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Beethoven Scores, Big Time

This article is more than 13 years old.

Even if you think you don't know Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or the 9th, you do. They're two of the most frequently-played pieces of music in the world, and they've helped turn the wild-haired composer into not just a cultural icon, but also a commodity. Beethoven sells.

On Sunday, throngs of Beethoven fanatics will flock to Tanglewood to see and hear his 9th Symphony performed live. It's the BSO's last show of the summer. WBUR's Andrea Shea has this prelude to the performance.


ANDREA SHEA: Alex, the hooligan in Stanley Kubrick's film 'A Clockwork Orange,' has always ranked high in my mind as one Beethoven's biggest fans.

SCENE FROM 'A Clockwork Orange': 'It had been a wonderful evening. And what I needed now to give it the perfect ending was a bit of the old Ludwig Van.'

MUSIC: Beethoven's 9th

ANDREA SHEA: But then I met Harvey Lindstrom. He road-tripped to Tanglewood for an 'All-Beethoven Weekend' earlier this summer.

HARVEY LINDSTROM: I'm a groupie.

ANDREA SHEA: And that's not all he is.

HARVEY LINDSTROM: I'm a reincarnated Beethoven I feel like I knew the man.

ANDREA SHEA: Lindstrom even looks like the man. The retired art teacher has longish white hair and eerily similar features. The composer's famous scowl looks out from Lindstrom's black t-shirt. He says he has 30 like it, and 60 Beethoven recording, including eight of the 9th.

HARVEY LINDSTROM: Beethoven makes me cry. Last time I cried at Beethoven was standing by his grave in Vienna. I put a rose on his grave.

HELENE ARMET: What is it about Beethoven that really appeals to us? There's melody and there's drama and there's emotion.

ANDREA SHEA: Helene Armet lives in Williamstown. Dan Radureseu says he feels it too.

DAN RADURESEU: You just feel that the message is there. The message of life, of anger, of sometimes sad. His life was like that.

MUSIC: Beethoven's 7th

ANDREA SHEA: Paul Courtemanche is a self-professed Beethoven-head...and, while shaking up a Margarita, hums Piano Sonata No. 23. His favorite.

PAUL COUREMANCHE: Gives me goose bumps. So I've been planning this trip all year as soon as saw the schedule come out.

ANDREA SHEA: T.J. Hanlon says his affection for Beethoven goes beyond the music.

T.J. HANLON: He's also a part of our popular culture in that Schroeder always played Beethoven.

MUSIC: Schroeder playing Beethoven. He stops and says, 'You never know how Beethoven is going to affect someone.'

T.J. HANLON: And I'm of the age when the Peanuts cartoons were a staple of holiday TV fare and it was always Schroeder playing Beethoven he had the bust of Beethoven on his toy piano and Lucy was always trying to engage Schroeder and Schroeder was much more concerned in high art than Lucy's romantic interest.

MUSIC: Schroeder playing

ANDREA SHEA: John Belushi spoofed the composer on 'Saturday Night Live. The 5th Symphony was disco-ized in 'Saturday Night Fever.' Right now the 9th is being used in a Lexus commercial starring Elvis Costello.

SOUND FROM COMMERCIAL: 'Beethoven. He wrote a few toe-tappers. When he wrote this he'd lost his hearing poor man so he was imagining this.'

ANDREA SHEA: And while Beethoven might sell cars Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, says he definately sells tickets.

MARK VOLPE: Not to say other composers don't sell but Mozart probably wouldn't do quite that well so Beethoven in terms of box office has more impact than any composer.

ANDREA SHEA: He also has more impact on the Boston Symphony Orchestra than any composer, according to Anthony Fogg the Artistic Administrator for the BSO.

ANTHONY FOGG: If you go into Symphony Hall which was opened in 1900 the name of Beethoven appears in the crown above the proscenium.

ANDREA SHEA: The gift shop at Symphony Hall reports the stuffed Beethoven dolls by far outsell those of the other composers. He beats Mozart and Bach by about two-to-one, and Wagner by about five-to-one. Mark Volpe says the hottest Beethoven show ticket is:

MARK VOLPE: Beethoven nine.

MUSIC: Beethoven's 9th

MARK VOLPE: The wall comes down in Germany that separates East Berlin from West Berlin, what do they play? Beethoven nine. Seiji Ozawa goes open the Olympics in Nagano, Japan what's the piece? Beethoven nine. Every time something happens in the world that's of such enormous significance what's the piece that gets played? Beethoven nine.

MUSIC: Beethoven's 9th, the Ode to Joy

MARK VOLPE: The last movement, the 'Ode to Joy,' it's in hundreds of commercials, hundreds of cartoons, hundreds of TV shows that and Beethoven five are probably the best known themes across the world.

JAN SWAFFORD: You know how many times do you need to hear the 5th symphony? I mean, give it a rest sometime.

ANDREA SHEA: Jan Swafford, a composer and Beethoven biographer, says there's danger in the sort of ubiquity Beethoven has achieved.

JAN SWAFFORD: It's what I call the Mona Lisa effect, you go to Paris and you want to look at the Mona Lisa and it takes you a half an hour to get through the crowd as my brother said once, 'a lot of art is being appreciated to death.' llike the 5th Symphony and the 9th Symphony, there's a real danger of them becoming just kind of a cultural icon that doesn't make it's point anymore and that's deadly for a work of art.

ANDREA SHEA: For his money Swafford wishes people paid more attention to other pieces by Beethoven.

JAN SWAFFORD: Like the Missa Solemnis, which Beethoven considered his greatest work is just not played that much traditionally it's never really caught on. (laughs)

MUSIC: Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis'

ANDREA SHEA: Which isn't to say Swafford doesn't love the 9th. He does. He wrote the program notes for this weekend's performance. But for some Beethoven fans the appeal is quieter and smaller than the 9th. Take nine year-old Kale Wentzle of Leverett. He just started studying the piano.

KALE WENTZLE: I like the music more than anything and how it fun it is to play. That's Beethoven to me.

ANDREA SHEA: And Beethoven can be counted on this weekend to draw thousands to the season closer at Tanglewood.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

MUSIC: Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis'

This program aired on August 17, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


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