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21 April 2022

Beethoven's legacy

As we come into the final few days of our Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon exhibition, open until Sunday 24 April, we are concluding our series of Beethoven blog posts with a blog dedicated to Beethoven’s legacy.

Join us also for our last events celebrating Beethoven on Friday 22 April at 19.00: Beethoven in concert, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Bach Choir and on Saturday 23 April at 19.30: Late at the Library: The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble.

Drawing from the rich collection of Beethoven material kept at the Library, the objects on display have given visitors a unique opportunity to experience the composer’s manuscripts, published scores, notebooks, letters, and personal belongings in the flesh. The immediacy of Beethoven’s chaotic handwriting shows his creative imagination at work, his personal notebooks reveal an individual troubled by progressive hearing loss, and his letters show that Beethoven was as much an astute businessman as a composer. But whilst the intimacy of these objects gives us access to Beethoven the individual, it remains difficult to gain a single perspective on the composer.

Beethoven’s image

It is the often-ambiguous image of Beethoven that carries his influence through music, literature, and the visual arts; to frequent adaptations and reinterpretations in popular culture; and that has allowed his music to be appropriated by diverse (often conflicting) political movements since his death. Beethoven’s image was elusive even during his lifetime. Prints of the composer circulated widely in Europe, and likenesses were contested by his contemporaries and even by Beethoven himself. The exhibition features several depictions of Beethoven that show the changing image of the composer in his life, death, and legacy.

Photograph of British Library Beethoven exhibition billboard

The title image of the exhibition recreates a portrait of Beethoven by Carl Jager (1870). The painting was completed over 40 years after Beethoven’s death. It shows a highly Romanticised image of the composer with a thoughtful look and swept-back hair. After its completion, an engraved version was printed and distributed by major publisher Frederick Bruckmann who traded in Berlin, Paris, New York and London.

Johann Peter Lyser’s sheet of Beethoven sketches (1833) include a full-length image of Beethoven in a top hat and coat and one of his head in profile. Although Lyser had never met Beethoven, the lithograph was considered a good likeness and was popular throughout the 19th century. Lyser produced the image from written descriptions of Beethoven but implied its authenticity visually by writing ‘Created after an original drawing’ below the image and including a copy of Beethoven’s signature. The British Library’s copy of the print made its way to England via Ignaz Moscheles, co-director of the Philharmonic Society in London, who included it in his autograph book.

Johann Peter Lyser’s sketches of Beethoven
Johann Peter Lyser’s sketches of Beethoven in Ignaz Moscheles’s album. Zweig MS 215, f.7r

One of the most striking moments in the exhibition are the sketches made by Austrian painter and lithographer Josef Teltscher who attended Beethoven at his deathbed. The two images show a rough sketch of the deathbed scene (right) and a touched-up version (left). Teltscher’s depictions sit on the boundary of Beethoven’s life and legacy. The rough sketch on the left shows a stark representation of Beethoven’s death, departing life with fists clenched, hair dishevelled, and face grimaced, whilst on the right we are presented with an image of Beethoven at rest, his softened facial features and pillow detail remarkably peaceful in contrast. Between these two images we see the Romanticisation of Beethoven in process: the immediate observations of the artist’s preliminary sketch followed by the idealised reconstructed image, perhaps ready for reproduction in paint or print.

Josef Teltscher’s sketch of Beethoven on his deathbed Josef Teltscher’s sketch of Beethoven on his deathbed
Josef Teltscher’s sketches of Beethoven on his deathbed. Zweig MS 207, f.1v-2r.

At the centre of the final section of the exhibition on Beethoven’s legacy sits a bust of Beethoven, copied from one sculpted by Johann Nepomuk Schaller (1777-1842). The bust presents the Romantic image of Beethoven in full swing. His swept back hair, classical attire, and piercing look form one of the most recognisable images of the composer today. The bust was donated to the Philharmonic Society in 1870 and has featured at every Society concert since 1871. The Society have adopted this image of Beethoven as 'a symbol of enduring musical excellence', and use the image for their prestigious gold medal.

Photograph of a plaster bust of Beethoven
Plaster bust of Beethoven from one sculpted by Johann Nepomuk Schaller (1777–1842). ©British Library Board, BLWA 43. Photography by Justine Trickett

Since the production of contemporary prints, the deathbed sketch, and Schaller’s iconic bust, Beethoven’s image has become ubiquitous in popular culture, reimagined in the screen prints of Andy Warhol (1987) and in Terry Adkins’ Synapse (2004) as part of his Black Beethoven series.

Legacy section

The legacy section of the exhibition provides a glimpse of the myriad ways Beethoven has influenced art, politics, and popular culture over the past two hundred years. Visitors are invited to contemplate the adoption of Beethoven’s music by a diverse range of political movements, his influence on countless composers, writers, and visual artists, and how his music and image have frequently found their way into popular culture.

A pamphlet of Wartime Songs from the BBC (1944) broadcast to Nazi-occupied France sees Beethoven’s music playing a part in the V for Victory campaign during the Second World War; May Byron’s romanticised fictional account of the composer’s daily life (1910) show his image being adopted into popular literature; Charles Schulz’s yearly celebration of Beethoven’s Birthday in his Peanuts cartoons brought Beethoven to a younger audience; and the Voyager Golden Record sees Beethoven’s music sent drifting out into deep space.

A page from Charles Schulz's It’s a Dog’s Life, Charlie Brown. A New Peanuts book highlighting Beethoven’s birthday
Charles Schulz highlighting Beethoven’s birthday in It’s a Dog’s Life, Charlie Brown. A New Peanuts book (1962). X.429/1504
Image of the Golden Voyageur record
The ‘Golden Record’ which included the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ‘Cavatina’ movement from the String Quartet in B flat major (opus 130). 1ss0013021

There are only a few days left to experience this Beethoven material on display, until the exhibition itself becomes part of Beethoven’s legacy. But the items on show only scratch the surface of the Beethoven material available at the library, and readers will be able to explore Beethoven through the rich physical and digital collections that have made this exhibition possible.

Dominic BridgeCollaborative PhD student, University of Liverpool and British Library

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