Musical genius – or merely the right man, in the right place at the right time?

Musical genius – or merely the right man, in the right place at the right time?

The portentous ‘dun dun dun duuun’ opening notes of his 5th Symphony are recognised everywhere, but just what is it that accounts for the enduring popularity of Ludwig van Beethoven?

That is the question which Surya Bowyer, QE’s Head of Library Services, examines in the latest episode of The Queen’s Library Roundness podcast.

He drafted in some local expert help – Ruth Partington, the School’s Director of Music, and Caroline Grint, Music teacher – in his exploration of the significance of the iconic German pianist and composer in the musical canon.

“2020 marked the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in Bonn,” says Mr Bowyer. “Around the world – from London to Melbourne and Shanghai to Sao Paolo – events which had been planned over many months, and, indeed, years, in concert halls and music venues to celebrate his works, in that symbolic year, had to be cancelled.”

Apart from the Nokia ringtone, (Gran Vals by Francisco Tárrega) those opening four notes of ‘Beethoven’s 5th’ – which form the title of the podcast – are probably the best known musical “motif” of all among the general public. And this is attributable, not to concert-going necessarily, but to their ubiquitous use in advertising and films. Yet would this suffice to explain the exceptionally high regard in which Beethoven is still held?

Miss Partington and Miss Grint discuss Beethoven’s acknowledged legacy as the composer whose composition spanned the transition from the classical period to the romantic era, and question whether he was truly ground-breaking in the way he is often presented.

The podcast covers the difference expectations held of composers such as Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who were court composers, and Beethoven who, while receiving a stipend, had more freedom. They explore the effect this had in a number of ways, including the duration of his symphonies.

The discussion ranges over whether Beethoven was a musical genius, or a talented musician and composer who happened to be about at the right time, with a rising middle-class who could afford to attend music concerts and the emergence of music critics. It also touches on whether Beethoven would recognise his own work as it is played now on modern instruments.

“The way in which Beethoven and his music are written about leads us to listening to him using the terms that are ascribed to him,” says Miss Grint. “Because we expect universality, we find it, we read the meaning into it. Instrumental music is seen as having universality because it doesn’t tell a story using words, it’s more metaphysical.”

Miss Partington believes Beethoven’s continuing popularity lies in the powerful emotions he evokes. “I’m not a fan of working-out meaning,” she says. She believes there is a mystical element to music, and that it should not be pigeon-holed.

But whether a genius, or a man in the right place at the right time, there seems little doubt his legacy will endure, from the ‘low brow’ – car advertisements, for example – to the distinctly ‘high brow’, such as performances at top music venues, the three concluded.

  • The Dun, dun, dun, duun episode of the Roundness podcast is available from the Library pages of the eQE online platform and from normal podcast providers, including Acast, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.