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.

5 Fast Facts About Sake Dean Mahomed

Today's Google Doodle will be many people's first introduction to Sake Dean Mahomed, a noted traveler, surgeon, author, and entrepreneur who was born in Patna, India in 1759. Though he's been left out of many modern history books, Mahomed left a profound impact on Western culture that is still being felt today.

In honor of the 225th anniversary of the publication of his first book—The Travels of Dean Mahomed, a Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of the Honorable the East India Company—on January 15, 1794, here are some facts about the figure.

1. He was the first Indian author to publish a book in English.

In 1794, Sake Dean Mahomed published The Travels of Dean Mahomet, an autobiography that details his time in the East India Company's army in his youth and his journey to Britain. Not only was it the first English book written by an Indian author, The Travels of Dean Mahomet marked the first time a book published in English depicted the British colonization of India from an Indian perspective.

2. His marriage was controversial.

While studying English in Ireland, Mahomed met and fell in love with an Irish woman named Jane Daly. It was illegal for Protestants to marry non-Protestants at the time, so the pair eloped in 1786 and Mahomed converted from Islam to Anglicanism.

3. He opened the England's first Indian restaurant.

Prior to Sake Dean Mahomed's arrival, Indian food was impossible to find in England outside of private kitchens. He introduced the cuisine to his new home by opening the Hindoostane Coffee House in London in 1810. The curry house catered to both British and Indian aristocrats living in the city, with "Indianised" versions of British dishes and "Hookha with real Chilm tobacco." Though the restaurant closed a few years later due to financial troubles, it paved the way for Indian food to become a staple of the English food scence.

4. He brought "shampooing" to Europe.

Following the failure of his restaurant venture, Mahomed opened a luxury spa in Brighton, England, where he offered Eastern health treatments like herbal steam baths and therapeutic, oil-based head massages to his British clientele. The head massages eventually came to be known as shampoo, an anglicized version of the Hindi word champissage. Patrons included the monarchs George IV and William IV, earning Mahomed the title shampooer of kings.

5. He wrote about the benefits of spa treatments.

Though The Travels of Dean Mahomet is his most famous book, Mahomed published another book in English in 1828 called Shampooing; or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath.

12 Historic Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.

John Goodwin/Getty Images
John Goodwin/Getty Images

January 15,  2019 marks what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta native who became one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. While it would be impossible to encompass everything King accomplished in a mere list, we’ve compiled a few intriguing facts that may pique your interest in finding out more about the man who helped unite a divided nation.

1. Martin Luther King was not his given name.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961.
J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images

One of the most recognizable proper names of the 20th century wasn't actually what was on the birth certificate. The future civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, named after his father Michael King. When the younger King was 5 years old, his father decided to change both their names after learning more about 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, who was one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation. Inspired by that battle, Michael King soon began referring to himself and his son as Martin Luther King.

2. He was a doctor of theology.

Dr. King receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree at Newcastle University in England, November 14, 1967. He had earned a doctorate in theology in 1955.
Dr. King receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree at Newcastle University in England, November 14, 1967. He had earned a doctorate in theology in 1955.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Using the prefix "doctor" to refer to King has become a reflex, but not everyone is aware of the origin of King's Ph.D. He attended Boston University and graduated in 1955 with a doctorate in systematic theology. King also had a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary.

3. He made 30 trips to jail.

A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

A powerful voice for an ignored and suppressed minority, opponents tried to silence King the old-fashioned way: incarceration. In the 12 years he spent as the recognized leader of the civil rights movement, King was arrested and jailed 30 times. Rather than brood, King used the unsolicited downtime to further his cause. Jailed in Birmingham for eight days in 1963, he penned "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a long treatise responding to the oppression supported by white religious leaders in the South.

"I'm afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time," he wrote. "I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?"

4. The FBI tried to coerce him into suicide.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965.
William Lovelace/Express, Getty Images

King's increasing prominence and influence agitated many of his enemies, but few were more powerful than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. For years, Hoover kept King under surveillance, worried that this subversive could sway public opinion against the bureau and fretting that King might have Communist ties. While there's still debate about how independently Hoover's deputy William Sullivan was acting, an anonymous letter was sent to King in 1964 accusing him of extramarital affairs and threatening to disclose his indiscretions. The only solution, the letter suggested, would be for King to exit the civil rights movement, either willingly or by taking his own life. King ignored the threat and continued his work.

5. A single sneeze could have altered history forever.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964.
Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Our collective memory of King always has an unfortunate addendum: his 1968 assassination that brought an end to his personal crusade against social injustice. But if Izola Ware Curry had her way, King's mission would have ended 10 years earlier. At a Harlem book signing in 1958, Ware approached King and plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest, nearly puncturing his aorta. Surgery was needed to remove it. Had King so much as sneezed, doctors said, the wound was so close to his heart that it would have been fatal. Curry, a 42-year-old black woman, was having paranoid delusions about the NAACP that soon crystallized around King. She was committed to an institution and died in 2015.

6. He got a "C" in public speaking.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.
Jeff Kamen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

King's promise as one of the great orators of his time was late in coming. While attending Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951, King's marks were diluted by C and C+ grades in two terms of public speaking.

7. He won a Grammy.

At the 13th annual Grammy Awards in 1971, a recording of King's 1967 address, "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam," took home a posthumous award for Best Spoken Word recording. In 2012, his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (it was included decades later because its 1969 nomination was beaten for the Spoken Word prize by Rod McKuen's "Lonesome Cities").

8. He loved Star Trek.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on the phone.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

It's not easy to imagine King having the time or inclination to sit down and watch primetime sci-fi on television, but according to actress Nichelle Nichols, King and his family made an exception for Star Trek. In 1967, the actress met King, who told her he was a big fan and urged her to reconsider her decision to leave the show to perform on Broadway.

"My family are your greatest fans," Nichols recalled King telling her, and said he continued with, "As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up and watch because it's on past their bedtime." Nichols's character of Lt. Uhura, he said, was important because she was a strong, professional black woman. If Nichols left, King noted, the character could be replaced by anyone, since "[Uhura] is not a black role. And it's not a female role." Based on their talk, Nichols decided to remain on the show for the duration of its three-season original run.

9. He spent his wedding night in a funeral parlor.

Martin Luther King, Jr's wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964.
Martin Luther King, Jr's wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When King married his wife, Coretta Scott, in her father's backyard in 1953, there was virtually no hotel in Marion, Alabama that would welcome a newlywed black couple. A friend of Coretta's happened to be an undertaker, and invited the Kings to stay at one of the guest rooms at his funeral parlor.

10. Ronald Reagan was opposed to a King holiday.

President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite King's undeniable worthiness, MLK Day was not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan largely ignored pleas to pass legislation making the holiday official out of the concern it would open the door for other minority groups to demand their own holidays; Senator Jesse Helms complained that the missed workday could cost the country $12 billion in lost productivity, and both were concerned about King's possible Communist sympathies. Common sense prevailed, and the bill was signed into law on November 2, 1983. The holiday officially began being recognized in January 1986.

11. We could see him on the $5 bill—at some point.

The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.
The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.
Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury announced plans to overhaul major denominations of currency beginning in 2020. Along with Harriet Tubman adorning the $20 bill, plan called for the reverse side of the $5 Lincoln-stamped bill to commemorate "historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial" including King's famous 1963 speech. In April 2018, though, the Trump administration announced that those plans were on hold and the bills would be delayed by at least six years.

12. One of King's volunteers walked away with a piece of history.

Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King's
Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
Kurt Severin/Getty Images

King's 1963 oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, will always be remembered as one of the most provocative public addresses ever given. George Raveling, who was 26 at the time, had volunteered to help King and his team during the event. When it was over, Raveling sheepishly asked King for the copy of the three-page speech. King handed it over without hesitation; Raveling kept it for the next 20 years before he fully understood its historical significance and removed it from the book he had been storing it in.

He's turned down offers of up to $3.5 million, insisting that the document will remain in his family—always noting that the most famous passage, where King details his dream of a united nation, isn't on the sheets. It was improvised.

A version of this story first ran in 2017.

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