There is a lame joke about Ludwig van Beethoven that is nonetheless near and dear to my heart. It goes like this:
“What’s Beethoven been doing since he died?”
Maybe it’s slapstick humour, or maybe it’s a jab at his musical legacy. The latter certainly becomes tempting to believe as we celebrate his 241st birthday. After all, musical stardom is not long-lived. Was it not for the pop icon that we coined the term “15 minutes of fame”—5 for the single and 10 for the music video?
But Beethoven is not your formulaic, pretty-faced diva. He single-handedly created a new music, prevalent centuries after his death. Gone was the period where music meant only notes on paper or vibrations in the air: Beethoven drew his music from the facets of the human soul. He composed not from forms and structural modes, but from emotions. Music became relatable to ordinary people because it became more than a collection of pretty sounds. It became a story—a village festival, a brutal storm, an old love, or a Napoleonic battlefield. Beethoven’s music was the music of joy and celebration, of turbulence and despair, and of triumph.
Aside from developing the very foundations of modern music, we must also consider Beethoven’s influence in its liberalization. He was a pioneer of the concert hall in a time where most professional musicians were hired by rich patrons. He popularized the public concert, and with it created the foundations of the modern music industry. By bringing music to the people, he changed society’s perception of music-making. Performers and composers became idols to the public, a far cry from their low-class caste just half a century before.
How is this relevant for us? It isn’t; at most, what I’ve said is historical trivia. But Beethoven’s influence is undeniable. Music became a personal thing, something relatable to the lives of many. And really, that’s the point. If your favourite song says something to you, if it makes you feel anything at all, Beethoven has worked his 18th-century magic. If your music means as opposed to is, it came from Ludwig van Beethoven.
Everything else, that came from Bach.