In Honour of Graduates Everywhere: A Commencement Address by Beethoven (Sort of)

‘Tis the season…for commencement addresses. And after seeing some popping up on the Internet over the past couple of weeks (ones by Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin come to mind immediately), I have been given the opportunity to publish one myself as Robert Greenberg drafted a clever version of what would be Ludwig van Beethoven’s commencement address, given at Salzburg A&M (Art & Music) on May 22, 1825.

Greenberg is the author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart, and is a speaker, pianist, and music historian. He is currently music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and also serves as the resident composer and music historian to NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. For more information on the author and his work, please visit his website, and The Great Courses. You can also follow the author on Facebook. Thanks to Anna Sacca of FSB Associates for granting me permission to publish this piece here.1 I hope you get as much of a kick out of it as I did.

I am honored to be with you today, although it might have occurred to someone at A & M to front me the money for the trip from Vienna. Generally speaking, I don’t do freebies, which is the first and best piece of advice I can give you. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fall for that line the fat cats so love, “Ooh, Herr Beethoven, you’re so lucky to be doing what you love. I’ll bet you’d do it for free!” Bad bet, Kimosabe.  Does anyone ever use that line on his barber? Do you expect free stuff from your wig maker, your gardener, from the cable guy? No. Point in fact: you’re worth whatever you say you’re worth.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to be here. Personally, I never graduated from college. I never even went to college.  It wasn’t an option when I was growing up, although I have done extensive course work at the school of hard knocks.  You don’t actually graduate from that school; you just survive and move on. So this is the closest I’ve ever come to a real college graduation.

Today I’m going to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it: just three stories.

The first story is about growing up hard.

My dad used to beat the crap out of me. I was something of a musical prodigy, and my father – who was a singer, a tenor – figured, whoa, here’s money-in-the-bank waiting to happen. So he did everything he could to make me practice, including physical abuse and sleep deprivation.  Now my grandfather Ludwig – for whom I am named – there was a real musician. But my dad was a drunken mediocrity. He wanted me to be the next Mozart, but all he did was make me hate him and, looking back, anyone or anything I might identify as an authority figure. When mom died of TB in 1787 – I was just 16 – I became head of the household and guardian of my two younger brothers because dear old dad was too sloshed to take care of us. Me and my brothers used to go out looking for him at night. We’d find him passed out somewhere and carry him back home and put him to bed.

This is what passed for my domestic life as a child. Nevertheless, I had my musical talent, a hecka work ethic and, eventually, the support of some local heavyweights. It all combined to buy me what turned out to be a one-way ticket to the big time – to Vienna – in November of 1792. I’ve lived in Vienna ever since, despite the fact that the Viennese are absolutely worthless, total losers. Yes, I said that. I know Vienna gave me my fame, but if that jerk Napoleon hadn’t made such a muck of Europe I would have moved out long ago.

What can we take from my abbreviated description of my childhood? This: life is a struggle; a struggle with which you must engage if you want to grow and survive. Self-pity and victimization will get you nowhere; frankly, the world doesn’t give a rat’s rump about your needs and life is unfair. The sooner you figure that out the better off you’ll be. You’re on your own, compadres. Deal with it.

Story number two: hearing loss and reinvention.

Okay: so I’m living and working in Vienna. I initially built my rep as a piano player, but soon enough I began to attract a following as a composer as well.  Life was good.  And then life started being not good.  Sometime in 1796 – I would have been around 25½ years old – I started hearing a buzzing and crackling in my ears and I began losing my hearing from the highest sounds down. By 1802 I had come to realize that this thing was incurable and I was probably going deaf. Well, I freaked. In October of ’02 I wrote out my will, thought about suicide, the whole depressive nine yards.

And then.

And then I put two and two together. I was living in a Napoleon–inspired world where most all undertakings had taken on an air of grandeur and heroism. I had also come to believe that my talent ennobled me and that my only creative limits were ones I placed on myself. I realized that the idea of struggle and victory over fate that had juiced my mojo since I was a kid could be portrayed in musical terms. I saw my “new path” before me: as an artist for whom heroic struggle and redemptive victory would be the expressive gist of a new, highly personalized sort of music. Talk about a new lease on life! The next “big” piece I composed was my Third Symphony, which I eventually dubbed the Eroica, the heroic symphony. It’s a long and gnarly piece, and most folks didn’t get it. But I knew I had found my voice and I ran with it for all it was worth.

Kids, I built a better musical mousetrap, one that allowed me to channel my own joys and demons as well as those of my environment into a sort of music no one had ever heard before. It was, in the end, a matter of self-expression: I had to compose for myself. I figured that the rest of the world would catch up when it was ready, and it’s still catching up.

Story number three: you’re going to need to decide whether you want a family or are best off living entirely for your art.

Growing up, I had a pretty miserable example of “wedded bliss”, as my parents’ marriage was a nightmare. Nevertheless, I wanted to be married for the longest time, though in the end things didn’t work out that way.

Much as I love the ladies, I will admit that I’ve had my problems with them. I’m not much of a fashionista; my pals tell me that I often look downright shabby, which you can’t tell right now because I’m wearing this fancy robe. Despite the fact that I can play the piano like nobody’s business, I am incredibly uncoordinated, a real klutz.  I bump into chairs; I knock over glasses and inkwells; I’m an awful dancer; I cut my hands when I sharpen my pencils, and I cut my face while shaving. To tell you the truth, I avoid shaving whenever I can, which means that I can get pretty scruffy looking. I also speak – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – with a strong Rhineland accent, which drives the snotheaded sophisticates in Vienna absolutely loony. I’m pretty short; I’ve got small-pox scars on my neck and chin; well, there you have it: I’m not going to attract a wife based on my good looks or charming disposition.

I found to my dismay that most chicks only dug me as a musician, and as soon as I showed them a little personal sugar, they backpedaled faster than Deion Sanders. For example, soon after I arrived in Vienna I was über-smitten with a singer named Magdalena Willmann. I admit, I might have taken things a bit fast when one day, out of the blue, I proposed to her. She stared at me and told me I was “ugly and half crazy.”

(I should have asked her “which half?”, but at moments like that you never think of the right thing to say.)

I had this unfortunate tendency to fall in lust with tall, blonde cheerleader types: engaged or married aristocratic ladies who, when push-comes-to-shove (if you know what I mean, wink, wink) would never consider mixing their fluids with mine. Okay; I’ll admit that these crushes were a defense mechanism to avoid any genuine romantic entanglement. So imagine my surprise when one of these ladies actually returned my love back in 1812. No, I won’t tell you her name, but I will tell you that I was crazy about her.  She offered to leave her husband and her children in order to shack up with me in Vienna. Dang.  It was show time; poop-or-get-off-the pot time; it was the toughest decision of my life. And do you know what I did?  I “Dear Johanned” her; I broke her heart; I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I had my freedom and my art, and I understood that in the end all we would do was make each other miserable.

I grieved for my “Immortal Beloved” for the next seven, eight years, easy. That’s the main reason why I wrote so little music in the late eighteen-teens and why I went so crazy what with my nephew and such between 1816 and ‘20. But I emerged from my funk, and have been writing some of my best music since, including my Ninth Symphony, the Solemn Mass and some very cool piano sonatas and string quartets. The message here is clear: you MUST follow your gift. It will often take you places you don’t want to go and force you to make decisions you’d rather not make. But even more than your school, you must be true to yourself.

Let’s put this all together, from my lips to your ears.

If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.

Don’t expect anything from anybody. It’s your life, and it will be what you make it.

Change is good. Run with it. Embrace it. Make it your own. When you’re faced with change, always say “yes”. The word “no” is the refuge of the fearful.

Finally, don’t do freebies.


Thank you.

Photo credit: Steven Guzzardi (CC BY-ND 2.0)

1 Unlike my work here at, this particular piece is copyright. So don’t steal it without asking the author for permission, okay?

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