Classical music organizations around the world began a major anniversary celebration this fall for Ludwig van Beethoven, born almost 250 years ago in December 1770. The Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany, the composer’s birthplace, has established #BTHVN2020 as an umbrella for regional programming. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is just one of the major ensembles that will perform all nine Beethoven symphonies. Classical music culture, as others, seems unable to resist anniversary blowouts: Mozart’s 250th birth year in 2006 was exhaustively celebrated, as was the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000.
The problem with these festivities is that the composers being celebrated do not otherwise lack performances — far from it. Even among the living, the composers whose milestone birthdays are publicly celebrated are already the most prominent. Given the long-standing ubiquity of Beethoven in the concert hall, doing more Beethoven is just more of the same. How effective can such projects really be in bringing new attention to familiar music?
A worthier way to honor these composers might be something more drastic: a cooperative, worldwide, yearlong moratorium on live performances of their music. Anniversary-year celebrations ask us — or should ask us — to rethink composers, reconsider their legacies, hear something new in their familiar music. Letting Beethoven’s music fall silent for the duration of his 250th anniversary year might give us a new way into hearing it live again.
I’d further propose that we fill the Beethoven-sized hole in our repertoire with new music. There is a rather pallid anniversary tradition of commissioning pieces “inspired by” the honoree, although of course there are some powerful pieces that were written as homages or responses. But we can think bigger. With Beethoven’s nine symphonies at the core of the orchestral repertoire, what about a bold commissioning project? It could aim to produce nine new symphonies, from the broadest range of composers imaginable. And five new piano concertos, 16 new string quartets, 32 sonatas — not as responses to the Beethoven works, but as a way to hear these genres utterly reimagined.
For an artistic tradition that has struggled to articulate its ongoing relevance, a crucial question might be how much compelling new music is going unheard, both by those from within the tradition and those whose music has had little presence in the concert hall?
Much of the important new music of the 21st century has been the domain of chamber ensembles, and while their modest scale creates possibilities, it can also be seen as a manifestation of austerity in a culture that offers less and less material support for ambitious large-scale work. Creating bigger spaces for such work — an antidote to austerity — would be an excellent use of an anniversary celebration, as would using it as an opportunity to redistribute institutional and financial capital to a whole new cohort of composers representative of the world we live in now.
Of course, there would be resistance to unprogramming Beethoven for a whole year. Yet the prospect of actually longing for music that often functions as jocular shorthand for “high culture” — or, worse, as aural wallpaper — is compelling. And while audiences might miss this music, they could also hear the symphony, the string quartet, the concerto anew: Old genres that may seem moribund could be revived by new musical thinkers whose voices we risk missing altogether.
Although 2020 will go on as planned, there are always more milestones. The 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s death is only seven short years away. He, or any of our most celebrated composers, could withstand a yearlong rest.
What might we hear instead?
Andrea Moore is an assistant professor of music at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. This column was originally published by the Chicago Tribune.