Beethoven Memories From NWPB Listeners
2020: The “Beethoven 250” Year
In the year 2270, will there be celebrations honoring someone being born today? Someone who will grow up headstrong, determined, challenged, persistent, and wildly talented? Someone who will create visionary work that speaks to its time, yet stretches beyond it, with hope and harmony? Ludwig van Beethoven was all that.
So we’ve been celebrating him, marking 250 years since his birth in Bonn, Germany in 1770.
Alas, countless “Beethoven 250” festivals and concerts had to be scrapped or “reimagined.” So here at NWPB Classical, we are especially grateful to you who accepted our invitation to share your own “Beethoven moments.” They’ve been lightly edited, but otherwise they’re all yours. Cheers!
THE FIFTH SYMPHONY
A few years ago the Walla Walla Symphony was performing Beethoven’s 5th. It was a blustery spring evening and just as we (I’m a cellist) got to the repeat of the exposition in the fourth movement, the power went out in Cordiner Hall. We couldn’t see the music, we couldn’t see Yaki (the conductor), and we started faltering. But we played those opening chords – and then we kept playing. In the dark. The crowd went wild. Hooting and hollering and standing ovation. I think every one of us on stage had chills up our spines and giant grins on our faces (well, not the wind players). I’ve been playing music for 35 years and this is one of my favorite musical memories. That said, thank goodness the lights came back before we got into the development.
As a child I lived through WWII in England. Victory was declared when I was 7. Dah-Dah-Dah-Duuhh was my introduction to Beethoven. The first few bars were used as a signature tune to the latest fake news given by “Lord Haw-Haw”. He would intervene in BBC radio shows to update “the enemy” with Nazi Propaganda.
My father loved classical music and we were just rich enough to own a stereo so our chaotic and turbulent house was often filled with gloriously orderly music until dad’s schizophrenia caused him to leave our home for good. So,10 years later, when I was a junior in high school, a friend asked me if I wanted to accompany him and another friend to listen to someone he knew practice some Bach. I was very excited. This guy was supposedly a very good musician and I was looking forward to it. Of course, I did not tell my working mother where I was going, mainly because I did not know where I was going, and the night took on an air of daring-do (I was usually a goody-two-shoes). I was surprised when we pulled into the parking lot at Oklahoma City University. I was even more surprised when I was led into a dark and completely empty giant church (well, giant to me). Taking seats in the balcony, I noticed movement at the organ control center of what looked like 3 stories of pipes, a split-second prior to being hit in the chest with the first four notes of the opening salvo of Beethoven’s 5th!
Bach was on the menu that night, but for whatever reason, this very talented young organist chose to start out with the 5th. Perhaps he knew exactly how to prepare his audience of three for what followed. I remember that vibration in my chest, the dark and sinister look of the great shadows of the pipes, and the smell of hamburger on my companions, as clearly as I remember my surroundings when the nun in jr. high told us JFK had been shot, and the moment when the second plane turned a dreadful accident into a premeditated mass murder. Reflecting on this fact, I am grateful, at this time of pandemic, to have you remind me of such a cherished memory.
Shelley S Ritchie
It was about 1944 and I was about 8 years old. My father was a chaplain in the army, and we were on a several day’s trip across the country to a new fort. In those days the Today Show was on the radio. The hosts for the time we were on the road were Meredith Wilson and Margaret Truman. Each day for 4 days they talked about a different movement of Beethoven’s 5th. Harriet would ask questions, and Meredith would answer them and after explaining the movement, they would play it. I know that early exposure to the 5th is why it has always been my favorite!
THE NINTH SYMPHONY (“CHORAL”)
I have played 3rd horn in the Yakima Symphony Orchestra for years. Whenever we play the Beethoven Ninth, I marvel at the many contrapuntal places in the piece. In those places I always get the exhilarating feeling that I’m in the middle of a magnificent living creature.
In the early 1970s I was living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and joined the national symphony orchestra as a cellist. On one occasion we played Beethoven’s 9th. The choir was made up of excellent local singers who couldn’t suppress their own rhythms in the Ode to Joy – it rocked! It was wonderful and truly a joy to be part of.
My memory of who was conducting and the exact year is not certain, but I attended an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony probably conducted by James DePriest that took place at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. He was known to be fond of this symphony. I do remember vividly what happened. The lights were dim and the concert was ready to begin but a few seats toward the back of the orchestra were still vacant. As the conductor raised his baton, a few somewhat disheveled members of the orchestra swaying tipsily holding their bass violins took their places. The conductor with baton upraised slowly turned, faced the expectant audience and proclaimed, “It’s the top of the ninth and the bases are loaded.” After a split second of silence, the audience erupted in laughter and then the concert began with a hall full of smiles.
As a college sophomore in 1981, I participated in the University of Wisconsin’s Study in London program. One of my courses was The Arts in London, and the first outing was to the symphony, a new experience for me. The initial selection, a work by Benjamin Britten, left me thinking it was going to be a very, very long evening. But then, the BBC Symphony Orchestra began playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I get chills now, remembering how it took me completely unawares. I was transported, and hooked. Everyone should be so lucky as to hear it, at least once in their life, performed live by a first-class orchestra. Hearing it that way for the first time was a tremendous thrill, to say the least.
Kenneth W. Jenks
I am telling this story for a dear friend who passed away recently, Ernst Beier. He was in his home town in Germany, not long before World War II. It was the final concert for the town’s symphony conductor. Local Nazis insisted he leave because he was married to a Jew. The final work was Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony. The applause at the end was drowned out by a crowd of shouting Brown Shirt Nazis, who were then interrupted by a single voice, someone way up in the balconies, singing a line from the Symphony, “Alle Menschen Verden Bruder.” My contemporary translation would be “We are all in this together, one humanity.” Ernst, not Jewish, left Germany the next day. He returned years later with “Alle Menschen Werden Bruder” still in his heart, and wearing a U.S. Army uniform.
I have loved Beethoven’s music since first hearing “Eroica,” my first truly classical experience, with The Columbia Record Club in 1963. In my late forties my son, in high school, introduced me to Beethoven’s 9th. Needless to say I was overwhelmed, causing me to listen to it, and only the 9th, for six straight months. At present I am plowing through Beethoven’s works again. Each time, a growing appreciation is had in re-listening to the master’s works. Bravo Ludvig. Die Freiheit!
THE THIRD SYMPHONY (“EROICA”)
Mary Helene Mele
In college, our music 101 professor required that we get a score of the symphony – AND COLOR IT! I had to listen to Beethoven’s 3rd about 40 times to color the whole score. I remember the French Horn I colored purple and the violins green and the cello deep blue. It was a genius of an assignment. I can hum the whole symphony to this day! It starts off with two (brilliant yellow) beats!
THE SIXTH SYMPHONY (“PASTORAL”)
Almost too harrowing to relate, my unforgettable Beethoven experience is connected with the 1973 science fiction film, “Soylent Green.” Against the glorious background of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the Edward G. Robinson character is allowed to view scenes of the long-past beauties of Planet Earth…
A never-to-be-forgotten Beethoven association.
THE MOONLIGHT SONATA
My best memory is when I learned to play the first two movements of the Moonlight Sonata after I graduated from High School. It was a true crowd pleaser in college.
During the fifties as a young teenager, I stayed up Hallowe’en night to watch “The Picture of Dorian Gray” on TV. Featured in the movie was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I was so intrigued with it that I bought the sheet music and taught myself to play it (no piano lessons in my background). I later bought the LP. At the same time I bought a sampler record which included a portion of one of Beethoven’s piano concertos. By then I knew I had found my composer. I now have all of the concertos and symphonies and still love to play them whenever possible.
Without a radio in the house, I grew up listening to my mother play Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy on the piano. The first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata spoke to my soul. Such simplicity yet such emotional depth!
I was so touched by the music I went to the elementary school library and read all the books I could find about Beethoven — I felt he was a kindred spirit. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata remains one of my favorites to this day.
We had a concert grand piano in our living room in Connecticut, bought by my aunt to support our piano lessons. In the weekday afternoons, I would lay on the carpet under the piano’s large harp, listening to my brother Charlie play Moonlight Sonata for me because it was my favorite. All the school day stress would just melt away.
“Beethoven and the Governor’s Mansion”
I love Beethoven! His drama, flair and creative intensity have excited my musical appreciation for most of my life. When I was a young grade school aged child, in the city of Topeka, I begged my family for a piano. Eventually, my grandparents relented and got me one, along with lessons from a very good piano teacher. I took weekly lessons for seven years, and an additional music theory class twice a month. As I progressed, the teacher started assigning music of the Three B’s- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Beethoven was by far my favorite.
When I was 12, one of the other students my age was the daughter of Governor John Anderson. The governor’s family offered to host our annual piano recital at the Governor’s Mansion!
What a flurry of activity-learning Für Elise by Beethoven, finding a dress for the occasion, and inviting all my family to attend. And a grand occasion it was! Yes, I was nervous when it was my turn to play. I managed to get through the first movement by memory, but then needed the music to finish. Still I felt triumphant! And now, 50 years later, will never forget how to play Für Elise!
In the 1950s, our family was vacationing at a resort in New Jersey called “Laurel ‘N the Pines”. I was walking in a hallway when two girls sat down at a piano in an alcove. They proceeded to play Für Elise, as a duet. I was floored. The music was so beautiful and the playing seemed expert.
My aunt and uncle had a summer home on Long Island, New York. We lived in the city. In the 1950s, my parents and my younger brother and sister and I got to spend a week with them every August before school started. My aunt played the piano – she was not a virtuoso but had a few pieces that she knew well and loved to play. We’d ask her “Play Für Elise! Play Für Elise!”, and whenever I hear Für Elise, I picture her at the upright piano in the living room of that house.
PIANO CONCERTO #5 (“EMPEROR”)
How amazing that so many people remember a particular “Beethoven moment!” Here is mine: Over 60 years ago, with a date, I attended a Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra production of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 Opus 73, known as the “Emperor.”
To this day, I recall how both of us, young and naïve as we were, were stunned by the absolute pure beauty of the performance of the composition. This all comes right back to me whenever I hear it played. How sad that Beethoven himself never heard it in its final form!
THE ARCHDUKE TRIO
I am a retired Mathematics professor, but music has been my passion all my life. As a child, I had a fair amount of success as a piano student. By the time I was in my teens I was beginning to play some fairly serious solo repertoire and, thankfully, I became interested in chamber music, through recordings, radio broadcasts, and the occasional live concert. But my experience with its actual performance was limited to accompanying fellow instrumental students in little recitals, music festivals and so forth.
It was after graduating with an undergraduate degree in Physics that I was invited by my old Physics professor Mike, an amateur ‘cellist, and his friend John, a grocery store owner and avid amateur violinist, to read some trios. Mike and John had been playing string quartets together for years. While I knew something of the trio literature through listening, this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to actually try to play trios with anyone. We probably started our session with an early trio by Beethoven, but when we moved on to the magnificent Archduke Trio, Op. 97, my life changed forever! With its huge emotional range, and the wonderful opportunities for interplay among the players, the overall experience was overwhelming. It absolutely “blew my mind”, as they say. In the 50 odd years since then, playing chamber music has been my main hobby and passion.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to play sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets, and what have you with a wide range of partners, from beginning students to seasoned professionals. But the joy of playing the Beethoven Archduke with Mike and John was a never-to-be-forgotten experience (and the Archduke remains one of my all-time favorites!)
LIEDER: AN DIE FERNE GELIEBTE
I once heard a Japanese tenor singing An die Ferne Geliebte songs one late fall evening in the early seventies when I was still a teenager and I have been hooked on these lieder since. A specific memory is attached to them. The next day, I was picking grapes (in France) with a crew and a young man from the village mentioned staying up late to watch and listen to the same program. The rest of the crew poo-poohed him for listening to such stuff, and so late. ‘But it’s beautiful’, said the young man.
These lieder move me far more than other works by the same composer.
Though the Archduke trio (by the Suk trio), which I discovered a few years later, remains an über-favorite of mine. I wish it and the lieder were played more often on the radio.
I was about 8 years old. This was in the mid-50’s. My sister and I were listening to the records in my parents’ record set of Great Composers Works. There was a short biography of each composer on the jacket of each record. When we got to Beethoven, we had the music playing and I was reading the biography. When I got to the end and read about him going deaf, I burst into tears, uncontrollably! It was unforgettable.
I grew up listening to Beethoven because of my mother’s love for classical music. When I was 26, I went through a difficult period of my life, and decided to quit my job and travel to Europe to follow every step Beethoven took, searching for inspiration. To this day I will never understand how someone can live such a difficult life and yet never give in to the sadness. Everything he created was to celebrate the beauty of life. When I need him, he’s still there to lift up my spirit and keep me moving forward. (Favorite: Allegretto of 7th Symphony)
Happy birthday, Ludwig <3
In 1998 my wife Joan, and I visited Vienna for the first time. I had long been fascinated with the Heiligenstadt Testament, so one day we took a series of trams there and found the house Beethoven rented for the summer of 1802 and where he wrote is letter to his brothers, but never sent. After a visit to his apartment, we decided to have a picnic lunch in the back yard. There was a little garden shed there with a window and grape vines growing on it. The way the grapevines interlaced reminded me of the Pastoral Symphony, the way the various strands are interwoven. Heiligenstadt is well known for growing grapes and making wine, so perhaps Beethoven was also inspired by the interlacing of grapevines in the neighborhood.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany In 1770, it was then located in Rhein province within Prussia. Bonn is one of the oldest cities in Germany, dating back to a Roman settlement in the first century BC. I spent a year in Bonn, 1962-1963, studying social sciences at the University of Bonn (officially, the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universitaet, Bonn) courtesy of a German government AAD scholarship. I visited Beethoven’s birthplace (Beethoven Geburtshaus) at 20 Bonngasse — near the market place — many times during my year there. I was always amazed at how tiny the house was, with small rooms and low ceilings. People must have been of shorter stature in the mid/late 18th century. Beethoven’s cradle was located in an upstairs bedroom. (Favorites: First Piano Concerto; all nine symphonies)
I was first introduced to Beethoven by the cartoon character Schroeder in the Peanuts comic strips and books. He idolized Beethoven, kept busts of Beethoven’s head in his closet & he freaked out once when he forgot Beethoven’s birthday on December 16th.
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