I probably shouldn’t admit this, but occasionally the eternal optimist in me struggles. I really do believe in positive thinking, but now and then, I seem to misplace my rose-coloured glasses. I know I’m supposed to be cheery and thankful and grateful and all that, but there are just those days when it seems too tall an order. If you’re with me on this, take heart. You may not know this, but October 15th was National Grouch Day. If it irritates you that you just missed this year’s National Grouch Day because you didn’t know about it, excellent—you’re prime grouch material!
National Grouch Day was inspired by Sesame Street, and its unofficial hero is the trashcan-dwelling uber-grouch, Oscar. It has been celebrated (though it shouldn’t really be said that grouches celebrate at all) annually since 1976. It seems National Grouch Day has legs.
Of course, grouchiness is rather difficult to quantify, but if there were ever a list of history’s greatest grumps, Beethoven would surely be somewhere near the top. His cantankerous exploits are exemplary: to complain about bad service, he threw hot food at his waiter; he would regularly curse a blue streak (in German, of course and usually directed at his many landlords); and his succession of housemaids worked under constant threat of being fired.
As with most grouches though, there was more to Beethoven than his crusty ways. It is not up for debate that he created some of the greatest music ever written. If you were only able to name one classical composer, I’d hazard a guess that most people would land on Beethoven. Buy why? Just what is the big deal about Beethoven?
In order to answer this, we need a little context. Life in Beethoven’s time was all about the rules. There were rules about how to dress, how to talk, and certainly how to think. Music of the day—what we now call classical music—was even more about the rules.
But Beethoven didn’t have much use for rules. His music was intended to be one shock after another. While he didn’t entirely throw the rulebook out, he certainly stretched it beyond its limits. His musical vocabulary is comprised of bizarre and surprising things, and much of his music is filled with violent explosions that are meant to unsettle.
Beethoven took music from being a polite and relatively harmful diversion and turned it into a vehicle for expression of the full range of emotions that make us human beings. But what’s so remarkable about Beethoven may not be what he did, but why he did it. He was effectively turning tradition upside down because he thought the world needed it. All those rules about how to act and how to think didn’t fit anymore, so he changed them. Not a bad way to live your life, even for us two hundred years later.
The next time you are assaulted by one too many inspirational warm and fuzzies on your Facebook feed, embrace your inner irritability! Stand tall with your curmudgeon brothers and sisters! And put on your favourite recording of Beethoven.