Beethoven: How the World's First Rock Star Changed Music Forever

Byron Eggenschwiler
Byron Eggenschwiler

Thumbing his nose at authority and whipping crowds into a frenzy, he changed music forever.

Ludwig van Beethoven was often mistaken for a vagrant. With wads of yellow cotton stuffed in his ears, he stomped around 1820s Vienna, flailing his arms, mumbling as he scribbled on scraps of paper. Residents would frequently alert the police. Once, he was tossed in jail when cops refused to believe he was the city’s most famous composer. “You’re a tramp!” they argued. “Beethoven doesn’t look like this.”

The city was crawling with spies—they lurked in taverns, markets, and coffeehouses, looking to suss out anti-aristocratic rebels. Since Beethoven seemed suspect, these spies followed him and eavesdropped on his conversations. But authorities didn’t consider him a real threat. Like the rest of Vienna, they thought he was crazy. It had been nearly 10 years since he wrote his Symphony No. 8, and just as long since he’d last given a public concert. “He is apparently quite incapable of greater accomplishments,” the newspaper Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung concluded.

Little did they know, Beethoven was composing like a man possessed. At his apartment, he stomped out tempos and pounded his piano keys so hard the strings snapped. Sweat-stained manuscripts littered the room. He was so focused, he often forgot to empty the chamber pot under his piano.

The piece would be his grandest yet: Symphony No. 9 in D minor. With it, he planned to give those spies reason to worry—not only would the piece be political, but he intended to play it for the largest audience possible. The music, he hoped, would put the nobility in its place.

Born to a family of Flemish court musicians in 1770, Beethoven had no choice but to take up music. His grandfather was a well-respected music director in Bonn, Germany. His father, Johann, was a not-so-well-respected court singer who gave young Ludwig piano lessons. Some nights, Johann would stagger home from the tavern, barge into Ludwig’s room, and make him practice until dawn. The piano keys were routinely glazed with tears.

A decade earlier, 7-year-old Mozart had toured Europe, playing music for royal courts and generating income for his family. Johann dreamed of a similar course for his son. He lied about Ludwig’s age to make him appear younger, and for a time, even Ludwig didn’t know his real age.

But the Beethovens saw neither fame nor fortune. Johann’s drinking debts were so deep his wife had to sell her clothes. When Ludwig turned 11, his family pulled him from elementary school to focus on music full-time. The truncated education meant he never mastered spelling or simple multiplication.

By the time he was 22, Beethoven’s world had changed. His parents passed away, and he left Bonn for Vienna, making a name for himself improvising at the piano for royal soirees. With Mozart now dead, he quickly became regarded as one of Vienna’s most talented musicians.

But the more Beethoven hobnobbed with aristocrats, the more he despised them. Musicians were treated like cooks, maids, and shoe shiners—they were merely servants of the court. Even Mozart had to sit with the cooks at dinnertime.

Beethoven refused to be put in his place. He demanded to be seated at the head table with royalty. When other musicians arrived at court wearing wigs and silk stockings, he came in a commoner’s clothes. (Composer Luigi Cherubini said he resembled an “unlicked bear cub.”) He refused to play if he wasn’t in the mood. When other musicians performed, he talked over them. When people talked over him, he exploded and called them “swine.” Once, when his improvisations moved listeners to tears, he chastised them for crying instead of clapping.

Most musicians would have been fired for this behavior, but Beethoven’s talent was too magnetic. “He knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break into loud sobs,” Carl Czerny wrote in Cocks’s Musical Miscellany. So Archduke Rudolph made an exception: Beethoven could ignore court etiquette.

But Beethoven wasn’t alone in his resentment. A few hundred miles to the west, in France, aristocrats were being queued up for the guillotine, and a stiff anti-royalist air was sweeping in toward Vienna. While not a fan of bloodshed, Beethoven supported the Revolution. He loved the free thought it encouraged, and he toyed with the idea of setting music to Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” a call for brotherhood and liberty.

But he never wrote the piece. Harboring revolutionary sentiments left him in a pickle: His career depended on the people he wanted to see uprooted. So he kept quiet. As the decade wore on, Viennese nobility continued to lionize him—he rose to be one of the city’s biggest celebrities. Then his ears began to ring.

It started as a faint whistle. Doctors advised him to fill his ears with almond oil and take cold baths. Nothing worked. By 1800, his ears were buzzing day and night. Beethoven sank into depression, stopped attending social functions, and retreated to the countryside, where loneliness drove him to consider suicide.

Music kept him going. “It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me,” he wrote. At 31, he was known as a virtuoso, not as a composer. But it seemed he had little choice. He snuffed his performing career and dedicated himself to writing.

Artistically, isolation had its benefits. Every morning, he woke at 5:30 a.m. and composed for two hours until breakfast. Then he wandered through meadows, a pencil and notebook in hand, lost in thought. Sketching ideas, he mumbled, waved his arms, sang, and stomped. One time, he made such a ruckus that a yoke of oxen began to stampede. He often forgot to sleep or eat, but did pause to make coffee—counting precisely 60 beans for each cup. He sat in restaurants for hours, scribbling music on napkins, menus, even windows. Distracted, he’d accidentally pay other people’s bills.

He started grumbling more openly about politics. He admired Napoleon and planned on publicly naming his third symphony for the general. It was a daring move: Napoleon was imperial Austria’s enemy. But when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of the French, Beethoven was disgusted. “Now he will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition. He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant,” he wrote, ditching the dedication. In 1809, Napoleon’s troops stormed into Vienna. The booming of his cannons hurt Beethoven’s eardrums so much he retreated to the cellar and buried his head under pillows.

In 1814, Napoleon’s empire collapsed and Austria’s nobility attempted to restore order. Within a few years, Prince Klemens von Metternich had established the world’s first modern police state. The press was banned from publishing without the state’s blessing. The government removed university professors who expounded “harmful doctrines hostile to public order.” Undercover cops infested Vienna. Beethoven’s contempt for power grew.

Although he still had royal patrons, Beethoven had fewer friends in high places. Many were missing or dead, and his ordinary friends were just as unlucky—briefly jailed or censored. Thankfully, Beethoven wrote instrumental music. For years, listeners considered it an inferior, even vulgar, art form compared to song or poetry. But as tyrants returned to power, Romantic thinkers like E.T.A. Hoffmann and Goethe praised instrumental music as a place for solace and truth. “The censor cannot hold anything against musicians,” Franz Grillparzer told Beethoven. “If they only knew what you think about in your music!”

That’s when the composer made the brash decision to return to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Censors in Vienna had banned Schiller’s works in 1783, then reauthorized it 25 years later only after some whitewashing. (The original says, “Beggars will become the brothers of princes.” Beethoven had stronger feelings, writing in his notebook, “Princes are beggars.”) Adding words to a symphony would destroy the safety net of ambiguity that instrumental composers enjoyed, spelling Beethoven’s motives out for all to hear.

On May 7, 1824, Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater was packed. Beethoven had spent months preparing for this moment, corralling nearly 200 musicians and dealing with censors who quibbled over a religious work on the program. They did not, however, complain about Symphony No. 9. No one had heard it yet.

Beethoven took the conductor’s baton, beating time for the start of each movement. The musicians’ eyes were glued to his every move, but in reality, none of them followed his lead. They had been ordered not to. Stone deaf, Beethoven was an unreliable conductor, so a friend actually led the orchestra.

The piece was four movements long and lasted a little more than an hour. The first three movements were purely instrumental; the last contained Schiller’s ode. But when one of the movements finished, the hall exploded with applause. Modern audiences would scold such behavior, but during Beethoven’s lifetime, a public concert was more like a rock show. People spontaneously clapped, cheered, and booed mid-performance.

As the audience hollered for more, Beethoven continued waving his arms, oblivious to the cheering and sea of waving handkerchiefs behind him. The applause was so loud, and lasted for so long, that the police had to yell for silence. When the performance finished, a teary-eyed Beethoven almost fainted.

The Ninth was a hit. But not with the aristocracy, who never showed up. Undeterred, Beethoven kept with tradition and dedicated the Symphony to a royal, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. He sent the King a copy of the score and, in return, the King sent Beethoven a beautiful diamond ring. It appeared to be a gift of gratitude, but when Beethoven took the ring to a jeweler to sell it, the jeweler had bad news: The diamond was fake. Beethoven had clearly pushed some buttons.

The Ninth would be Beethoven’s last, and most famous, symphony. When he died in 1827, some 20,000 people filled the streets for his funeral. Schools were closed. Soldiers were called to ensure order. Five years later, people suggested erecting a Beethoven monument in Bonn. In the 1840s, Bonn celebrated its first “Beethoven Festival.” Salespeople hawked Beethoven neckties, Beethoven cigars, and even Beethoven pants.

All of it was groundbreaking. Never before had a musician garnered so much attention. It indicated a larger cultural sea change: A society that reveres artists and makes them celebrities. In a way, Beethoven was the world’s first rock star.

Beethoven-worship changed the course of art history. Isolated. Autonomous. Rebellious. Sublime. He was Romanticism’s posterboy, and his stature elevated the meaning of artist: No longer a skilled craftsman, like a cook or carpenter, an artist became a person who suffered to express emotions, genius, or—in drippier language—their soul. Beethoven’s success helped cement ideas that now define Western art.

And, of course, his influence on classical music is vast. The bigger, stronger modern piano emerged partly to accommodate his pieces. The first professional orchestras appeared in his wake, many with the goal of preserving his work. He was one of the first musicians to be canonized. Some argue the movement to immortalize his work eventually made classical music turn stale.

Before Beethoven, the works of dead composers were rarely played. But by the 1870s, dead composers owned the concert hall. They still do today. Aaron Copland would complain that “musical art, as we hear it in our day, suffers if anything from an overdose of masterworks.” John Cage bemoaned that “[Beethoven’s] influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.” Indeed, attending a classical music concert can be like visiting a museum.

It’s often forgotten that the piece that secured Beethoven’s status as an icon and reshaped the course of classical music was, at its heart, a powerful work of politics. In concentration camps during World War II, prisoners took solace in Beethoven’s message of freedom. In one heartbreaking tale, a children’s choir rehearsed “Ode to Joy” in Auschwitz’s latrines. It’s been sung at every Olympic Games since 1956. When the Berlin Wall fell, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth with musicians from both sides of the divide. Today, it’s the national anthem of the European Union, and the message remains relevant. The same problems that plagued Vienna nearly 200 years ago—war, inequality, censorship, surveillance—have not disappeared. Perhaps it’s naive to believe that “all men will become brothers,” as the piece proclaims. But Beethoven, who never heard his own symphony, didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it for others. It’s our job to not only hear his message, but also to truly listen.

To listen to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, jump to 33:45 in the audio file below.

14 Facts About International Talk Like A Pirate Day

iStock
iStock

Ahoy, me hearties! As many of you know, September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, an annual phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm, having been observed by every continent, the International Space Station, and even the Oval Office since it first made headlines back in 2002. So let’s hoist the Jolly Roger, break out the rum, and take a look back at the holiday’s timber-shivering history.

1. Talk Like a Pirate Day was originally conceived of on D-Day.

Talk Like a Pirate Day creators John Baur and Mark Summer (who’ve since acquired the nicknames “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy,” respectively) created the holiday while playing racquetball on June 6, 1995—the 51st anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Out of respect to the battle’s veterans, a new observance date was quickly sought.

2. September 19th also happens to be the birthday of the ex-wife of the holiday's co-creator.

“[September 19th was] the only date we could readily recall that wasn’t already taken up with Christmas or the Super Bowl or something,” the pair later claimed. Summers claims to harbor no ill will toward his former spouse, who has since stated, “I’ve never been prouder to be his ex-wife!

3. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is largely responsible for popularizing the holiday.

Dave Barry was so smitten with the holiday after having been introduced to it via email in early 2002 that he dedicated an entire column to its publicity that September, turning an inside joke into a global sensation. He later went on to make a cameo appearance in one of Baur and Summers’s buccaneer-themed music videos in 2011 (look for him in the video above at the 3:25 mark).

4. Real pirates spoke in a wide variety of dialects.

Despite some extensive “English-to-Pirate” dictionaries that have cropped up all over the Internet the idea that all pirates shared a common accent regardless of national origin is historically absurd, as National Geographic pointed out in 2011.

5. Actor Robert Newton is hailed as the "patron saint" of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

So where did the modern “pirate dialect” come from? Summers and Baur credit actor Robert Newton's performance in Treasure Island (1950) and have accordingly dubbed him the “patron saint” of their holiday. Tasked with breathing life into the scheming buccaneer, Newton simply exaggerated his native West Country accent and the rest is history.

6. John Baur's family was featured on a pirate-themed episode of Wife Swap.

The reality show’s highly-anticipated 2006 season premiere pitted the Baurs (in full pillaging regalia) against a family which, according to John’s wife Tori (a.k.a. “Mad Sally”), “behaved as though ‘fun’ was something that had to be pre-packaged for their protection.”

7. John Baur was also on Jeopardy!

Baur was described to the audience as “a writer and pirate from Oregon” in his 2008 appearance. “I didn’t win,” Baur said, “but the introduction made Alex blink.”

8. International Talk Like a Pirate Day has become a cornerstone of the Pastafarian movement.

Bobby Henderson, founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cited Earth’s dwindling pirate population as the clear source of global warming in his 2005 open letter to the Kansas school board which established the religion. Since then, Talk Like A Pirate Day has been observed by devout Pastafarians worldwide. 

9. A Florida mayor once ignited a local controversy for making an official Talk Like a Pirate Day proclamation.

In 2012, Lake Worth, Florida Mayor Pam Triolo lightheartedly urged her constituents to embrace the holiday last year, writing, “The City … is known to possess a spirit of independence, high spirits, and swashbuckling, all traits of a good pirate.” Her actions were criticized by the city’s former commissioner, Jo-Ann Golden, who took offense to the association with murderous seamen.

10. Day of the Ninja was created in response to Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Not to be outdone by their hated rivals, the pro-ninja community was quick to execute the first annual Day of the Ninja on December 5, 2002. For Summers and Baur’s take on the warring factions, see the clip above.

11. Pirates once celebrated Talk Like a Pirate Day aboard the International Space Station.

In a 2012 interview, Summers recalled being “informed that the astronauts on the International Space Station were awakened to ‘A Pirate’s Life For Me' and joined in the pirate talk from space.”

12. President Obama once celebrated with a costumed buccaneer in the Oval Office.

In 2012, Barack Obama tweeted this image on Talk Like a Pirate Day with the caption “Arr you in?”

13. A congressman later used the holiday to slam President Obama's tax plan.

In 2011, Florida’s 12th congressional district representative Dennis Ross used the festivity as a political punchline after Obama made a speech detailing his tax plan, tweeting, “It is TALK like a pirate day … not ACT like one. Watch ye purses and bury yr loot, the taxman cometh.”

14. It's an official holiday in the state of Michigan.

On June 4, 2013, state senator Roger Kahn’s proposal to grant International Talk Like A Pirate Day official acknowledgement from the Michigan government was formally adopted, to the chagrin of some dissenting landlubbers. 

This story originally ran in 2013.

10 Fast Facts About Jimi Hendrix

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Though he’s widely considered one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix passed away as his career was really just getting started. Still, he managed to accomplish a lot in the approximately four years he spent in the spotlight, and leave this world a legend when he died on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the musical legend.

1. Jimi Hendrix didn't become "Jimi" until 1966.

Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle on November 27, 1942 as John Allen Hendrix. He was initially raised by his mother while his father, James “Al” Hendrix, was in Europe fighting in World War II. When Al returned to the United States in 1945, he collected his son and renamed him James Marshall Hendrix.

In 1966, Chas Chandler—the bassist for The Animals, who would go on to become Jimi’s manager—saw the musician playing at Cafe Wha? in New York City. "This guy didn't seem anything special, then all of a sudden he started playing with his teeth," roadie James "Tappy" Wright, who was there, told the BBC in 2016. "People were saying, 'What the hell?' and Chas thought, 'I could do something with this kid.’”

Though Hendrix was performing as Jimmy James at the time, it was Chandler who suggested he use the name “Jimi.”

2. Muddy Waters turned Jimi Hendrix on to the guitar—and scared the hell out of him.

When asked about the guitarists who inspired him, Hendrix cited Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elmore James, and B.B. King. But Muddy Waters was the first musician who truly made him aware of the instrument. “The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters,” Hendrix said. “I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy and it scared me to death because I heard all these sounds.”

3. Jimi Hendrix could not read music.


George Stroud/Express/Getty Images

In 1969, Dick Cavett asked the musician whether he could read music: “No, not at all,” the self-taught musician replied. He learned to play by ear and would often use words or colors to express what he wanted to communicate. “[S]ome feelings make you think of different colors,” he said in an interview with Crawdaddy! magazine. “Jealousy is purple—‘I'm purple with rage’ or purple with anger—and green is envy, and all this.”

4. Jimi Hendrix used his dreams as inspiration for his songwriting.

Hendrix drew inspiration for his music from a lot of places, including his dreams. “I dreamt a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs,” he explained in a 1967 interview with New Musical Express. “I wrote one called ‘First Look’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze,’ which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.” (In another interview, he said the idea for “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream after reading a sci-fi novel, believed to be Philip José Farmer’s Night of Light.)

5. "Purple Haze" features one of music's most famous mondegreens.

In the same interview with New Musical Express, it's noted that the “Purple Haze” lyric “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” was in reference to a drowning man Hendrix saw in his dream. Which makes the fact that many fans often mishear the line as “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy” even more appropriate. It was such a common mistake that Hendrix himself was known to have some fun with it, often singing the incorrect lyrics on stage—occasionally even accompanied by a mock make-out session. There’s even a Website, KissThisGuy.com, dedicated to collecting user-generated stories of misheard lyrics.

6. Jimi Hendrix played his guitar upside-down.

Ever the showman, Hendrix’s many guitar-playing quirks became part of his legend: In addition to playing with his teeth, behind his back, or without touching the instrument’s strings, he also played his guitar upside-down—though there was a very simple reason for that. He was left-handed. (His father tried to get him to play right-handed, as he considered left-handed playing a sign of the devil.)

7. Jimi Hendrix played backup for a number of big names.

Though Hendrix’s name would eventually eclipse most of those he played with in his early days, he played backup guitar for a number of big names under the name Jimmy James, including Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Isley Brothers.

In addition to the aforementioned musical legends, Hendrix also helped actress Jayne Mansfield in her musical career. In 1965, he played lead and bass guitar on “Suey,” the B-side to her single “As The Clouds Drift By.”

8. Jimi Hendrix was once kidnapped after a show.

Though the details surrounding Hendrix’s kidnapping are a bit sketchy, in Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, Charles R. Cross wrote about how the musician was kidnapped following a show at The Salvation, a club in Greenwich Village:

“He left with a stranger to score cocaine, but was instead held hostage at an apartment in Manhattan. The kidnappers demanded that [Hendrix’s manager] Michael Jeffrey turn over Jimi’s contract in exchange for his release. Rather than agree to the ransom demand, Jeffrey hired his own goons to search out the extorters. Mysteriously, Jeffrey’s thugs found Jimi two days later … unharmed.

“It was such a strange incident that Noel Redding suspected that Jeffrey had arranged the kidnapping to discourage Hendrix from seeking other managers; others … argued the kidnapping was authentic.”

9. Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees.

Though it’s funny to imagine such a pairing today, Hendrix warming up The Monkees’s crowd of teenybopper fans actually made sense for both acts back in 1967. For the band, having a serious talent like Hendrix open for them would help lend them some credibility among serious music fans and critics. Though Hendrix thought The Monkees’s music was “dishwater,” he wasn’t well known in America and his manager convinced him that partnering with the band would help raise his profile. One thing they didn’t take into account: the young girls who were in the midst of Monkeemania.

The Monkees’s tween fans were confused by Hendrix’s overtly sexual stage antics. On July 16, 1967, after playing just eight of their 29 scheduled tour dates, Hendrix flipped off an audience in Queens, New York, threw down his guitar, and walked off the stage.

10. You can visit Jimi Hendrix's London apartment.

In 2016, the London flat where Hendrix really began his career was restored to what it would have looked like when Jimi lived there from 1968 to 1969 and reopened as a museum. The living room that doubled as his bedroom is decked out in bohemian décor, and a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes sits on the bedside table. There’s also space dedicated to his record collection.

Amazingly, the same apartment building—which is located in the city’s Mayfair neighborhood—was also home to George Handel from 1723 until his death in 1759; the rest of the building serves as a museum to the famed composer’s life and work.

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