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‘Beat’ing Beethoven

Luis Dias

Beethoven fever seems to have gripped the world during his quarter-millennial birth anniversary year. The milestone is being celebrated in all sorts of ways.

The most obvious form of celebration is concerts highlighting his music, of course. The Vienna Philharmonic will perform his cycle of nine symphonies and Daniel Barenboim will undertake a pilgrimage of his 32 piano sonatas in Vienna, the city where Beethoven spent most of his creative life. And this is just Vienna. Similar events are scheduled worldwide.

But there are quirkier ways to mark the event as well. Ever hear of Beat Beethoven? It’s not even a new phenomenon; it’s been around since at least the mid-1980s.

The first Beat Beethoven is believed to have been organised around then in Canada, by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, as a fundraiser. The idea was to complete a pre-ordained run for charity in the time it took to play a Beethoven symphony. If you finished the run ahead of the duration of the work, you had ‘beaten’ Beethoven. It’s crazy but brilliant!

The first time it was held, runners had to Beat Beethoven by running eight kilometres in just under 50 minutes. The music – an abridged version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – couldn’t be piped around the entire course of the run, so dozens of cars parked around the route blared it out through their stereos, while the orchestra’s concert master stood on top of a phone booth and conducted the runners.

Since then, Beat Beethoven events have been staged all over the world, though they are still most popular in North America. If you google ‘Beat Beethoven’, you come across scores of Canadian and American and to a lesser extent British orchestras that have organised such events over the decades.

This Friday, March 13, 2020, the BBC Philharmonic orchestra will play Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony live at MediaCityUK in aid of Sport Relief. Everyone, whether a budding jogger or a more seasoned runner, is invited to challenge themselves to run five kilometres and “beat” the music, which lasts between 30-35 minutes.

Beating Beethoven has a nice ring to it; it trips off the tongue far better than beating say Vivaldi or Mozart or Mahler. So does running a five kilometres faster than his 5th Symphony.

The run will take place in the evening at MediaCity Salford, but it can be undertaken anywhere at any time, on a treadmill or in a park if one downloads the music onto an MP3 player. If you are privileged to live near a patch of God’s green earth in Goa that has still not been ravaged by ‘development’ (I envy you!) or a stretch of beach or riverbank, that would do nicely too. Just be safe as you do so.

While it would be great to actually ‘beat’ the Beethoven challenge of five kilometres before his Fifth Symphony plays out, it’s also fine if it doesn’t happen. The idea is to have fun, get active and raise money for a worthy cause. So it doesn’t really matter whether you actually jog, run, or walk some of the way as long as you’re enjoying the experience and the music.

As far as we know, the concept of running for fitness or for charity was non-existent in Beethoven’s life and times. Among the many ailments that the poor man endured, he was frequently tormented by painful abscesses on his legs, leading to much speculation among the medical fraternity even today that he may have been diabetic. But when his health permitted, there was nothing Beethoven loved more than a brisk walk in nature, come rain or shine, notebook at the ready in his coat-pocket in case inspiration struck, as it often did. Many point to his walking habit as the real secret of his astounding creativity.

This has now been borne out scientifically; a paper with the intriguing title ‘Give your Ideas some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking’ by Marilyn Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University published in 2014 (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition Volume 4, Number 4, 1142-1152) concluded after several experimental studies that “walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after.”

The inspiration from his walks can arguably be best heard in Beethoven’s depiction of nature in his Pastoral Symphony (No 6 in F, Op 68), completed in 1808, the same year as his Fifth. Beethoven wrote in a letter to his publishers: “The title of the symphony is ‘Pastoral Symphony’ or ‘Recollection of Country Life,’ an expression of feeling rather than painting.” But despite this disclaimer, you can still “hear” a brook, thunderstorm, chirping birds, and rural folk dancing. Many years later on one his nature walks with a friend, Beethoven paused, remarking: “Here I composed the ‘Scene by the Brook,’ and the yellowhammers up there—the quails, nightingales and cuckoos ‘round about—composed with me.”

It might be safe therefore to assume that the idea of going on a brisk walk, jog or run, while listening to his music, whether or not one ‘beat’ him, would have appealed to him.

Also, Beethoven was no stranger to the charity drive. Putting on a charity concert in eighteenth-century was an elegant way of showcasing oneself as a musician, even if it didn’t fill his own pocket. But Beethoven, noble soul that he strived to be, genuinely believed in writing music to be performed for the express purpose of helping those less fortunate. Perhaps he never quite forgot his own family’s financial struggles in his early years.

In December 1811, he wrote to an acquaintance Joseph von Garena in Graz in response tojust such a request: “From my earliest childhood my enthusiasm to serve our poor suffering humanity in any way possible through my art has been unaccompanied by any baser motive. Or rather, the only reward I have asked for is the feeling of inner happiness that always results from such actions.” He would love the idea of his music continuing to help the “poor suffering humanity” well into the twenty-first century.

So whether it is Sport Relief (visit the BBC homepage on how to register) or any charitable cause you wish to support (if you choose Child’s Play, I’ll happily join you!), download Beethoven’s Fifth on your phone or portable device, put on your running shoes and try to Beat Beethoven along with thousands of others all around the world.

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