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The hopelessly vulgar music of Ludwig van Beethoven

Da da da dummmmm.

You know the one. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the most famous work by one of the most highly acclaimed composers of all time.

We’re talking about a guy who started composing at age 12, and kept at it after losing his hearing. A guy whose music has been shot into space.

And we’re talking about the Ninth Symphony - the one that provided the soundtrack to the Tiananmen Square protests and Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. The one that Helen Keller raved about, despite not being able to hear it.

Helen Keller listening to a phonograph with her fingertips

There's music that sounds good, and then there's music that sounds good through your fingertips.

If there was one piece of music in the universe that was beyond criticism, surely this would be the one.

But nothing in this universe can escape criticism.

According to one of Beethoven’s contemporaries, it was “monstrous and tasteless.” A London paper warned that it “puts the muscles and lungs of the band and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.”

And 75 years after its premiere, critics were still slamming it:

… dull and ugly … [o]h, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music! The unspeakable cheapness …

You may or may not be composing a symphony that gets printed on a gold record and placed on a spaceship. Either way, you’ll face similar judgements. How to deal with them?

You could just let them go, taking comfort in the knowledge that you’re having an inevitable and universal human experience.

Or follow Beethoven’s lead, and dismiss them as undeserving of your work in the first place. Dissatisfied with his Viennese audience and their reception of his work, he had this to say:

The symphonies? They have no time for them. My concertos? Everyone grinds out only the stuff he himself has made. The solo pieces? They went out of fashion long ago, and here fashion is everything.

The timeless isn’t necessarily fashionable. And your critics can’t necessarily tell the difference.

    © 2024 Brian David Hall