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AMERICA’S BEETHOVEN is a first-of-its-kind exhibit exploring the arrival of Beethoven's music in America in 1805 and his continuing presence in American culture through popular music, film, theater, cartoons, art, and concert halls. Ranging from World War II comic books and “V for Victory” pins to Club Risque’s 1996 rap swingbeat song “Beethoven was Black,” the objects in the exhibit demonstrate the myriad ways that Beethoven permeates American culture. Iconic images of the composer from N.C. Wyeth and Andy Warhol reflect the spirit of the times in which they were created. Portrayals of Beethoven and those obsessed with his music appear in Clockwork Orange, Five Easy Pieces, Immortal Beloved, and Copying Beethoven. Charles Schulz’s beloved character Schroeder appeared in hundreds of cartoons about Beethoven during the fifty-year run of the strip from 1950-2000, including the nine classics in the exhibit. Original letters from Beethoven’s greatest biographer, the American A.W. Thayer, and concert programs from two centuries help tell the story of America’s passion for the composer and his music. Taken together, the exhibit shows that Beethoven has captured the American imagination in ways that no other classical musician has—he remains a Protean icon in American culture, deeply embedded in American consciousness.

The physical exhibit was installed in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose, California, from October 1-December 21, 2011. It was presented in coordination with the first book-length study of Beethoven in America by award-winning music historian Michael Broyles, Professor of Music at Florida State University and former Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University. In his book published by Indiana University Press in November 2011, Broyles seeks to understand the composer as he exists in the American imagination and explores how Beethoven became a cultural icon. Broyles was co-curator of the exhibit with William Meredith and Patricia Stroh, staff of the Beethoven Center (see other acknowledgments in the credits). For photographs from the physical exhibit, see the Photo Gallery.

In the summer of 2012, the Beethoven Center launched this online version of the exhibit.


beethoven in film


Beethoven’s story has proved irresistible to Hollywood:  a universally recognized name; a deaf composer; a defiant, volcanic personality; a tragic love life; and finally music of great power and emotion.  In addition to several documentaries, feature films about Beethoven have appeared in the 1930s, 1970s, 80s, 90s, and the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Three in particular stand out: Un Grand Amour de Beethoven (The Life and Loves of Beethoven, 1936), Immortal Beloved (1993), and Copying Beethoven (2006).

Both Un Grand Amour and Immortal Beloved address the same issue, the still-contested identity of the unknown woman Beethoven called his “Immortal Beloved” (“unsterbliche Geliebte) in a long and passionate letter written in 1812.  Copying Beethoven deals with events leading to the premier of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the creation of the late quartets.  The Beethoven of Un Grand Amour is wise, thoughtful and long-suffering.  In Immortal Beloved he is temperamental, angry and amorous.  In Copying Beethoven he is intimidating, mercurial and at times scatological.  In all three films Beethoven embodies the Romantic artist par excellence, one whose music transcends while compensating for his own personal shortcomings.

Un Grand Amour de Beethoven (The Life and Loves of Beethoven) (1936)

Publicity photos featuring Harry Baur as Beethoven, Jean-Louis Barrault as nephew Karl, Jany Holt as Juilietta Guicciardi, and other cast members.

Immortal Beloved (1993)

Starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. Lobby cards for English, German, and Spanish language versions. CLICK IMAGES TO ENARGE

Copying Beethoven (2006)

Starring Ed Harris as Beethoven. Props used for the film, including Beethoven’s hearing aids, a bundled stack of letters and quill pen, a conversation book with notations in pencil, a note requesting that Anna (the copyist) “come in and wait,” and a bound manuscript for the Ninth Symphony, and “Anna’s Etude." Also, lobby cards for the German language version of the film.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and Susan Anspach, Five Easy Pieces (1970) depicts a coded Beethoven.  The central character, Bobby Dupea, whose middle name is Eroica, is an alienated piano prodigy from a musical family on the run from himself.  When the film was made the mood of the country was dark, and the idea of a traditional Romantic hero seemed anachronistic.  Bobby is ultimately a critique of the militaristic, all-conquering, raging, brooding personality type of Beethoven’s middle period, the image that has prevailed in American culture. 

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A film by Stanley Kubrick based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. Beyond biopics, Beethoven’s music has been used in hundreds of films, both diegetically and as underscore.  Most famous because of its notoriety was Stanley Kubrick’s use of the Ninth Symphony in A Clockwork Orange.  To an alienated young thug, Alex, the Ninth, which he loves, arouses in him sadistic thoughts and images. Later the authorities use the symphony in a brainwashing experiment to cure him of his aggression.  The irony is heavy:  Beethoven’s statement of universal brotherhood here becomes both a catalyst to violence and a tool of an Orwellian state.—Michael Broyles


Clockwork Orange pressbook; Warner Brothers, 1973

First American edition with Burgess’s signature on a card pasted to a preliminary page; W.W. Norton, New York, 1963

Clockwork Orange radio spot announcements; 45 rpm recording issues by Warner Brothers

beethoven in THEATER


For many of the same reasons that Beethoven appealed to Hollywood—a universally recognized icon, a tragic life, a volatile complex person, and emotionally powerful music—he has intrigued playwrights. Beethoven has been a principal character in a number of plays ranging from more or less straight biographies to avant-garde works. Beethoven in the theater occupies an entirely different cultural space than Beethoven in films. Plays with Beethoven are aimed at a more elite, sophisticated audience. They are experimental, complex, and best understood by those with familiar with both Beethoven’s music and persona.


David Bispham sings
"Annie Laurie"


David Bispham portrayed Beethoven in the play Adelaide. 1908

David Bispham autographed and dated “Xmas [18]99”

David Bispham autographed and dated “Xmas [18]99”

“David Bispham explains interesting details of ‘Adelaïde’ production to a Musical Courier representative,” Musical Courier, New York, June 30, 1915.



A Quaker Singer’s Recollections

by David Bispham. New York: Macmillan, 1920. This book includes a chapter on “Beethoven in Drama” in which Bispham explains the circumstances behind his production of the play “Adelaïde,” which was first performed in America at the ballroom of the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1897. He subsequently took to play to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and London.


A Tribute to Peter Ustinov

Beethoven's Tenth

Beethoven’s Tenth, a play written by Peter Ustinov and starring Peter Ustinov, is neither experimental nor ambiguous. Beethoven arrives to straighten out a dysfunctional family consisting of a music-critic father, his composer-son, and long suffering wife. The play is sprinkled with many jokes as Beethoven encounters the modern world with all its technology, including the ability to restore his hearing.



She Talks to Beethoven

Adrienne Kennedy is an African-American playwright of mixed ethnic background, although she vehemently resists being identified as a black writer. Her experimental plays are written for an idealized theatrical world that often makes them difficult to stage. Many have autobiographical connections. In She Talks to Beethoven, her alter ego Suzanne, who is in Ghana and suffering an undisclosed illness, anxiously awaits the return of her husband David, who is in trouble for his politics. She is comforted by Beethoven when he talks to her, although at times we don’t know if we are hearing Beethoven’s or David’s voice. 

This play was first produced by River Arts in Woodstock, New York, and directed by Clinton Turner Davis in June 1989. It was published by University of Minnesota Press in 1992.



33 Variations (2007)

33 Variations

33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman, features a musicologist, Katherine, modeled on the real musicologist Katherine Syer and the Beethoven sketches. Katherine, suffering from ALS, seeks to understand questions surrounding the creation of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations before she succumbs to the disease. 33 Variations has striking similarities to Kennedy’s She Talks to Beethoven. In both plays, the heroine, who is fascinated with Beethoven, deals with an infirmity, and in both Beethoven visits them to support them in their struggles. In both plays Beethoven’s own problems with illness are paralleled with the heroine’s. —Michael Broyles

Autographed playbill for the performances at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York, where the play opened on March 9, 2009. The play premiered on August 30, 2007, at Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. This playbill was signed by Jane Fonda and most of the other the principal actors.


Photographs of the performance in New York in 2009, starring Jane Fonda

beethoven in Comics


It is not surprising that an icon such as Beethoven would find his way into comic books and cartoons. As the epitome of “high culture,” however, he is to be both revered and lampooned.

Almost every American, for instance, has encountered Beethoven in the cartoon strip “Peanuts,” where Beethoven is the object of Schroeder’s veneration and Schroeder is the object of his friends’ teasing for that veneration. Schroeder gives as good as he gets, however. In a strip commemorating the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, he announces that his representative—Snoopy—will supply a kiss to Lucy. She screams “AAAUGHH!” while Snoopy reacts with “Nicht diese Töne” (from the Ninth Symphony.) She, meanwhile, tries her best to turn every celebration of Beethoven’s birthday into an occasion for commercialization: “What kind of a holiday is it when you don’t give girls presents?” To see the Peanuts strips about Beethoven, visit our online exhibit, Schulz's Beethoven: Schroeder's Muse.

Commercialization is also the theme of a 2005 Sunday strip by award-winning artist Stephan Pastis, creator of “Pearls Before Swine.” Struggling to compose “Für Elise” so that the working classes, the masses will hear his music and know his name, Beethoven promises to carry on “through the toil and the agony and the sweat and the tears!” The last panel depicts a scene in a bar where a commoner’s cell phone is going off with the piece as its ringtone while the ever angry rat rails against cell phones.

The toil, sweat, and agony of Beethoven’s life that was the un-ironic focus of the two comic books from World War II on display are also the themes of Treasure Chest’s 1966 “Life of Beethoven.” In Felix Arnstein’s “Against All Odds: The Story of Ludwig van Beethoven,” the composer’s life is told through a series of familiar anecdotes that have some basis in fact. Visually, however, he is drawn as taller, slimmer, and more handsome. The depiction of the most famous decision of his life—to continue to compose in spite of his oncoming deafness—is also fictional. As Beethoven sits under a tree in his beloved countryside, a priest from a nearby church tells him, “Your music is all in your head, Herr Beethoven, not in your ears. You can still compose. Just try it!” According to this imaginary version, “Beethoven soon realized the priest had been right.” Arnstein even manages to turn the deafness into a lifelong blessing: “The more deaf he became, the less he was distracted.” —William Meredith and Michael Broyles

beethoven reception
during world war II


Given the intensity of the Nazi propaganda machine’s use of Beethoven’s music in schools, concerts, and film, it is surprising that the most famous wartime use of Beethoven’s music was developed by the Allies. As is well known, the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony came to symbolize an Allied victory. Beethoven’s Fifth was not, however, the original inspiration for the “V for Victory” campaign. Early in 1941 as part of the BBC’s “Free France” program, a Belgian producer named Victor de Laveleye suggested that the resistance symbol “V” be used as a sonic symbol that the French and Belgians would understand. In Morse code, “V” is represented by three dots and a dash. Only then was it compared to the opening of the Fifth Symphony. By chance Beethoven’s Fifth became the Allies’ rallying call, and the BBC adopted a policy to begin its wartime radio transmissions to the continent with the motto. Even before the United States entered the war in 1942, the American press began to publicize the “V for Victory” campaign.

The Etude Music Magazine

The music magazine Etude published an article in September 1941 titled “Will Beethoven Stop Hitler?” The cover of the issue shows a smiling young girl practicing the piano above the title of the article. Etude’s publishers continued to participate in the propaganda war through 1945. The August 1943 issue of Etude contained a story by Harold Keen titled “Beethoven Helps Build American Bombers.” Keen reported that “The challenging notes of the Beethoven symphony ring out the ‘Victory’ motif to thousands of American workers at the huge Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Factory at San Diego, California. Thus does the music of a German immortal master help to down the unthinkable Nazi sadists, who have brought his nation to world contempt.”       

Beethoven’s German origins did present problems for some Americans. Some publishers, such as Real Comics, countered by stressing the Flemish roots of Beethoven’s ancestry. More typically, Beethoven was viewed as a universal figure standing for freedom and brotherhood above national fray. Whether the enemy was Napoleon, aristocratic privilege, or the Nazis, Beethoven represented timeless democratic ideals. His own willingness to stand up for them served as an inspiration for both the British and American nations to follow suit. —William Meredith and Michael Broyles

For comic books from the WWII era, go to our comics page

beethoven notices in
19th Century newspapers


The history of Beethoven reception in the United States dates back to the newspapers from the composer’s own lifetime. Announcements of concerts containing his music, reprints of biographical anecdotes, and even premature announcements of his death appear in these newspapers from 1821-48. By the 1840s, Beethoven’s music was firmly planted on U. S. soil, mainly in the larger Eastern cities, and spread throughout the country. Looking back from our modern perspective, it is difficult to imagine the profound impact that Beethoven’s music, particularly the symphonies, had on 19th-century Americans who were hearing them for the first time. As writers struggled to explain the phenomenon, Beethoven came to epitomize the Romantic composer and his music Romanticism itself. There was a twist, however: American writers on music understood Romanticism within a framework of Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists’ visions played an important part in establishing an image that affected not only Beethoven but classical music itself well into the twentieth century. Even today the image remains an important aspect of the American musical world.

Through the Transcendental writers, Beethoven’s music came to be understood as having special spiritual and hence sacred qualities, something that was soon transferred to Beethoven himself. Margaret Fuller and John S. Dwight were pivotal in this development. Beethoven was also associated with nature, an area not only important to the Transcendentalists but fundamental to any understanding of a country of vast wilderness. Because Transcendentalism, nature, and sacralization were closely related in the nineteenth century, any discussion of one often bleeds into a discussion of the others.

A fourth issue, however, stands somewhat apart. To a country reveling in its conquest of the continent, in Manifest Destiny, and in the dynamic and macho nature of the Gilded Age, Beethoven’s music was perceived as having special masculine or manly qualities. This fed into the complex gender minuet that the nineteenth century played in regard to music, where for the most part it belonged to women’s sphere. For many, Beethoven’s music was different. He was a colossus and a titan, an ideal exemplar of Guilded Age America. —Michael Broyles



National Gazette and Literary Register, Philadelphia, April 23, 1821

Notices of rehearsals and performances by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, including schedule of “rehearsals and Practisings” and notice about the upcoming concert, which included Beethoven’s “Grand Sinfonia, in C”


Boston Commercial Gazette, Monday, March 19, 1827; A premature notice of Beethoven’s death


Boston Recorder and Telegraph, Friday, February 10, 1826; Notice about Beethoven taken from John Russell’s A Tour in Germany, and Some of the Southern Provinces of the Austrian Empire, in the Years 1820, 1821, 1822 (Boston: Wells & Lily, 1825)

The Albion: British, Colonial and Foreign Weekly Gazette, March 11, 1848; “Memoir of Beethoven” by Miss Thomasina Ross

Historical performances


The concert situation in early Federal America was radically different from later times. The high-low divide that has characterized American musical culture for over 150 years was non-existent, simply because there was no “high.” Most Americans would have considered the idea that music was an art preposterous. Although music existed from the most unpretentious folk songs heard on the street to formal concert presentations, the difference between what was heard on the street and in the concert hall was not great. A formal concert was as likely to include a popular ballad, a catch, or a hymn as a concerto or symphony.

Music was pleasure, generally unselfconscious, unexamined, and lacking any moral imperative beyond providing entertainment. Some immigrant musicians had other ideas, but when they attempted to implement them, such as the Boston musician Louis Ostinelli did in 1828, they were thoroughly rebuffed.

In this milieu Beethoven first appeared on concert programs. The earliest record of a Beethoven public performance occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1805. Jacob Eckhardt arranged a special concert for the St. Cecilia Society that opened with a Beethoven piece. That concert was a typical potpourri, mixing Beethoven symphonies with solos, popular songs, and various instrumental offerings. Also common, as in the 1847 concert of the Boston Philharmonic Society shown here, was to scatter individual pieces, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, throughout the program. Here it is divided into two halves, and popular ballads and dramatic operatic scenes are interspersed between the halves. Even operatic scenes were considered as much popular entertainment as the ballads.

In the second half of the 19th century, musical thought and concert practice began to change dramatically: music was acknowledged to be an art as important as painting, sculpture, and literature. Pieces by certain composers were considered more than entertainment and possessed a moral and artistic value that placed them above pieces meant merely to please. Certain types of music were sacralized, and a pyramid or hierarchy of aesthetic values emerged. Beethoven stood at the very apex of the musical hierarchy, a bequest from the nineteenth century that to a large extent remains in effect among the general public today. —Michael Broyles


Beethoven societies


Ira Berry, Sketch of the History of the Beethoven Musical Society in Portland, Maine. Portland, Maine: S. Berry, 1888; The Beethoven Musical Society, established in Portland “for the purpose of studying sacred music of a high order,”existed from 1819-25.

To Americans at the beginning of the 19th century, music was either entertainment or intended for a specific function in church or civic celebrations. That it could be “art” was an alien concept. How that changed over the course of the century is a complex story, but in the United States one important component for change was the singing or choral societies. Responding to a desire by clergy to clean up the chaotic state of 18th-century church music, singing schools were formed, and from them larger choral groups emerged. Through these groups, many Americans first became acquainted with European composers such as Handel and Haydn, and as a consequence many societies were named after them. The most important was the Boston Handel and Haydn society, founded in 1815, and still in existence today.

In 1819 the first Beethoven Society was formed in Portland, Maine. It was a direct outgrowth of the popularity of Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, one of the first pieces to introduce many Americans to Beethoven’s music. The name was a direct slap at the Boston organization: “while a similar society in Boston has inscribed on their escutcheon the celebrated names of Handel and Haydn, the Beethoven society of Portland assumes the name of one, whose genius seems to anticipate a future age, and labors for the benefit of posterity.” A daring statement for 1819.

As the idea of art music began to take hold in the 1830s and 40s, as touring virtuosi and groups began to crisscross the country thanks to the establishment of railroads, as symphony orchestras were formed, and as a greater range of Beethoven’s music became known, Beethoven societies flourished and became more varied in their purposes and repertory. Some focused on chamber music, some on orchestral music, some on solo recitals, and some maintained the tradition of the choral societies. Most presented varied programs that included the music of other composers. Some teamed up with other organizations, as the Beethoven Society of Hartford, Connecticut did with the Germania Orchestra of Boston.

With rising German immigration in the 1840s, several Männerchor, or men’s choral societies, assumed the Beethoven name. Although the organizations per se were male, women were usually invited to participate in the choral concerts. Männerchor were an important component of German society, functioning as both a musical and a social organization. —Michael Broyles


alexander wheelock thayer


The late nineteenth century was a golden age of musical biography as German musicologists began to produce comprehensive, multi-volume studies of prominent composers of the previous two centuries:  Otto Jahn on Mozart, Friedrich Chrysander on Handel, Philipp Spitta on Bach. The task of writing the standard biography of Beethoven fell upon an unlikely candidate: Alexander Wheelock Thayer.  Although a graduate of Harvard College, he had little training in music, few contacts with German academics, and chose to write in English. He was not the first person to write a large biography of Beethoven.  Ludwig Nohl’s four-volume study appeared between 1867-77, but it too polemical, too filled with obscure asides to reach the same stature as Spitta’s or Jahn’s. 

Thayer spent almost his entire adult life on his Beethoven biography and succeeded only through sheer determination. Suffering from poor health and slowed by few resources, he had to work as a librarian, journalist, and diplomat. In his desire to produce a factually accurate study based on original sources (including both documents and interviews), he worked to counter the Beethoven legends that had grown throughout the century.  Because he could not find an English language publisher, the first three volumes were published in Germany in a translation by Hermann Deiters.

Although Thayer lived another eighteen years after volume three appeared in 1879, he was never able to finish the biography. After his death, Deiters and then, after Deiters’ death in 1907, Hugo Riemann completed the last two volumes using Thayer’s papers and documents. They were published in 1907-08. Only in 1921 did an English version appear, translated by the New York music critic Henry Kriehbel.

In spite of the many hands that have added to, revised, and edited Thayer’s biography, it remains not only the definitive study of Beethoven but a monument to and an exemplar of careful, persistent documentary research.  That a young man from a Massachusetts town of 879 people would choose to undertake this task and then succeed so spectacularly is a remarkable story. —Michael Broyles

To view the Thayer materials included in the America's Beethoven exhibit, please see our Thayer Collection page (Treasure 8) from our 25 Treasures for 25 Years exhibit.



This exhibit would not have been possible without the groundbreaking research of music historian Dr. Michael Broyles, Professor of Music at Florida State University and emeritus Distinguished Professor of Music and American history at Pennsylvania State University. His new book on the subject, Beethoven in America, is published by Indiana University Press.

With the exception of the Schulz cartoons,  all of the objects in the exhibit were given to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies by members of the American Beethoven Society. If you love Beethoven, please become a member to support future projects.

Generous funding for the exhibit also came from the San José Office of Cultural Affairs and San José State University.

The exhibit was curated by Michael Broyles, William Meredith, and Patricia Stroh. The online version was created by Patricia Stroh.

We would also like to thank Thomas Fairbanks for his assistance with graphic design; Kathy Fox, Beethoven Center, for her work on the exhibit labels; Dr. William George, President of the American Beethoven Society, for editorial and installation assistance; Bruce Lakovic for his assistance in installing the exhibit; Ted Lorraine, grants writer for the American Beethoven Society; and Jane O’Cain, Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, for her assistance with the Peanuts cartoons.