There’s a scene in the film Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny where Jack and Kyle are walking through the parking lot with their friend Lee after having played their very first open mic performance. Kyle and Lee are enthused, but Jack is more sober:
The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, obviously: because they were that rare combination of innovation, popularity and influence. I can’t think of any other act to put in place of these two.
The real question is what exactly is Beethoven’s appeal to rockers? I’m going to venture some ideas.
Beethoven was a supreme innovator to the extent that some of his music was repellent to the conservatives of his day. He had no small appraisal of his own talent, and no major artist before him had spoken of art as a direct mediation between them and the divine: “I know well that God is nearer to me than to others, I consort with him without fear, I have always recognised and understood him.” So – a genius, a rebel, and a heretic. Good rock credentials, no?
Then there’s his music. His third symphony, the Eroica (“Heroic”) – written in his early 30’s – was a groundbreaking defiance of compositional conventions, and is regarded as being the transition point between the “Classical” and “Romantic” eras of orchestral and chamber music. Musicologists tend to write their histories of this era for a classical audience, so rockers may not appreciate how profound this musical revolution was. Beethoven had mastered the formalities of “courtly” composition, and now bent them, or even completely departed from them, in pursuit of his own creative muse. It was a radical and shocking break, and one that contributed to the rise of the conception of the “individual” that was emerging from the societal changes set in motion by the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers and the French Revolution.
The Eroica itself is aptly named; it is grand, powerful, uplifting, ambitious. Beethoven knew how to harness emotional feeling in his writing. Another example of this is the overture he wrote for a play that never made it to the stage: the Coriolan. This has always been one of my favourite pieces of music. If there is such a thing as “heavy metal” for the early 1800’s, the sweep of grandeur, the “light and shade” attempted by the likes of Led Zeppelin with Stairway to Heaven, this is it:
Or take this – a movement from his String Quartet No. 9 that recycled the melodic figure from his famous 5th Symphony:
Some of the music Beethoven wrote towards the end of his life was so far-reaching in its ambition that the music world struggled with it for decades. His “Hammerklavier” piano sonata was so technically demanding it was considered unplayable and only received its first public performance in 1831, four years after his death.
So in closing, Beethoven left behind a virtuosic body of work – in spite of a profound disability with his eventually-complete hearing loss!, a figure who celebrated and embodied the heroic triumph of the individual; broke conventions; and changed the way music and musicians were thought of in the modern age.
Who knows if we’d have The Beatles or Led Zeppelin without him.