Dumbing down Beethoven

Ludwig, if you practice regularly, some day your music will be heard all over the world.

January 2, 2007 23:14
3 minute read.
Dumbing down Beethoven

beethoven 88. (photo credit: )


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His mother's age-old advice ringing in his ears, Ludwig van Beethoven sits hunched before his piano. Eyes closed, he hums, adjusts, erases and rewrites the notes, working feverishly against time. His deafness will soon make it impossible for him to hear music at all. He is fiercely ambitious, he wants to be immortalized, to be known as the greatest composer who ever lived. He dreams that some day the music of Beethoven will be heard throughout the world, and will enthrall the masses for 1,000 years. And so he pounds away at the crowning achievement of his oeuvre, his glorious Ninth Symphony, set to the poetic words of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" and to the idyllic vision of Elysium and the brotherhood of all mankind. Poor Mother Beethoven and poor Ludwig: No one ever told them that one has to be careful what one hopes for, because it might come true. Their dreams have materialized; he has achieved immortality. Today, 200 years after his time, his music is heard throughout the world - just like his mother promised. But even more than it is heard in concert halls, its sounds reverberate from hip pockets, belt loops, neckbands and purses; its strains emanate from bathrooms, restaurants, sidewalks - wherever a cell phone rings. WHAT happened? What happened is that "Beethoven" is one of the ringer options now available. It is now possible to answer the phone not to the tired ring of old, but to the melody of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Old Ludwig has truly arrived as the darling of the masses. Wherever we may be - kitchen, city bus, lunchroom - his sublime melodies can be heard. He is never more than the push of a button away. Since cell phones are umbilically attached to most of us, whenever anyone calls anyone else, everyone in the vicinity is treated to several bars of Beethoven. A bit tinny, granted, and somewhat bare-boned, but it is unmistakably the music of the master. TIRED OF Ludwig? No problem. With a simple click you can switch to another composer. Faster than you can say "Frederic Chopin," you can have cameo melodies by Mozart, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and a dozen other immortals. Within the course of any given day, you can be exposed several times to history's greatest composers. Who said ours is a society devoid of culture? And the music is such that it does not interfere with our normal lives, for just as soon as we say hello, it stops abruptly to make room for blather, gossip, chit-chat, banter and idle talk. Nevertheless, if we are not impatient about answering the phone, we can theoretically be treated to at least 15 full seconds of a great symphony. That may not be musical immortality, but it is better than not being heard at all. Or is it? Today a cell phone near me began tinkling the Ninth. I asked the bearer if he recognized the music. In reply, I received a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulder that said: a) That's a silly question; b) Mind your own business; and c) I couldn't care less. Poor Ludwig: A million people hear his music every day, but it seems that not too many of them even know that the music that's being dumbed-down is his. In fact, for them it is not music at all, only a cute telephone ring. Well, perhaps it's better that way. Rather than have your music so devalued, it is probably better to remain unknown to the great unwashed, permanently enshrined in a state of anonymous immortality. In truth, we should not be surprised. Ours is a time when all things great are pulled down to the lowest level, everything subject to its own form of Cliff Notes: literature, art, science, religion, Judaism. All are dumbed-down, so why not classical music as well? Very likely the truly modern, au-courant mother is telling her piano-playing child: "Practice hard, little one, and some day your music will become a squeaky telephone ring heard all over the world." The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, served for 40 years as rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, and is the former editor of Tradition magazine.

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