Befitting a Big Beethoven Birthday Bash
I miss 2020. Actually, it’s the aesthetics of twin “20”s - side by side - that I miss. But even if that did nothing for you, you have to be excited that we got to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth on December 16, 2020 – on radio, anyway!
On WILL-FM, there was Beethoven music most of the day. Our colleagues at Classical 24 played wall-to-wall Beethoven. I played a good bit of Beethoven, but not exclusively. Just as there are many who share a birthday with Beethoven and consider it an honor or status symbol, celebrating some famous musicians who were born on Beethoven’s birthday over the years seems to make for an even bigger celebration. None of them had milestone birthdays this time around. So, Beethoven remained in the spotlight on his 250th.
I had been working on a title for the program to suggest that it was music of Beethoven for the most part. The phrase “Mostly Mozart” was my model. “Mostly Beethoven” just doesn’t make it. A title evolved over the course of the morning. By the final hour, it became: “Befitting a Big Beethoven Birthday Bash.”
Yes, I played the “Moonlight” Sonata, the finale of the Violin Concerto, the exciting second movement from the Ninth Symphony – as well as the third movement of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, which had its premiere on Beethoven’s birthday in 1893 and includes a musical reference to Beethoven’s “Ninth.”
I included a couple of lesser-known - but amusing - works, which he wrote between the ages of 20 and 22: Music for a Ballet of Knights (Musik zu einem Ritterballett) and his Variations in A major on Dittersdorf’s “Es was einmal ein alter Mann,” in which the pianist abruptly comes to a momentary halt while introducing the tune. That pause carries over into all of the variations. I can just imagine Beethoven playing that at a birthday party and the guests, once they’ve caught on, eagerly awaiting the little interruption in each variation.
English conductor and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock was born on Beethoven’s birthday 74 years ago and Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin 88 years ago. That gave us the chance to hear a Vivaldi concerto featuring Pinnock’s English Concert and excerpts from Shchedrin’s Carmen Ballet Suite (based on Bizet).
Who else was born on Beethoven’s birthday? Composer François Adrien Boieldieu, who wrote operas and that famous harp concerto, was born on Beethoven’s fifth birthday. The Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly was born on Beethoven’s birthday in 1882, conductor Vladimir Golschmann in 1893—on the day the Dvořák “New World” Symphony premiered—and the late Canadian harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert in 1931. Manuel Barrueco, the Cuban guitarist, turned 68. And Dutch violinist Isabelle van Keulen turned 54. It’s also the day that Camille Saint-Saëns died in 1921.
I concluded the program with the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which was used most effectively in a film that won an Oscar for Best Picture: The King’s Speech. Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the film’s release.
And what about 2021? I did enjoy the thrill of the year’s palindrome, which occurred the day after New Year’s Day. Did you notice 1/2/21? The numbers are the same forward and backward. February 1 and April 3 look to be fun for different reasons. 2021 even includes a simple sequence of 20,21 if nothing else.
But beyond that, we’ve already had our first milestone celebrations of the year. English conductor Ronald Corp celebrated his 70th birthday on January 4. He’s best known for his recordings of British, American, and European light music with the New London Orchestra. Pianist Alfred Brendel turned 90 the day after. I checked out his website and noticed that although he retired from performing back in 2008, he continues to have a most impressive schedule of activities, including master classes and lectures. I’m not sure whether all of those are taking place, but it’s still impressive. Czech conductor Zdenek Macal celebrated his 85th on January 8. The Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger was born on that day in 1896 – 125 years ago. His best-known work is Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926) – especially the polka from the opera. And January 11 marked the 175th birthday anniversary of Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, whose Rustle of Spring (1896) is one of the most often played piano miniatures in history. Some may know it from its appearance in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.
That’s a lot in just over a week or so. Something tells me you’d better join us for Classic Mornings so you don’t miss the other celebrations that are coming up! Tune in Monday through Friday from 9-noon on WILL-FM 90.9 or online at will.illinois.edu. And let me add a special thanks to all who contributed to support the classical music on WILL-FM at the end of 2020!