After two years of fanfare, with concerts and assorted festivities sprinkled across the continents, the occasion has finally arrived. Dec. 16 marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer regarded by many as the greatest of all time. “He was indisputably amazing,” wrote critic Anthony Tommasini earlier this week in the New York Times. “He cultivated the mystique of the composer as colossus, as a seer and hero striding the earth, channeling messages from on high and revealing them to us mere mortals.”
But as a mere mortal, if you need further proof of his genius, here are 12 pieces of evidence, either performed (or produced) by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra f0r y0ur enjoyment. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!
Solti’s Beethoven: Originally presented by PBS’ “Great Performances” in 1989, Solti’s Beethoven: The Fifth Symphony Revisited features Sir Georg Solti, CSO music director from 1969 to 1971, at the piano in his London studio and during a rehearsal at Orchestra Hall as he provides insights about Beethoven’s most famous work. This digital version, which premiered Nov. 26, is streaming free of charge on CSOtv.
Beethoven 9: A testament to the human spirit, Beethoven’s Ninth bursts with brooding power and kinetic energy, and ends with the exultant hymn, “Ode to Joy.” This version, recorded in September 2014 with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, has racked up nearly 26 million views since its online premiere in May 2015.
The life mask of Ludwig van Beethoven: This artifact, cast in bronze, is one of the most precious in the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s part of the collection of Theodore Thomas, the CSO’s founder and first music director.
The genius of Beethoven: Pianist Emanuel Ax and CSO violin Sylvia Kim Kilcullen, longtime friends and collaborators, explain why the works of Ludwig van Beethoven belong to a class that’s completely their own. “Nobody ever wrote like Beethoven before,” Ax declares. “Nobody.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s nationally syndicated broadcast series features live concert performances, recorded in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, along with selections from the orchestra’s catalog of commercial recordings.
Beethoven at 250: In this all-Beethoven program, part of the CSO’s Archives: The First 130 Years series, also showcases a superstar lineup. Van Cliburn is soloist in the Fourth Piano Concerto under Fritz Reiner, and Sir Georg Solti leads the Leonore Overture No. 3, the Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust”) from Fidelio, and the Eroica Symphony.
Muti and Beethoven’s Second: Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert of concertos featuring CSO musicians. The program begins with Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto and Ken Benshoof’s Concerto in Three Movements for Piccolo and Orchestra featuring Jennifer Gunn. Later, Maestro Muti leads the entire ensemble in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. The program continues with the world premiere of Jim Stephenson’s Bass Trombone Concerto featuring Charles Vernon. Gershwin’s An American in Paris rounds out the broadcast.
Solti Conducts Beethoven: In this archival broadcast, Sir Georg Solti leads the Orchestra and Chorus in two Grammy Award- winning recordings of works that bookend the composer’s career. Theodore Thomas, the CSO’s founder and first music director, called the First Symphony, “a connecting link between the art of the classic and that of the romantic period.” The monumental Missa solemnis, regarded as “the greatest undertaking of his career,” completes the program.
Muti and a Beethoven double: In performances from February 2020, Riccardo Muti and the CSO celebrate Beethoven’s 250th with the composer’s second and fifth symphonies. Plus, CSO bass clarinet J. Lawrie Bloom, who retired in June, solos in a world premiere by composer Nicolas Bacri. The program concludes with Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, conducted by Fritz Reiner.
Beethoven at 250: Beethoven has now dominated our thinking about great music for two centuries. Many of his works have helped to define the term “masterpiece,” and music itself has not lost its value, observes CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher in this essay. Today Beethoven is still as widely performed as any composer, and unlike Mozart or Schubert, for example, nearly all his major works are in the active repertory. The Chicago Symphony has not let a single season pass without playing some of his music.
Thomas and Stock on Beethoven: Theodore Thomas, founder and first music director of the Chicago Orchestra, favored the music of Beethoven above all others. He began writing a series of essays, complete with diagrams, analyzing Beethoven’s symphonies, to “serve as an aid to students and concertgoers in understanding and listening intelligently to these masterworks.” After his death in January 1905, his successor, Frederick Stock, finished the series. The result was the book Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies, published in 1930.
Beethoven, the man behind the myth: After writing well-received biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms, Jan Swafford took on the challenge of chronicling the vast life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven. In his book titled Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the Boston-based composer, journalist and music historian tried to uncover the still-elusive man behind the celebrated music.
The Ninth in Nippon: Many classical music masterworks have become associated with the yuletide season: Handel’s Messiah, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker or Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. But in Japan, one work rules them all — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.