The Year of Beethoven: How to Help Students Understand Musical Genius

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There’s no shortage of ways to celebrate the upcoming 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday in December 2020. Numerous special events are planned around the globe this year in museums, concert halls, and educational venues. The anniversary offers a plethora of opportunities to help students learn about history, music theory, and personal tenacity in the face of hardship.

Here are few ideas on how to make the Year of Beethoven a worthwhile educational experience for students:

Covering the Basics

Beethoven’s works are particularly remarkable in light of his struggle with his worsening deafness. Beyond that, it may be hard for some students to imagine why Beethoven was so extraordinary. Therefore, a quick primer may be in order. This could include explaining the age when Beethoven lived – a time of great change that included events ranging from the American Revolution to Napoleon’s military campaigns in Europe.

It was a period when musicians were generally considered hired help who worked for royalty and the elite. Beethoven helped to change that – he was one of the pivotal figures to usher in the age of Romanticism, with its focus on individualism, emotion and personal expression. The period helped launch the idea of the “creative artist.”

The evolution in music can be experienced by listening to some of the most famous compositions. Beethoven was able to learn from the brilliance of renowned composers before him and then try new things. Students can discuss the similarities and differences between masterpieces such as these:

Another way for students to understand Beethoven is by listening to the diverse ways he composed during a lifetime in which he crafted more than 650 compositions – from hauntingly beautiful pieces like Violin Sonata No. 5, “Spring” to the avant garde compositions near his death like his Große Fuge.

Of course, it helps to cover some other pieces Beethoven is best known for – his fifth symphony with its iconic Fate motif, his ninth symphony with its Ode to Joy choral finale, and the piano classic Für Elise.

Beyond that, stories about his life are covered in movies like Beethoven Lives Upstairs, BBC’s documentary The Genius of Beethoven, and online resources like the teacher resource kit created by Canada’s National Arts Centre.

Making Connections to Today

Still today, Beethoven’s works are among the most performed and heard pieces on the planet. For years, The League of American Orchestra Members tracked the most frequently performed composers in American symphonic concerts. From 2006–2013 Beethoven topped the list every year except for two, when he came in second behind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

His works also have been used in numerous movies, commercials, and at special events like the Olympics. And his name and influence have crossed into other disciplines – from literature, such as the references in A Clockwork Orange – to science, for instance Harvard Medical School’s recent study on deafness that included “Beethoven mice.”

Students can listen to clips to see how his music has been utilized in more modern times. Examples include:

  • Portions of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 were used in X-Men the Apocalypse and The King’s Speech
  • The Peanuts cartoon mentioned Beethoven repeatedly, as noted in this video.
  • In Sister Act 2 the cast performs Joyful, Joyful, a hymn written to the melody of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (sheet music)
  • Ode to Joy is also featured in several other movies including Dead Poets Society, and it was sung as part of the opening ceremony of the 1998 Olympics. Choirs from six countries participated in that performance.
  • The Disney classic Fantasia featured Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6
  • And many, many more…

Exploring Music Theory and Instrumentation

The San Francisco Symphony has put together an excellent resource to help students explore Beethoven’s Eroica score (requires Flash). Among the topics discussed are Beethoven’s use of keys and motifs.

Beethoven liked to use different keys to change the mood of pieces. In Eroica, for example, he used the key of E flat major to indicate strength and courage. Beethoven then uses the key of C minor for mourning and tragedy in Eroica’s Funeral March, and again as an indication of ominous portent in the famous opening of Symphony No. 5.

Beethoven also creatively used motifs to build themes. The video How Beethoven Writes a Motif explains how Beethoven used motifs, like the opening notes of Symphony No. 5, to tie compositions together in compelling ways.

While looking at these aspects, it can also be interesting to explore some of the changes in instrumentation as music moved from the Baroque to the Classical and then to the Romantic periods. One of the biggest changes was that the harpsichord began to be replaced by the piano. However, Beethoven has also been recognized by music scholars for his use of the piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombone in his orchestrations.

Overcoming Life’s Challenges

Perhaps what may be most captivating to students is Beethoven’s ability to overcome such significant life challenges. He had a very demanding father and faced intense criticism for some of his works. His behavior was considered unusual at times, as he really lived the cliché of “marching to the beat of your own drum.”

Most significantly of course was the loss of his hearing. It cut him off from the world and brought out anger and passion as he famously banged on pianos to try to hear sounds. The fact that he composed some of the world’s most famous compositions after he went deaf is undoubtedly remarkable. His accomplishments have provided inspiration to children with special needs throughout the past two centuries.

One 2019 HBO documentary that explores this concept is Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. In it, award-winning filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky tells an intergenerational tale binding Beethoven with her parents, who are deaf, and her son, who is also deaf.

As an added note, Beethoven was certainly not alone in facing physical and emotional challenges during his lifetime. Others include inventor Thomas Edison, who also suffered from hearing loss, as well as Bach, George Frideric Handel, and artist Claude Monet, who all experienced vision loss toward the end of their lives.

In contemporary times there continue to be many artists who have lost the full use of one of their primary senses – including performers well known to students, such as Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things, who is deaf in one ear.

Read Pepper’s article on teaching music to children who are deaf.

Performing Beethoven Pieces

The best way to appreciate Beethoven may be to perform one of his pieces. In honor of the anniversary, Pepper has compiled extensive lists of recommended repertoire. They can be sorted by type and level to find something perfect for any concert or classroom use.

View Pepper’s list of suggested Beethoven music for various instrumental and choral ensembles here. Also peruse Beethoven piano pieces, including serious repertoire and top-selling favorites. And view books about Beethoven for teachers and directors.

Events, Music Lists and So Much More

There also are many other ways to enjoy Beethoven’s works this year. Apple has created a special playlist for Beethoven compositions.

Carnegie Hall has planned a global tribute to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ode to Joy. Beginning in December 2019 and ending in November 2020, conductor Marin Alsop is leading performances on six continents with ten renowned partner orchestras.

Beethoven’s hometown in Bonn and other locations in Germany are holding special events throughout the year. The calendar for these can be found here.

There also are numerous events in Vienna, Austria and across the globe. To see events near you, search for options at your location.

To view historical documents, view the Beethoven Gateway created by the Beethoven Center in California.

If you have a favorite resource, list it in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out the Beethoven repertoire on Pepper’s website for both choral and instrumental ensembles and for piano. Plus, view books about Beethoven for teachers and directors.

Enjoy the Year of Beethoven!

Mary Rogelstad
Mary Rogelstad joined Pepper in 2018 as the company’s Marketing Content Coordinator. Previously she worked as a journalist in the international media and as a communications specialist at various nonprofits. In her free time, Mary has enjoyed singing in various choral groups and performing in musical theater.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you so much for these really helpful teaching resources!!! The links are wonderful and so is your overview for busy teachers. Very impressive!!

    • Thanks so much for your comment! We’re so glad you found the article helpful. This type of feedback is very beneficial when we consider topics and resources that may be worthwhile to research and share with teachers.

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