Music

Beethoven's 10 most influential moments in pop culture

From Chuck Berry and the Beatles to Nas and Beyoncé, everybody loves Beethoven.

From Chuck Berry and the Beatles to Nas and Beyoncé, everybody loves Beethoven

A pop culture tribute to the GOAT on the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birthday. ((George Stroud / Stringer; Gareth Cattermole / Getty; Rischgitz / Stringer: Getty Images))

He's been compared to the Kardashians, his namesake is a large, loveable Saint Bernard with its own film franchise, and his music has been the soundtrack for every kind of character arc/action sequence/moment of pathos imaginable. Almost nobody is bigger than Beethoven. Sorry, Mozart. Take a seat, Tchaikovsky. Bye bye, Brahms. Ludwig van Beethoven is the GOAT. 

Even the simple chart, above, of trending searches during the last 12 months worldwide illustrates the public's preoccupation with the composer. But what makes Beethoven the GOAT (greatest of all time)? It begins with the music, of course. His compositions have spanned and survived centuries, his genius intact and evinced by its continued celebration in classical repertoire, programming by world-class symphonies and elementary school bands alike, and on the biggest stages in the world. 

But the other part is how his music has embedded itself in the cultural fabric, and the ways in which it has been re-contextualized by other artists and further enmeshed in our pop culture. "What I have in my heart must come out," Beethoven wrote. "That is why I compose." He emptied himself into his music; of course his compositions pulse with life. It's why Beethoven's music, and in some cases the man himself, have acted as catalyst, conveyance, and/or conversational shorthand for romance and heartbreak, comedy and tragedy, grandeur and heroism, and so much more. 

In honour of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, CBC Music has compiled a brief history of the famed composer's 10 most influential moments in pop culture.  


'Roll Over Beethoven'

This classic from rock 'n' roll giant Chuck Berry is so ubiquitous, it's easy to forget just how incendiary it was in 1956. The video below is a wonderful reminder of how smart, sly, and subversive "Roll Over Beethoven" was; equal parts middle finger to the racist and classist notions that classical music was "better" than rhythm and blues, and an affectionate tongue-in-cheek send-up by one GOAT to another. 


Schroeder: Beethoven's biggest fan

For decades, Charlie Brown's piano-playing pal Schroeder has been known for two things: rejecting Lucy's romantic advances and his unabiding devotion to Beethoven. The relationship is so deeply established in pop culture that there's been at least one museum exhibition dedicated to chronicling Schroeder's Beethoven obsession over the years, as well as documenting how Peanuts creator Charles Schulz arrived at that creative decision and cultivated it throughout his lifetime.


'Because' and the Beatles

Yoko Ono, a classically trained musician, was playing what we now know as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. John Lennon heard her and asked her to play it backwards, and the end result was Lennon writing "Because," which the Beatles recorded for their landmark 1969 album, Abbey Road.


Beethoven (the dog movies)

The 1992 film wasn't just a hit, it sparked an entire franchise that spans eight films so far. But it was also, seemingly, something of an embarrassment for one of its co-creators: John Hughes used a pseudonym, Edmond Dantes, rather than his own name. 


'I Can' by Nas

In the context of 2002, Nas's "I Can" was a subversive and powerful track about uplifting and empowering young, Black girls. Not all of the lyrics hold up by 2020 standards, but the themes still resonate. It also remains one of the best uses of Beethoven's "Für Elise" in all of pop music. This interview with Michael Custodis, musicologist from the University of Münster, expands on Nas's "clever" sampling:

"He takes 'For Elise' ('Für Elise'), a piano-teaching piece and one which archetypally stands for the theme of Beethoven and women, and turns it around. At the time of Chuck Berry, Beethoven represented the classic theme of white, educated classes. If I wanted to be something, I had to be like white people. In the video for 'I Can,' however, a Black girl sits in front of an out-of-tune piano and plays the beginning of 'For Elise,' then Nas cuts in with his own sound, rearranges the melody, and places other sounds underneath. It is also about empowerment, and about the encouragement of young Black women. It is obvious that he is aware of the associations with the piece — they correspond to the theme of his song." 


Symphony No. 5

If classical diehards of the '50s knew what the '70s would bring to Beethoven, they probably would have shut up about R&B. But disco came for Symphony No. 5 courtesy of jazz pianist Walter Murphy and his 1976 concept album, One Fifth Beethoven. The titular song's popularity skyrocketed when it was included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.


Symphony No. 9

Different parts of Symphony No. 9 have been used in countless films, on stage, in TV and in commercials, but there are standouts, including A Clockwork Orange, Die Hard, Sister Act 2, and, obviously, Immortal Beloved. There have also been great tributes, like this loving one below from The Muppet's Beaker.


The Simpsons

The long-running animated television series has had several episodes that reference Beethoven over its 30-plus years (and counting), but one of the standouts dates all the way back to season 2, episode nine. It's an entirely wordless sequence showing the town's children frolicking as the first movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony plays, a tribute that references a similar scene in Disney's 1940 epic, Fantasia.  


Bey-thoven

Beethoven meets Beyoncé! 

Is it perfect? Almost, yes. The only thing better would be Bey herself behind the mic, though Sam Tsui does a fine job in her absence.  

From Google Arts and Culture: "Ensemble Connect is a two-year fellowship program with Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and Weill Music Institute that prepares young professional classical musicians for their future careers. Sam Tsui is an internet singing sensation on YouTube having amassed over 350 million hits on his channel alone.

So why Beyoncé and Beethoven? "Both artists have something to say, and they mean it. The specific language may differ, but their music shares an urgency and real sense of character from the most intimate and tender to exuberant or raging moments," explains Leo Sussman who plays the flute in Ensemble Connect.


Podcasts

There's no better way in the 21st century to assert cultural relevance than to be the focus of a podcast and Switched on Pop podcast's excellent miniseries, "The 5th," is a fitting tribute to our boy Beethoven. 

From SOP: "While obviously not a pop act, Beethoven wrote arguably the most memorable hook of all time: dun-dun-dun-duuuuuun. These four notes are embedded in our collective consciousness, but why? For five years, Switched on Pop has made historical connections between great composers and contemporary pop through its 'Classical Masters' segments. Expanding that segment into a four-part mini-series, 'The 5th' will unpack the layered sounds and unexpected histories in the most popular symphony of all time: Beethoven's 5th."

 

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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