From the Podium: Beethoven…Celebrating 250 years!

by John Zoltek, Glacier Symphony Music Director and Conductor

Beethoven, born in the provincial town of Bonn in 1870, is perhaps one of the most fascinating figures in all of music history. His great legacy is one of overcoming the acute adversity of his deafness and creating a musical art form that harnessed the classical model he inherited from Haydn, Mozart and others, only to transform it into an expressive new art emerging from human pathos and emotional immediacy. This music seemed radical and unrefined during the height of the Enlightenment when values of proportionality and restraint ruled the day. Beethoven would have none of it. After his early flirtation with classical style, he developed with laser focus and hard work a taut personal style of composition based on the development of small motivic musical atoms – case in point, the opening Da-Da-Da-Dum….. of his famous 5th Symphony. Beethoven’s heroic music emerged after moving permanently to Vienna, Austria during the Napoleonic Wars – a time of social upheaval, destruction of absolutism, the burgeoning of Republicanism and ideals of equality. On a personal level, Beethoven also had to deal with his own very significant struggle with the onset of his deafness. He strove to overcome this malady by throwing himself completely into his music, eschewing almost all else that had little to do with his own musical creations and process. In fact, it may be argued that Beethoven himself came to define what it meant to be a struggling artist, smashing all notions of social conformity and struggling to be victorious in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. He not only composed magnificent music as his hearing deteriorated to the point of complete deafness, but he also managed his own business affairs, at times quite unscrupulously. Yes, he did have patrons as was the expected norm of artists at the time, but these few loyal patrons who helped him financially, continually bore the brunt of Beethoven’s unpredictable personality. As a result, they drifted in and out of his life, sometimes supporting him and sometimes not.

Nevertheless, because of the volatile economy in Vienna during his lifetime and the disruption of the aristocratic patronage system, Beethoven had to work to secure deals with publishers, impresarios and sometimes even monarchs of other states. King Louis XVIII of France, for example, subscribed to receive an autographed copy of the Missa solemnis score. Beethoven’s music, along with the difficult and curious aspects of his life, resulted in a kind of personality cult which essentially later defined what it meant to be an artist, and specifically a composer, for the next 100 years or so during the Romantic Era of the 19th century.

The masterfulness of his music and its effect on the listener, the force of his personality and the ensuing mythos that developed around his heroic struggle, had a sweeping influence on literally every composer that came after him. In some ways it remains so to this day. There is no doubt that we musicians continue to receive immense gratification when performing Beethoven’s music. The music he left, from his solo piano works and chamber music to his larger orchestral works, all convey that certain human energy and engagement that is hardly matched by anyone, especially from that era. Musicians continue to perform this great music because of its technical demands, power of expression and human pathos. But perhaps more importantly is the interpretive probing for those human truths locked inside the notes and gestures of his sound world. We can directly experience that special essence of Beethoven’s character, his struggles and the Zeitgeist of his world experience. Most of all, his music marks the beginning of the modern idea of the artist creating art that is a personal statement with a deep message for the listener, however defined or abstract. Beethoven was indeed the bridge from the Classical to the Romantic period. He was the essential catalyst for the then emerging musical art of personal expression.

In recognition of the importance of Beethoven our celebration will start this April and run through December. During these months we will present a number of concerts featuring Beethoven’s music. We begin with the orchestra and chorale’s milestone performance of Beethoven’s greatest masterpiece, his Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123 (Solemn Mass) for 4 soloists, chorus and orchestra and continue through December when we celebrate Beethoven’s actual birthday week. Our Holiday Concert will feature Beethoven Lives Upstairs, an award winning family program created by Classical Kids that highlights Beethoven through the eyes of a young boy. This August, Festival Amadeus will focus on Beethoven with performances of his Violin Concerto in D major, the Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, his Symphony No. 7 in A Major, and the Egmont Overture, as well as a number of chamber pieces. In the Fall, our 2020/21 Voyages season will feature the Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb Major, “Emperor” and the epic Symphony No. 5 in C minor. So get ready to experience and enjoy a lot of Beethoven – a fitting Glacier Symphony tribute to this astounding genius creator of music and aesthetic catalyst.

John Zoltek can be reached at