BEETHOVEN: Music. His gift to all people.
I have a confession to make.
It took me twenty years of listening to “This Night” by Billy Joel to figure out that Billy Joel didn’t come up with the melody of the chorus.
Guess who did?
Ludwig van Beethoven.
So, if you’re a Billy Joel fan like I am, it turns out that you know more of Beethoven’s music than you thought you did.
As a matter of fact, to paraphrase a recent-ish movie that has nothing to do with this blog post, Beethoven (actually) is all around. His music shows up in movies and television commercials. He’s inspired pop singers and musical theater composers, to say nothing of other composers throughout the realm of classical music. I had that Playmobil Victorian dollhouse when I was a kid, and the little upright piano that came with the living room set played “Für Elise” when you pressed the keys. Playmobil was classy stuff.
I took a class in college called Music and Gypsies (I’ll be back to Beethoven in a second, just bear with me) in which we spent a lot of time identifying the sounds, instruments and musical ideas that classical composers used to indicate the otherness and exoticism associated with the Roma population across the world. Our professor called them signifiers. That word popped into my brain as I started to plan this blog post, because it began to occur to me that Beethoven’s music has become so embedded in the public consciousness that we could also call it a signifier. Filmmakers can count on audiences to recognize the name of Beethoven and to understand, if not consciously, that this name stands in for all of classical music; “Beethoven” means culture, it means high class, sometimes it means wealth.
And sometimes it just means a big shaggy dog.
The reason it worked to name a troublesome movie pooch after Ludwig van Beethoven is because regardless of what we know about what classical music is or is not, we know that Beethoven is the EPITOME of it. Giving the name of a legendary composer of classical music to a loveable, if slobbery, St. Bernard is hilarious, and the whole movie-going public could be in on the joke.
Beethoven’s music has also been used as a signifier of musical talent or interest. Take Peanuts, for example, the beloved comic strip by Charles Schultz.
Beethoven is how Schultz shows us–without saying so in as many words–that Schroeder is a serious musician, despite playing on a toy piano. Beethoven was a genius: everybody knows that. So was Stravinsky, come to think of it, but how many regular readers of Peanuts would have internalized a reference to Stravinsky? No, it had to be Beethoven, or the point would be lost.
When Clark Gesner conceived of putting the Peanuts gang onstage in a musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, he wrote a song entitled simply “Schroeder,” in which the Moonlight Sonata becomes the accompaniment to Lucy’s singing. She suggests that Schroeder could play “April Showers” or “Frère Jacques,” but concedes that “Beethoven’s nice, too.”
The fact that she JUST DOESN’T GET IT speaks to the isolation of the “serious” musician, his single-mindedness, his lofty tastes. Later in the show, in a song written by Andrew Lippa for the revival production, Schroeder begs Lucy not to “commercialize” Beethoven’s birthday, as it’s too important. Beethoven is someone to be REVERED, not merely celebrated.
Similarly, in one of my all-time favorite movies, Born Yesterday (1950), a political journalist (William Holden) takes on the task of educating a gangster’s ditzy blonde girlfriend Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), and in the course of this education, he takes her to a classical music concert in Washington, D.C. She asks him, “What’s the name of this number?” He replies, “Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, Opus 36.” Of course. Beethoven again, and she pronounces it to be “swell.” But later on, Billie revisits the piece in her hotel room, struggling to understand it and prefer it to the music she usually listens to. “I want to like what’s better to like!”, she cries.
For Billie Dawn, Beethoven stands for something that is highbrow, difficult to understand and enjoy, and of higher intrinsic value than popular music or theater music. And yet the irony is that so many people have had their introduction to Beethoven through something as prosaic as a comic strip, a film or a pop song.
And speaking of Judy Holliday, how about the musical and then movie Bells Are Ringing, music by Jule Styne and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green? Holliday plays Ella Peterson, a woman who works for a telephone answering service and gets way too involved with the concerns of her subscribers. Her friend and employer Sue has a gentleman friend called Sandor, a genial Austrian whose business selling classical music records turns out to be a front for a ring of bookies. Each racetrack is assigned a composer’s name, and gamblers call in to place bets that sound like orders for records. Ella accidentally uncovers the scheme when she takes an order for 100 copies of Beethoven’s 10th symphony ($100 on horse #10 at Belmont Park), and somebody points out that Beethoven only wrote 9 symphonies–something fishy is clearly going on! But invoking the name of Beethoven placed the operation above suspicion for most of the movie.
Apart from wanting everybody to watch my favorite movies, my point is that pop culture has appropriated Ludwig van Beethoven as a symbol of high-brow culture and musical genius, with the result that Beethoven has become more accessible, a sort of gateway drug to classical music. How many other pieces inspire the same kind of awe as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? I’m reminded of that Beethoven flash mob from Barcelona, where a group of musicians gather one at a time to play the famous last movement–and an enormous crowd stands there watching and humming along.
As Schiller put it in the text to “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy), “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” Receive this embrace, you millions! Beethoven isn’t just for those who perform classical music, or music scholars, or frequent concert-goers; if Hollywood, pop music, and the funny pages have taught us anything, it’s that Beethoven is for EVERYONE.