We remember Beethoven as the disheveled genius who created musical masterpieces — even though he couldn’t hear a thing most of his life. While his innovative compositions changed the course of music history, his work echoes beyond concert halls today and into pop culture as part of the soundtrack of countless movies like the horrifying A Clockwork Orange, and endless television and commercial scores.
Here are five facts about the composer and some of our favorite pop culture nods to the man who has moved us for centuries with his works like Für Elise, Moonlight Sonata, "All mankind will be brothers" from "Ode to Joy" in his Symphony No. 9, and Symphony No. 5, duh duh duh duuuuh. . .
He Had A Difficult Childhood
Beethoven's father Johann was a raging alcoholic and was physically and emotionally abusive to Ludwig. The elder Beethoven dreamed of turning his son into a child prodigy and cashing in on his success. He would lock Ludwig in the cellar or beat him for playing wrong notes.
Beethoven in Pop Culture #1: "Ode to Joy" Flash Mobs
Beethoven's First Symphony
What were you up to when you were 29? At that age, Beethoven debuted his first symphony, which was first performed in the Burgtheater in Vienna in April, 1800.
Beethoven in Pop Culture #2: Charles Schultz’s Beethoven-Loving Schroeder
His Hearing Loss
Beethoven started losing his hearing in this early 30s. By 1819, he was completely deaf, but composed some of his most renowned works during this time. He described his composing efforts as writing for the future. According to Harry Lang’s Deaf Persons in the Arts and Science, in addition to chamber music, Beethoven “completed thirty-two piano sonatas and seventeen string quartets. He wrote nine symphonies, five sonatas for the cello and piano, ten for violin and piano, five piano concertos, one violin concerto, one concerto for piano, violin and cello, ten overtures, two masses, one opera, and a ballet.”
There are various theories of why Beethoven went deaf including lead poisoning, syphilis, typhus, and lesions of the inner ear — but none have been conclusive. (Read an abstract of Beethoven's autopsy.) One thing we do know is that he accepted his condition, but it depressed him, as he wrote in a letter to his friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler: "... For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people 'I am deaf.' If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state..."
Beethoven in Pop Culture #3: Chuck Berry’ “Rollover Beethoven”
Musical Genius? Yes. Clean Freak? Definitely Not.
Beethoven’s passion for his music was his highest priority and calling, and he definitely marched to his own beat. We are all familiar with paintings of him with his wild hair and stormy scowls. His quirky personal habits seem fitting for a tormented artist. They included bathing often but wearing dirty clothes, not emptying his chamber pot, and leaving plates of food around his home.
Beethoven in Pop Culture #4: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
His Love-Hate for Napoleon
Beethoven was said to have admired the ideals of the French Revolution and dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, for whom he had great respect. But that esteem went south when Bonaparte declared himself emperor. Beethoven would have none of it. He became so angry that he “scrubbed out” Napoleon’s name on his composition. "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" (Read more at The International Napoleonic Society.)
Beethoven in Pop Culture #5: Rap Star Nas’ “I Can”
And if that's not enough Beethoven for you, here are some "Beethoven in Pop Culture" Honorable Mentions:
Beethoven Official Movie Trailer
Walter Murphy: "A Fifth of Beethoven"
Beethoven Portrayed by Nelson on The Simpsons
Conor Oberst - Bright Eyes - "Road to Joy"
Immortal Beloved’s “Moonlight Sonata” Scene