Beethoven's iconic scowl influences how we hear his work: musicologist

Beethoven was born 250 years ago this year. Since his death, he’s been used as a symbol of big ideas, from liberalism to nationalism to manliness. This documentary examines the shifting image of Beethoven, and his malleability as a symbol.

The composer was more than a misanthropic artist, says Evan Bonds

A portrait by artist Joseph Karl Stieler capturing Ludwig van Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis. Born in Bonn, Germany, 250 years ago, Beethoven is considered to be the most famous European composer of all time. (Joseph Karl Stieler/Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen a picture of Ludwig van Beethoven smiling? 

"The scowl is the predominant image of Beethoven. I challenge anyone to find a picture of him smiling or much less laughing," says Evan Bonds.

The musicologist at the University of North Carolina says when he listens to the famous composer, he doesn't hear "the scowl" but says the common image associated with the composer — his grumpy stare and wild hair — does play into how we hear his legendary music.

"He's a very, very serious composer and he's always depicted that way. And it's really quite exaggerated when you look at all the depictions of him sort of side by side, the scowl keeps getting darker and darker over time."

Listening to grumpy overtures

Ludwig Van Beethoven was born 250 years ago this December in Bonn, Germany. Since his death his image, and life story of struggling with deafness, has been used as a symbol of the tortured artist. 

A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven at 33 years old, painted by Christian Horneman. The composer died at the age of 56. (Christian Horneman/Wikimedia Commons)

According to Bonds, the scowl and second-hand stories — often exaggerated — about Beethoven's character influences the way we listen to his music today. 

"This scowl came to dominate people's perceptions of Beethoven's music. If this is his persona, if this is who he was, then surely we hear that in his music. And in fact, we do. Or at least we hear it in some of his music," says Bonds, author of The Beethoven Syndrome: Hearing Music as Autobiography.

"The problem is that that only accounts for — I don't want to put too fine a number on it — but let's say five per cent of the music Beethoven wrote, most of it does not reflect the scowl."  

The image of grumpy, tortured Beethoven only came about after his death, adds Bonds. During his lifetime, people simply knew very little about him.

"They were actually listening to the music without the image of the scowl," Bonds tells IDEAS.

A 'romantic hero' in turmoil

This caricature of Beethoven also inspires common beliefs about what a true artist is, according to Annemarie Sammartino, a professor of history at Oberlin College. 

"If you think of the traditional picture you see of Beethoven with his wild hair, that represents this idea of him as someone who almost doesn't care what other people think. There are all sorts of stories about his rudeness, how he ignored what people thought of him, what people told him to do," says Sammartino.

"And this all really speaks to a very traditional idea of Beethoven as this romantic hero who is defined by his struggle, his aloneness, the fact that he's not understood almost in his lifetime."

I would just encourage people to listen with a more open mind to the character of this really fascinating person.- Evan Bonds

She adds that the Beethoven-inspired idea of an artist, continues to hold sway.

"I'm a proud card carrying member of Gen X, and I definitely remember grunge, and Kurt Cobain's suicide as someone who was too beautiful to live in this world," says Sammartino.

"And that same notion, someone whose flames burn brightly and then ultimately cannot sustain themselves because they're constantly battling society and their own demons ... it becomes this prototype now of really in the 19th century — and then continues to be remarkably powerful until today."

A manuscript of Ludwig van Beethoven's first edition of the Ninth Symphony, described by Sotheby's auction house as 'the single most important musical work ever to appear at auction.' It was sold for £1.9 Million. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Beethoven had a difficult life, but Bonds suggests we get rid of the caricature that has dictated his reputation — an overblown image that hides the real character of a fascination man — preventing the world from hearing his music the way it was intended.

"He's really a much more interesting figure than ... the misanthropic, introverted artist, kind of Vincent Van Gogh of music, if you will, who hates life and hates everyone around him. He was much more multi-dimensional," Bonds explains. "There was a lot more to him than that. And I think that does come out in his music."

Bonds argues if you're listening to Beethoven's music waiting to hear "the scowl" — you inevitably will.

"I would just encourage people to listen with a more open mind to the character of this really fascinating person who put all this music out there for us."

Guests in this episode:

Evan Bonds is a professor and musicologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of the books, The Beethoven Syndrome, and Beethoven: Variations on a Life.

Annemarie Sammartino is a professor of history at Oberlin College, and the author of The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914-1922.

Leah Broad is a musicologist and lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford University.

*This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.


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