So here we are, already well into this jubilee year that has been so eagerly awaited by some and so apprehensively dreaded by others.
And the mdw, for its part, has been paying visible tribute to the great “Ludwig van” since January in an impressive number and range of excellent projects! My thanks go out to the initiating team here at the University, who’ve spent more than a year and a half brainstorming, developing projects, gathering ideas, and ultimately putting it all together in a well-distributed and clearly structured way!
It’s clear to see how important this year is in Germany: all the way back in 2016, the German federal government declared celebrating this Bonn native’s 250th birthday a “national responsibility”—to which Germany’s parliament then devoted a whopping EUR 27 million in funding. (Sadly, our colleagues on the banks of the Spree and the Rhine neglected to consider us in their budget, though it just may be that Germany’s Beethoven extravaganza is also partly about re-claiming this German-born Viennese-by-choice as one of their own.)
Vienna, city of music, and its great adopted son: what would the various musical scenes of Vienna have been like in the absence of those leading figures from the outside who were always there at the outset—and would they, in fact, ever have arisen as they did? At any rate, this city’s positively magnetic attractiveness in terms of all things musical makes it an unfair opponent of any origin-oriented attempts at appropriation, though this attractiveness also tends to make Vienna a bit complacent—after all, everyone’s always been just dying to come here…
And whatever the case: we do have an “official” Beethoven Year in Vienna, too, in which the mdw is an eager participant—and perhaps precisely because the whole thing hasn’t been exhaustively planned by the city or by the Austrian government, it just might turn out to be a time of celebration that’s stimulating and exciting in the best possible sense. So just what are we about, here? Even more performances of works by this Mr. van Beethoven, whose music already dominates the canon? Or might we instead want to try and understand this phenomenon a bit better by approaching it from myriad different directions?
Beethoven, undeniably one of the greatest “heroes” and “big sellers” of the classical music business from the very beginning, also turned out to be a composer of the most disparate and contradictory faces in terms of his reception and appropriation over the course of time. As a “model genius” between idealism and romanticism, and as an uncompromising rebel who enjoyed aristocratic support even so, he was viewed during the 19th century as the consummator of Viennese classicism and soon became a prime address when something politically representative and affirmative was called for—regardless of whether said call came from the political right or the left. Consummator he was, perhaps, but also a visionary and an experimenter with the impossible. Might Beethoven’s greatest personal success perhaps be that the “Ode to Joy” from his Ninth Symphony was adopted as the hymn and symbol of the European peace project? Its lyrics, by the way, should perhaps be taken a bit more seriously: “FREUDE, schöner Götterfunken!” – “JOY, beautiful spark of divinity!”
So many images, so many constructions of a desired or dominant image of this artist over the course of history. And so much available information about him and his oeuvre—which unavoidably raises the question of where all this information (beyond the written music itself) might be important, sometimes even essential, and where it’s actually deceptive or gives rise to gross misunderstandings…
Of course, Beethoven’s lack of calligraphic ambition is of no help to us performers; unlike with Bach or Mozart, it’s practically impossible to play directly from Beethoven’s autographs. So it remains for us to make our own choices amongst the available “Urtext” editions and the increasingly available digitised facsimiles of first printed editions, manuscript copies of parts, etc. Some instances of sforzando, for instance, might—after 20 years where we’d been convinced we knew were they belonged—shift forward or back by an eighth note, this or that dot might become a vertical line, a legato phrase might actually begin on the beat rather than after it, and so on. Ultimately, though, we aim to comprehend Beethoven as a whole, taking into account all possible perspectives and hence the most diverse range of “Beethovens”: Beethoven, that great embracer of the world who, even so, had verifiably severe difficulties dealing with his immediate environment; Beethoven the “titan” and epitome of the artist wrestling with himself, the inadequate world around him, and indeed “the Diety”; Beethoven the exacting constructor and perfectionist, but above all one of the greatest improvisational geniuses of all time; Beethoven the clever marketer of his own person; and naturally: Beethoven the successful immigrant!
But also: Beethoven as a burden for everyone who came after him? “I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea what it’s like for one of us to always hear such a giant Beethoven marching behind him.” This was said by another figure who migrated to Vienna—and ultimately did end up composing four wonderful symphonies, though, so one could indeed compose after Beethoven despite being thus impressed.
Over the course of the present year, the contradictoriness of this phenomenon we call Beethoven—including all of the above and much more—is being examined by us at the mdw. We want to grow even more savvy about understanding Beethoven on the substantive level, not least for the sake of how we interpret his oeuvre! And we want to get a sense, an understanding of just who this larger-than-life figure—and all-too-human human being—is for us 21st-century souls at the mdw, for us who study, teach, and research at the highest level of excellence in our fields, doing so in an environment of internationality, real-life diversity and transculturality, and with a fervently held orientation towards inclusion and social relevance. To this end, we have various formats available to us ranging from concerts, master classes, and lectures to exhibitions, public seminars, the municipal lecture series Wiener Vorlesungen, a major symposium, and the 16th International Beethoven Piano Competition (which has been bumped up by one year specifically for this occasion). We’re also producing highly professional video recordings of rarely played works by Beethoven for the Internet concert platform ARTE Concert. We’ve distributed these many interesting contributions across the entire year in a well-timed manner and unified by a common design. So do get informed at mdw.ac.at/Beethoven2020 and accompany us on our journeys of discovery that we’ll be taking in cooperation with numerous international guests and Vienna’s most important cultural institutions!