Ezra Pound once described classic literature as “news that stays news.” If I had to choose a composer whose music most often continues to give us “news,” I would pick Ludwig van Beethoven. Bach’s work is more perfectly constructed; Mozart’s is more miraculously balanced; Wagner may have been an even more influential figure (for good and ill)—and, of course, many other composers have written extraordinary pieces. But Beethoven is so gigantic, so utterly all over the place, so human—by turns funny, furious, warmly affectionate, unreachably isolated—that he seems the musician who forever inspires both the question “What the hell did he mean by that?” and the desire to investigate further.
There are surprises all through Beethoven’s oeuvre, and in this year that celebrates the 250th anniversary of his birth, in 1770, there will be opportunities the world over to hear them. Take, for instance, the second movement of the youthful Piano Sonata in D (Op. 10, No. 3), longer in itself than some of the complete sonatas of Mozart and Haydn, and charged with an anguished emotional intensity, set down strangely in the middle of what is mostly a skittering and lighthearted work. Or the opening of the “Eroica” Symphony, which foregoes any sort of proper formal introduction and instead gives us two blunt chords, smashed down like fists upon a table, before moving directly into the first theme. Or the Ninth Symphony—after the “Ode to Joy” has glorified the “brotherhood of all people” with full orchestra, soloists, and exultant chorus striving upward—where a long silence is broken, wonderfully inappropriately, by what the conductor and scholar Roger Norrington describes as a “fart” from the contrabassoon in a distant key.
Of the very late works—the extended string quartets and seemingly improvisatory piano sonatas, with their strenuous trills and jazzlike vamping—the critic Harold C. Schonberg once wrote that “the music is not pretty or even attractive. It merely is sublime.” At least one of these quartets explores the boundaries between illness and recovery, with mortal shadows always nearby. Even Beethoven’s last musical choice was an inspired one: he wanted the Requiem in C Minor, by the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini, played at his funeral. Cherubini pretty much disappeared from the repertory by the late 19th century, but championed in the 20th by Arturo Toscanini and Riccardo Muti, among others, his music—and especially this requiem—stuns once again with its gravity and solemn beauty. Beethoven knew it all along. —Tim Page