Beethoven’s music has a knack for embedding itself in our DNA. If the human brain came hardwired with a pre-set music library, his greatest hits likely loom atop that short list. With a limitless legacy and a persona bolstered by melodic achievements of legends’ echelons, it makes sense why the University of Houston is observing the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Set to begin on February 17, UH’s Moores School of Music will welcome internationally acclaimed guest artists, scholars, and panelists to Beethoven 250 UH 2020, a two week long festival devoted to Beethoven’s sestercentennial.
“I think these moments give us a chance to come together as a community and to celebrate the greatness of human achievements,” says Dr. Courtney Crappell, Director of the Moores School and Associate Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at UH.
“For the Houston community, we want people to be on our campus to experience it with us. Of course at [Moores] we are focused on our students’ experience. So for us to put this together on our campus, especially for the students who are with us right now at this moment in history...it gives us a chance to curate an experience for our students that’s going to change them forever,” says Crappell.
The festival will house residencies from the internationally heralded ensemble Formosa Quartet, and Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti, whose performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 61, in which he simultaneously plays the piece while conducting the orchestra from his violin (a feat he will repeat at his February 29 UH concert appearance) have garnered critical praise. Each week-long residency will include open rehearsals, masterclasses, and concerts open to both Moores’ students and the general public.
“I’m working to bring top musicians from all over the world to the school of music anytime we can do it, and every time we have the opportunity to do it,” says Dr. Andrew Davis, Founding Dean of the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts (home to the Moores School). He says that when he reached out to these artists, it was with only the festival’s concept; the artists, in turn, chose the pieces to be programmed at the event, a decision Davis says helped maintain a collaborative spirit.
“I’m kind of a fan of letting the artist be the artist and not totally dictating what they’re going to do. So I give them the concept and let them go to work and they’ve been really responsive. I think they put together a super exciting series of programs,” says Davis of the performance calendar stacked with sonatas, chamber music, and the composer’s third symphony, the ‘Eroica.’ It’s enough to make any Houstonian’s Beethoven-loving heart skip a beat.
In curating the festival’s lineup of guest artists, Davis prioritized the students’ musical needs, stressing the importance of these artists interacting with some of UH’s most musically inclined Coogs.
“We would not bring them to the school if we weren't confident that they would impact the students in a positive way. We're not going to bring people to the school who just have no interest in teaching and no interest in interacting with students and making an impact. We're going to invite people we know love students and love the teaching aspect of what they do. These big events are an opportunity to bring people like that to the school of music and simultaneously make a wider impact in the community because there's something here for everyone whether you're a scholar, a musician, a professional, an amateur, or just a fan of the music of Beethoven, it'll be a great two weeks for every one of those audiences,” says Davis.
As UH maintains its influence as a research university, Davis wanted to add dimensions of history, philosophy, scholarship, and humanities to the festival - something, he says, he deeply values.
“I'm really interested in working across disciplines and I really believe that it’s not all about the music; it's about the study of the music, the interpretation of the music, and all of the ways that you can connect the music to the other disciplines in the university.”
Beethoven 250 UH 2020 will host some of the world’s top Beethoven scholars, including UCLA’s William Kinderman, in a series of academic conferences and lectures designed to appeal to both scholarly audiences and the wider public. Guest speaker Kinderman will be speaking about the political aspects of Beethoven.
“Beethoven was struggling politically in a way that resonates not only in our era, but you can probably find resonance in any era politically about the freedom of the individual, and how does the individual express oneself with freedom of speech, the freedom of emotion, and the freedom to be who you are?,” says Davis.
“I think there's a lot of resonance and a lot that we can take from Beethoven and his struggles as an artist and his solution to these struggles as an artist. I think there's a lot we can take from that that's informative for the way we live our lives, the way we deal with politics, and these issues today. Honestly, that's why I think we all study history, that's why we all go to the university - so you can get an education. You don't study history because it’s some artifact. You study it because it's real, it repeats itself, it goes in cycles, you learn from it, and it influences the way you make decisions. That's why you're studying this stuff; that's why we're doing that at the teacher’s level; that's why we bring Beethoven back and we really study him hard,” says Davis, noting the composer’s status as a “great intellectual figure” in the history of the Western world.
“He’s the first one that interrogates it really hard and goes beyond the 18th century Enlightenment to explore what's inside of you. What's going on with all these inner voices inside your head? What's going on on an emotional level, or a psychological level, and how do I express that in music? The enlightenment is all about ration, reason, and logic; if you can't explain it, then you don't need to be talking about it. Well, Beethoven is interested in [that]. Everything that happens on a real, human, emotional psychological level - how do I get at that in music? He's really the first one in music, I think, who really systematically explores that at a really deep level. That's what makes him the first romantic, and I think that's the essence of what makes him important.”
Dr. Courtney Crappell echoes Davis’ perspective.
“There are some figures in human history that loom large, and Beethoven's one of them. I know that sounds very grandiose but I don't think it is too much when we talk about Beethoven. You think of how significant his works are, and you think of even the most popular piece, maybe the most recognized piece in the world - the 5th Symphony. You can sit and listen to that work over and over. Every time you hear it, you’re changed. You think about what humanity has accomplished together, and that's a signal that you've got a great piece of art. Something that can be revisited over a lifetime without growing stale,” says Crappell, calling Beethoven’s music a “touchstone.”
“If you're looking at something that explores beyond or breaks boundaries, well, you need a reference point to see how they're doing that. Beethoven provides that for us.”
Crappell shines light on Beethoven’s cross generational influence, informing genres like musical theater and musicians such as Billy Joel and Elton John.
“The musical aesthetics of Beethoven are present in all of them. You think about the core aesthetics he plays with, whether that's metric placements, the rhythmic syncopation, the longer durations of harmonies, or the harmonic progressions themselves; you can look at a piece of modern music and almost compare it directly to the music of Beethoven and find sometimes, you just change the piano - you can just change the left hand accompaniment patterns - and it sounds like Beethoven instead of Journey.”
Don’t stop believing in Beethoven at Beethoven 250 UH 2020. The festival runs from February 17 through February 29. For a full calendar of events visit uh.edu/kgmca/events/beethoven-250/.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.