In my first memory of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastorale,” I am very young and small and wrapped in blankets in the guest room of my grandparents’ North Jersey ranch house. My Grandma Alene and Grandpa Harold have disconnected the enormous grandfather clock in the living room; they know I’m scared of the ominous bong. The golden final movement wafts through the cracked door and carries me off to sleep.
In my most recent memory of a live “Pastorale,” I am at Tanglewood on review duty, on a picture-postcard summer Sunday afternoon with not a thundercloud in sight. At intermission, I ditch my seat in the Shed. I take off for the lawn, kick off my clogs and wiggle my feet in the grass, and greedily soak up the sound, the sunlight, the sensations.
Now I sit in my office chair, in the bedroom/office where I’ve spent much of the past year. On my monitor, I watch Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra through the “Pastorale,” one of four Beethoven symphonies included in “The Spirit of Beethoven,” a three-week series of recorded concerts celebrating the composer’s music. My phone informs me that 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone. More than the population of Minneapolis or Miami. Enough to fill the Shed and lawn at Tanglewood 33 times over and then some.
I wonder, under what circumstances will I hear Beethoven next? It’s inevitable that I will hear him again; his symphonies, concertos, and chamber works are some of the most widely beloved works the Western classical tradition has produced. History has it that when Symphony Hall was built at the turn of the 20th century, the directors planned to honor great composers with golden plaques above the stage. In the end, Beethoven was the only one who was deemed worthy of the honor. Beethoven and his legacy shaped much of what we think of as the modern concertgoing experience, and it could be said that every symphony orchestra performs in Beethoven’s shadow. However, at Symphony Hall, that is as literal as can be.
A season without Beethoven from a major orchestra is about as common as a Fourth of July without fireworks — it pretty much never happens. What’s more, 2020 marked the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and most every symphony orchestra had big plans for the occasion: A festival extravaganza in Bonn, the composer’s birthplace. A 24-hour marathon in Berlin. And in Boston, a two-week festival opening the 2020-21 season with Nelsons conducting all nine symphonies.
These went the way of most birthday parties in 2020, which is to say, they were canceled and/or moved online. This month, with Nelsons back in the States, the BSO unveiled a belated birthday tribute. “The Spirit of Beethoven” includes four Beethoven Symphonies, Nos. 3, 5, 6, and 7 — his most popular symphonies absent the Ninth. (Prediction: the world will not lack for Ninth performances as soon as it’s safe to get a choir and orchestra together on stage.) Also included are three shorter pieces by composers Hannah Kendall, Iman Habibi, and Carlos Simon, each in conversation with Beethoven’s music or some aspect of it — welcome additions to the lineup.
Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to the 2020 Beethoven bonanza. When the concerts started to vanish from the calendar, I felt deep sadness at the loss of live music and fear for musicians’ livelihoods. But that was mixed with a perverse sense of relief — a feeling that resurfaced as the streets boiled over with rage and grief, catalyzed by the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans. At this moment of reckoning with whiteness and white supremacy, I thought, why did we need to be heaping extra flowers on this dead white man?
But nearly one year later, with concert halls still dark, Beethoven’s music has lost little of its resonance. It’s there in the shadowy funeral march of the Third Symphony, which can be heard in the first of the three concerts, as the woodwinds offer hollow consolations against the unstinting rhythms in the strings. The accompanying video feature includes archival audio from the BSO concert on the afternoon John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when then-music director Erich Leinsdorf turned to the audience to deliver the tragic news and announced that the funeral march would be performed. The first notes are layered atop the still-unbelieving gasps and sobs of the listeners — a moment of collective mourning unlike any we’ve experienced in this inhumane year. It’s there in the second concert’s Sixth, where the almost comically bucolic atmosphere can never entirely mask a wild spirit lurking underneath.
It was also there in “Disillusioned Dreamer,” a skittering and anxious piece by Kendall, who melds inspiration from the “propulsive qualities” of the Third Symphony with the emotional viscera of Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel “Invisible Man.” Habibi’s dialogue with Beethoven, “Jeder Baum spricht,” was more straightforward; scored for the same instruments as the Fifth Symphony, Habibi wonders what the nature-loving composer would make of our era of climate and COVID catastrophe.
With the pomp and circumstance surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday stripped away, I now realize I blamed my earlier frustration on the wrong thing. It was never Beethoven or his music that dissatisfied me, but the worldwide veneration for no other reason than a nice round anniversary. It’s the laziest of reasons to celebrate someone who is already constantly celebrated. The problem lay not with the person, but the pattern.
The critic Alex Ross holds that Beethoven’s musical language is “always becoming, never arriving.” I’m not sure whether I wholly agree with that, but I do know that music in that restless spirit of becoming speaks to me powerfully and plainly, in this era when nearly every facet of life continues to be disrupted and arrival seems far away. I could consume the “Pastorale” as comfort food: lie back, close my eyes, and think of Tanglewood. But the experience of listening to that hymn of gratitude while in lockdown is now as indelibly etched on my mental Symphony No. 6 score as is my grandparents’ house and the sunny lawn. This symphony has room for all of those memories and more.
There will always be a time and place for Beethoven. But we should take every opportunity to think more deeply about what those times and places will be, and why they will be. We owe that much to ourselves, and the music-makers of today, and those of tomorrow.
It’s easy to see “The Spirit of Beethoven” as a birthday tribute to a great man, but to only celebrate Beethoven because of his greatness does everyone a disservice. The durability of Beethoven’s work has been proven many times over. It has outlived wars, disasters, genocides, pandemics. It was weaponized by the Nazis as propaganda and also turned into a victory symbol by the Allied forces. It celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s no wonder that here — not at the end of the world, but at the possible end of a world as we knew it — Beethoven still resonates. This is the amazing power that good music holds, no matter when or where it’s from: It can be whatever the listener needs it to be, and say whatever the listener needs to hear.
THE SPIRIT OF BEETHOVEN
Available now. www.bso.org/now
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.