During the frenzied and hyperbolic preamble to last Sundayâ€™s Super Bowl telecast, an electronically generated image of an HDTV screen -- floating somewhere in a vague, CGI environment of power and importance -- flashed images of great historical figures while a somber voice-over compared them to the players soon to take the field. Included among these images were the faces of Ludwig van Beethoven -- the man who freed music from the shackles of classical form -- and Louis Armstrong -- who proved that popular music could be a platform for serious individual expression.
Beethoven and Armstrong and â€¦ Eli Manning?
Beethoven was so ahead of his musical time that it took most of his colleagues some 20-30 years to catch up with his ideas. In a sense, he did not do so by choice, as the patronage system for composers collapsed in the wake of the French Revolution, and Beethoven was forced to reinvent himself in order to keep bread on the table. Along the way, he figured that composers might as well make use of the full range of expressive possibilities available to them, since the landed gentry and imperial monarchs that expected classical form, and were used to it, were no longer footing the bills. Beethoven openly and bravely defied many avenues of support available to him for reasons of personal integrity, such as striking out the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte from the manuscript of the "Eroica" Symphony, after deciding that the liberator of Europe was, in fact, a tyrant.
Armstrong, an orphaned inmate of the Waif's Home in New Orleans as a child, used his dazzling trumpet playing and earnest, swinging singing style to establish an international reputation for himself and to bring the sounds of jazz to millions around the world. Unlike Beethoven, who could not record his music, Armstrong's sound revolutionized the whole field of jazz playing within a period of slightly less than two years, and continued to inform it thereafter. His gracious, audience-pleasing manner of performance style helped convinced many middle-class white Americans to think that, "I really like this guy. I could sit down to dinner with him," no small feat in a still-segregated America, although privately Armstrong was contemptuous of the humiliating restrictions imposed upon him and his colleagues by this same society. Like Beethoven, Armstrong suffered from an infirmity late in life -- an inflamed, constantly infected callous on his upper lip that caused him pain while he played that was nearly unbearable. In Beethoven's case, his sense of hearing began to fail when he was about thirty, and he spent the last 15 or so years of his life in total deafness.
Beethoven and Armstrong were not just musical "champs" who are revered because their music was great. They were agents, however limited, of social and artistic change. The Super Bowl is not just any game -- it is the pinnacle of football achievement -- and greatness in athletics is no mean feat. But it is still a game: it will not make you think better of your neighbor, nor does it raise the prospect -- however unlikely -- of world peace. Next year, how about leaving Louis Armstrong and Ludwig van Beethoven on the hagiographic bench? They were in another league entirely.