Putting a New Face on Beethoven

Dec 18, 2020

“The first thing to get past is the scowl,” writes Mark Evan Bonds in Beethoven: Variations on a Life. Bonds, who is a professor of musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, considers portrayals of the composer as a glowering figure to be as problematic as they are widespread.

“The scowl is the image we see of Beethoven almost all the time,” Bonds says. “He’s frowning. He looks very serious. His eyebrows are down. The corners of his mouth are down. He’s obviously wrestling with something internally.” But according to Bonds, this imagining of the composer with a fixed, ill-tempered expression on his face was an after-the-fact development.

“That’s an image of Beethoven that really didn’t exist until after his death. If you look at portraits of him made during his lifetime, he looks serious—as one would expect. There aren’t too many portraits from that period of anyone smiling. But he doesn’t look unhappy. He looks as if he’s got a purpose. But there’s no scowl. That’s simply not there until later.”

In Bonds’ view, notions of Beethoven as an ever-frowning figure not only miss the mark when it comes to understanding Beethoven as a person, but also tend to limit how we engage with his music.

“The scowl, I have to say, does fit some of his music, like the fifth symphony, like the ‘Eroica’—the heroic symphony,” Bonds acknowledges, “but it doesn’t fit most of his music. And if you go back to people who knew him during his lifetime and look at their correspondence, there are many references to him laughing. And he was really just an incorrigible punster. He would often take people’s names and play with them and sometimes do permutations on them--sort of scramble the letters around—and see how many different words he could make out of one name.”

Beethoven’s talent for working out possibilities and approaching a subject from a variety of angles was a central part of his approach as an artist, Bonds says.

Mark Evan Bonds

“It’s probably more accurate to think of him as a sort of parallel to Shakespeare,” Bonds says. “Shakespeare could write comedies, he could write tragedies, he could write histories, he could write sonnets—he did all these things that really encompass pretty much the whole spectrum of human emotions. And Beethoven, I think, was very much like that. He called himself a tone-poet—Tondichter is the German word.”

Bonds extends the comparison to other artistic disciplines as well. “We might also think about actors,” he says. “Certain actors really are able to play a lot of different roles. You think about all the different roles Tom Hanks or Robert De Niro have played, as opposed to, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nobody would call him a great actor. He’s terrific in the roles he plays because it’s a very specific type of role. He’s very limited in what he can portray. A good actor can portray all kinds of different roles. And I think that’s what Beethoven was able to do. That’s why the music that we think of as maybe not heroic Beethoven is still by Beethoven and we have to recognize that.”

Bonds can point to number of Beethoven works, many written consecutively, which showcase the composer’s versatility.

“Take, for example, the Eroica symphony--that’s Op. 55,” Bonds says. “If you look at Op. 54, the work he published immediately before, it’s a two-movement piano sonata that’s just full of jokes, and lively and fun. And really, the finale takes your breath away. It’s a perpetuum mobile. And it couldn’t possibly be more different from the Eroica Symphony. So, I think as an individual he was really much more multifaceted than this scowl with which he is so often portrayed.”

Because of the pervasiveness of the image, wiping Beethoven’s frown away can be difficult. Additionally, public awareness about the composer’s life struggles--including those with deafness and finding love—is far greater now that at any time during his life. This is largely because of the discovery and dissemination of personal documents like the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 and the composer’s letter to his ‘Immortal Beloved’ of 1812. Brought to light after Beethoven’s death in 1827, these revelatory papers now make up an irrevocable part of the composer’s life story and legacy.  

“We can’t unlearn or forget what we know about him as an individual,” Bonds acknowledges. “But, as I say, I think if we recognize that he’s much more multifaceted than this caricatured image of the scowl, we can really get a lot more out of his music.”

In this interview that aired Wednesday, December 16th, SC Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with musicologist Mark Evan Bonds about the life, works, and legacy of Ludwig van Beethoven, touching on subjects covered in Bonds’ 2020 book Beethoven: Variations on a Life (Oxford University Press).