Beyond the scowl: Beethoven’s unpredictable, subversive sides

Posted on: January 22, 2021

Joseph Karl Stieler’s 1820 portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven

“The two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth … fell last month…. As it happened, the coronavirus pandemic essentially wiped out the Beethoven Year,” writes Alex Ross in Tuesday’s (1/19) New Yorker. “Virtual seasons often turned in a different direction, placing a welcome emphasis on Black composers. Still … recordings and books accumulated by the dozens…. The authors who published Beethoven books in 2020—I count at least ten—faced the task of countering received images of the composer…. Mark Evan Bonds isolates the principal issue on the first pages of ‘Beethoven: Variations on a Life.’ … ‘The first thing to get past is The Scowl,’ Bonds writes.… That fearsome visage conforms to the pell-mell drive of several of the most-often-heard Beethoven works … but it belies the composer’s more playful, unpredictable, creatively subversive side, which came more to the fore as he grew older…. This is not to say that the more marketable image of Beethoven the freedom fighter needs to be entirely discarded…. Beethoven adhered to no consistent ideology…. In his later sonatas and string quartets, … he routinely subverts the expectations that his forward-hurtling symphonic style has created…. Beethoven proceeded to engender another, more elusive self, which was perhaps the truer one.”