether or not he is a great composer. I have never been able to like Haydn's music, but I can't dispute the fact that he was a great composer.
However, I have to admit that some of Beethoven's perceived greatness has to do with his personality and life and how they mesh with some cultural concepts about great artists. Beethoven fits very well into the Romantic vision of a great artist: something of a loner, a tragic figure, etc. I'm not sure Beethoven himself would have seen himself this way, but he certainly fits the profile. Despite originating in the 19th century, this concept of the great artist is still very much with us, and I think still holds a lot of attraction for many people. Luckily, his music stands on its own, in all its greatness.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven.
"Do you fall prostrate, you millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry vault,
he must surely dwell above the start!"
(from the Ode to Joy, of course)