Beethoven – Past, Present & Future

It’s true that sometimes a sound or a scent can transport us undeniably back to a particular place. I have only to smell freshly cut grass, and I am back in my grammar school classroom, daydreaming through a French lesson accompanied by the sound of the mowers going up and down the cricket pitch. That aroma grounds me firmly in a precise slice of my life.
In other cases, the opposite holds good, and a sense can overcome the limitations of place and time to inspire us and enthral us wherever we are. Music, for example, can link us to generations past, to other places and other cultures than our own, like a time machine propelled by the reverberations of sound.
Recently I went to the Perth Concert Hall to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As I read the programme notes before the concert began, I discovered that the work had been premiered in 1824, five years before the settlement of the Swan River by Europeans. Obviously the world in which Beethoven lived and worked was very different to the world I know, but I thought of the similarities. The anticipatory buzz among the audience as they settled in their seats, the random and sometimes discordant sounds of the orchestra tuning up. The difference, of course, is that we know what we are about to hear, they did not.
What would Beethoven think, I wondered, if he could see the audience sitting here in this auditorium? His Ninth Symphony was premiered in the Theater am Kärnertor, a beautiful and fanciful building in Vienna. Also known as the Imperial and Royal Court Theater of Vienna, it was far removed from the concrete Brutalist style of the Perth Concert Hall. But, almost two hundred years after the premier, the symphony is still being played to appreciative audiences worldwide. Some Beethoven aficionados believe the Ninth to be his best work, others would say it is the greatest piece of music ever written, which is a very bold statement.
If Beethoven had lived in our era, what would he have been able to achieve with the benefit of technology? What sort of music might he have written? With modern medicine, he may not have lost his hearing, might have lived longer (he died in 1827 at the age of 57). Could he have gone on to write even greater music, or would the Ninth Symphony have remained the zenith of his achievements?
As I contemplate this connection between the past and the present, embodied in music, I also find myself wondering about the future. Which of the music being created today will still be played and listened to in another 200 years? We can use technology to create music, giving composers a much larger range of sounds than Beethoven had, and we can also store that music and replay it as often as we like. If Beethoven wanted to listen to his own work, he had to find an orchestra to play it. Now we can have it stored in something the size of a guitar pick, and listen to it wherever and whenever we please. But does this mean that we have better music, or more inspirational and long-lasting music? Maybe we just have more of it.
Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the hall goes quiet. The lights dim, and the audience applauds as the conductor walks out onto the stage. I settle back in my seat, ready to enjoy the performance, and happy to be in this time, in this place.


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