Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany. He learned the piano at an early age under the harsh hand of his alcoholic father, who would often come home late at night, pull his son out of bed, and force him to practice until sunrise, beating him when he played wrong notes. That Beethoven learned his craft under this kind of abuse is remarkable; that he grew to love it with all his heart is nothing short of amazing. His passion and skill combined to create a virtuosic piano soloist who was in great demand throughout the region.
Beethoven's dreams of a long and glorious career as a concert pianist were not to come to fruition. By the time he reached the age of thirty, Beethoven was convinced that he was becoming increasingly deaf. Though he had always been somewhat estranged from his family, this personal crisis caused him to take up pen and paper to address his brothers. From the resort town of Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven was attempting to save what was left of his hearing on the advice of his doctors, he penned his now famous Heiligenstadt Testament. This document - part essay, part personal letter, part suicide note, part last will and testament - is one of the most poignant and personal glimpses into the heart and mind of a musical colossus ever preserved by history.
In this document, Beethoven directly addresses the shame and isolation he feels as a result of his increasing deafness. He writes candidly of the desire for death that has often overtaken him. He speaks openly and with great honesty about the depression and anxiety that he feels at being seemingly wasted as a pianist and about the simple everyday pleasures, musical and otherwise, that everyone around him takes for granted but that he will never know again. But in the course of this remarkable letter, its author records his own transformation from tragic to triumphant. The key to this transformation, as I have always read it, anyway, is this sentence: "Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?" Beethoven refused to take his own life - refused to be beaten by the very worst conceivable malady that could have overtaken such a man - because he knew his purpose.
After this letter, Beethoven threw himself entirely into composition. He had always been a composer, but before this point, he certainly viewed himself primarily as a performer. Now, with his purpose clear, he devoted his life to that vocation to which so few have been so certainly and so fittingly called: the creation of Art - not entertainment. Musicologists agree. Beethoven's greatest works all came from the pen of a man who no longer doubted his purpose - a man who could not hear a note of his music performed but in the perfection of his own mind's ear. How easy it would have been for such a man to keep this beauty to himself rather than go to all the extra effort of sharing it with a world that mistreated him at every turn! That would have been much easier. Withering away would have been so much easier than composing, publishing, and conducting. Dying would have been so much easier than living.
Instead, Ludwig van Beethoven exposed himself to mockery and ridicule. He sawed the legs off of one of his pianos so he could lay the body directly on the floor. He would lay down on the floor himself, pounding the keys with all his strength with his ear pressed to the floor, struggling to find just the right sonorities to write. This was the atmosphere in which Beethoven composed his final symphony: Symphony No. 9 in D minor. The first symphony to employ a choir and vocal soloists as integral forces, its final movement also introduced the world to one of the most iconic, uplifting, and memorable melodies in all of music - the unmistakable melody which has come to be known as the "Ode to Joy" although this is actually the title of the Schiller poem set to that melody. You may know it from your hymnal as "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."
Beethoven was not exactly the picture of orthodox Christian life. I cannot say whether we will see him in Heaven or not. I do know though, that the reason his greatest music exists is because he decided to LIVE as if what he BELIEVED was actually true, and this principle is a pillar of the Christian life. Beethoven knew that he had been made for a purpose, and that it would not be virtuous to deny the world of that purpose by taking his own life. This is a truth that every Christian should embrace, and one to which our hearts should be pointed every time we hear the majesty of Beethoven's Human Testament - Symphony No. 9.
Johann Sebastian Bach taught us that all music is for God's glory alone - Soli Deo Gloria!
George Frederic Handel showed us that music has the power to change reality: "I should be very sorry, sir if I only entertained you. I had hoped to make you a better man!"
Ludwig van Beethoven's greatest and most enduring work is a testament to the truth that our lives and our purposes are not our own, but God's.
If we call ourselves musicians, if we at all give credence to the lessons taught us by the greatest of our profession and calling, then we will take these truths to heart, and they WILL change the way we do our work and live our lives.