Examining Beethoven's Worldwide Appeal

Dec 8, 2020

Ludwig van Beethoven, who lived from 1770 to 1827, is one of the most popular composers of all time.  Although he began to lose his hearing in his late 20s, and went completely deaf by his mid 40s, his deafness did nothing to defeat his ability to compose. Beethoven’s influence around the globe has not been hampered by geography, wars. or even pandemics. Let’s examine the pervasive appeal of Beethoven, which has transformed him from musical genius to Promethean hero to demigod.

Art and music historian Alessandra Comini wrote her classic book, The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking in 1987. A new 250th anniversary edition has just been published, and we discussed the how and why of the myth of Beethoven on Zoom:

Beethoven’s work has inspired music lovers, musicians, composers, artists and writers alike. It’s become the go-to music to mark great moments in history and the standard by which other musical efforts are judged.

Here are a few fun facts about Beethoven’s influence:

The length of the standard playing time for a CD, 74 minutes, was determined by a Beethoven symphony. When CD developers Sony and Philips surveyed performers, conductor Herbert von Karajan said the one-hour prototype was not long enough, because it would not be possible to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on just one CD.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated by a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He gathered musicians from both East and West Germany, as well as the United States, England, France ,and the Soviet Union. And he changed the lyrics of “Ode to Joy” to “Ode to Freedom.”

Beethoven made a regular appearance in Charles Schulz’s long-running “Peanuts” comic strip. More about that here.

Beethoven’s music is even travelling through outer space, representing human achievement. The Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, is now over 14 billion miles from Earth. On board is a golden record containing the sights and sounds of Earth, including the first movement of... Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.