Celebrating Beethoven’s 250th Birthday this December

Dec 3, 2020

1803 portrait of Beethoven (age 33) by Christian Horneman.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a bit of trivia: no one knows when Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday really was.

Peanuts readers may remember Schroeder celebrating every year on December 16th, but that’s just a guess: records only show that little Ludwig was baptized on December 17th, and historians filled in the rest. This makes celebrating Beethoven’s 250th a bit of a challenge, so the music world is compensating with an entire month of (virtual) festivities – including some with a Tulsa connection.

On December 10 and 11, Chamber Music Tulsa presents Canada’s Gryphon Trio in a pair of streaming performances of six of Beethoven’s most important trios for violin, cello, and piano. These range from Beethoven’s first published works, written when he was still Joseph Haydn’s student, to the very last piece he ever performed in public: his monumental “Archduke” Trio.

I’ll preview these concerts on Classical Tulsa this Friday, December 4, but if you’d like even more details, I’ll be offering a special live Zoom edition of my Mochas Merlot with the Musicologist series on Sunday, December 6, at 5:00 pm. Join us from your home computer or smartphone to learn the historical contexts of the trios and get your burning Beethoven questions answered. And you can go even deeper into Beethoven’s chamber music with Season 2 of my Masterworks in 10 Minutes or Less podcast.

Next Friday, I’ll celebrate Beethoven’s birthday a little early (maybe?) with a tribute to a marathon benefit concert he gave in Vienna in December of 1808, which saw the world premieres of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Forth Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasy, and more. You can hear highlights from this program as it might have sounded then on Classical Tulsa on December 11 at noon. Then on Saturday, December 12, you can hear Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, on our Metropolitan Opera broadcast at noon.

At this point, you might be wondering: what’s the big deal with Beethoven? I’ll admit that his brooding music isn’t for everyone. But even after two centuries, Beethoven is still our model for a genius artist – someone who completely reinvents himself in each new work. This is the level of originality we still expect from artists today, and we owe it all to Beethoven and his relentless drive.

But to me, the most important thing to know about Beethoven is this: after he lost his hearing, he initially retired from music altogether. But he eventually came back, in part because of his burning desire to set Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music. That he had experienced so much tragedy, having lost the only life he had known, and still wanted to express the idea that “all people will become brothers” in his glorious Ninth Symphony is almost unbelievable.

After 2020, I think we’ll need this idea most of all.

Jason Heilman hosts Classical Tulsa, Fridays at noon on Classical 88.7 KWTU HD-1.