Saturday, March 25, 2017

Beethoven’s Immortally Beloved Music

As has been widely reported, rock and roll singer Chuck Berry died last week at the age of 90. One of his best-known hits was “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956). This article, though, is about Beethoven.
Born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. Knowing that the 190th anniversary of Beethoven’s death was coming up, the other day June and I watched (for at least the third time) the intriguing 1994 film “Immortal Beloved.” 

Statue of Beethoven
in Bonn, Germany
The movie is based on historical facts. In 1812 Beethoven wrote a passionate letter to a woman he called his “Immortal Beloved.” The letter was found after Beethoven’s death.
Numerous women amongst his students and friends have been proposed as the recipient of that missive. As the website says, however, “Unless a new document is discovered it is likely that the truth about this mysterious woman will remain unknown.”
There seems to be no historian who thinks that Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” could possibly the one identified as such in the movie—and yet it is a great movie, largely because of Beethoven’s wonderful music heard throughout it.
It is a sad movie, however, and Beethoven, who never married, is presented as an unhappy, lonely man—mainly, perhaps, because he suffered from unrequited love.
The life of the great composer was also extremely sad because he began to lose his hearing in the late 1790s, and from 1817 or so was completely deaf.
What could be worse than for a musician and composer to lose his hearing?
Because of the way that hearing loss, and the effects of that loss, are so poignantly portrayed, I continue to be impressed with the movie “Immortal Beloved.”
In one scene, Beethoven is conducting an orchestra playing one of his compositions. We hear the wonderful music—and then the scene shifts to what he hears: only unpleasant static.
What a tragic state of affairs!
Beethoven’s first symphony was performed in 1800, after he had begun to lose his hearing. His ninth symphony, one of the greatest musical compositions of all time, was completed in 1824, long after he had lost his hearing completely.
Not far from the end of “Immortal Beloved” comes one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In a flashback, young Ludwig is running away from his abusive father, and that scene is accompanied by the delightful music of his ninth symphony.
The music continues to a climax with him floating on his back in a lake, looking up at the spectacular starry sky. (See the YouTube video of that scene here.) He had escaped, at least temporarily, from his unhappy environment and was there in complete peace, at one with the universe.
The implication is that at least some of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was the marvelous music he had heard in his head for more than forty years.
The fourth movement of that “Choral” symphony was an appropriate setting for the singing of Shiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which later morphed into one of my very favorite hymns, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," a hymn text written by Henry van Dyke in 1907.
As biographer John Suchet wrote in the last paragraph of his book Beethoven: The Man Revealed (2012), “Beethoven’s music will, quite simply, endure for ever and all time.”
Beethoven was not a religious man such as Bach and Handel were, but by God’s grace he wrote “divine” music. And while we may not know who his “beloved immortal” was, we know he wrote immortal, beloved music.

Beethoven doesn’t have to roll over for anyone!


  1. Local Thinking Friend Thomas Howell shares the following pertinent comments:

    "Enjoyed the article thoroughly.

    "There are passages in Beethoven's music--parts of the Emperor Concerto (Piano #5) and of his 7th Symphony come to mind--that have the power to mentally lift me to another realm. Engaging Beethoven is rarely relaxing and can be exhausting but has rewards that the music of few other composers can even approach."

    1. As several others of you have also experienced, Dr. Howell tried unsuccessfully to post directly on the blogsite. I have no control over how allows or doesn't allow comments to be made. But if you have trouble posting comments, for whatever reason, please just email them to me as Dr. Howell did.

  2. I was happy to receive, just now, these comments from my good personal friend (for several years we lived in the same city in Japan) and Thinking Friend Glen Davis in Canada:

    "Thanks for this lovely story/tribute on Beethoven.

    "You might be interested in this story. In the 1990s I was in Vienna for some meetings and had a free evening. I wandered over to the Vienna concert hall and discovered that Beethoven’s 9th was being performed that evening. I bought a ticket and fully enjoyed that glorious symphony, and then was extra delighted when, in the final movement, the chorus consisted of a choir of about 80 young people from Japan!

    "And last month our grandson, a choral major at the University of British Columbia, sang it with 120 UBC choristers along with the Vancouver Symphony.

    "Such music and such opportunities can only come from the heart of a gracious, creative God!"

    1. Thanks, Glen, for sharing this. I especially like your concluding sentence.

  3. Here's a link to a YouTube video of 10,000 Japanese singers singing the final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Please go beyond the 2:20 minute point to see that I really do mean 10,000 singers. I don't think one could get that many singers into a single arena dressed in matching choir robes to sing that well in either USA or Germany. I assume they're singing in German.

    1. Thanks, Clif, for writing and posting this link.

      Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is very popular in Japan, and it is performed by 10,000 singers every year in the Osaka area, it seems. See this link for a brief article about that:

  4. I will be surprised if anyone takes issue with Beethoven’s music, whether the great symphonies or multiple concertos--maybe some would have difference about who is their favorite, comparing Beethoven to Mozart, Hayden or Bach before him, or Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner after.

    Count me in as one who also enjoyed “Immortal Beloved”, but who was not satisfied that this did justice to Ludwig V because it focused on the possible but unproven romance. It was wonderfully entertaining, both for the use of B’s music and for the dramatic use of the possible romance. Shakespeare was comfortable creating drama beyond the facts. We have memorable portraits of several English Henrys based on his plays rather than from straight English history.

    Documentaries about well-known music composers fascinate me. My favorites are those made by English writer-director-producer Phil Grabsky, e.g. “In Search of Beethoven” (2009), “Concerto: A Beethoven Journey” (2015), “In Search of Mozart” (2006), “In Search of Hayden” (2012), and others (list of a dozen on is better than

    On the importance of music and films, have you ever tried to view a film without music, or watch a film a second time, paying attention only the music? Or noticed how classical music makes almost any kind of film resonate with you emotionally? Ever tried to make a connection between music and spirituality? I know Vern Barnet has done classes about that when teaching world religions. Anyone know of anyone else who has made a contribution there?

    1. Thanks for your sharing your helpful comments, Larry.

      I didn't think anyone would take issue with Beethoven's music, but I thought some might have negative words about Beethoven himself. He is not presented as a very attractive man in "Immortal Beloved." I was glad to hear you also enjoyed the movie, though.

      I watched "In Search of Beethoven" on Amazon's Video Prime, but for some reason it had only the first half. I want to see the rest of that and the other documentaries that you mentioned. Thanks for sharing that information.

      I have thought about the connection between music and spirituality to a degree, but would like to pursue that more. I hope later this year to do something on Bach, perhaps one of the most "spiritual" composers. In that regard, I like what my good friend Glen Davis wrote (as posted above): "Such music and such opportunities can only come from the heart of a gracious, creative God!"

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson gave me permission to post here the following significant comments, which he sent to me by email:

    "I’ve long cherished the Beethoven story as I have had to cope with deafness since age 27. Hearing loss is a grave handicap, but I’ve had the good fortune to live in an era when hearing aid technology has improved by leaps and bounds. Today we even have cochlear implants that help the deaf to function.

    "My hunch is that Beethoven didn’t suffer total hearing loss. That seldom happens. What he suffered, however, relegated him to a silent world in the day in which he lived. But silence is a gift, and I wonder if Beethoven would have produced the music he composed had he not spent much of his life in silence. Thomas Merton spoke about his contemplative vocation as the silent life.

    "By the way, Walter Rauschenbusch also had to cope with deafness from about age 27."

  6. Yesterday Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shared these comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your observations about Beethoven, perhaps the greatest of all composers.

    "It is amazing that Beethoven, who sadly lived such a tortured life, could write such brilliant music. He was chronically ill, suffered from increasing deafness, and had a difficult custody battle with his sister-in-law over his nephew, yet he persevered.

    "Of his nine symphonies, my personal favorite is the Pastoral Symphony, or the Sixth. Perhaps my bias was influenced by Disney's Fantasia, in which the Sixth is used. I also love to hear his piano sonatas and his one violin concerto."

    1. Thanks, Eric, for your comments. It was good to hear from you again.

      Thanks to your comments, I am listening to Beethoven's Sixth as I write this. I was impressed by the first comment under the YouTube video that I am listening to.

      "I listened to Beethoven's 6th every day for the month I was at home, recovering from a heart attack, in May 2016. This did more good for my blood pressure, peace of mind and hope for my future than any stent, tablet or diet. Sublime! Heaven!! Thanks Ludwig!! :-)"