Beethoven: Birth of an Archetype

by scottrgs

As I studied Beethoven for recent classes, I was struck, not just by his distinct music (especially that of his ‘Heroic’ period), but his peculiar life as well. Before taking this class, I knew few details of Beethoven’s life. I had a vague idea of his eccentric personality and I knew something about his hearing loss later in his life, but that was the extent of my knowledge of Beethoven. And when I listened to his compositions, I felt that there was a great barrier between the music and myself – as if there were elements of his personal life that he was trying to express through his music that I failed to comprehend.

As I read through the Beethoven chapter of the book, I realized that he didn’t just influence the direction of music in the 19th century, he changed the way think of artists and their relationship to their work, even today. Ludwig van Beethoven had a dark life. He was often depressed and irritable. We know, through his own Heiligenstadt Testament that he was devastated by his increasing deafness and other physical ailments, to the point of even considering suicide. Yet Beethoven was capable of turning his despair into something beautiful and breath-taking. The fourth movement of his Ninth symphony, an optimistic call for universal human kinship, takes on much greater meaning when you consider the darkness of Beethoven’s inner life.

In many ways, this is how we imagine artists today. We think of them as existential heroes who, in spite of great obstacles, overcome deep sadness and create something beautiful.