Friday 23 March 2018

Roll over Chuck . . . Beethoven's been rocking the world for centuries

It's Beethoven's birthday around this time of year. Nobody knows exactly when, but he was christened 242 years ago on Monday. The granddaddy of classical composers, he was the one to whom Chuck Berry turned when he wanted a hook for his message that rock 'n' roll's time had come.

'Roll Over Beethoven' is a great rock 'n' roll song, but when it comes to greatness, Beethoven beats them all.

My first acquaintance with him was a piano piece he'd written that just about everybody who's ever sat on the stool to be taught how to tickle the ivories will know. A great many others as well.

It was a caprice, a bagatelle as he called it, dedicated to a lady whose identity is still a mystery. 'Fur Elise' is a staple on every compilation of favourite piano solos.

The piano – at the outset the fortepiano, predecessor of the concert grand, with a lighter tone hinting at the harpsichord – was Beethoven's instrument of choice. His five concertos, and his 32 sonatas especially, represent a colossal body of work, the pinnacle of musical achievement for the keyboard.

But that's only the start. He turned his hand to every form imaginable, from nine great symphonies, through church and chamber music, all the way to opera and ballet.

There can't be anyone who isn't, however unaware of it, familiar with something he wrote. Take the dramatic opening motif of his Fifth Symphony, for example.

When the EU sought an anthem, it settled on an extract from what's arguably the summit of Beethoven's achievement, his ninth and final symphony.

It sums up everything about Beethoven and offers as its finale the spectacular 'Ode to Joy', setting to the most perfectly positive music the words of Friedrich Schiller's poem.

I saw it performed one evening in Budapest when the Iron Curtain was still standing. The paths to the concert hall in the park were scarcely illuminated, but inside Kenichino Kobayashi, who's conducted Beethoven's Ninth more than anybody else, lit up the night.

The truly sublime singing of the chorus, Beethoven being the first to use human voices as instruments in the orchestra, brought the majestic piece to its magnificent conclusion.

One of Beethoven's biggest fans is the former ITV newsreader John Suchet, who now presents the morning show on the British radio station Classic fm.

Suchet is an authority on the composer, and has written extensively about him. In collaboration with Classic fm he has published a stunning biography, Beethoven – The Man Revealed, concentrating as much on his personality and the circumstances of his life as the music it inspired him to compose.

There's also his recently released double CD – My Favourite Beethoven – which, if you're in the mood for an introduction, is the perfect place to start.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

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