Were Charlie Brown’s Schroeder still with us, he would probably be bent over his toy piano today singing, “Happy Birthday” to Beethoven – his 250th!
We’re not certain that the 16th is his birthday; we know only that he was baptized on the 17th at Bonn’s Church of St. Remigius.
A host of others – people from many generations and languages – share Schroeder’s affection for Beethoven.
I was introduced to him as a child, when my piano teacher asked me to learn his Minuet in G. She also gave me a plaster of Paris bust of him, which I put on a bookshelf in the living room from which, regretfully, it suffered a fall and broke its nose.
Beethoven presents us with a mystery: How can an 18th-19th century deaf man pour music from his soul into ours? He must have known it was possible as he wrote concerning his music, “From the heart – may it return again – to the heart.”
His passion cannot be evaded. The person had it right who is said to have painted the motto on the wall of a German opera house: “Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s Laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire.”
His passion was coupled with deep, lifelong struggle – a struggle pointed to by the marked-over, crossed-out, rephrased lines we see in copies of his manuscripts.
While being a person of struggle, he was also a person of optimism that lifts the human spirit. I believe he embraced this in his understanding of God.
Indeed, we might say his music celebrates the godliness of humanity and the humanity of God.
This is clear in his only opera, Fidelio. It tells of Florestan’s liberation from political imprisonment. What, after all these years, could be timelier in our time and circumstance?
This same commitment to human freedom is expressed in the impulsive act in which he ripped the dedication page from his Eroica Symphony when he learned Napoleon had arrogated to himself the power of emperor.
Beethoven’s struggle may also have been with his faith. When we hear his monumental choral work, Missa Solemnis, we’re forced to ask whether his confidence in human possibilities wasn’t being challenged.
In the piece’s concluding prayer, “Grant us your peace,” he interrupts the prayer with the rumble of drums of war, only then to have the choir cry out – almost in anguish – ”pacem, pacem” (peace, peace). Did he believe that prayer would be answered, or did he leave it as a question mark?
For exciting the mind (and feeding the soul), Beethoven left us 32 piano sonatas, among these, the Moonlight with the gentle sadness of its first movement, the Patheteque with a second movement that defines subtle beauty, the Appassionata which demands pianistic virtuosity, and the Hammerklavier which pushes the bounds of accepted harmonies.
In all of them, simple phrases are expressed, rephrased, expanded, developed. Creative genius. We emerge from our encounter with the sonatas enlightened, stretched and amazed.
Near consensus holds that his Ninth Symphony is the greatest piece of music ever composed. It can be seen as a recapitulation of the life of the world, beginning with hollow fifths (without form and void?) waiting for the divine spirit to move over the face of the deep.
Progressing through the formation of human thought, beauty and struggle, it comes to a disorienting dissonance, out of which a voice sings, “Friends, not these sounds!” And in response the chorus of humanity bursts out, “Freude, Freude,” (Joy, Joy).
The composer quotes Goethe, for whom joy is Götterfunken (sparks or emanations or radiations of the divine). Would we be far from the mark if we asked whether this is what Saint Irenaeus meant when he said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive?”
On this particular 16th of December, we thank God for the gift of Beethoven. Freude! Freude!
Retired pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Edmondson previously served the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California. He is an alumnus of Berkeley School of Theology and Regents Park College, Oxford University. Edmondson was a founding member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and in retirement taught in the College of Theology at Central Philippine University. He lives in Oakland, California.