The Visitor Route
Heroic dramatizations, intimate portraits, bombastic sculptures, performances, advertisements, death masks, relics, cinema works, propaganda posters, architectural models and contemporary installations: over 250 visual and acoustic works pay tribute to the prodigiousness and fertile imaginativeness engendered by Beethoven.
Beethoven’s presence extends far beyond the bounds of serious culture. Like the major political or popular icons, he has become a key reference, transcending all cultural and geographical borders.
As early as the 1960s, as record sales were expanding, Beethoven embarked upon a worldwide career, from Gabon to Japan, and China to the United States, soon to be hijacked by the consumer industry. Fascinating yet ambivalent, the race to capture more diversified audiences is an expression of the artistic fraternity’s desire to bring people together. But is it not the essence of the “icon” to stand out from the original? All that remains bequeathed to us of Beethoven is a caricature, an extraordinary illness (his deafness) and a few iconic melodies. His extraordinary influence raises both the question of his undeniable genius and that of the risk of his alienation. What have we done to Beethoven?
26 March 1827, 5.45 p.m. After protracted agony, Beethoven dies in his apartment at the Schwarzspanierhaus in Vienna, surrounded by a few members of his family. Their intriguing, often fascinating, tales and the sketches of his body express the full extent of the drama attendant upon the scene. At the same time, articles in the European press, very quick to cover the pomp and circumstance of his funeral, seemed to be saying: Beethoven is not dead. Indeed, Beethoven, his work and his image had already embarked upon a long cycle of metamorphoses, thereby securing the composer’s largely posthumous future.
The tremendous wealth of masks taken of the composer, during his lifetime and upon his death, has contributed to his apotheosis. For nearly two centuries, they provided the vivid subject matter for numerous reproductions of his image, in painting or relief, dramatized or exploited in other ways. In addition to paying homage, the constantly changing masks have made Beethoven immortal.
Developing in the spirit of the Enlightenment, then subsequently growing in importance in the 19th century, the cult of Great Men redefined the intellectual status of the artist and the nature of his “genius”. Aside from the power to create, the artist now enjoyed another attribute, traditionally reserved for gods and divine beings: the ability to delight the senses, possess the soul and control its impulses. In other words, the ability to inspire.
In the way that he is represented and his life depicted, Beethoven is a receiver of this “divine” gift. In the 1830s, the composer had already become instilled in the collective imagination as a prophet, his life had become a “golden legend”, his cult a religion. At the same time, listening to his music was often tantamount to a divine experience. Genuine examples of “absolute music”, his nine symphonies transport and inspire us. To the present day, the mystical aura surrounding Beethoven expresses that which escapes reason: his exceptional humanity, the elevated status of his vocation, the visionary modernity of his works.
In this section of the exhibition, discover The Ear Trumpet: a bone conduction hearing aid.
In the 20th century, Beethoven’s music entered the cinema as a fictional medium. Almost characters in their own right, his sonatas accentuate a plot, his quartets accompany a dénouement, his symphonies vocalise mystery or passion, or heighten the tension or horror.
Beethoven’s work thus unleashes with full force the visual imagination of the filmmaker. It inspires bold editing in dramas, crime thrillers or animés. It provides the perfect counterpoint for paralysis or immobility in the formal experiments of the French New Wave, or the experimental works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Gus Van Sant. Conversely, it can also accompany seemingly impossible long sequences of movements. Finally, in the works of Stanley Kubrick, Rob Reiner or the Israeli filmmaker, Nadav Lapid, it even steals the limelight from the violence occurring on film to create an effect of disturbing strangeness. Beethoven’s music thus acts as a powerful catalyst for the director’s ambitions.
Even more so than Géricault or Rimbaud, Beethoven is the embodiment of the tragic artist’s myth, wherein depression is an expression of genius and broadens the inspiration. Like all myths, this portrait delivers a certain truth. It is well known that the composer’s life was marked by pain: the pain of losing parents who died far too soon, of a sorely missed father, and an even greater pain, that of his deafness. First detected when Beethoven was only thirty years old, the disease (so deplorable for a musician) was revolting and deeply troubling for this rather unsociable man.
Brought under the scrutiny of myths and therefore amplified in the process, these experiences contributed greatly to the irremediable image of Beethoven we have now. For the artists who measured themselves against him, he became a mirror: a human being dogged by suffering and for whom conventions were an obstacle to be surmounted, and a solitary, fiercely marginal composer – a man who, in spite of all, had always sought his official place in the world and the friendship of fellow men. The moral portrait we have of the man informs his very demeanour. In his posthumous life, he is a picture of deliberate ugliness, with a melancholy sulk, a disproportionately sized skull, a fiercely introspective gaze in which we see reflected the conflicts of our own conscience.
One statement shines clearly through the interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony performed in homage to the victims of the attacks on 13 November 2015: deeply human, the energy of Beethoven’s music not only triggers an aesthetic emotion, but also a political conscience.
Far more than a repertoire of musical scores, Beethoven’s work constitutes an act of power, a reason for action, a licence to act, sometimes in the most contradictory way. How many libertarian, or nationalistic gatherings have been inspired by the iconic Ode to Joy? How many patriotic songs have been sung to the thundering tones of Beethoven’s Fifth? From the revolutionary libretto for Fidelio to the Appassionata sonata, we can recognise references to the militant mood of our era and the constant onslaught of adversity with which we are faced.
The political permeability of Beethoven’s work is remarkable. Naturally running alongside it is the danger of its dilution. Yet its ability to dress the wounds of humanity remains clearly visible during these heavy times.
Men erect monuments in order to commemorate a remarkable event, an exceptional human being. While political and military destinies were once sanctified by Antiquity and the Ancien Régime, the era of the Enlightenment elevated the artist to the status of “Grand Homme”, a being capable of embodying an entire people, of uniting a nation.
Erected in 1845 in Bonn, the monument designed by Ernst Julius Haehnel was the first in a long series that surfed a genuine wave of “statuomania”, only to be overtaken by a fascination for the composer’s universal aura. Vienna (1880), Boston (1856), New York (1884), Mexico City (1921), Paris (1932), or more recently, Naruto (1997) and Qingdao (2000): many cities have raised a monument to Beethoven, either to celebrate an anniversary or even in quest of his identity.
Some aborted projects, however, remain consigned to paper, as is the case with Antoine Bourdelle, François Garas or Franz von Stuck. Proof, therefore, that Beethoven’s apotheosis can find its expression both in the city and in the world of the mind, in bronze or in ink.
By the time of the world celebrations held in 1970 for his 250th anniversary, Beethoven had become an instrument highly sought-after for its ideological, utilitarian, even advertising power. Was it safe to conclude, as indeed Pierre Boulez once did, that the myth of the Immortal Beethoven might be fatally injured?
No. The sheer force and number of contemporary music tributes, from Nicolas Bacri’s Omaggio to the electro tribute by Soulwax, only helped to further underscore the premise that, however absent he may be, Beethoven continues to permeate the present. At the same time, the experimental visuals of Nam June Paik, Jan Fabre or John Baldessari, or even the daring version of Beethoven’s Tenth, as interpreted by Pierre Henry, only go to show that the myth of the composer is far from being extinguished.
Fragmented, dismembered and nothing to do with the original Beethoven, “Ludwig van” is a no less powerful piece: its inspirational force is preserved intact, it continues to inspire both punk and intellectual experimentations that rework the composer’s music and image for ever-changing formal ends.