Many famous composers wrote greatly loved Christmas music. In 1741, George Frideric Handel wrote his oratorio Messiah. In 1734, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his Christmas Oratorio.
Twenty years after composer Johann Sebastian Bach died, Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, and baptized on Dec. 17, 1770. While Bach lived during the Baroque period, Beethoven lived in the Classical and the Romantic eras.
Beethoven was a pupil of the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. Hayden performed on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1781, during the reign of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, the “music king,” for the visiting Russian grand duke and grand duchess, Paul I and Maria Feodorovna.
In attendance at the performance was another Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had performed on Christmas Eve the night before.
Another contemporary was composer Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who wrote the tune which was used for Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Beethoven encouraged the young Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt, who wrote his “Christmas Tree Suite” in 1873-76. Another contemporary was Austrian composer Franz Schubert, who wrote the tune to which “Ave Maria” was set.
Ludwig van Beethoven was first taught to play by his harsh father, who became an alcoholic. After his mother died, Beethoven took responsibility to support the family. Whereas composers Bach and Handel both went blind later in life due to botched eye-cataract surgeries, young Beethoven began growing deaf at the age 26, initially having difficulty hearing higher frequencies.
In 1801, Beethoven was giving piano lessons to a Hungarian countess and they fell in love. He was not allowed to marry her, though, as he was a commoner from a lower social class. Beethoven later dedicated his “Moonlight” Sonata No. 14 to her.
In 1801, Beethoven wrote: “No friend have I. I must live by myself alone; but I know well that God is nearer to me than others in my art, so I will walk fearlessly with Him.”
In 1804, Beethoven planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon. When it became clear Napoleon had plans to usurp power and declare himself an emperor, Beethoven scratched his name off the title page so violently a hole was made in the paper.
On Aug. 11, 1809, while Beethoven was living with his younger brother Carl and his wife in Vienna, Napoleon bombarded the city. The thunderous cannon explosions were so loud that Beethoven feared it would destroy what was left of his hearing, so he hid in his brother’s cellar and covered his ears with pillows.
Carl contracted tuberculosis, and Beethoven spent a small fortune caring for him. When Carl died, Beethoven became part guardian of his son, Karl. Beethoven appealed to his other brother Johann to marry the woman he was cohabitating with.
In 1811, with his hearing fading, Beethoven failed at an attempt to perform his Piano Concerto No. 5. He never performed publicly again. He continued writing and produced some of the world’s most beautiful symphonies, concertos and sonatas. Beethoven finished his famous Ninth Symphony being completely deaf.
At the conclusion of the Ninth Symphony’s first public performance, Beethoven turned around to see the audience applauding tumultuously, but could hear nothing, and wept.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony included a fourth movement which was a choral setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, a poem first published in 1786 and made the Anthem of Europe in 1972.
Beethoven fell ill, and died during a storm on March 26, 1827. At the moment of his death there was an immense peal of thunder. He was 56 years old.
Ludwig van Beethoven was an inspiration to composers, such as Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, who had a marble bust of Beethoven in his home overlooking the spot where he composed.
President Jimmy Carter noted while visiting Bonn, July 14, 1978: “As the world’s people speak and work and live together, we all could well remember the poem of Friedrich Schiller, immortally put to music by the great Beethoven, a son of Bonn, the ‘Ode to Joy’: ‘Alle Menschen werden Bruder Wo dein sanfter Flitg el weilt.'” (‘All mankind shall be brothers where thy gentle wings abide.’)
Not only was Friedrich Shillers’s “Ode to Joy” set to Beethoven’s Ninth, but so was Princeton professor Henry Van Dyke’s hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”:
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day! …
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
Sixteen years after Beethoven’s death, at the end of 1843, another timeless addition to the holidays occurred when Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol.” It sold 6,000 copies in London the first day off the press.
In its opening chapters, Scrooge chased away Christmas carolers: “… at the first sound of – ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’ – Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”
Charles Dickens wrote of Scrooge after his transformation: “… and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless Us, Every One!'”
In 1843, the same year Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” another famous Christmas carol was composed. A parish priest in Roquemaure, France, wanting to celebrate the renovation of the church organ, asked poet Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem, “O Holy Night.” Set to music by Adolphe Adam, “O Holy Night” became one of the most beautiful Christmas carols of all time. John Sullivan Dwight published an English singing version in 1855.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angels’ voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948: “It would not seem practical to teach … the arts if we are to forbid exposure of youth to any religious influences. Music without sacred music … would be … incomplete, even from a secular point of view.”
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