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.
BEETHOVEN’S SAD LOVE LIFE
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.”
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 LVBeethoven.com 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.
BEETHOVEN’S TRAGIC DEAFNESS
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 INSPIRING GREATNESS
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!