Friday, March 8, 2019

It usually comes back to marketing

I've been thinking about Ludwig.

Not Ludwig of Bavaria, the "crazy" monarch, although it has occurred to me that, luck of the hereditary draw notwithstanding, a good percentage of the population might have elected him anyway--no, I'm talking about Ludwig van Beethoven.

There is a popular perception that he was a pretty crazy guy as well, stormy, moody, nasty, and very, very, very serious.

Which may not be all wrong, but if you know popular images the first rule is that they are always oversimplified.

When they were passing out images for classical composers there were only so many to go around. Bach was the intellectual. Haydn got jovial. Mozart got to have a sense of humor, but of a less earthy, surprise-bound variety than his contemporary. When they got to Beethoven, humor had been done already. What was left was shocking. The bad boy of music.

It is true that Beethoven did things in music that had not often been done before. And that he broke strings. And that he told princes that they weren't any big deal just because they were royalty. His music does have quite a few shocking sforzandos in it.

But he wrote a lot of pieces that are beautiful, and jocose, and even, sometimes, funny. In fact, if you look at his entire output, it is surprising the number of musical moods he was in. Stormy is just one of them, and probably not the most often represented.

But everybody needs to have their own individual "thing." Beethoven got his corner of the market because it was different than what had come before. It also helped that he didn't seem to comb his hair. Maybe Mozart should have lent him one of his wigs.

But wigs were out and revolution was in. And images are born because people need them to explain what is going on in their world and to justify it. Images are there to do battle with other images which means they have to have a character that everybody can easily hone in on. And then, once the image jells, they start selling the merchandise, and you can pretty much forget anything that doesn't fit the image then. A picture that had Beethoven actually smiling in it would be worth millions simply because it would be so rare. If it existed.

So now Beethoven is the guy with those fateful eight notes who went deaf and fought a mighty battle with life and everyone around him. Which probably isn't all wrong, but if you know any human beings who can laugh and smile some days and rant and rave on others, who can grin and groan, who can be--what's the word--human? you might wonder if this image of Beethoven even passes the smell test.

But most people don't wonder about that. Images are useful. They serve our purposes. And as long as they do that, we don't ask what else is under the mask. Sometimes we just don't want to know.

I'm teaching a class that starts next week. The Beethoven my students are about to meet is a little complicated. Some of him they'll recognize and some of him they probably won't. What will they think of that one, I wonder?

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