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.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

15 Intriguing Facts About Walt Disney

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Artist, producer, entrepreneur, and all-around game-changer Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901. More than a century later, it’s easy to forget that Disney was a real person, not just a caricature or company figurehead. In honor of the man, not the corporation, here are 15 facts about his life.

1. Walt Disney played Peter Pan in a school play.

The story Peter Pan surely held a special place in Walt Disney’s heart: not only was it a hit movie for him in 1953, it also took him back to his childhood. After seeing Peter Pan on stage, young Walt was given the opportunity to play the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in a school performance. Walt later recalled that his brother Roy was in charge of the rope used to hoist him over the stage to simulate flying; it was just one of their many creative collaborations.

2. Walt Disney was a high school dropout.


Getty Images

Walt was just 16 when he left school to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, wanting to do his part in World War I. But because he was just shy of the minimum age requirement of 17, he forged a different date on his birth certificate. Disney didn’t see much action, however. He was sent to France in late 1918, not long after the armistice was signed that ended the fighting. He still helped where he could, driving Red Cross officials and performing other tasks, before he was discharged in 1919.

3. Walt Disney almost sold vacuum cleaners for a living.

In 1923, Walt joined his older brother Roy in L.A. to pursue a career in animation. Roy had been selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door to make ends meet and encouraged Walt do the same. Walt considered it, but before he could get sucked in by a Kirbyesque scheme, he got a call from a company in New York that wanted him to make shorts for them.

4. Mickey Mouse wasn’t Walt Disney's first big creation.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1927, Universal asked Walt and his chief animator Ub Iwerks to create a cartoon character for them; the result was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was a huge hit, complete with robust merchandising. With this success under his belt, in 1928, Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract with producer Charles Mintz. Mintz, however, countered with a different deal: He wanted to cut the budget. And to add salt to the wound, Mintz had been working backdoor deals to hire Disney’s animators out from under him. In the end, Universal ended up with the rights to Oswald, and Disney left New York feeling as if he had lost almost everything. But it all worked out in the end—on the train ride back to California, Disney sketched a character that would eclipse Oswald in popularity: Mickey Mouse.

The company regained control of the obscure character in 2006, almost eight decades after losing him. The rights were part of a trade between Disney and NBC/Universal: They agreed to let Disney have Oswald back, and Disney, the owner of ABC and ESPN, agreed to let NBC use sportscaster Al Michaels for Sunday Night Football.

5. Walt Disney didn’t draw Mickey Mouse.

He did at first, but it didn't last long—after 1928, Walt was no longer animating, focusing instead on story development and direction. He relied on Iwerks and other superior artists to do the drawing dirty work. He never drew Mickey in any of his theatrical releases, and in fact, probably only really drew Mickey when autograph seekers requested it.

6. But Walt Disney did voice Mickey Mouse.

From 1928 to 1947, Walt was the man behind the mouse—literally. Even after the voice work was officially turned over to Jimmy MacDonald in 1947, Walt continued to do Mickey’s voice for shorts on The Mickey Mouse Club.

7. Walt Disney drove his daughters to school every day.

Despite the fact that he had drivers, a live-in housekeeper, and a number of other staff members at his disposal, Disney took great pleasure in driving his two daughters to school every day. He also spoiled them unabashedly, which historian Steve Watts believed was a reaction to Walt’s own stern upbringing.

8. Walt Disney had a secret apartment at Disneyland.

It’s still there, in fact, above the fire station. Walt’s private apartment isn’t typically open to the public, but VIPs are occasionally offered tours. The furnishings remain virtually unchanged from when Walt used to spend time there, including a lamp in the window visible from outside. It’s always kept on to signify that Walt is always in the park.

9. Walt Disney's favorite song was “Feed the Birds.”

There have been a lot of toe-tapping hits in Disney movies over the years, but Walt’s personal favorite was a ballad: “Feed the Birds,” the song about the pigeon lady in Mary Poppins. According to songwriter Richard Sherman, Walt often stopped by the Sherman brothers’ office at Disney on Friday afternoons and requested a personal performance of “Feed the Birds.” "He loved that song, and knew it was the heartbeat of the whole movie,” Sherman said.

10. Walt Disney found golf anything but relaxing.

Though many people play golf to relax, Disney couldn't deal with it. After giving up polo at his doctor's behest, Walt took up golf, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in nine holes before work. He found the game so frustrating that he quit and took up a more chill sport—lawn bowling.

11. Walt Disney felt responsible for his mother’s death.

Cartoonist and film producer Walt Disney (1901 - 1966) arriving in the foyer of a London hotel
Harry Shepherd, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Once he became successful, Walt bought his parents a rather extravagant present: a new house. And when his parents needed something fixed, tweaked, or repaired, he sent his own repairmen from the studio over to take care of it. Such was the case when they discovered a problem with their furnace in 1938. Tragically, his team didn’t take care of the issue properly, and Flora Call Disney died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 70. His father, Elias, also fell very ill from the gas leak, but survived. Walt’s daughter, Sharon, said that even years later, Walt found the subject nearly impossible to talk about.

12. Walt Disney's housekeeper was a very wealthy woman.

Thelma Howard was the Disney family’s live-in housekeeper and cook for three decades. She was hired in 1951 and quickly became part of the family, even making sure the fridge was well-stocked with hot dogs—Walt liked to eat them cold as a snack when he got home from work. As part of her annual Christmas gift, the Disneys gave her stock in the company. She never did anything with her shares, and by the time she died in 1994, the woman was a multimillionaire because of them. She left nearly $4.5 million to poor and disabled children, and roughly the same amount to her disabled son.

13. Walt Disney was obsessed with trains.

Walt always had an interest in trains, even building an elaborate model in his office, which he enjoyed running for his guests. In 1948, his hobby grew to new heights when he constructed a 1/8 scale model in his backyard, with track spanning half a mile. He deemed it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad.

14. One of Walt Disney's last written communications was rather mysterious—and involved Kurt Russell.

22nd November 1946: American animator and producer Walt (Walter Elias) Disney (1901 - 1966) walking through St Stephens Green, Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland.
Keystone/Getty Images

Shortly before his death, Disney wrote “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper. It was later found on his desk, and, according to Disney historian Dave Smith, the notes were among Disney's last few written words. At the time of Disney’s death, Russell was a largely unknown child actor working for the studio. No one has any idea what Disney was referring to with his note—not even Kurt Russell.

15. Walt Disney is not cryogenically frozen.

Bob Nelson, the former president of the Cryonics Society of California, makes a good point: if Disney was the first cryogenically frozen man, it would have been a pretty big deal for cryonics, and they would have publicized the heck out of the Mickey Mouse-cicle. No, Walt was cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. His gravesite is in a public area for people who want to see it for themselves.

The chilly rumor may have been started by Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men” animators, who had a wicked sense of humor.

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