A Google Doodle marks 245th anniversary of Beethoven’s christening and offers a technological tribute to one of Western music’s great innovators.
The pairing of Google and Beethoven is apt, as Google is part of a host of disruptive technologies changing how artists work and survive financially. Ludwig van Beethoven composed during the classical era of music, a time of economic upheaval when musicians and others were seeking new ways to work according to their own muse.
That Beethoven succeeded economically as a musician under a mix of a patron system and his own marketing was remarkable for that time, as it would be today. Beethoven’s famous predecessor Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, was musically brilliant but died in financial distress. Beethoven also coped with deafness, which lost him a revenue source from musical performances, so he "became a skilled negotiator," according the Beethoven museum in Bonn, Germany.
"The remunerations Beethoven received from his publishers were by far his most important source of income," museum researchers wrote. "As a composer, Beethoven wanted to remain free and independent and create timeless compositions for a worldwide audience."
Beethoven's musical genre is a further sign of how Beethoven was striving for artistic independence partly through different financial models. He gets a December Google Doodle by virtue of his birthday, but in no other way is his work particularly suited to a holiday season. At that time many composers wrote music for church services and holy celebrations, but Beethoven did not leave as part of his vast musical legacy a festive liturgy. No “Hallelujah Chorus” came from Beethoven, and even his symphony “Ode to Joy” is a tribute to only season-neutral happiness.
Many other musicians – Johann Sebastian Bach is an obvious example – were patronized by royal courts or churches, and sacred music was a staple of these earlier musicians. Beethoven valued his independence and tried to juggle his desire to create art for its own sake with economic need, according to the Beethoven museum in Bonn, Germany.
Beethoven supplemented patronage and composition profits partly by teaching music lessons. His composition “Fur Elise” was titled after one of his music students. He also dedicated the famous “Moonlight Sonata” to the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, who he fell in love with while teaching music.
The countess's aristocratic status prevented them from marrying, but the romance did yield one of music’s distinctive, if brooding, melodic lines. Historians believe more than one romantic suit by Beethoven failed due to the objections of a lady’s high-born relatives, and his social status was at times a problem for him.
But his struggles with the elite were history’s gain. Not only did unfulfilled romantic hopes lead him to compose as only the heartbroken do, but his desire for independence, his status, and general economic unrest required financial creativity as well. Beethoven marketed his work by setting up concerts and writing variations on old favorites at publishers’ request, as Jeff Lunden wrote for NPR in 2007:
“In the early 19th century, performers and composers had to be both artists and entrepreneurs. . . For a musician like Beethoven, there were many logistical challenges in presenting his own work.”
In this way, Beethoven’s musical career was somewhat more like that of the modern musician than his artistic forbears. His career required innovation not just in notes, but also in presentation and marketing.
"Now, a composer says, ‘If you want to listen to my music, go to my Web site,'" New York's Mostly Mozart Festival conductor Louis Langree told NPR. "Beethoven did the same, but he said, ‘Come to my concert.'"
His was an age of social and economic disruption, but he made his living while producing a creative output so prodigious many call him the “father of the symphony” and greatest composer of all time.
That makes the interactive honor on the home page for Google particularly fitting, as one of our time’s most successful technological innovators and disrupters. Beethoven may not be a man for the Christmas season, but he could easily be a man for our time too.