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When Boston’s music scene was built on Beethoven

The city's fascination is mirrored by a 7-foot statue, which arrived to much fanfare more than 160 years ago.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

This Wednesday, Dec. 16, is Beethoven’s 250th birthday, an occasion for celebration. Yet even before the pandemic shut down normal concert life, exactly how best to celebrate has not been a simple question.

Some composers are desperate for the attention that major anniversaries bring. But what does it mean to give special consideration to a composer whose music is already ubiquitous, a figure who dominates orchestral programming to the extent of crowding out too many other voices? Calls to extravagantly mark the Beethoven year can sometimes feel a bit like calls to celebrate white men’s history month. Even without a formal designation, it already comes — every month. And similarly, in concert halls across the country, every year is a Beethoven year.


But ignoring the anniversary is not an option either, especially around these parts. That’s because Boston is resolutely a Beethoven town — in fact it might be, historically, the most Beethoven-besotted city in America. And don’t just take my word for it.

Exhibit A would surely be the composer’s name, inscribed alone on the gilded proscenium of Symphony Hall, as if to consecrate the entire space to the faithful performance of one composer’s music. Exhibit B might be the composer’s life mask on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the imprint of his countenance, staring up at all who pass. For Exhibit C, look no further than the Museum of Fine Arts, where one finds a Max Klinger bust of the titan sitting, fists clenched, atop his throne.

Max Klinger's Beethoven bust, created sometime after 1902. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But the most telling indication of all is surely the 7-foot-tall bronze statue of the composer that presides over a lobby space outside of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. At a time when no one can go hear concerts anyway, why not use this anniversary moment as an occasion to recall how this Beethoven — the original Boston Beethoven — came to reside in our midst? The statue’s history just might help us grasp Beethoven’s music more meaningfully by taking an art we tend to imagine as timeless and universal, and reconnecting it to a particular time and place. It’s a story that links Old World and New, a city’s cultural past and its present, a composer’s elemental power to uplift and the ways that very power has shaped an entire field in its image. It’s also a story that’s been almost entirely forgotten, even as the statue hides in plain sight.


Longtime concert-goers may in fact have walked by this towering Beethoven so many times that they stop seeing it altogether. But this statue, by the American sculptor Thomas Crawford, has commanded the Huntington Avenue lobby of NEC for over a century. The composer stands atop a marble pedestal, becloaked and serenely resolute, staring off into the unknowable future. He is an idealized figure, his ageless face smoothed of wrinkles and pockmarks. In his hands he holds a sheaf of music with the “Ode to Joy” theme visible.

At New England Conservatory, the Beethoven statue holds a score for the "Ode to Joy." Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The statue owes its existence to Charles Callahan Perkins (1823-1886), an art historian and philanthropist. As a gift to the city, Perkins commissioned his friend Crawford, who was based in Rome, to create this statue for Boston’s own Music Hall, which had opened on Winter Street in 1852.

It was a gesture of personal homage not yet matched by the community’s organic demand. Up until that point, Beethoven admiration had been a real but rather diffuse phenomenon. During the composer’s own lifetime, the Handel and Haydn Society had attempted to commission an oratorio. And in the decades following his death, the Germania Musical Society — a band of immigrant musicians who had fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848 — gave Boston its very first performance of the Ninth Symphony among other works. But without recordings, and without a standing permanent orchestra, the city’s contact with Beethoven’s music had been tantalizing yet ephemeral.


Even so, among the faithful, Beethoven’s art had for decades been inspiring new ways of hearing music. As early as 1810, a landmark review of the Fifth Symphony by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann had signaled a shift away from regarding music as mere entertainment. “Music reveals to man an unknown realm,” Hoffmann wrote, “a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind him all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible.”

In Boston, the pioneering critic John Sullivan Dwight would have agreed. A former Unitarian minister who lived for a time in the utopian community at Brook Farm, Dwight regarded music — especially that of the great German masters — as religious experience translated into sound. Dwight also published his own journal of musical opinion, and through acres of critical writing across the midcentury decades, he refashioned Europe’s Beethovenian awe in the garments of New England’s own Transcendentalism. The composer’s music, he wrote, was nothing more or less than “a language of the deepest and eternal instincts of the soul.”


The Gardner Museum's collection includes this plaster life mask of Beethoven.Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (Custom credit)

And so before Crawford’s sculpture had even arrived, Dwight was writing about it with a breathless anticipation that also, in a way, revealed the youth and insecurity of American musical culture itself, with its eyes beseechingly trained on Europe. Was an American-born artist such as Crawford even capable of rendering the great composer’s likeness? Tellingly, a rumor circulated that Crawford’s statue would be merely a copy of a famous Beethoven monument in Bonn. Dwight emphatically set the record straight, and it turns out, he was more than correct to do so.

When Crawford’s Beethoven was eventually cast in a Munich foundry in early 1855, it came out so well that the city’s residents threw the statue a lavish send-off party. At a concert marking the anniversary of the composer’s death, the statue was unveiled on the stage of the city’s Odeon theater, and saluted with an all-Beethoven program. One attendee described the bronze likeness standing tall “amidst a forest of flowers and cypresses, lit by more than a hundred gas lights.” The Bavarian King was present, and pronounced himself reluctant to see the object go. But off it went, eventually arriving in Boston with a letter from the conductor Franz Lachner. May the statue, he wrote, “give the holy consecration of a true feeling for Art to the rapidly developing people of America.”


As it turned out, a “true feeling for Art” did not take long to manifest: this Beethoven caused a sensation. “We may truly say that we have never seen any work of Art call forth as much emotion among the bystanders,” Dwight wrote after first viewing the statue on temporary display at the Boston Athenaeum. “Eyes grow moist, strangers cannot seem content to be strangers in its presence, and people go from it excited as they go from listening to the Fifth Symphony, the Leonora overture, or the Eroica.” Indeed, for Dwight and others, Crawford’s Beethoven was a stand-in for not just composer but for the all-too-rarely spotted music itself. The Atlantic Monthly referred to the statue as “that breathing bronze” and claimed “it is to the eye what [Beethoven’s] own Fifth Symphony is to the ear, what the book of Job and the play of Hamlet are to the mind.”

Crawford’s statue was soon installed in the Boston Music Hall with what was billed as a “Grand Beethoven Festival!” On that night, the monument was set on stage and veiled, according to Dwight, with “a green star-spangled drapery.” At the evening’s climactic moment, a local poet declared “Lift the veil!” and then “slowly, fold after fold, like an instinctive thing of life, the starry veil fell off, and BEETHOVEN, in his calm grandeur, stood disclosed, high in the midst of his disciples.”

The 1856 program for the "Grand Beethoven Festival!" celebrating the statue's arrival at Boston Music Hall.NEC Archives

That night selections were performed from “Fidelio,” the Ninth Symphony, and the Choral Fantasy. Hearing this music in Beethoven’s “presence” was an experience none would forget, Dwight opined. It was as if this new world outpost was finally receiving its first visit from the oracle himself — and what’s more, this Beethoven apparently liked what he heard. According to Dwight, “The great composer seemed to nod his head in approbation, and it required no exertion of fancy to see the expression of bronze features change with every changing modulation of the music.”

A close look at the inaugural program reveals a rather touching detail, one that places all of this reverence in a bit of context: Only the first three movements of the Ninth Symphony were performed that day. The “Ode to Joy” finale — the great Beethovenian statement of universal brotherhood, the score of which this bronze Beethoven stood clutching in his purposeful hands — was not performed that night. Why? Because apparently there was no one capable of performing it. The final movement, a bashful Dwight confessed, “points beyond the limits (practically) of our Art.”

The Beethoven sculpture loomed over the entire BSO at Boston Music Hall in 1891.BSO archives (Custom credit)

That would not be the case for long. In 1881, Henry Higginson, a banker and Civil War veteran who esteemed Beethoven above all other composers, established the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It performed for almost two decades on the very same stage at the Boston Music Hall, beneath the watchful gaze of Crawford’s Beethoven. And, with help from a few more European imports, it was soon highly capable of performing the complete Ninth Symphony. Other American cities, inspired by Boston’s example, followed suit and founded their own permanent civic orchestras.

Meanwhile, Beethoven worship was quickly becoming normalized and domesticated. In 1900, when the BSO left the Boston Music Hall to take up residence in the newly built Symphony Hall, the Crawford Beethoven did not come along for the journey. Higginson’s new temple of musical prayer would be more elegant and severe (and acoustically astonishing) than its predecessor. And perhaps he knew that the congregation that would come to fill its stiff-backed seats would be more knowledgeable, more thoroughly accustomed to Beethoven worship, and would therefore no longer require an idol so extravagantly representational. Whatever the case, when the doors of the new Symphony Hall opened, it was discovered that the composer had disappeared behind his name. It was now inscribed in gold, and still floats high above the stage to this day. The hall itself had become the ultimate monument.

Ownership of the Crawford statue eventually transferred to the Handel and Haydn Society, which later donated it to NEC, where the composer has over the decades surveyed the comings and goings of thousands of students, and has long served as a popular campus meeting spot. “I always manage to be a few moments early for my appointments,” wrote a teenage Leonard Bernstein in an unpublished high school essay about the statue, “that I may stand and hold secret communion with my spiritual companion.”

The Beethoven statue has commanded the Huntington Avenue lobby at NEC for more than a century.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Reflecting on the statue’s long journey today, one might easily smile or even smirk at the excesses of an earlier age, and the zealousness of these new converts to a faith that saw music itself as playing a central role in the imminent perfectibility of the world. If that faith initially fell victim to the inferno of the First World War — when the BSO’s own German music director Karl Muck was arrested and interned — it was positively annihilated in the Second World War, during which Beethoven’s music became yet another weapon in the arsenal of the Third Reich.

Yet in this Beethoven birthday year, it may be worth noting that, amid long overdue calls to diversify the classical canon, Beethoven’s music also appears to be retaining at least something of the memory of this earlier idealism, its vision of a world not yet broken beyond the possibility of repair. During the global lockdown, among the first classical videos to go viral featured ear-budded members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic performing the “Ode to Joy” in tiny Zoom-like boxes, an unaccountably touching sight in those raw early days. And more recently, the New York-based company Heartbeat Opera has released “Breathing Free,” a grippingly produced, Black Lives Matter-inspired visual album that intersperses excerpts from Beethoven’s “Fidelio” with spirituals and songs by Florence Price, Langston Hughes, and others. The video’s harrowing climax includes footage from a performance of Beethoven’s extraordinary Prisoners Chorus sung by actual inmates at prisons across the country. “O Freedom,” they sing, “when will you return?” And the music holds open a space for its arrival.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.