At the turn of the 19th century, Ludwig van Beethoven was coming to terms with a dark secret. A prolific composer and celebrity, Beethoven confided his distress to a close friend in June 1801.
If you go
WHAT: Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra's "Beethoven Transformed"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tues.
WHERE: Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.
MORE INFO: spoletousa.org, (843) 579-3100
"I must confess that I am living a miserable life," Beethoven wrote. "For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf."
On doctors' orders Beethoven moved across Europe from treatment center to treatment center in search of a cure, but it was no use. His hearing loss sent him into a deep depression.
Yet during the disheartening years that followed, he composed one of the happiest compositions of his life, his Symphony No. 7.
"There's a poignancy to the Seventh, coming from Beethoven, late in his life," said John Kennedy, resident conductor and director of orchestral activities for the Spoleto Festival USA. "Despite his own unhappiness and physical problems, he wrote this incredibly joyful music. As musicians, we have a lot of gratitude toward him for composing something so amazing."
In tonight's Beethoven Transformed concert at the Sottile Theatre, the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will perform the symphony and two works by living composers that pay homage to it. Louis Andriessen's "The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven" (1970) is a collage of Beethoven's symphonies and other works. Michael Gordon's "Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony" (2006), making its American premiere in the festival, is a recasting of the symphony's themes in a contemporary style.
Kennedy said that Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is the perfect anchor for the program because it exemplifies why Beethoven is influential.
"There's something about it that is quintessentially 'Beethoven,' " Kennedy said. "He was reaching the pinnacle of his form as a composer of symphonies, and the sheer energy of the symphony really encapsulates the Beethoven spirit."
In his writings, Beethoven called this piece, "one of my best works," a distinction unearned by the other eight symphonies. As the composer, pianist and writer Anthony Hopkins said, "Who are we to dispute his judgment?"
Gordon's "Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony" was commissioned by the 2006 Beethoven Festival in Bonn and given its premiere by the conductor Jonathon Nott and the Bamberg Symphony.
Gordon says that Beethoven's influence stems from the way he introduced a new motivation into the compositional repertoire: emotion.
"He changed the way composers think about making music," Gordon said. "He imagined that his pieces were spectacles, journeys, statements of philosophy, statements of politics, or that they were capturing huge emotions. These were all new ideas."
For Gordon, the difference between his reworking and Beethoven's original derives from fundamental changes in classical music since Beethoven's time.
"All of Beethoven's symphonies have a certain structure," Gordon said. "Beethoven pulled and pushed at the structures, but everyone in the audience knew what to expect."
Gordon says that, as a contemporary composer, he doesn't have to think about those things.
"In the last 200 years there has been a lot of exploratory work in music that has changed the sound of the orchestra," he said. "The musicians are more virtuosic, the instruments are easier to play, and everything is faster and louder. It's a different time period and, in a certain sense, my piece reflects the state of 21st century classical music."
The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who will celebrate his 75th birthday on Friday, also challenged the structures and forms of classical music with his piece "The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven," composed for orchestra and ice-cream vendor's bell.
In Andriessen's piece, the orchestra begins by playing a tapestry of Beethoven's symphonies. These are interspersed with some of Beethoven's familiar piano works - "Fur Elise," "Moonlight Sonata," "Pathetique Sonata" - and works by other composers. The Dutch national anthem and the anthem of the socialist movement each make an appearance.
In the finale, Andriessen, a lifelong fan of Burt Bacharach, fuses the American songwriter's style with the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
Any time the orchestra strays too far off course, the ice cream bell chimes.
"The whole piece was a criticism on the role of the symphony orchestras in the repertoire," Andriessen said. "There were not enough possibilities in Holland to program contemporary music. Since then, my generation has been very active in organizing ensembles to play 20th century repertoire."
Kennedy calls Andriessen's piece a "respectful parody" of Beethoven.
"It is a way to confront the audience with their assumptions and what they think about a piece of music," Kennedy said.
Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.