Beethoven at 250: Celebrating the Imago DeiWritten by Subby Szterszky
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It goes without saying that 2020 will be remembered as the year of the coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been good things to celebrate, even in the midst of challenging times.
Among other things, 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Arts and cultural groups had been gearing up for their celebrations long before the year started – that is, until COVID-19 hit. Undaunted, orchestras around the world have gone ahead with their planned Beethoven festivals, performing in empty concert halls and offering the German composer’s music online, for free.
Should this be of interest to anyone except musicians or classical music buffs, especially in the midst of a global crisis? Emphatically yes, for a number of reasons.
Beethoven is a towering, formative figure in Western culture. He is to music what Shakespeare is to language and literature. His revolutionary musical style, with evocative personal expression at its heart, has influenced every genre of music since, from symphonies to soundtracks to popular songs.
Most significant from a biblical standpoint, his immense talent was a loud declaration of the Imago Dei in humanity, and of the fact that God lavishes his creative gifts even on his most unlikely image bearers.
A difficult childhood
Beethoven was born in the German city of Bonn, around December 16, 1770 (the record is unclear). His father was an abusive alcoholic who saw the boy’s musical ability as a ticket to money and fame. He would drag his son out of bed in the middle of the night and force him to practice, beating him for every mistake or hesitation and reducing the child to tears.
As a teen, Beethoven found refuge in the home of a kindly widow, Helene von Breuning, who engaged him as a music teacher for her children and became a surrogate mother to him. She also gave him a more rounded education beyond music and introduced him into prominent social circles.
In his early twenties, Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna, then the cultural centre of Europe, to further his career as a musician and composer. He soon built a reputation as a virtuoso pianist and his early works started to get published. He also found friends and patrons among the nobility who admired and supported his music and subsidized his livelihood.
Triumph over adversity
Just as his career was taking off, Beethoven came to the horrible realization that he was going deaf. He wrote a letter to his brothers that he never sent, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he poured out his grief, contemplated suicide, and resolved to battle his disability and find hope and purpose through his music.
During the next decade, Beethoven’s creativity soared even as his hearing declined, and he wrote most of the works for which he’s best known. He forged a style that broke with the rules of balance and restraint that had marked the music of his era. His work was filled with grand heroic gestures, conveying every emotion from despair to exultation, and charting Beethoven’s own course from tragedy to triumph.
Yet even as his music became more expansive, Beethoven himself grew more withdrawn. His hearing loss made it impossible to perform in public, or even to engage in normal social interaction. He courted several women during this time, all of whom turned him down. They admired his work but knew the volatile, eccentric composer would make a terrible husband. Beethoven remained single his entire life.
The value of the individual
Although he came from a nominal Catholic background, Beethoven did not hold a biblically orthodox Christian faith. Like many of his contemporaries influenced by the Enlightenment, he saw God more as a transcendent Creator than as a personal Saviour. He acknowledged God as the source of his musical gifts. But beyond that, his concept of deity was closer to fate than to the God of Scripture.
Beethoven also held to an idealistic, utopian view of humanity, with people of every class freed from tyranny and united in a universal brotherhood (and perhaps sisterhood, although that distinction would’ve sadly appeared foreign in Beethoven’s day). He expressed these ideals most clearly in one of his best-known works, the Ninth Symphony with its choral setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy.
Whatever their biblical shortcomings, Beethoven’s beliefs saw something of the value and dignity – and creative potential – of the individual. His work reflects this. He was the first major composer to use his music primarily as a means of self-expression rather than to serve a corporate function. He wrote to express his feelings and ideas, and to convey them to his audience, not to provide background entertainment for aristocratic dinner parties.
He did some of that too, of course, but far less than his predecessors. In fact, his aristocratic patrons thought so highly of his work that they essentially gave him free reign to compose as he liked, only occasionally asking for a piece to serve a public interest. They put up with his spiky, difficult personality, and even with his insults, while remaining his devoted supporters and friends. If ever there was an example of God granting someone favour in the eyes of others against all expectation, it was Beethoven.
From function to beauty
The shift from public utility to private statement in Beethoven’s music signalled a parallel arc from function to beauty. As his career progressed, his work became less about fulfilling a practical role and more about being enjoyed for its own sake. This trajectory was happening in all of the arts around that time, but in the world of music, Beethoven was the touchstone.
Naturally, this personal aesthetic impulse can and often has been taken to solipsistic extremes. But it’s also a vital counter against the opposite impulse that reduces music (or any of the arts) to a commodity, useful as decoration or as a vehicle to convey a message. Christians can be especially guilty of this when we speak of “using” or “consuming” the arts as if they were a roll of paper towels.
But that’s not how artistic expression works. As C.S. Lewis observed, “A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used.’ When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities. . . . ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”
God’s own creative activities are beautiful as well as being beneficial. It follows, therefore, that the creative efforts of his human image bearers should maintain something of that balance. Like few before him, Beethoven brought the aesthetic side into the conversation so emphatically that it has remained there ever since.
Culture and the Imago Dei
The creation and enjoyment of culture is essential for humanity. It’s part of our design, what makes us uniquely human and reflects the image of God in us. And as far back as Genesis 4, the Scriptures list music among the earliest of cultural activities. Since then, like the sun and the rain, God has poured down his creative gifts generously on all people, both just and unjust, as part of his common grace.
It’s easy to gloss over such truths in the abstract. But a life like Beethoven’s brings them into sharp, vivid focus. He may not have used his prodigious talent in direct service of the Gospel (although he did write religious works on occasion). But his powerful music, with its ability to stir every emotion, was a loud shout out to the Imago Dei reflected in human creativity. More than that, it showed that God bestows his greatest gifts as he sees fit, even on the unlikeliest individuals, to his glory.
Beethoven’s music may not be to everyone’s taste, but its influence is felt across virtually every style of music that’s become popular in Western culture since. It has even affected the way we appreciate music in general, with its appeal to personal emotional experience. The anniversary of such a pivotal figure in our cultural tradition is worth celebrating – especially in a challenging year like 2020.
Sources and further reading
Marin Alsop, “The music and morality of Beethoven’s mighty Ninth,” NPR, December 7, 2019.
Biography.com Editors, “Ludwig van Beethoven,” Biography, August 29, 2019.
Michael Cooper, “From Bonn to Vienna, in search of Beethoven, the man,” New York Times, February 24, 2020.
Mary Louise Kelly and Noah Caldwell, “Revisiting Beethoven’s beloved, radical symphonies for his 250th birthday,” NPR, February 25, 2020.
David Larkin, “Beethoven: An icon at risk of overexposure?” The Conversation, January 30, 2020.
Alexander Lee, “Beethoven and Napoleon,” History Today, Volume 68 Issue 3, March 2018.
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Tejvan Pettinger, “Biography of Beethoven,” Biography Online, February 1, 2020.
Gaby Reucher, “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: The truth about the ‘symphony of fate’,” Deutsche Welle, September 13, 2018.
Alex Ross, “Deus Ex Musica: Beethoven transformed music, but has veneration of him stifled his successors?” The New Yorker, October 13, 2014.
“Beethoven and the creative process,” Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at Illinois, accessed May 12, 2020.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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