Ludwig van Beethoven appears in Melanie Jackson’s mystery novel for young people The Fifth Beethoven as both an inspiration and (in ghost form) an often-annoying mentor. Here’s Melanie’s take on five common myths about this uncommon musical genius.
I’ve adored the late, über-great Beethoven since I heard the first bah-bah-bah-boom notes of his Fifth Symphony as a kid. Right away I knew he out-rocked any of the Top Ten I’d been listening to. (Sorry, Fleetwood Mac.)
How to pay tribute to Beethoven in his 250th birthday year? One way is to reexamine some of the myths about him. There are so many! Here are five.
- Bad-tempered Beethoven
It could be that fierce scowl in just about every portrait, but many people are convinced Beethoven was the moody, sullen type. Not so. The German composer actually had a rollicking sense of humour. His pupil Carl Czerny recalled him cracking jokes until everyone in the room was in helpless tears of laughter. And here’s what Beethoven wisecracked at the critic who lacerated his piece Wellington’s Victory: “What I s#&t is better than anything you could think up.” Boing!
- He’s always had rave reviews
We think of Beethoven as being right up there with the best composers ever. But, as noted above, some contemporary reviewers scorned his work. It’s partly that Beethoven was just too original for them. And, partly, granted, that some critics are always going to be miserable. (Ask Van Gogh and you’d get an earful.) Of the Ninth Symphony, one sourpuss sniffed that its “Szforzandos, Crescendos, Accelerandos, and many other Os [would] call up from their peaceful graves…Handel and Mozart, to witness and deplore the obstreperous roarings of modern frenzy in their art.” Not sure which is worse, the unkind words or the bad writing.
- When deaf, Beethoven wrote melancholy music
This is an example of people hearing what they expect to hear. Of the Third Symphony, a.k.a. Eroica, a biographer opined that it reflects Beethoven’s struggle against suicide; his alienation from society. The Eroica is indeed a journey through struggle, but it ends in triumph and jubilation! In fact, it’s often considered the first romantic symphony. Predictably, contemporary critics found fault with it, with one sniping that it should be shortened.
- Beethoven’s nephew was actually his son
Blame the 1994 film Immortal Beloved for this one. Screenwriter and director Bernard Rose depicts Beethoven’s true love as a verboten one: his sister-in-law Johanna. Johanna and Kaspar, Beethoven’s brother, had a son, Karl. Rose asserts that Ludwig was the dad. With a pretzel-like twist of logic, Rose argues that this would explain Beethoven’s hostility toward Johanna, whom he called a whore. Um…not very lover-like. And not very true. Before, during and after Johanna’s pregnancy, Beethoven was infatuated with another woman.
- Beethoven was Black
With 2020 being Beethoven’s 250th birthday year, he’s a hot social-media topic. Trending in particular: the theory that he was Black. It’s not a new theory, though. A Habsburg prince, Nicholas Esterhazy I, sparked the rumour during Beethoven’s lifetime. Beethoven and Joseph Haydn, the prince said, were Moors. Since then, many have assumed he was alluding to the two composers’ dark complexions. Maybe, but as others have pointed out, the term Moor was also an idiom of the time, referring to someone of the servant class. On the other hand, though Beethoven’s ancestry appears to have been Flemish, who knows?
In the Fifth Beethoven, Melanie Jackson plays with one of these myths and she includes details about Beethoven’s life. Can you guess which myth truth made it into the story? Buy the book and fin