By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Residents of Taiwan bring out the trash when they hear Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” being played by the drivers of garbage trucks as they drive down the street. During COVID-19, this signals trash time and neighbors get to mingle, keeping the streets bustling with social interactions.
An old law in Taiwan dictates that trash may not touch the ground. For decades, residents have waited in front of their houses for garbage truck drivers to take their trash directly from them. During the pandemic, Beethoven’s well-known sonata “Für Elise” has been broadcasted from garbage trucks to signal when it’s time for residents to take out the trash. It’s turned trash time into impromptu block parties and small-scale get-togethers for neighbors to meet and greet.
Beethoven’s relationship with the piano itself was part of what made his music so timeless. In his video series Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances, discusses the master composer and his life.
But He Didn’t Know “Chopsticks”
“We can’t hear Beethoven’s actual speaking voice—dead, as he was, 50 years before the invention of recorded sound,” Dr. Greenberg says. “But we hear his voice, if we listen carefully to his solo piano music: the idiosyncratic nature of his musical ‘grammar’ and pianism; the mercurial, often ‘stop-on-a-dime’ flow of ideas; the veritable flood of information; the manner in which his musical ideas take off in tangents [only] to be reconciled and explained further down the road.”
According to Dr. Greenberg, Ludwig von Beethoven mistrusted authority, was self-reliant, a skeptic, and had an “unshakable conviction regarding the absolute rightness of his artistic actions,” whether or not they coincided with tradition. His modernity also extended to his religious views, or lack thereof.
“We were told that although the last sacraments were administered to him on his deathbed, and he remained formally a Roman Catholic, Beethoven had little use for organized religion, was suspicious of the feudal hierarchy of the Church, and was spiritually subversive enough to be described by Haydn as an atheist,” Dr. Greenberg said. “Neither did Beethoven believe in the divine right of kings, princes, or their aristocratic minions.
“What Beethoven did believe in, like Mozart before him, was art and himself.”
Beethoven the Man
Beethoven grew up in Bonn, one of Germany’s oldest cities. His father abused him, he ended his formal education at the age of 10, and his mother died when Ludwig was just 16. Swiss composer Franz Xaver Schnyder von Wartensee once wrote to a Zurich publisher, without any intended cruelty, that great thoughts drifted through Beethoven’s mind but he had no way to express them besides music because he had “no command over words.” Wartensee called him “coarse, but honest and unaffected.”
“Beethoven’s coarseness played itself out in any number of different ways: in his general attitude, in his legendary rudeness, and even in his physical relationship with the world,” Dr. Greenberg says. “Beethoven was just one of those people whose talent and force of personality left a swath of disarray in his tracks.”
In an extraordinary story, Beethoven caused a major upset at the home of one of the richest men in Vienna, Count Moritz Fries. Beethoven was playing a piece with his student when the future director of the Royal Theater, Count Ferdinand Palffy, leaned over and said something to the woman next to him. At the time, even in a room filled with the elites of Viennese society, this would have been acceptable.
However, Beethoven swept his student’s hands from the piano, jumped up, and shouted, “I do not play for such swine!” The Count was dumbstruck, the audience was unable to appease Beethoven, and Beethoven refused to let his student continue playing.
“Not just an expression of revolt aimed at the nobility, but, also, a bid for autonomy on behalf of music and music makers,” Dr. Greenberg says. “For Beethoven, music was no longer a decoration, an oral ornament donned by a room. Music demanded that society be all ears and respectfully silent. For Beethoven, music would no longer frame a social event: It insisted on being the event itself.”
Despite his legendary rudeness, Beethoven remains one of the most widely respected and influential composers in the Western world. Thankfully, Taiwanese citizens enjoying Beethoven’s music seem to be exhibiting much better behavior and manners than the composer himself did.