Is Beethoven The Most Popular Composer of All Time?

Jeremy Birch

Ludwig van Beethoven is considered to be one of the most influential composers of all time, from his Ninth and Fifth Symphonies to the Emperor Concerto and more.

Ah, Beethoven—the absolute zenith of the Classical era and the revolutionary who ignited the Romantic period, with ferocious symphonies, tortured, soul-searching melodies, and explosive piano music. It’s astonishing how relevant, nay, in demand, the music of Ludwig van Beethoven has been for nearly 250 years. In fact, Beethoven is considered to be one of the most famous composers of all time.

Beethoven – A Cultural Revolution

Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven symphonies during the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That same year, marchers played his Ninth Symphony in Tiananmen Square. Following the tragedy of 9/11, Americans turned to Beethoven for solace, including a one-year memorial concert featuring the Ninth performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Pop, hip-hop, and disco arrangers have endlessly celebrated, mocked, and reimagined Beethoven. He has been a subject of reference in both high and low culture, on Broadway, and in movies like Immortal Beloved, Sister Act 2, Dead Poets Society, Taking Sides, and A Clockwork Orange. Additionally, his music was used to establish benchmarks for recording techniques. The first LP featured Beethoven’s Fifth and the first CDs were timed at 75 minutes to accommodate the complete Ninth Symphony.

What Made Beethoven So Popular?

Why has Beethoven’s long-lasting—and occasionally obsessional—popularity been unmatched by that of other illustrious composers? Beethoven’s struggle with his advancing deafness is especially inspiring, given that he wrote his most significant works in what he described as a terrifying void of silence.

That sense of struggle pervades his music, which frequently culminates in soaring affirmation following long stretches of chaos, anger, and despair. This is especially evident in his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” which evokes revolution. The very real conflict of Napoleon’s armies invading Austria certainly colored the composition of the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor,” his last—and most symphonic—piano concerto. No one before or since has confronted audiences with such an intense range of emotions and cathartic release.

Karina Canellakis conducts Beethoven’s Eroica with the London Philharmonic Orchestra 

Beethoven and Politics

One aspect of Beethoven’s compositional style that has largely gone undiscussed is the intensely political nature of Beethoven’s music. Late eighteenth-century Bonn, where he was born, was steeped in the most progressive thought of the age. Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment and surrounded himself with cutting-edge philosophers, artists, poets, and musicians. Historian Hugo Leichtentritt said, “Beethoven was a passionate democrat…even in his youth; he was, in fact, the first German musician who had strong political interests, ideals, and ambitions.” Beethoven once wrote in a letter, “From my earliest childhood, my zeal to serve our poor suffering humanity in any way whatsoever by means of my art has made no compromise with any lower motive….” For Beethoven, this meant the freedom to participate actively in politics, to create and think and speak what you will, where you will. When he finished his only opera, Fidelio, he dedicated it to the Greek freedom fighters in their war against the Ottoman Empire.

Teatro alla Scala’s incredible production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio

Was Beethoven Famous in His Lifetime?

Beethoven, the man as well as the music, was regarded as bizarre, uncouth, and a little insane by a sizable portion of the music community during his lifetime—hostility that has only added to Beethoven’s allure. Even his mature works were sometimes a stretch to his fans. After a performance of his C-sharp minor String Quartet, composer Hector Berlioz reported that “nine-tenths of the audience got up and left, complaining aloud that the music was unbearable, incomprehensible, ridiculous—the work of a madman defying common sense.”

Despite some knee-jerk reactions to Beethoven’s innovative compositions, eventually, most people fell under the spell of his genius, and he was able to enjoy a high degree of fame and recognition in his lifetime; tens of thousands of people lined the streets for his funeral. His musical language has a foot in both the classical and romantic styles, and proponents of both schools of thought have launched endless debates over which box he belongs in.

According to writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, Beethoven moved music from the Classical world of order and symmetry to the Romantic realm of the “monstrous and the immeasurable.” Conservatives speculated that he must have been inebriated when composing his most innovative works, but Romantic supporters saw this accusation as a sign of inspiration and imagination. His Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life”), one of only two symphonies he intentionally named, is his public expression of love for nature and the Viennese countryside. In the Ninth Symphony, his epic fusion of vocal and symphonic writing redefined what a symphony could do, paving the way for expansive works like Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.

“Ba-ba-ba-bum” or “da-da-da-dum”?

There may be some debate over the proper beginning consonant, but there’s no disputing the popularity of the masterpiece that features those famous four syllables—Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Twentieth-century modernists, like Stravinsky, took a different perspective than their romantic-minded predecessors. Stravinsky praised Beethoven’s “sobriety” and described his music as a respite from the “florid orchestration of Wagner,” and railed against the 19th century’s “sentimental attitudes” about Beethoven’s health problems and philosophical ideals. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a famous example of how modernist composers were drawn to Beethoven’s revolutionary starkness and conciseness, both rhythmically and structurally.

François-Xavier Roth conducts Beethoven’s iconic 5th Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra 

Beethoven’s Influence Goes Way Beyond Music

Beginning with Beethoven, the idea of the tortured artist—a genius affected by lunacy and a master misunderstood in his own time—reverberates in the storied lives of Robert Schumann, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, and other great innovators tortured by internal demons and external hindrances. The distinction is that Beethoven somehow survived his suicidal depression long enough to compose works of increasing profundity and cathartic release.

There are countless tales regarding Beethoven’s turbulent career, but the most well-known remains the most heartbreaking: After conducting the Vienna premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the soprano soloist had to turn Beethoven toward the audience to behold the thunderous applause—applause that grew subdued when the crowd was reminded of his inability to hear.

Beethoven, once a fiery revolutionary who reveled in his ability to provoke, is recognized as one of the most influential composers of the Western classical tradition. He defied the onset of deafness from the age of 28 to produce an output that encompasses 722 works, including 9 symphonies, 35 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. A Beethoven symphony, like a Bach fugue or a Schubert song, communicates something emotionally palpable and fundamental. Leonard Bernstein said it best:

“No composer has ever lived who speaks so directly to so many people, to young and old, educated and ignorant, amateur and professional, sophisticated, naïve. To all these people, of all classes, nationalities, and racial backgrounds, this music speaks a universality of thought, of human brotherhood, freedom, and love.”

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