Beethoven’s 250th and Classical Music’s Anniversary Obsession

By Brian Wise | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings magazine

As the new decade began and classical-music organizations ramped up their celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, a simmering backlash rose to a boil. It started among musicologists, arguably the very professionals tasked with tending to the classical canon. Using the hashtag #Beethoven250, several took to Twitter to call for a moratorium (or at least restraint) on a composer whose music already dominates concert agendas. William Gibbons, a musicologist and associate dean at Texas Christian University, declared that one of his resolutions for 2020 would be “spending a full year avoiding Beethoven.”

In an eight-part Twitter thread, Gibbons wrote that “the idea that we need to celebrate this anniversary by performing and hearing his works *even more than we already do* strikes me as grotesque.” He continued, “So in 2020, instead of choosing Beethoven yet again, I’m going to devote myself to listening to other things. New things. Old, forgotten things. Music by women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. Music that broadens my horizons.”

Others agreed, including Douglas Shadle, the chair of musicology at Vanderbilt University, who tweeted, “How uncreative must a classical-music organization be to think that it needs not just the canon, but Beethoven specifically, to survive for a year?”

And Smith College music professor Andrea Moore took the argument beyond the social-media echo chamber, writing in a Chicago Tribune editorial that “doing more Beethoven is just more of the same.” She questioned “how much compelling new music is going unheard” because of Beethoven and she called for “a cooperative, worldwide, yearlong moratorium” on his music.

Still others pushed back on the anti-anniversary sentiment, arguing that such milestones are a chance to revel in the glories of the art form while reaching out to newcomers.

“The most annoying aspect of musical life in 2020 is shaping up to be music academics bashing Beethoven and/or bragging about avoiding his music,” wrote the American conductor Kenneth Woods. “I pity their students! In what other field of study besides musicology is this kind of anti-art, anti-knowledge stance accepted.”

Avoiding Composer Fatigue

Few art forms embrace anniversaries quite like classical music. To some music professionals, milestones of 100, 200, or 250 years are mega-events for the field, not unlike the Olympics, World Cup, or World Series. They can still generate media coverage in an era of few classical stars, and inspire CD box sets in an age of streaming (complete Beethoven sets have been issued by Warner Classics, Naxos, and Deutsche Grammophon).

But in the wake of some anniversary blowouts that perhaps overstayed their welcome (the 2018 Leonard Bernstein centennial drew a particularly strong backlash among some commentators), larger questions emerge: What is the larger purpose of these events? Can anniversaries spark an interest in the rare gems of composers’ catalogs? Is a completist approach necessarily the best one?


“Obviously, in all cases, the goal is to increase performances and therefore revenue,” says Steven Lankenau, vice president of Boosey & Hawkes, who has previously managed anniversary promotions for Bernstein, Britten, Ginastera, and Steve Reich. “But one of the other goals is to help get what you view to be major pieces in the catalog that are under-performed or under-appreciated more exposure, and to use the anniversary as an opportunity.”

Lankenau describes how the Bernstein centennial served as a catalyst to raise the profile of the composer’s Mass and Serenade for solo violin, strings, and percussion. “The Serenade was hardly a known work,” Lankenau says. “However, through the promotion efforts of talking to agents and managers, we were able to get a lot of additional violinists to learn it.” He estimates that a hundred different violinists performed it during the centennial and now it remains in their repertoire.

Still, Lankenau sees less interest in the obscure corners of Beethoven’s catalog this year. “You’re not finding conductors excited to go into Wellington’s Victory or The Ruins of Athens,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s because his work is public domain, and there isn’t an estate or publisher who is out there trying to encourage conductors to go for different programming, or if these symphonies are just so great that conductors say, ‘How can you not play them?’”

Lankenau refers to Carnegie Hall’s complementary Beethoven symphony cycles by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. “Will there be an audience for that, or will they find that, towards the end of the year, people are just not excited for those last couple of concerts?”

Telling Compelling Stories

Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, declines to say if anniversary celebrations in themselves drive ticket sales. “We are not driven so much by what gets great ticket sales, but what are the really important stories to tell,” he says. “We feel that artistically we should always be about telling great stories.”

Accordingly, Beethoven represents an important, multi-dimensional story. No other composer’s music redefined so many major forms (sonatas, quartets, concertos, symphonies), or accompanied world-shaking events, as when his Ninth Symphony was played in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But Gillinson, a onetime London Symphony Orchestra cellist, admits that there is always a risk of audience fatigue. Carnegie Hall has weighted its 2020 Beethoven celebration of (so far) 70 programs and 86 works on the first half of the year rather than closer to the composer’s observed birthday of December 16 or 17. “We feel towards the end of the season people will literally be perhaps somewhat Beethoven’d out.”

Calidore String Quartet will still tour with the Beethoven cycle this year, despite recent backlash regarding over-performing the composer’s work in the year of his 250th birthday

Elsewhere, among the many string quartets touring with the Beethoven cycle this year, is the Calidore String Quartet, whose plans include complete cycles in Buffalo, Delaware, and Toronto, as well as partial cycles in Europe and Los Angeles. First violinist Jeff Myers shrugs off the recent backlash, relating that he has been approached by patrons who say that this is their first complete quartet cycle in 50 years of concert-going.


Still, Myers admits, “Sometimes we get requests of “anything but Beethoven.’”

The Calidore has commissioned a new work by British composer Anna Clyne, inspired by Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, which it is expected to tour this spring. The idea is to refract Beethoven’s piece through a modern lens, not unlike a project that took place during Mozart’s 250th anniversary year (2006), in which director Peter Sellars commissioned new operas by John Adams and Kaija Saariaho.

Meanwhile, a handful of chamber groups have focused on more obscure Beethoven. The Fine Arts Quartet in January released a Naxos recording of obscure gems, including forgotten original versions of his quartets Op. 18, No. 1, and Op. 131, and novelties like his preludes and fugues. Deutsche Grammophon has issued “Rarities,” a collection featuring violinist Daniel Hope and colleagues performing a quintet and assorted sonata and duo fragments, several billed as world premieres.

David Finkel, cellist and co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, says the reason CMS is performing the quartet cycle this spring is not for Beethoven’s 250th, but for CMS’ 50th. Photo by Lisa-Marie-Mazzucco

Can’t Live With ’Em . . .

Bucking the larger trends, some musicians are approaching the Beethoven year with a more restrained—some might say dutiful—nod to the composer. “I’m not an anniversary-driven person,” insists David Finckel, the cellist and co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “It’s nice to know when somebody has been dead for 250 years [or so]. But that doesn’t really drive our programming.” Still, the centerpieces of the 2019–20 season at the CMS include a complete Beethoven quartet cycle performed by the Danish String Quartet (DSQ), and a cello sonata cycle played by cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Alessio Bax.

“I feel that any true chamber-music audience should hear the Beethoven quartets at least once every five years,” Finckel says. “I knew that 2020 was a Beethoven anniversary, but the reason that the quartets are happening at CMS this spring is because it’s the 50th anniversary of CMS.”


DSQ members voice some ambivalence about anniversaries too, noting that composer fatigue affects performers as well as listeners. “Honestly, we find these anniversaries quite boring,” violist Asbjørn Nørgaard says in an e-mail. He admits that “a full Beethoven cycle is just a very compelling narrative” and that performing all 16 quartets can be a “life-changing endeavor.” But there is a flip side: Ever since the ensemble binged on Carl Nielsen’s quartets during his 150th anniversary year in 2015, they haven’t touched his music.

“I think we will also need to give Beethoven’s music a little break after 2020,” Nørgaard says. “In a perfect world, we should be able to create excitement for all of this amazing music in other ways than arbitrary year counts.”

I put Nørgaard’s point to the DSQ’s former publicist, Hannah Goldshlack-Wolf, who is now a senior account manager at WildKat PR. “Anniversaries . . . can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em,” she writes in an e-mail. Though some milestones provide useful publicity hooks, she recalls being asked to publicize 35th anniversaries of “institutional relationships” and 40th anniversaries of professional debuts. “Those are a much, much harder sell.”

By the same token, musicologists and music critics who hope that anniversaries can serve to promote underrepresented composers of the past and reshape the canon will likely be disappointed. As critic Joshua Kosman lamented in the San Francisco Chronicle, the 2019 bicentennial of Clara Schumann’s birth yielded little interest, even at a time when arts groups have made strides in programming more female composers.

“When you are looking at a composer who is significant but has less stature, you’re not going to find the same sort of rewards,” says Lankenau of Boosey & Hawkes. But that isn’t stopping him from using birthdays to drum up interest in contemporary composers’ work. Future projects on Boosey’s radar include the centennials of American composers Jack Beeson, Carlisle Floyd, and Ned Rorem.

Unlike celebrations of Beethoven and Mozart, there is little risk of oversaturation or fatigue, Lankenau notes. “It’s an opportunity to really take advantage of the fact that there are performers out there who knew these people and have worked with them—and to reignite that excitement.”