Today marks the two hundred and forty-second anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven is known anecdotally as irascible, cantankerous, and gruff, and by all accounts he was. He began losing his hearing (possibly a side effect of lead poisoning or a syphilitic infection) at the age of 26. Although devastated by this impairment, he continued to compose—and the output included some of his most famous works—for a further thirty years until his death at age 57.
Beethoven lived a hard life: He was the victim of child abuse; he was shunned by the society to which he aspired; he was difficult to work with and to know. Beethoven was his own harshest critic, and did not believe his compositions were worthy of the acclaim they received. But he was also a fierce friend, a devoted brother, and a passionate lover.
Ludwig van Beethoven felt things deeply. One has only to listen to the second movement of his Symphony No. 7 (written as he learned of his impending hearing loss, and allegedly his favorite of his own compositions), or the Moonlight Sonata to hear the expression of his true character.
Perhaps most importantly-and most famously-the fourth movement of Symphony No. 9, which included the “Ode to Joy,” which was composed when Beethoven was entirely deaf. To know that such a piece of music (to my mind the one of the greatest expressions of human artistic achievement) was contained entirely within the heart, mind and soul of one man, and that he was able to express it for the world to hear, makes Beethoven one of the most remarkable humans in our recent history.
I have often thought of Beethoven as a kindred spirit, and taken comfort in his writings, particularly this quote:
“All evil is mysterious and appears greater when viewed alone. It is all the more ordinary, the more one talks about it with others; it is easier to endure because that which we fear becomes known; it seems as if one has overcome some great evil.”