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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.