Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
From The New York Times:
If we are to believe the Beethoven mythology, which is based mostly on his letters and reports from his inner circle, Beethoven had an unshakeable sense of his own importance. Unlike Mozart and Haydn he refused to defer to nobility, asserting that a composer is of greater value, in the cosmic scheme of things, than a prince. And though he had patrons among the aristocracy, he revered Napoleon, their nemesis, and dedicated his Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (“Heroic”) to him, only to remove the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Beethoven was probably much as history painted him: the deaf painter in sound, ingenious, embattled and defiant, but also a disheveled, scowling force of nature whose unpleasantness and irritability people suffered for the sake of his brilliance. In his music he tweaked conventions and was undaunted when works like the “Eroica” were criticized for their wildness, harmonic adventurousness and, for the time, outrageous length. Such criticisms aside, an enormous constituency regarded him reverently, and unlike Mahler, who believed that his time would come long after his death, Beethoven knew that he had seized his day.
But even Beethoven probably would have been surprised at the place his name and image have found at the heart of American culture, including popular culture. Yes, it’s true that millions of Americans get through their days, weeks and months without hearing a note of Beethoven or giving him a thought. But as Michael Broyles points out in his fascinating but uneven “Beethoven in America,” just about everyone knows Beethoven’s name, if not necessarily his music, and for millions — particularly those with little interest in the symphonic world — he is synonymous with the classics.
Listen to the Eroica: