HIS father had syphilis and his mother tuberculosis. One of his siblings was born blind, another deaf.
With that genetic profile, it’s a wonder that Ludwig van Beethoven survived his birth, much less inspired the world with his music of liberation.
Beethoven, born on this day in 1770, was a maverick. He took orchestral music out of the aristocratic salons into packed concert halls. He proclaimed artistic freedom, political freedom and personal freedom of art and of faith.
He became a political symbol after his death. For almost everyone.
As a result, every age and ideology has claimed Beethoven for its own.
His spirit seemingly supported both sides during World War II.
The Nazis adopted Beethoven’s music as an example of the superior Teutonic spirit. It was played for Hitler’s birthday in 1938.
Then the Allies used the opening rhythms of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a code to launch the D-Day invasion.
Marxists, pointing to Beethoven’s renowned scoldings of the aristocracy, made him a posthumous Communist Party member.
Joseph Stalin, after a performance of the finale at a Soviet Congress in Moscow, declared that “this is the right music for the masses, and it can’t be performed often enough”.
But when the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Beethoven’s glorious Ninth Symphony with its Ode To Joy was played to symbolise the death of Communism.
It was also defiantly blared from loudspeakers in China’s Tianenman Square during student demonstrations before the tanks rolled in.
The same symphony was also a national anthem for Rhodesia, and is now the European anthem.
Even the Freemasons have adopted Beethoven, claiming his music contains repeated references to Masonic imagery, although there is no evidence the man was ever a Mason.
Why the contradictory allegiances?
Perhaps because so many people misunderstand the motivation of his music.
It is actually free of political dogma. So free that the music could plumb the depths of our despair and express heroic struggles and reach astonishing peaks of joy.
At its best, it expressed a love of liberty for all.
The great contradiction is Beethoven’s personality. He was tormented, rude and had a messy personal life. He had a volatile temper, even with his friends.
Yet, in the end, there is the music that affirms the glory of human life.
Incidentally, the standard capacity of a CD is approximately 74 minutes — chosen because it was long enough for his entire Ninth Symphony.
You want to find where the ecstasy lies in Beethoven’s music? Don’t try to find political meanings. Listen. Get lost in the beauty.