An Ode to Joy: Beethoven Moves

It is never too late to be moved by Beethoven. Ludwig van Beethoven spent a good many years living in Vienna, where he died in 1827, and he was without a doubt one of the great representative of the First Viennese School of the Classical period. Beyond being a great composer, he was also a liberal thinker and his humanistic messages have had an important influence on arts and culture. This year the city of Vienna celebrates this fantastic composer´s birth 250 years ago, with a plethora of exhibitions, concerts, and talks. What an ill-fated year it has been for such a special celebratory occasion! Multiple events were planned to celebrate his oeuvre, look at his life and his political views, and generally pay tribute to this European musical genius. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic many events had to be postponed or cancelled. Now that our museums have reopened, I recommend visiting Beethoven Bewegt (Beethoven Moves), a really touching and interesting exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

A moving musical exhibition — Beethoven bewegt ©2020 Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

“Art? What would I be without it? I don’t know. But I dread – I see what hundreds and thousands are without it!”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven was not only a great artist, he was also politically interested and his music spoke to and sometimes about the politically tumultuous period he experienced in his lifetime. The French Revolution took place when he was just becoming an adult, influencing him greatly: he became a republican convinced of the ideas of liberty. His Ode to Joy, which is based on Schiller´s poem and speaks of human brotherhood (today one might add sisterhood) is not only the crowning movement of his glorious ninth symphony, it has also been transformed into various anthems, not least the “Anthem of Europe” of the Council of Europe as a symbol for the whole of Europe.

Rebecca Horn´s Grand Piano entitled “Concert for Anarchy” floats above visitors to the exhibition. When the piano´s lid opens the keys appear to fall out to a loud cacophony of sound. It is a machine and a sculpture at once.
The frayed edges of the score sheets of Beethoven´s autograph of the “Pastoral” Piano Sonata Nr. 15 in D major, op. 28, struck me as especially touching.

The KHM exhibition does a great job of connecting two artistic disciplines: fine art and music. On the one hand, the selection of artworks from different epochs, including several impressive contemporary artworks, explicitly engage with Beethoven´s oevre. They represent or allude to themes that influenced and were important to Beethoven as a composer and as a human being. And on the other hand it juxtaposes different epochs and genres in a way that shows the eternal relevance of Beethoven´s musical works for the arts, in the past and in the present.

A plaster version of The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’Airain) by Auguste Rodin was the sculptor´s first major sculpture. At the time it shocked the public with its realism and the ambiguity between a showing of strength and vulnerability.

On view are paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, sketchbooks by William Turner, graphic works by Francisco de Goya, Anselm Kiefer and Jorinde Voigt, Idris Khan, sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Rebecca Horn and John Baldessari, and a video by Guido van der Werve, among other gems.

In the first room of the exhibition, the focus is on his sonatas. Visitors hear two of the piano sonatas written by the composer, the Waldstein Sonata (C major, op. 53) and his final Piano Sonata in C minor, op. 111., while also seeing contemporary artistic renderings of his sonatas next to Beethoven’s original autographs.

Jorinde Voigt has made a series of thirty-two drawings based on Beethoven´s thirty-two piano sonatas. She described her approach as a “writing down, or transcription, of atmospheres, experiences and inner worlds”.
Exhibition view of Jorinde Voigt´s delicate and elegant drawings.
Idris Khan´s “Struggling to Hear” (2005) consists of superimposed scores of all of Beethoven´s piano sonatas. Khan has created a block-like composition of layered scores that gives a senses of dark noise to symbolise Beethoven´s debilitating hearing loss.

Now, imagine walking the floor that Beethoven moved across. You cannot quite do that, but you can see and touch it, spread out as it is on an elevated platform in the exhibition´s second room. Some of the parquet floors from Beethoven´s last apartment in Vienna, the Schwarzspanierhaus, are on loan from the Museum of the City of Vienna (Wienmuseum). The parquet has lost its lustre, but it is quite something to think about whose feet once padded across these floor boards. Sadly, Beethoven´s former residential building no longer exists, it was demolished in 1903. (There are two other buildings in Vienna though that have been turned into Beethoven museums: the Beethoven Museum in the 19th district, where the composer spent some time seeking healing for his progressive hearing loss; and the Beethoven Pasqualati house, which he also inhabited for eight years. Both are maintained by the Wienmuseum.)

Transition zone inside “Beethoven bewegt”
It is most inspiring to see original scores written in Beehoven´s own hand, in this case from the Symphony Nr. 5 in C minor, op. 67.

“How delighted I will be when I can wonder through thickets and woods, under trees, amongst herbs and rocks. No man can love the countryside more than I do – for woods, trees and rocks echo what man longs for.”

Letter from Ludwig van Beethoven to Therese Malfatti in Walkersdorf, late May 1810

Beethoven loved nature. He is known to have gone for long walks in the countryside to escape the crowds of the city and find inspiration, always carrying with him a notebook to jot down ideas. In the third exhibition room, you will find works by two painters whose works also engaged with nature directly and who lived around the same time as Beethoven: Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner.

William Turner´s sketches from the early 1800s are juxtaposed to musical scores written in Beethoven´s hand. Turner´s watercolour sketches contain studies of the light moods in a cloudy sky, a subject that Turner frequently captured .
Caspar David Friedrich: Moon Above the Riesengebirge (c. 1810), a mountain landscape in Bohemia that fascinated the painter with its atmospheric light effects and broad views. For his time, this is a radical work with its extreme landscape format and the restricted colour palette, emphasising the silvery sheen of sky and the reddish granite in the mystic moonlight. Beethoven too drew inspiration from nature for his symphonies and many other compositions.

Apart from the artworks and musical scores exhibited in this room of the exhibition, and the sounds of Beethoven´s symphonies delighting viewers´ears, the shiny floor is a major attraction (at least for photographers, as it offers wonderful reflections of the artworks as well as the visitors engaging with them).

Caspar David Friedrich´s Ruins at Dusk (c. 1831) at right in this exhibition view of “Beethoven bewegt” are meant to evoke feelings of vulnerability and forlorn-ness, a sense of life´s transience, feelings that inspired some of Beethoven´s music.
Jan Cossiers – Prometheus (1636-38). In the Romantic era, Prometheus, as a bearer of knowledge and liberator of manking, became a symbol of the lonesome and rebellious genious, and so he was often associated with Beethoven, who also composed the ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus in 1800/01”.

An entire wall of that room is dominated by a video installation by Guido van der Werve. In it, we see the artist himself walking towards us, threatened by a giant ice breaker moving silently toward him. The exhibit is meant as a metaphor for the risk of failure, and the courage needed to heroically create beauty.

“Beethoven bewegt“, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Guido van der Werve (*1977) Nummer Acht (Everything is going to be alright) 2007, Gulf of Bothnia, Finland, 16-mm-film to HD video, 10:10 min © Guido van der Werve; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York — Photo ©2020 Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

Framed musical scores are also beautifully reflected in the shiny floor of one of the exhibition rooms at the KHM.

In a final exhibition room, two dancers perform a new work developed for the exhibition by Tino Sehgal. In his choreography of “This Joy” the performers are moving their bodies and humming Beethoven´s For Elise. Unfortunately the publication of photography of these performances is prohibited by the choreographer.

Stop at the big Ear Trumpet by John Baldessari in the stairwell, so you can listen to a Beethoven tune if you stick your head into it.

John Baldessari produced “Beethoven´s Trumpet (with Ear)” Opus 132 in 2007 after visiting Beethoven´s childhood home in Bonn. — Beethoven bewegt ©2020 Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

The exhibition is currently scheduled to run until 24 January 2021. You need a time-slot to visit (book online or get it on the spot and look at other exhibitions while you wait).

And in case you have no plans tomorrow (Sunday, 13 December) night, the KHM is hosting an online Beethoven soirée on Youtube. And what´s more, the KHM also has a Podcast on Spotify to accompany the exhibition.

Another thing to look forward to in 2021 is the Beethoven birthday concert, originally planned for December 16, 2020 in the Vienna City Hall, but now (hopefully) to be held on March 15, 2021. The concert will be played by the MUK (Music and Art Private University of the City of Vienna) in Vienna´s City Hall – in compliance with all corona measures. I shall keep my fingers crossed.

P.S. In case you are wondering whether I was listening to Beethoven´s music while writing this blog, of course I was!


Texts describing the artworks shown here have been adapted from the free booklet accompanying the exhibition.

All photos (c) Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

6 thoughts on “An Ode to Joy: Beethoven Moves

  1. Thank you Karin for your beautiful and moving blog on this musical genius. I already visited the exhibition and your blog has inspired me to want to visit again !!!! And as you say, it is really a pity that due to COViD-19, some of the event would have been cancelled. I hope that they can replace them with more virtual events than originally planned.


    1. Danke Brigitte, entschuldige bitte die späte Rückmeldung, ich hab deinen Kommentar übersehen! Ich hoffe, du hattest auch ein schönes Fest und es geht dir gut.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Kein Problem.
        Alles gut, außer dass ich gerade öffentlich darüber nachdenke, wie ich in einigen Tagen
        meinen 75sten Geburtstag mit BEIDEN Kindern UND mit der besten Freundin feiern kann *lach*

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: