Anyway, it's hard to come up with a fitting tribute to a composer who gave us so much. I remember learning "Für Elise" and "Moonlight Sonata" as a child. In college I became enamored of his symphonies, especially his Ninth - all the more so as I was learning German and the final choral movement had that awe-inspiring verse by Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, "Ode an die Freude." I revelled in the paean to human brotherhood: Alle Menschen werden Brüder -"all men become brothers."
I was aware of many of Beethoven's struggles in life, his abusive father, his rejections in love, and the deafness of his final years. And this "Ode to Joy" represents such a triumph over those difficulties. Never lose hope, it reminds me.
It was about this time that the Berlin Wall came down, and the unity expressed in the Ninth seemed poised to finally take over the world. I finished my college graduation requirements that fall of 1989 and felt like I was joining the throngs in the chorus, marching forward, feuertrunken, "drunk with fire," in Schiller's words.
For New Year's 1990, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth at the Berlin Wall, quite fittingly. And in October I departed for Europe, for the former East Bloc, to assist with the adjustments to newfound freedoms, on the day Bernstein died. I learned of it on a CNN broadcast projected onto the plane's movie screen. On a flight to Vienna, appropriately enough.
As I spent most of the 1990s in Central Europe, I sang in choruses and visited sites where various composers had lived, worked and died: Mozart's and Smetana's birthplaces, concert halls in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, the Prague cemetery in Vyšehrad where both Dvořák and Smetana are buried.
Somehow I never have made it to Vienna's Centralfriedhof, site of Beethoven's grave. But I have been to the Beethovenfries in the Secession Building, that palace of art nouveau. Gustav Klimt painted his visual interpretation of the Ninth in the basement, with one movement taking up each wall. That was in the summer of 2000, when I also visited Beethoven's old apartment in Heiligenstadt, today a Viennese neighborhood.
Since Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim is one of today's leading proponents of Beethoven's legacy. He also founded, along with Edward Said, the West-East Divan Orchestra, a group composed mainly of instrumentalists of various Middle-Eastern backgrounds. What could be a better paean to peace and our common humanity than their playing the Ninth together? I've embedded a YouTube video of the final movement, as well as one of Barenboim's commentary on Beethoven's genius.