At the beginning of 2020, I resolved to ignore, as far as possible, celebrations of the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, which fell last month. The uncontested titan of classical music receives sufficient attention in an ordinary year, and there is no lazier way of programming a musical season than letting it be dictated by a birthday. As it happened, the coronavirus pandemic essentially wiped out the Beethoven Year; virtual seasons often turned in a different direction, placing a welcome emphasis on Black composers. Still, there was no escaping the shadow of the scowling one. Recordings and books accumulated by the dozens; radio stations staged multiday marathons. During the months without live concerts, I slipped back into the composer’s vortex, paying particular attention to the latest scholarly literature, which gives insight into how our Beethoven obsession took hold.
Anniversary programming is symptomatic of classical music’s extreme fixation on the past, and the veneration of Beethoven played a pivotal role in the emergence of that mentality. In the years after his death, in 1827, concert halls became temples of undead gods, with a familiar wild-maned figure featured at the center of the pantheon. Beethoven himself in no way invited this turn of events. Although he was an overbearing and in many ways unpleasant personality, he was no megalomaniac, and the idea that his music would dominate the future repertory, to the exclusion of living composers’ work, would presumably have been anathema to him. Perpetually dissatisfied, eternally questing, he developed a musical language that was always becoming and never arriving. A proper tribute to Beethoven would show how his restless spirit has resonated with more recent music—as the Danish String Quartet has done in its exploration of the late quartets.