At the turn of the 19th century, Europe teetered on the edge of total Napoleonic conquest. Outside of France, stability was far from guaranteed—within France it was certainly temporary.
Amid war, revolution and overseas imperialism, the spheres of visual art, architecture, literature and music thrived into one of the most innovative periods in European artistic history, what has become known as the Romantic Era.
Gothic revivalism brought eye-catching cathedrals and castles. In England, the literary world enjoyed a bumper crop of master writers that included Jane Austen, Lord Byron, John Keats, Mary Shelley and Sir Walter Scott.
On the continent, Romanticism yielded what many today consider a golden age of music—maybe the golden age. This period saw the likes of Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Wagner, Mendelssohn and Liszt.
At the frontier of Romanticism, and all but defining the transition between Classicism and this new period, was Ludwig van Beethoven.
While Mozart has his deserved following, to call Beethoven the greatest composer of all time is sort of like calling Shakespeare the greatest writer or Alexander the greatest commander or Messi the greatest footballer—after a point these accolades transcend opinions and evolve into accepted facts.
Maestro Alasdair Neale, musical director and conductor of the Sun Valley Music Festival, will return to Ketchum for another installment of the Upbeat With Alasdair lecture series, to shine some light on what exactly made Beethoven so great and why he has endured.
“It’s a big year we’re heading into, the 250th anniversary of his birth,” Neale said. “He has his place in the pantheon of great artists. I’m just hoping to show in an impossibly short amount of time why he endures. So many great composers go out of fashion, many blow hot and cold, but Beethoven is always there. Why does he continue to speak to people? Obviously, there’s no one left alive who met him or knew him. The music and the myth continue to speak volumes, though.”
As Neale rightly pointed out, Beethoven was a major innovator, but not just in terms of making things louder, longer and faster—though he certainly did that, too. Beethoven’s great innovation, for Neale, was in how he changed the meaning of music and helped establish its mass appeal.
“He saw music as a means of ennobling the human spirit, a way to serve humanity on a scale no one had ever done before,” Neale said. “Composers before had patrons, they wrote for the church and the aristocracy, but Beethoven broke the rules. He was the first composer to become—and I use this word with a cringe—a kind of celebrity.”
Neale said Beethoven opened the gates to a kind of “terra incognita” in the musical world. Beethoven’s works were often defined by a fearlessness for taking on huge concepts and lofty themes.
His famous Ninth Symphony, for instance, was the first symphony to incorporate a choir. It was also the longest symphony ever written at that point. In fact, one possibly apocryphal story posits that the original compact disc was developed to have a 74-minute runtime specifically to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth. That is just one of countless examples of how this iconic composer continues to influence popular culture and the music industry.
His technical prowess and creative genius are both undeniable facts, evident to any musician, casual listener or scholar.
What made him a celebrity, though, and what continues to endear him to modern audiences, Neale said, was the man himself, and not just his work.
“He redefined not only the musical forms he inherited, but also the very nature of what it means to be an artist. His status as a heroic-tragic icon embodied the Romantic ideal of the exalted individual,” Neale said.
“You can imagine if there had been a Hollywood at the time and one were to peddle a script about a composer who went deaf. It’d be an instant classic. What could be worse for a composer than to not hear his own music?”
Neale will touch upon all these concepts and more in the first Upbeat With Alasdair program of 2020. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2, at The Community Library. Though free, these events do typically fill up, so anyone who wants to guarantee a seat can reserve a spot online at svmusicfestival.org.
That web address also contains plenty of information about Neale, the music festival and upcoming concerts for both winter and summer.