The BBC’s year-long celebration of Beethoven

Every other week the station will be dedicated to the composer’s music, life and world.

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Press releases landing from Radio 3 declare “one of the most ambitious projects the BBC has ever embarked on”. A year-long celebration of Beethoven. Every other week the station will be dedicated to the composer’s music, life and world. Best of the line-up just might be Dissecting Beethoven (date TBC) in which eminent neurosurgeon Henry Marsh considers the specifics of his autopsy. Presumably his hearing loss will be much discussed, but perhaps his problem bowels too? The composer abused laxatives and suffered from raging diarrhoea. (Did such details inspire method actor Gary Oldman as he was preparing to play Ludwig in the 1994 biopic Immortal Beloved, I wonder?)

Anyway, the year began on Composer of the Week: Beethoven Unleashed (from 13 Jan, 12pm) with Simon Schama and others talking a lot: ever-astonished, but not saying much. We learned that Beethoven is (mezza voce) “a vessel… there was a mysterious reservoir pouring through him to God…” I admit I dread a little the forthcoming programmes, in which presenters will inevitably try to describe the Missa Solemnis and everything will sound even more than usual like the weather channel. As it is, you’re never far on Radio 3 from someone saying, “And just as the thunder clouds begin to gather, Smetana uses a piccolo as a light breaking through the darkness!”

God knows how out of control this kind of language will get as the station goes all-out on a composer who took on Haydn, assimilated Bach, nudged Mozart and then invented classical music as we know it with 50-minute piano sonatas that make you understand that individual feeling is the most powerful thing in the world, that the figures who redefine history needn’t be princes or emperors, but can be artists. This was a composer who, after all that, then grew into a late period that took about 100 years for everybody else to comprehend. That’s the thing about Beethoven – he never, ever stopped getting better. And just when you think he’s written something happy, you’ll hear a touch of sadness. And if something is tremendously sad, there is a pulse of happiness too. Always that tension. Nothing goes unmixed. 

Beethoven Unleashed
BBC Radio 3

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing

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