Today marks the beginning of IBP’s celebration of Beethoven’s Birthday Month, which we have been doing annually since 2010. Today is also #GivingTuesday, the new national campaign encouraging people all over to contribute to non-profits they care about in the wake of the shopping excesses following Thanksgiving.
For us, December is all about the spirit of Beethoven.
The revolutionary intent driving Beethoven’s music and entire raison d’être is uncommon for any musician or artist. Haydn, perhaps the most successful musician before Beethoven, made a living serving a prince with music for all occasions, and as clever, beautiful and meaningful as was his music, his ambition was not to change the world. Mozart, who had a strong independent streak, struck off on his own with the intent to be the greatest composer, something he more or less achieved with his unequalled brilliance. But Beethoven’s ambition was to shake the world, raise consciousness, and bring about a more just humanity.
How does a composer do that? How does any artist, any creator do that?
First, you get people’s attention, something Beethoven was an expert at. Listen to the opening of the iconic 5th Symphony in c minor (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKcAAA1O2sc) for the most obvious example of Beethoven’s ability to grab the listener from the start. You can’t not pay attention! This is true of most of Beethoven’s works.
Second, carry the audience to new spheres of emotional heights, such as Beethoven does in this movement known as the “Heiliger dankgesank” from his Opus 132 string quartet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vTSpfWbSGs). It truly does carry you away to another place if you let him take you. It is quite literally heavenly.
Third, proclaim the change you wish to see: Beethoven does this the loudest in the 9th Symphony’s last movement, the eternal Ode to Joy whose text was written by Schiller (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBlQZyTF_LY), calling for brotherhood, love, peace, and justice for all. It is a highly idealized vision of the world that nevertheless acknowledges Man’s many shortcomings and asks us to rise above our condition. Beethoven understands that this piece, his eternal call to reach humanity’s potential, won’t change the world overnight, but that it may be a spark that “reunite[s] what custom’s sword has divided”, that, in other words, brings us all together despite our long-standing habit to be a divided humanity.
Beethoven was eighteen when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and in the ensuing years came to see the best and the worst of mankind’s potential. Most importantly, the French Revolution proved that nothing was impossible: an absolute king could be dethroned and a bold representative democracy replace him (even if it was not to last at that time). At the same time, the Revolution also proved that there was no limit to mankind’s potential for evil and ugliness. Beethoven understood from this that humanity could be easily inspired to move in one direction or in its opposite, something which history has shown many times over. Beethoven felt that even a musician could, in his own way, nudge humanity positively forward, in more subtle, but equally powerful ways as politicians and generals. Beethoven also knew inside of him that music could be used as the equivalent and potential replacement of religious ritual for the modern world, with its own moral message laced through its harmonies and melodies, and that its power was even greater than religion because it was truly non-denominational. With its unparalleled popularity in all cultures and countries up to this day, Beethoven’s music, and music in general, makes that case clear.
Beethoven is IBP’s namesake for these same reasons. We believe it is important that artists shake the world, raise consciousness, and bring about a more just humanity using our creative abilities. As I mentioned in my letter from Paris last week, 9/11 was the spark that motivated me to bring artists together to do our part to heal the world, and the horrid attacks on innocents in Paris two weeks ago reaffirmed my vision and motivation. In the week following the killings, I attended concerts in Paris almost nightly, finding comfort and peace in live music and surrounded by Parisians who, like me, needed to be reminded what beauty sounded like. For the musicians on stage as well as the public, these shared emotional moments provided great comfort and hope.
I was encouraged to see Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi propose a significant increase in financial support to culture, in particular for disaffected youth, as part of his country’s response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Certainly culture is not the only answer to our problems. But it is a critical component of progress and social harmony, and I believe with all my heart, backed by my personal experience as well as the many studies whose results are conclusive, that the arts do make a difference, and do bring people together in understanding and compassion (not to mention the many educational and economic benefits it imparts). Whether we look at the global impact of failed Middle East policies or the local impact of unfair housing and educational policies in our American cities, the arts must be a big part of the solution.
IBP’s societal impact is directly proportional to the support it receives from funders and audiences, making it possible among other initiatives for us to partner with the Chicago Public Library this year to provide access to classical music for families in various parts of Chicago. Hundreds of artists and musicians believe in this mission and participate in advancing it, and I am proud that all together we have done so much over the last eight years. Join with us this month in any way you can to give us the strength and the means to pursue our task. Whether you attend our Beethoven Birthday Bash on December 16th, or you make a tax-deductible donation, or you spread the word amongst your friends or on social media, or do all of it, I guarantee that every little bit makes a big difference to us and to the world at large.
We celebrate Beethoven’s birthday to honor this artist’s unique and powerful contributions to our world, to inspire artists everywhere, and to spread his message of hope and unity to all. This year’s concert will be dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks, who were out partaking in Parisian culture, something Beethoven would have enjoyed had he fulfilled his lifelong dream of moving to Paris.
Thank you for your support!