On the weekend of the 7 and 8 June, ABC Classic will be conducting its Classic 100 Countdown for 2020. Being the 250th anniversary of his birth, it is devoted to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.
For devotees of classical music, these dates are likely to be already in their calendars.
However, for those who dabble in classical music or those who are curious but unconvinced about wanting to get involved, this a not-to-be missed event. Make a weekend of it. Get the family members involved, the young ones in particular.
Even if you only have the radio on in the background there will be numerous instances when you will be drawn closer to the speakers, to sit down and listen. Prepare to be amazed.
This is a fabulous opportunity to hear much of the greatest classical music ever written, all of it written by arguably the greatest of all composers.
The worlds greatest ever human being
Well that heading got you in. But I mean it.
To me, Beethoven is the greatest ever human being, living or dead. Why? There are many reasons, but just one personal test: I think after 20 years I could write a readable novel or paint a respectable art piece or write a performable stage play, however, I could not possibly compose any music worth listening to or that anyone would want to hear. What Beethoven achieved is, for me, beyond human comprehension.
Some people will beg to differ, others wont differ so politely. Somehow I need to justify my claim. So here goes.
Two musical extremes
Für Elise is one of the best known pieces by Beethoven and some have noted that there might not be a more famous melody. It is a bagatelle for solo piano lasting around four minutes. It is a learning requirement for so many piano students, with the famous tune followed by a more challenging middle section. We rarely hear Für Elise at concerts but we do hear it in elevators, hotel lobbies and shopping malls. I thoroughly enjoy Für Elise for several reasons, not least being that it demonstrates how Beethoven takes a seemingly simple musical idea and then builds on complexities and challenges: a gently flowing stream, at stages interrupted by cascades and torrents. Here is a very fitting interpretation by Chenyin Li https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swTYEmyNvJk
If I had composed Für Elise, nobody would want to hear it. However, because this miniature was written by Him, we take it for what it is complex simplicity – or simple complexity – composed by a master.
At the other extreme is another of Beethovens bestsellers his Ninth Symphony. Performed by an orchestra of 90 or so with a choir of up to 100 and four soloists, it lasts around 65 minutes. It has four movements, all of which would be masterpieces for other composers. The final movement, which is often referred to as the Ode to Joy, is the pinnacle. Hearing the Ninth through your speakers is one thing, but seeing it live is unrivalled as a thrilling experience. The Ode to Joy theme is as well-known as Für Elise and can also be heard in lifts and in public venues. It can also be heard at football games. It is the anthem of the European Union. It was performed at the formal opening of the Sydney Opera House.
And it is not just the last movement that is astonishing. If you have limited time, in this interpretation by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, start the second movement at 16.20. Turn up the sound and listen for a few minutes as the cameras pan around the orchestra members in full flight. The whole work finishes 50 minutes later. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgLfu-4pVS0
If I had written the Ode to Joy symphony, would anybody want to listen to it? Of course they would. And they would hear it in their lifts and in various public venues, along with one of my other top hits, the tuneful bagatelle I wrote called Für Doreen.
But I didnt write the Ninth, because I couldnt. Not in a thousand years. I couldnt even compose a Für Doreen.
The compositions in-between
So we have two extremes: a four minute piece for a single person at a single piano, and a concert stage packed with 200 performers for 65 minutes?
What lies between?
To find out, go to the ABC Classic Countdown website to see the full range of works on offer.
Here is the link to vote: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/classic-100/beethoven/
You need to register; it only takes a minute. Then you will find a mind-blowing compendium of creativity to challenge you.
Choose the Browse by Category button. There are nine categories, each displaying the works you can vote for.
Here is a summing up of each category:
Concertos, symphonies and other orchestral works: 31 works to choose from, including the nine symphonies and the six best known concertos.
Overtures and incidental music: 8 works.
Piano sonatas: 37 works to choose from, including the set of 32.
Other solo piano: 80 works to choose from, including over 20 sets of variations.
String quartets: 18 works.
Other chamber: 77 works to choose from, including the ten violin sonatas and five cello sonatas.
Songs with piano: 88 works or sets of works; one such set being Op. 108, which itself consists of 25 Scottish Songs.
Other vocal, choral and opera: 20 works.
Canons and musical jokes: 48 works.
There you are, in total 408 works or groups of works to choose from.
The variety is astonishing, unfathomable.
Have I convinced you that Beethoven is the worlds greatest ever human being? If not, you have 408 of his works you had better start listening to.
And compare your experiences to what other great human beings achieved:
– Yes, Christopher Columbus discovered America, but he only discovered one continent, didnt he!
– Van Gogh is the Beethoven equivalent of art. Providing so much joy, but not easily accessible.
– Marie Curie coined the term radioactivity, and helped pave the way for modern medicine. But we fickle humans only call on her when we need her.
– Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity. Great, but I have to be honest and ask where is the thrill, the joy, the tingle up the spine, the exhilaration in E = mc2?
Choices had to be made
I have already voted: not happy with the ABC, putting me through this torture of having to choose not just my ten Beethoven favourites out of over 400 works, but also having to nominate which is my absolute favourite!
I love practically anything Beethoven composed: he could not write a wrong note in my book. But I had to make decisions. While my choices might not make it towards the top of the voting list I elaborate on three below.
Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16:
An early work, composed in 1796 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. Matching Mozart as an example of a perfect composition. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKs4ldkOKIA
Choral Fantasy, Op. 80:
A middle period work, composed in 1808 for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra and showing a composer who could do no wrong, who could do anything, and who could get away with anything knowing that people would love it. It has so many features: solo piano as per a grand sonata, concerto, symphonic passages, finishing with solo singers and a choir as in the Ode to Joy. See Martha Argerich: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjXBKR4iDS8
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111:
Completed in 1822, five years before his death in 1827, it is one of his last piano works, and the last sonata. Maybe I read too much into this composition but I find it to be full of anguish, a composition of changing moods, of torment, suffering, grief and despair. The whole sonata seems to be a conversation, of Beethoven with someone else or Beethoven with himself, about the trials, failures, issues, struggles and regrets of his life. The first movement is anguished enough; has Beethoven just been told he has a major issue to confront? It leads to the second (and last) movement, a set of variations that start calmly but painfully. From there Beethoven becomes more and more agitated as the conversation continues, breaking into forceful pain then lapsing back into some peace and quiet, as if in remission from the agonising mental tortures. This extraordinary piece of music breaks into what can only be described as jazz-like passages; inexplicable clairvoyance of the ragtime era almost 100 years later. From there the remainder of the movement waxes and wanes between the depths of sadness and occasional joyfulness, but the overall feeling is that Beethoven is lying in his hospital death bed letting out his last gasps, finally fading away from us in the last few passages.
You can see Alfred Brendel’s incomparable performance from these three links: not ideal with the second movement in two parts. If the way Brendel plays some of the notes in the last few minutes doesnt bring you to tears, go back and have another listen.
– Beethoven Piano Sonata No.32 Op.111 -1mov (1/3) Alfred Brendel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5ZUnbHhCJk
– Beethoven Piano Sonata No.32 Op.111 -2mov(2/3) Alfred Brendel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HiyWXGZURk
– Beethoven Piano Sonata No.32 Op.111 -2mov(3/3) Alfred Brendel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_nFsCrEmXQ
I might not have a funeral, but if I did, I would want those gathered to hear the second movement of Sonata No. 32, preferably performed by Alfred Brendel. I chose this Sonata as my Number One Beethoven.
Time to vote
It is time for you to vote. Voting closes 9 am Monday 1 June.
Go on do it! It will be a cathartic experience, albeit a little bit challenging.
Be ready to listen early on Saturday 7 June. Set aside the whole weekend.
The Australian public wont necessarily agree with your choices, but it is fun to see how your selections line up.
Two matters of interest are which of Beethovens works is voted as number one, and whether or not Für Elise makes the list.
Robin Boyle lectured in statistics at Deakin University and preceding institutes for three decades until 2009. His academic background in mathematics, economics and finance, as well as statistics, led him to developing teaching software in those areas and to be widely sought after as a textbook author.