How Self-Acceptance Became the Secret to Beethoven’s Success

By Heidi North

As we continue our celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, I’ve been focused on the remarkable ways Beethoven’s music flourished despite what should have been a career-ending disability. In 1798, just as he was entering the height of his popularity, Beethoven began to lose his hearing, losing it entirely by 1816.

Though he lived during the era of Enlightenment, a period that saw a positive shift in how people viewed the disabled in society, Beethoven suffered from rampant ableism. The affliction cost him marriage proposals, most notably the Countess Guilietta Guicciardi, whose father refused Beethoven because he believed the composer’s deafness would prevent him from composing. Beethoven lost many friendships due to his depression and self-isolation from society as deafness set in. He would snap piano strings from violent playing to hear the music, ending his ability to perform live.

In 1802, during a visit to Heiligenstadt, Vienna, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johan, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this account, Beethoven lamented his afflictions, his mental anguish, and that he had contemplated suicide. He had decided in the end to go on living for his art.

To compose, he lowered pianos to the ground and played with a pencil in his mouth, both in order to hear the vibrations of the notes. He pressed his ears on the piano keys to try to hear the music. Sometimes, he would compose for days on end, sticking his head in buckets of ice water to stay awake, and to sharpen his other functioning senses. He wrote pieces in lower scales because he could no longer hear high notes. He used ear trumpets, with one strapped to his head at times, and carried a notebook so that he could converse in writing with others.

If you listen closely to Beethoven’s music, you can hear these struggles, especially in the opening dissonance of the 3rd symphony, the tragic melody of the 7th symphony’s second movement, and the infamous “fate knocking at the door” theme of the 5th symphony. You can hear his triumphs in the comedic last movement of the 8th symphony, the overcoming of hardship in Fidelio, and the sound of freedom in the fearless Ninth Symphony. Most importantly, you can hear the heroic fruits of Beethoven’s never-ending persistence in working with, not against his disability.

Arts Feature: Hosts Share Musical Works Inspired by the Sculptures of Auguste Rodin

The Van Every-Smith Galleries at Davidson College have a significant exhibit that runs January 23rd through April 5th. Auguste Rodin: Truth Form Life features 22 works by the French sculptor who, at his peak, many regarded as the greatest since Michelangelo.

Rodin’s career covered a period that saw extraordinary change not only in the visual arts but also in music. The hosts were inspired by works featured in the collection and share what music came to mind.

Myelita Melton

Myelita Melton, Afternoon Host, shares her thoughts on:

RODIN: Large Hand of a Pianist

Large Hand of a Pianist
modeled 1885; Musée Rodin cast 9 in 1969 bronze;
Georges Rudier Foundry lent by Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

French, 1840 – 1917


August Rodin’s sculptures are always bold. They exhibit strong, graceful lines, andare “larger-than-life” interpretations of the human form.

Rodin often sculpted a single body part so he could concentrate on it before moving on to a larger work encompassing more of the human body. His Large Hand of a Pianist falls into this category.

When I look at this sculpture, I immediately notice the gracefully curved wrist and the fingers which are poised to strike the piano’s keys. There is strength in this hand, yet there is also a delicate, almost playful way the hand is poised to caress the keyboard. Rodin’s Large Hand of a Pianist brings to mind the many (more than you’d imagine) compositions for piano left hand. Because Rodin’s hand displays strength and agility, it makes me think of Camille Saint-Saens Études for Piano Left Hand.

Only through continued practice with the left hand, could an artist gain the strength and flexibility needed to be on the concert stage. Rodin’s Left Hand of a Pianist demonstrates all the physical attributes a great pianist would need.

Frank Dominguez

Frank Dominguez, General Manager and Content Director, shares his thoughts on:

Rodin: Monumental Torso of the Walking Man

Monumental Torso of the Walking Man
modeled about 1905;
Musée Rodin cast 1/8 in 1985
bronze; Godard Foundry
lent by Iris Cantor

French, 1840 – 1917


The Monumental Torso of the Walking Man by Auguste Rodin evokes in my imagination Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The composer was just a child when Rodin created this work in 1905. Nevertheless, its bold modeling, bronze casting, and the figure’s majestic proportions are all complemented elegantly by this music.

Mike McKay

Mike McKay, Morning Host, shares his thoughts on:

RODIN: Monumental Head of Jean D’Aire

Monumental Head of Jean D’Aire
modeled about 1908-09, enlarged 1909-10; Musée Rodin cast 5 in 1978?
bronze; Georges Rudier Foundry
lent by Iris Cantor

French, 1840 – 1917


The sculpture of Jean D’Aire is one of six done by Rodin to commemorate six citizens of Calais who offered themselves as hostages to the English in hopes the Brits would end a siege of Calais.  The music that comes to mind is Tchaikovsky’s Meditation from Memories of a Dear Place. I choose it because there could never be more generous proof of how “dear” Calais is to Jean D’Aire than his offering his freedom (and probably his life) so that the city would be delivered from its attackers.

Rachel Stewart

Rachel Stewart, Host of Biscuits and Bach, shares her thoughts on:

RODIN: Metamorphoses of Ovid

Metamorphoses of Ovid
modeled about 1885-89; cast 10, perhaps 1897
bronze; Perzinka Foundry
lent by Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

French, 1840 – 1917


Rodin’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses (ca. 1886) was originally created as part of his monumental Gates of Hell. It depicts a passionate embrace between Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The overtly erotic nature of the work which, beyond the embrace, also shows the male and female bodies uniting into one and suggests gender fluidity, was a direct challenge to the Victorian mores of the day.

Echoes of Rodin’s sensibility in Ovid can also be found in Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), a work many consider the first modern composition. It’s based on a poem of the same name by Stéphane Mallarmé, and it also depicts mythical figures engaged in erotic pursuits. The faun — half man, half goat — is reminiscent of the dual gendered Hermaphroditus, and like Hermaphoditus, he finds himself seduced by a nymph.

In both of these artistic creations one can see the beginnings of a new modern era in western culture. Through daring originality of both form and content, Rodin and Debussy invite a re-evaluation of the status quo.

Ted Weiner

Ted Weiner, Music Director, shares his thoughts on:

RODIN: Heroic Bust of Victor Hugo

Heroic Bust of Victor Hugo
modeled 1890-97 or 1901-02;
Musée Rodin cast 7 in 1981
bronze; Coubertin Foundry
lent by Iris Cantor

French, 1840 – 1917


A number of composers have written music inspired by the literature of Victor Hugo. Hugo’s novels, plays and poems have been a great source of inspiration for musicians, stirring them to create not only opera and ballet but musical theatre such as Notre-Dame de Paris and the ever-popular Les Misérables.

We often forget that Amilcare Ponchielli’s most popular work, his 1876 opera, La Gioconda, was based on Hugo’s 1835 play in prose, Angelo, Tyrant of Padua. The opera contains the famous ballet sequence, Dance of the Hours, which was recreated in its entirety in Walt Disney’s 1940 classic film, Fantasia. The ballet is also the musical source for a famous satirical song by Spike Jones and His City Slickers and Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah by Allan Sherman.

To learn more about the Auguste Rodin: Truth Form Life, click here. And listen to 89.9 WDAV during middays each week to hear some of the musical works that premiered around the time of Rodin’s magnificent sculptures.

The Mass-terpiece We Seldom Hear

By Lawrence Toppman

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which premiered in 1824 after nearly five years of labor, breaks ground in more ways than you’d expect.

First, it’s longer than any significant mass up to that date except Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which was seldom heard in Beethoven’s lifetime. Second, it uses four soloists but doesn’t give anyone except the soprano a sustained, memorable melody.

Third, sacred music gets interrupted by secular elements. The Sanctus includes a long violin solo with orchestral accompaniment — almost a mini-concerto – that’s the most beautiful moment in the piece for me but raised the ire of purists. They were no happier about the war march in the Agnus Dei, where drums and trumpets interrupt the final prayer for peace. (This may have been inspired by Beethoven’s long fascination with Napoleon, who wasn’t subdued until 1815.)

Fourth, Beethoven didn’t care whether the Missa was done in a concert hall or a church; he sanctioned the performances of separate movements in concerts and repackaged the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei as “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices.” We commonly encounter masses and requiems in theaters now, but that wasn’t the fashion 200 years ago.

You’ll get a rare chance to hear it when the Charlotte Symphony performs Missa Solemnis March 6 and 7 at Belk Theater. I know only one of the soloists – soprano Christina Pier, the best thing about Opera Carolina’s 2019 “Carmen” – but a lot of the emotional weight will come from Charlotte Master Chorale, the only chorus locally that could do justice to this monster.

Scholars question the nature of Beethoven’s faith, though not whether he had faith: He often spoke of a loving God who wanted the best for humanity.

Though he was raised a Roman Catholic, he didn’t attend mass regularly. He’d spent a year studying older forms of church music (notably Palestrina’s) when he undertook the Missa to honor Archduke Rudolf, his most famous pupil and patron. It was supposed to mark Rudolf’s installation as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820, but Beethoven missed the deadline so far that it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1824.

Perhaps Beethoven’s philosophy can best be summed up by his dedication to Rudolf: “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” “From the heart – may it return to the heart!” That’s the wisest way to embrace any of Beethoven’s masterpieces.

Pictured: Charlotte Master Chorale image courtesy of John Cosmas/Charlotte Master Chorale.

Our First Classical Loves

By Mary Lathem

Some loves are instant and lifelong, and others take time to grow – whatever your path, it’s always the right time to fall in love with classical music. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, several of our staff members reveal the moment they found their First Classical Love:

Ted Weiner

Ted Weiner,
Music Director


“It was the summer of 1984, and I was living in Manhattan and between jobs. I had free time, so for most of the summer, I cooled off almost every afternoon in the Lincoln Center Library listening to Mozart from their wondrously expansive classical music LP collection. Back then I wasn’t too well versed in classical music, but I figured it was time to start expanding my education. I had recently seen ‘Amadeus’ on Broadway, so I knew I couldn’t lose with Mozart. One of the first albums that caught my eye was the Flute and Harp Concerto with James Galway and Marisa Robles. I was lucky to grab one of the turntable listening spots after a short wait, so I sat right down and began to listen. In a matter of moments, I found myself slumped in the chair with my eyes closed listening to some of the most glorious music I had ever heard. The sheer beauty transfixed me as if I had been enveloped in heavenly clouds. The second movement, Andantino, had me nearly in tears when the finale kicked in, culminating in Galway and Robles’s closing cadenzas with Ms. Robles’s glorious glissando bringing shivers down my spine. 

The music ended and I opened my eyes with a big smile, knowing I had discovered something that would remain special for the rest of my days. Then I noticed a young lady standing in front of me, looking a little perturbed and impatient waiting for me to give up my turntable spot. I think there was a twenty minute limit for the listening posts, and I had been there the entire thirty minutes of the concerto. I apologized to her as I gathered my things and I stood in front of her for a moment before leaving, smiled and said, ‘Mozart.’ Her frown turned upside down into a big smile of recognition as I turned to return the LP to the shelf. That free time at the Lincoln Center Library brought me to a peaceful place I have since replicated many times simply by listening to Mozart.”

Frank Dominguez

Frank Dominguez,
General Manager and Content Director


“My First Classical Love was Vivaldi… only I didn’t know it was Vivaldi at the time. I was about five years old, and I had a beloved LP that told the story of Puss ‘n’ Boots. I can still see the colorful cover: Puss was portrayed as a fluffy yellow cat with a dashing cavalier’s hat, tall leather boots and a flowing cape. I loved to play that record, but over time, I stopped listening to the story and started listening to the music between scenes instead. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was all by Vivaldi, mostly from his Four Seasons concertos and a few others. My favorite music was at the end, when Puss was triumphant and had been rewarded by his master for his loyalty and resourcefulness: a Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets. Since then my tastes have evolved to include music by Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, and Philip Glass, among others – but that Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets remains my First Classical Love.”

John Barcelo

Jon Barcelo,
Corporate Sponsorship Representative


“My first, if not the first clear memory of enjoying classical music came as a young elementary school-age kid in Boston. The composition was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It was a sunny, hot July 4th celebration moving into a warm, muggy evening at the Boston Esplanade on the Charles River. Arthur Fidler was conducting the Boston Pops. This piece was (and still is) the ‘big finish.’ 

My mother was always the impetus when sharing classical music on local public radio.  It was a constant around our home. My Dad, brother and I followed her lead. Dad, being a career Army Artilleryman, found this 1812 Overture extra special with the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 101st Field Artillery Battalion’s lineup of several howitzer cannons, which expelled round after round of thunderous blasts for the climactic finish. Fidler in his white jacket and baton is still a vivid memory with the stunning arrangement of the orchestra, the artillerymen in their combat fatigues, and the fireworks in the sky with Boston’s scenic skyline as a background. It was a memorable Independence Day celebration.”

Mary Lathem

Mary Lathem,
Marketing & Digital Communications Specialist


“My exposure to classical music before college began and ended with a homemade mix CD my opera-loving best friend burned for me. I had always been a musical theatre and choir kid, so even though I recognized that the pieces were beautiful, the music didn’t ‘click’ with me until a few months later during my freshman year of college. Wanting to embrace all of the opportunities available to me, I decided to audition for the spring opera, Mozart’s The Magic Flute. How different could it be from musical theatre, right?

To my surprise, the rehearsal and preparation process was unlike anything I had ever tried before. Something about the physical challenge of popping high A flats while safely handling a prop dagger gave me a new level of respect for the art form, and I suddenly found myself listening to every opera recording I could get my hands on in my free time. Plus, there’s a reason The Magic Flute has been such an enduring staple of the repertoire; the score and storyline are pure magic. That production was the beginning of a penchant for classical music, and opera in particular, that will be with me for life. And yes – I fished that mix CD out from a stack of high school mementos, and it’s been in my car’s CD console ever since.”


From our listeners:

Our listeners warm our hearts every day, but we are especially grateful for their First Classical Love stories this Valentine’s Day – because of their experiences, we found each other! Read a few of our favorites:

“My brother was a freshman in college (Harvard) and brought home a beautiful LP of Swan Lake and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. After listening to that record once, I was hooked. A small town boy from Alabama was forever thereafter enthralled by classical music.”

Howell Pruett

“When I heard the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, it touched my heart. I had just lost my mom to cancer the previous year, and my grandparents were from Spain. Whenever I hear it, it brings me memories of her.”

JoAnn Buehler

“My earliest memory of classical music was my grandmother playing the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata on the piano, accompanied by my grandfather on his violin. Later, Mrs. Larsen tried to teach me piano and Miss Lois tried to make a ballerina of me. Alas – I had NO talent, but I could NEVER forget the music.”

Nancy Ford

“My first classical love was… YOU! As a teen, I stumbled across WDAV on my way to finding rap and Top 40 music. Much to my parents’ delight, I fell in love with classical music. Thanks for being the soundtrack for my life.”


I don’t love Beethoven

By Lawrence Toppman

I have the profoundest respect for Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. I am exalted by it, frightened by it, ennobled by it, touched by it, on rare occasions amused by it, even taken to spiritual realms. But I don’t love it the way I do Mozart’s music.

No matter what mood I am in, Mozart speaks to me. When I can’t decide what to hear, I often default to Mozart, and I’m always gratified. That’s love. I could say the same for Frank Sinatra’s concept albums for Capitol Records, much of The Beatles’ stuff, Handel’s “Water Music,” Brahms’ Third Symphony, Verdi’s “Otello,” great doo-wop collections and a few albums by other performers or composers.

I have to be in the mood for Beethoven, though. I have to need the churning intensity that seems to categorize even his lighter pieces. When I am, he satisfies my soul. When I’m not, I can go weeks without listening to him.

That will change in the year leading up to the 250th anniversary of his birth, probably on Dec. 16. (Most scholars accept that date, because he was baptized the next day.) I’ll immerse myself in LVB, armed with Jan Swafford’s titanic biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” and an 85-CD box of his complete works. (Hmmm…It’s less than half as big as Mozart’s complete box. Maybe I will get through every bit of it this time! But all those mundane songs….)

I plan to post every other week. That’s partly because I don’t know Beethoven as thoroughly as I do Mozart, and partly because a lot of the topics I raised in “A Year with Mozart” apply equally well to Beethoven. (For instance, they are memorialized in the same place – Vienna’s Central Cemetery – where you, too, can acquire a plot.)

This will be a journey of rediscovery in many cases. I have more recordings of the Ninth Symphony (nine) than any other piece ever written, but I’ll try to listen to it with open ears. I will also try to dig deeper into compositions that have never spoken to me. (String trios, I’m talking about you. “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” you’re next.)

Maybe I’ll discover hidden gems. Maybe I’ll enjoy my hundredth plunges into the last three piano sonatas and the world’s greatest violin concerto in different ways. Maybe, with luck, I’ll even fall in love.

Soprano Mirella Freni, Dies at 84

Pictured: Mirella Freni By Unknown (Mondadori Publishers), Public Domain.

One of the truly great singers of her generation, an artist who honored the lyric soprano repertory with standard-setting performances in nearly every role she sang, Mirella Freni was a level-headed, unpretentious woman who seemed singularly unaffected by her extraordinary acclaim. In a career of fifty years, she conquered audiences, colleagues and critics but had no enemies; her sovereign charm, directness and sincerity made everyone rejoice in her success. Read complete article at Opera News

Q&A: Music Prof. Neil Lerner on John Williams, the Composer Behind the Indelible ‘Star Wars’ Score

By Jay Pfeifer
This article originally appeared on Davidson.edu on December 18, 2019.

Lerner, music professor and chair of the music department, has been teaching classes about music and cinema for more than 20 years—and every class covers the scores of John Williams, the composer who has defined the sound of movies for more than 40 years.

Williams is best-known for the scores he wrote for all nine “Star Wars” films. The upcoming release of “The Rise of Skywalker” marks the end of a four-decade engagement between Williams and the Skywalker saga.

In addition to the opening theme, Williams’s “Star Wars” scores are renowned for his skillful use of motifs, using music to convey the hope in Luke Skywalker’s journey or the lurking menace of Darth Vader. In fact, Lerner thinks he noticed a connection between two motifs that might hint at ties between Rey, the young star of the new “Star Wars” trilogy, and the sinister Emperor.

Music Prof. Neil Lerner offers insight into the famed composer behind the movie scores that help to make the movies we love. Videography by Alex Smith.

Of course, Williams also wrote dozens of other notable scores, including for the films “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Schindler’s List”—to name a few.

Lerner shared some of his insight on Williams’ music and his place in the classical-music canon below.

What is John Williams’s place in classical music?

At the moment, he’s regarded chiefly as a film composer. And in the world of classical music, film scores are starting to get a little more recognition, but film music is still not seen as important as operas or symphonies or chamber music. I think as more time passes, that’s going to shift.

Is that because film is still a relatively young medium?

That’s right. Film scoring really didn’t start until the late 1920s or early 1930s, when we have the beginning of synchronized sound film. Also, film music is commercial entertainment. There’s no denying that. Yet some films can be really rich, complicated and interesting texts.

I predict that Williams’s music is going to be considered some of the most important and interesting music composed in the 20th and 21st century. And in the same way that listeners and scholars and performers can now go back and enjoy the symphonies of Beethoven or Haydn, or the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, or the polyphonic masses of Josquin des Prez, they will go back to study and listen to the film scores of John Williams.

Why is that?

They’re masterfully put together. There is an imaginative, creative musical mind behind them; he’s a composer who is brilliant with the symphony orchestra. We now have digital sampling and the ability to create any sound we can imagine, but in the 18th and 19th century, the orchestra was the pinnacle of musical instruments. It’s a dying art in several ways. And Williams is, I think, one of the last great practitioners of that, the culmination of a symphonic tradition, and also in many ways the sunset of it as well.

Though “Star Wars” is his most famous work, he has scored for dozens of films that sound very different. Is his range what makes him so great?

That’s part of it but, to my mind, what makes him so important is his imagination for memorable melodies and his choices of orchestration—that is, how to make an orchestra sound sometimes incredibly huge and powerful and imposing, or how to make it other times sound incredibly delicate and intimate, and to know just when to use these different effects.

By the time “Star Wars” came out in 1977, Williams had already won two Oscars. He was an accomplished, successful composer. How did “Star Wars” change John Williams?

Star Wars” is regarded by many as a renaissance of the symphonic film score, but the success of “Star Wars” was part of the new Hollywood that was defined by cross-marketing. The music promotes the film, the film promotes the music.

And in the “Star Wars” score, you’ve got stylistic connections to many composers. There’s a strong tie back to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer who was an important composer of action scores in the 1930s and 1940s for the Errol Flynn swashbucklers. Korngold’s sound was part of what Williams was aiming for in “Star Wars.”

With Williams, you’ve this strange fluke that he would go on to compose music for “Star Wars” films for more than 40 years. What do you see in the long thread of all the “Star Wars” music?

We’re still seeing it all happen in real time, so as a historian I want to have time to let the dust settle. But he’s changed and developed as a composer at each of these stages. The prequel scores sound different from the first three. And in the same way, these last three scores, to me, sound more autumnal in style. Instead of pulling out all the stops to create an effect, he knows just how much to do to make it work. And that’s the sort of wisdom and experience of a lifetime of composing. I think now we’re seeing a master finishing off masterpieces.

Oscars 2020 Predictions: A Viewer’s Guide to Who Will Win

By Lawrence Toppman

In this century, the Academy Awards have turned into a coronation rather than an election. As an endless parade of ceremonies precedes the Oscars – not just the Golden Globes but the guilds for writers, actors, directors, producers and more – the likelihood of a surprise in a major category becomes remote. At most, two films may run neck and neck, yet even that’s rare.

On the other hand, moviegoers could see something unusual on the big night this year. Though I think the same film will win best picture and director on February 9, I believe all four acting categories and both screenplay categories may go to different nominees.

You may wonder why I’m writing about the Oscars for WDAV. I’m going to start reviewing movies later this year for the website on an occasional basis. I’ll write about pictures I think its listenership may be curious about, ones that are media phenomena or likely to pass under the radar if I don’t point them out. We’re still figuring out how this will work. But after my time as The Charlotte Observer’s film critic from 1987 to 2017, I welcome a chance to begin again.

Now about those Oscars….

Best picture and director“1917” and Sam Mendes. “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” have lost momentum, and the industry respects films that are dramatically powerful, epic in scope, difficult to make and perceived to be “significant,” whatever that may mean. Mendes’ gripping “1917” is all four.    

Best actor and actress: Voters gravitate toward three types of performances: Showy ones that run a gamut of emotions, those that dominate a picture (whatever their length in the film) and those depicting illnesses: addictions, physical disabilities, mental or emotional breakdowns. Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” and Renee Zellweger in “Judy” qualify on all three counts.

Best supporting actor and actress: These tend to be “It’s their turn” prizes for veterans whom voters have enjoyed for many years. Brad Pitt is an obvious choice for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Laura Dern less of one – but a clear front-runner – for “Little Women.”

Best original screenplay and adapted screenplay: “Marriage Story” has rightly been praised for many things, especially Noah Baumbach’s script about a crumbling marriage between show business people. It’s harder to pick adapted screenplay: I think Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” deserves the prize, but perennial favorite Steven Zaillian seems to be ahead for “The Irishman.”

As I’m writing for a station that sometimes features movie music, I’ll also say I think Thomas Newman will win best original score for “1917.” He’s overdue – this is his 15th nomination with no wins — and his stirring score beautifully underpins the action without overwhelming it.