The Best Thing of All about 2020


If 2020 has been an annus horribilis thus far, then surely the best thing about it is now upon us: it marks the 250th anniversary of the year of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).  December 17, 1770 is when he was christened, according to local parish records in Bonn. His actual birthday could have been at most a day or two earlier (those staunch Protestants — and Catholics — did not waste a moment in getting their infants properly baptized in those days, due to the high rates of infant mortality). Traditionally, therefore, the day which Beethoven himself celebrated — December 16 — has been accepted as his birthday.

This blog has always had a special interest in Beethoven, since his great Eroica Symphony (No. 3, op. 55, in E-Flat Major) was the subject of my honors thesis for the Music Department at Harvard, which in 2018 I greatly expanded and published as a book:

This is a short summary, which appears on the back cover:

In the fall of 1802, Beethoven’s anxiety over his loss of hearing reached a crisis point.  Deafness would mean he could no longer play or perform in public, and also would have to withdraw from Viennese society.  For a gifted composer filled with good will towards his fellow men, this was the most unjust punishment of all.

While composing a ballet score in 1801, Beethoven had absorbed the legend of the Titan Prometheus.  To punish him for stealing divinefire and bringing it to men, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock, where each day an eagle gnawed out his liver.  Prometheus regenerated himself overnight, refused to buckle under to Zeus, and endured until Hercules set him free.

This book documents the little-known story of how Beethoven drew inspiration from Prometheus’ example.  Transforming the music he wrote for the ballet, he surmounted his deafness, broke free of the classical mold and composed the EroicaSymphony, a masterpiece which changed the course of music forever.

For some of the previous blog posts in celebration of Beethoven, please follow these links: