Ludwig van Beethoven, born on December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Germany, was a composer, and the predominant musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras.
Widely regarded as the greatest composer who ever lived, Ludwig van Beethoven dominates a period of musical history as no one else before or since. Rooted in the Classical traditions of Joseph Haydn and Mozart, his art reaches out to encompass the new spirit of humanism and incipient nationalism expressed in the works of Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller, his elder contemporaries in the world of literature; the stringently redefined moral imperatives of Kant; and the ideals of the French Revolution, with its passionate concern for the freedom and dignity of the individual. He revealed more vividly than any of his predecessors the power of music to convey a philosophy of life without the aid of a spoken text; and in certain of his compositions is to be found the strongest assertion of the human will in all music, if not in all art. Though not himself a Romantic, he became the fountainhead of much that characterized the work of the Romantics who followed him, especially in his ideal of program or illustrative music, which he defined in connection with his Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony as “more an expression of emotion than painting.” In musical form he was a considerable innovator, widening the scope of sonata, symphony, concerto, and quartet, while in the Ninth Symphony he combined the worlds of vocal and instrumental music in a manner never before attempted. His personal life was marked by a heroic struggle against encroaching deafness, and some of his most important works were composed during the last 10 years of his life when he was quite unable to hear. In an age that saw the decline of court and church patronage, he not only maintained himself from the sale and publication of his works but also was the first musician to receive a salary with no duties other than to compose how and when he felt inclined.
The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Ludwig van Beethoven
in celebration of his life
December 17 at 1pm EST
The early years
Beethoven was the eldest surviving child of Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. The family was Flemish in origin and can be traced back to Malines. It was Beethoven’s grandfather who had first settled in Bonn when he became a singer in the choir of the archbishop-elector of Cologne; he eventually rose to become Kappellmeister. His son Johann was also a singer in the electoral choir; thus, like most 18th-century musicians, Beethoven was born into the profession. Though at first quite prosperous, the Beethoven family became steadily poorer with the death of his grandfather in 1773 and the decline of his father into alcoholism. By age 11 Beethoven had to leave school; at 18 he was the breadwinner of the family.
Having observed in his eldest son the signs of a talent for the piano, Johann tried to make Ludwig a child prodigy like Mozart but did not succeed. It was not until his adolescence that Beethoven began to attract mild attention.
When in 1780 Joseph II became sole ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, he appointed his brother Maximilian Francis as adjutant and successor-designate to the archbishop-elector of Cologne. Under Maximilian’s rule, Bonn was transformed from a minor provincial town into a thriving and cultured capital city. A liberal Roman Catholic, he endowed Bonn with a university, limited the power of his own clergy, and opened the city to the full tide of the German literary renaissance associated with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and the young Goethe and Schiller. A sign of the times was the nomination as court organist of Christian Gottlob Neefe, a Protestant from Saxony, who became Beethoven’s teacher. Although somewhat limited as a musician, Neefe was nonetheless a man of high ideals and wide culture, a man of letters as well as a composer of songs and light theatrical pieces; and it was to be through Neefe that Beethoven in 1783 would have his first extant composition (Nine Variations on a March by Dressler) published at Mannheim. By June 1782 Beethoven had become Neefe’s assistant as court organist.
In 1783 he was also appointed continuo player to the Bonn opera. By 1787 he had made such progress that Maximilian Francis, archbishop-elector since 1784, was persuaded to send him to Vienna to study with Mozart. The visit was cut short when, after a short time, Beethoven received the news of his mother’s death. According to tradition, Mozart was highly impressed with Beethoven’s powers of improvisation and told some friends that “this young man will make a great name for himself in the world”.
For the next five years, Beethoven remained at Bonn. To his other court duties was added that of playing viola in the theatre orchestra; and, although the archbishop for the time being showed him no further mark of special favour, he was beginning to make valuable acquaintances. Sometime previously he had come to know the widow of the chancellor, Joseph von Breuning, and she engaged him as music teacher to two of her four children. From then on, the Breunings’ house became for him a second home, far more congenial than his own. Through Mme von Breuning, Beethoven acquired a number of wealthy pupils. His most useful social contact came in 1788 with the arrival in Bonn of Ferdinand, Graf (count) von Waldstein, a member of the highest Viennese aristocracy and a music lover. Waldstein became a member of the Breuning circle, where he heard Beethoven play and at once became his devoted admirer. At a fancy dress ball given in 1790, the ballet music, according to the Almanach de Gotha (a journal chronicling the social activities of the aristocracy), had been composed by the count, but it was generally known that Beethoven had written it for him. The same year saw the death of the emperor Joseph II. Through Waldstein again, Beethoven was invited to compose a funeral ode for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, but the scheduled performance was canceled because the wind players found certain passages too difficult. He then added to it a complementary piece celebrating the accession of Joseph’s brother Leopold II. There is no record that either was ever performed until the end of the 19th century, when the manuscripts were rediscovered in Vienna and pronounced authentic by Johannes Brahms. But in 1790 another great composer had seen and admired them: that year Haydn, passing through Bonn on his way to London, was feted by the elector and his musical establishment; when shown Beethoven’s score, he was sufficiently impressed by it to offer to take Beethoven as a pupil when he returned from London. Beethoven accepted Haydn’s offer and in the autumn of 1792, while the armies of the French Revolution were storming into the Rhineland provinces, Beethoven left Bonn, never to return.
“Keep your eye on him; one day he will make the world talk of him”Mozart, after hearing Beethoven play at the age of 17
Early influences of Ludwig van Beethoven
Like other composers of his generation, Beethoven was subject to the influence of popular music and of folk music, influences particularly strong in the Waldstein ballet music of 1790 and in several of his early songs and unison choruses. Heavy Rhineland dance rhythms can be found in many of his mature compositions; but he could assimilate other local idioms as well—Italian, French, Slavic, and even Celtic. Although never a nationalist or folk composer in the 20th-century sense, he often allowed the unusual contours of folk melody to lead him away from traditional harmonic procedure; moreover, that he resorts to a folklike idiom in setting Schiller’s covertly nationalist text in the Ninth Symphony accords well with nationalist practices of the later 19th century. French music impinged on him from two main directions: from Mannheim, whose artistic links with Paris had always been strong, and from the Bonn Nationaltheater, which relied for its repertory mainly on comic operas translated from the French. In fashionable Bonn society, sympathy with the French Revolution was very strong, and the flavour of the French Revolutionary march is present in many of Beethoven’s symphonic allegros. The jigging rhythms to be found in several of his scherzos are also clearly of French provenance. Like all pianists of the late 18th century, Beethoven was raised on the sonatas and teachings of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the chief exponent of “expressive” music at a time when music was regarded as the art of pleasing sounds. These sonatas, with their quirks of rhythms and harmony and their occasional wordless recitative, were equally familiar to Haydn and Mozart; but in Beethoven they evoked a much readier response, not only for reasons of temperament but also because of the intellectual climate in which he himself was reared. The favourite literary fare of the Breunings and their friends was associated with the Sturm und Drang, a reaction against the rationalism of the early 18th century, an exaltation of feeling and instinct over reason. Its gospel was enshrined in Goethe’s early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the language of which finds an echo in certain of Beethoven’s letters and especially in the “Heiligenstadt Testament”. In such a movement music took on a new importance as an art of feeling. The sharp conflicts of mood that characterize the sonatas of C.P.E. Bach appear much more powerfully again in Beethoven; to Beethoven, “feeling” was as important in practice as it was in theory to his master Neefe, who proclaimed it the only condition of artistic value (moreover, for those who claim Beethoven as a Romantic, this emphasis on feeling is paramount). His literary world—he read widely and voraciously despite a formal education that in arithmetic had not carried him as far as the multiplication table—was rooted in the German classics, above all Goethe and Schiller. The Bonn compositions of most enduring interest date, as might be expected, from the last years: a Rondino and an Octet, for wind instruments, composed in 1792, probably for the elector’s harmonie (wind band); a Trio in G Major for Flute, Bassoon, and Piano (1791); and the two cantatas. The songs, which were doubtless written under Neefe’s inspiration, show no great feeling for the solo voice. This is strange in one whose father and grandfather both had been singers, but it remained a limitation that pursued Beethoven throughout his career. Of particular interest are 24 variations on a theme by Vincenzo Righini, an Italian composer, which, like the String Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 3, Beethoven revised and then published at a much later date. These variations, representing a compendium of Beethoven’s piano technique, for a long time were to serve as the mainstay of his repertory in the salons of Vienna.
Before Beethoven left Bonn, he had acquired a very considerable reputation in northwest Germany as a piano virtuoso, with a particular talent for extemporization. Mozart had been one of the finest improvisers of his age; by all accounts Beethoven surpassed him. In the age of sensibility he could move an audience to tears more easily than any other pianist of the time. For this reason especially he was taken up by the Viennese aristocracy almost from the moment he set foot in Vienna. Waldstein had, of course, prepared the way with his talk of a successor to Mozart; and it is significant that Beethoven’s earliest patrons in Vienna were Gottfried, Baron van Swieten and Karl, Fürst (prince) von Lichnowsky, who alone among the aristocracy had remained Mozart’s supporters until his death. Perhaps, as well, Beethoven traded on the “van” in his name—which was widely if wrongly understood to denote noble lineage—to gain easier access to aristocratic circles. In the Vienna of the 1790s, music had become more and more the favourite pastime of a cultured aristocracy, for whom politics under the reactionary emperor Francis II were now discreditable and dangerous and who had, moreover, never shown a like appreciation of any of the other fine arts. Many played instruments themselves well enough to be able to take their place beside professionals. Probably at no other time and in no other city was there such a high standard of amateur and semiprofessional music-making as in the Vienna of Beethoven’s day. As a composer, however, Beethoven still had many technical problems to overcome, and it soon became clear that Haydn was not the best person to help him. Outwardly their relations remained cordial; but Beethoven soon began taking extra lessons in secret. One of his teachers was the organist of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, a learned contrapuntist of the old school who equipped him with the comprehensive technique that he needed. He also studied vocal composition with Antonio Salieri, the imperial Kappellmeister. By 1794, when Haydn had left for his second visit to London, there was no longer any question of Beethoven’s returning to Bonn, which was then in French hands. The elector himself had left, and consequently Beethoven’s subsidy came to an end. But he had no need to worry for, apart from what he was able to earn by teaching and playing, he received free board and lodgings from Prince Lichnowsky.
The year 1795 marked Beethoven’s first public appearance as a pianist in Vienna. He played a concerto (No. 2, Opus 19) of his own and one by Mozart and also took part in a benefit concert for Haydn. More important still, his Three Trios for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Opus 1, were published with a long list of aristocratic subscribers. In the next three years he undertook concert tours in Berlin and Prague and might have traveled more widely still had the international situation permitted. In 1800 he launched a public concert on the grand scale, in which one of his own piano concerti, the Septet (Opus 20), and the First Symphony were given, together with works by Haydn and Mozart. The event contributed a great deal to the spread of Beethoven’s fame abroad.
The turn of the century concluded what is generally referred to as Beethoven’s first period, although some usefully extend it to the summer of 1802, when he wrote the “Heilgenstadt Testament”: during this period his art stayed mainly within the bounds of 18th-century technique and ideas. Most of his published works during that time are for the piano, alone or with other instruments, important exceptions being the String Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 3; the Three String Trios, Opus 9; the Six String Quartets, Opus 18; and the First Symphony. Beethoven extended his range slowly and methodically, but he was still a piano composer par excellence.
A change in direction occurred with Beethoven’s gradual realization that he was becoming deaf. The first symptoms had appeared even before 1800, yet for a few years his life continued unchanged: he still played in the houses of the nobility, in rivalry with other pianists, and performed in public with such visiting virtuosos as violinist George Bridgetower (to whom the Kreutzer Sonata was originally dedicated). But by 1802 he could no longer be in doubt that his malady was both permanent and progressive. During a summer spent at the (then) country village of Heiligenstadt he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” Ostensibly intended for his two brothers, the document begins:
O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the cause of my seeming so. From childhood my heart and mind was disposed to the gentle feeling of good will. I was ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, made worse by ignorant doctors, yearly betrayed in the hope of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a permanent malady whose cure will take years or even prove impossible.
He was tempted to take his own life,
But only Art held back; for, ah, it seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world forever before I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce.…
There is a Werther-like postscript:
As the leaves of autumn wither and fall, so has my own life become barren: almost as I came, so I go hence. Even that high courage that inspired me in the fair days of summer has now vanished.
More significant, perhaps, are his words in a letter to his friend Franz Wegeler: “I will seize fate by the throat.…” Elsewhere he remarks, “If only I were rid of my affliction I would embrace the whole world.” He was to do both, though the condition he hoped for was not fulfilled.
From then on his days as a virtuoso were numbered. Although it was not until about 1819 that his deafness became total, making necessary the use of those conversation books in which friends wrote down their questions while he replied orally, his playing degenerated as he became able to hear less and less. He continued to appear in public from time to time, but most of his energies were absorbed in composing. He would spend the months from May to October in one or another of the little villages near Vienna. Many of his musical ideas came to him on long country walks and were noted in sketchbooks.
These sketchbooks, many of which have been preserved, reveal much about Beethoven’s working methods. The man who could improvise the most intricate fantasies on the spur of the moment took infinite pains in the shaping of a considered composition. In the sketchbooks such famous melodies as the adagio of the Emperor Concerto or the andante of the Kreutzer Sonata can be seen emerging from trivial and characterless beginnings into their final forms. It seems, too, that Beethoven worked on more than one composition at a time and that he was rarely in a hurry to finish anything that he had on hand. Early sketches for the Fifth Symphony, for instance, date originally from 1804, although the finished work did not appear until 1808. Sometimes the sketches are accompanied by verbal comments as a kind of aide-mémoire. Sometimes, as in the sketching of the Third Symphony (Eroica), he would leave several bars blank, making it clear that the rhythmic scheme had preceded the melodic in his mind. Many of the sketches consist merely of a melody line and a bass—enough, in fact, to establish a continuity. But in many works, especially the later ones, the sketching process is very elaborate indeed, with revisions and alterations continuing up to the date of publication. If, in general, it is only the primitive sketches and jottings that have survived, this is because Beethoven kept them beside him as potential sources of material for later compositions.
Beethoven and the theatre
The next few years were those of Beethoven’s short-lived connection with the theatre. In 1801 he had provided the score for the ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). Two years later he was offered a contract for an opera on a classical subject with a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, who had achieved fame and wealth as the librettist of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and who was then impresario of the Theater an der Wien. Two or three completed numbers show that Beethoven had already begun work on it before Schikaneder himself was ousted from the management and the contract annulled—somewhat to Beethoven’s relief, as he had found Schikaneder’s verses “such as could only have proceeded from the mouths of our Viennese applewomen.” When the new management reengaged Beethoven the following year, it was largely on the strength of his now almost-forgotten oratorio, Christus am Ölberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives), which had been given in an all-Beethoven benefit concert, together with the first two symphonies and the Third Piano Concerto.
The year 1804 was to see the completion of the Third Symphony, regarded by most biographers as a landmark in Beethoven’s development. It is the answer to the “Heiligenstadt Testament”: a symphony on an unprecedented scale and at the same time a prodigious assertion of the human will. The work was to have been dedicated to Napoleon, intermittently one of Beethoven’s heroes, but Beethoven struck out the dedication on hearing that Napoleon had taken the title of emperor. Outraged in his republican principles, he changed the title to Eroica and added the words “for the memory of a great man.” From then on the masterworks followed hard on one another’s heels: the Waldstein Piano Sonata, Opus 53; Piano Sonata in F Minor, Opus 57, known as the Appassionata; the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58; the three Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59; the Fourth Symphony, Opus 60; the Violin Concerto, Opus 61.
To this period also belongs his one opera, Fidelio, commissioned for the winter season of 1805. The play concerns a wife who disguises herself as a boy in order to rescue her husband, imprisoned for political reasons; in setting this to music, Beethoven was influenced by Ferdinando Paer and by Luigi Cherubini, composer of similar “rescue” operas and a musician whom he greatly admired. Fidelio enjoyed no great success at first, partly because the presence of French troops, who had occupied Vienna after the Battle of Austerlitz, kept most of the Viennese away. With great difficulty Beethoven was persuaded to make certain changes for a revival in the following spring, with modified libretto. This time the opera survived two performances and would have run longer but for a quarrel between Beethoven and the management, after which the composer in a fury withdrew his score. It was not until eight years later that Fidelio, heavily revised by Beethoven himself and a new librettist, returned to the Vienna stage, to become one of the classics of the German theatre. Beethoven later turned over many other operatic projects in his mind but without bringing any to fruition.
The established composer
During all this time, Beethoven, like Mozart, had maintained himself without the benefit of an official position—but with far greater success insofar as he had no family to support. His reputation as a composer was steadily soaring both in Austria and abroad. The critics of the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the most authoritative music journal in Europe, had long since passed from carping impertinence to unqualified praise, so that, although there were as yet no copyright laws to ensure a system of royalties, Beethoven was able to drive far more-favourable bargains with the publishing firms than Haydn and Mozart before him or Franz Schubert after him. Despite the restrictions on Viennese musical life imposed by the war with France, Beethoven had no difficulty in getting his most ambitious works performed, largely because of the generosity of such patrons as Prince Lichnowsky, who at one point made him a regular allowance of 600 florins a year. Others would pay handsomely for a dedication—e.g., the Graf (count) von Oppersdorf, for the Fourth Symphony. Also, Beethoven’s pupils included the archduke Rudolf, youngest brother of the emperor. Consequently, poverty was never a serious threat. But, doubtless because of increasing deafness combined with a habitual readiness to take offense, Beethoven’s relations with the Viennese musicians, on whose cooperation he depended, became steadily worse; and in 1808, at a benefit concert where the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and the Choral Fantasia, Opus 80, were first performed publicly, there occurred a quarrel so serious that Beethoven thought of leaving Vienna altogether. But the threat of his departure was sufficient to stir his patrons into action. The archduke Rudolf, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky banded together to provide him with an annuity of 4,000 florins, requiring only that he should remain in Vienna and compose. The agreement remained in force until Beethoven’s death, though it was to be affected by circumstances, one of which was the devaluation of 1811; although the archduke increased his contribution accordingly, it was some time before his partners could do the same. Nevertheless, from 1809 onward Beethoven remained adequately provided for, although his habits of life often gave visitors the impression that he was miserably poor. Inevitably, his public appearances became less frequent.
The last years of Ludwig van Beethoven
With the start of the long reign of Klemens, Fürst (prince) von Metternich, and the so-called Biedermeier period, which was marked by simplicity and homeliness in art and design, Beethoven’s creative life entered its third and final phase. Because of his deafness he became more of a recluse than ever. His rate of composition, too, began to decrease. The works written between 1815 and 1827 comprise a mere fraction of his output after 1792; but they have a density of musical thought far surpassing anything that he had composed before. Though he now went less into society, he concerned himself more and more with business matters, not always with happy results.
At about this time he was brought in touch with the Philharmonic Society of London. Earlier, in 1803, he had been approached by the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson with a proposal that he should write sonatas based on Scottish folk tunes. Although nothing came of this, Thomson somewhat later succeeded in contracting him to arrange national folk melodies for voice, violin, cello, and piano, each with an introduction and coda. These remained an easy and profitable source of income to Beethoven for many years. It was in 1815, however, when Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries settled in London and became one of the founder-members of the Philharmonic Society, that English music lovers began to take an active interest in the promotion of Beethoven’s works. Another society member, Charles Neate, visited Beethoven in Vienna and later brought about the commission of three new overtures to be performed by the society. The overtures König Stephan (“King Stephan”), Namensfeier (“Name Day”), and Die Ruinen von Athen (“The Ruins of Athens”) were, however, late in arriving, and the discovery that they were not new after all caused considerable bad feeling; for a time, relations became strained on both sides. Ries did much to effect a reconciliation, but a visit to London, planned as early as 1813, never materialized, though Beethoven continued to hope that it would. The Philharmonic Society never ceased to interest itself in Beethoven’s music and it undoubtedly played an important part in the genesis of the Ninth Symphony, which in a sense it commissioned. The society’s archives contain an autograph of the first movement with a dedication by the composer. The first performance of the work, however, was given not in London but in Vienna, and the printed edition was dedicated to Frederick William III, king of Prussia. Beethoven, on his deathbed, received from the society a gift of £100, which moved him profoundly.
In 1815 all prospects of foreign travel were cut short for Beethoven by the death of his brother Caspar Anton Carl, who left a widow, Johanna, and a son, Karl, aged nine. The will, which appointed Beethoven and the widow as joint guardians, was contested by Beethoven on the grounds of the widow’s immorality; and after three years of litigation he won his case. But, for all the affection that he lavished on young Karl, Beethoven was far from being an ideal guardian. Quarrels between uncle and nephew were frequent and bitter and came to a head in 1826 when, just before sitting for his university examination, Karl attempted suicide. He recovered in a hospital, and Beethoven, on the advice of friends, agreed reluctantly that the boy should be launched on an army career. Once away from his uncle, Karl seems to have led a successful, law-abiding life. But the events of 1826 upset Beethoven profoundly and almost certainly hastened his death.
The important compositions of the final period begin with the modest but groundbreaking song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”; this work may have been intended to commemorate his failed romance with the “Immortal Beloved”), the Two Sonatas for Piano and Cello, Opus 102, the Piano Sonata in A Major, Opus 101, and the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Opus 106, the latter known as the Hammerklavier. Beethoven then reverted to sketches he had begun for the Ninth Symphony. This was broken off when the news came that the archduke Rudolf was to be appointed archbishop of Olmütz, and Beethoven decided to write a large-scale solemn mass for the installation ceremony. Work on this progressed slowly, and, like the early cantata for Joseph II, it was not completed in time for the intended occasion. Not until 1823, three years after the enthronement, was Beethoven able to send to the new archbishop the completed manuscript of the Missa Solemnis.
In the meantime, Beethoven had written the three final piano sonatas (1820–22) and had worked desultorily on the symphonic sketches. The mass was followed by his last important piano work (completed 1823), variations on a theme that the publisher and composer Anton Diabelli had sent to a number of composers, Beethoven among them. Most of them, including Schubert and the archduke Rudolf himself, obliged; Beethoven at first declined, then changed his mind and decided to write a complete set of 33 variations himself.
The Ninth Symphony had begun to take shape; by the following year (1824) it was finished and was performed, together with movements from the Missa Solemnis and the overture from Opus 124, with great success at the Kärntnertor Theatre. The composer, who ostensibly supervised the symphony’s premiere, remained unaware of the applause until one of the soloists made him turn to face the audience. The Ninth Symphony was Beethoven’s last work for large-scale forces.
His final commission came in 1823 from Knyaz (prince) Nikolas Golitsyn, who offered 50 ducats each for three string quartets. Beethoven accepted with alacrity, though only in 1825 was the first of the three, the String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 127, completed. Not two but four more followed, including an extra movement, which was substituted for the original fugal finale (Grosse Fuge) of the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130. The last of these quartets, the String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, was finished in 1826, about the time of Karl’s attempted suicide; the greatest of these, Opus 131, was dedicated to Joseph, Freiherr (baron) von Stutterheim, the military officer who had, in a sense, taken Karl under his wing in the aftermath of that sad event.
Beethoven spent that summer on the estate belonging to his surviving brother, Nikolaus Johann. On his return to Vienna he contracted pneumonia, from which he never fully recovered. He remained bedridden and died from cirrhosis of the liver in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The funeral three days later was attended by 20,000 people. Pallbearers included the famous pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel; Schubert was among the torchbearers; Franz Grillparzer, Austria’s greatest living dramatist, wrote the sometimes nationalistic funeral oration.
Reputation and influence of Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s greatest achievement was to raise instrumental music, hitherto considered inferior to vocal, to the highest plane of art. During the 18th century, music, being fundamentally nonimitative, was ranked below literature and painting. Its highest manifestations were held to be those in which it served a text—that is, cantata, opera, and oratorio—the sonata and the suite being relegated to a lower sphere. A number of factors combined to bring about a gradual change of outlook: the instrumental prowess of the Mannheim Orchestra, which made possible the development of the symphony; the reaction on the part of writers against pure rationalism in favour of feeling; and the works of Haydn and Mozart. But, above all, it was the example of Beethoven that made possible the late-Romantic dictum of the English essayist and critic Walter Pater: “All arts aspire to the condition of music.”
After Beethoven it was no longer possible to speak of music merely as “the art of pleasing sounds.” His instrumental works combine a forceful intensity of feeling with a hitherto unimagined perfection of design. He carried to a further point of development than his predecessors all the inherited forms of music (with the exception of opera and song), but particularly the symphony and the quartet. In this he was the heir of Haydn rather than of Mozart, whose most striking achievements lie more in opera and concerto.
Three periods of work
It was his biographer Wilhelm von Lenz who first divided Beethoven’s output into three periods, omitting the years of his apprenticeship in Bonn. The first period begins with the completion of the Three Trios for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Opus 1, in 1794, and ends about 1800, the year of the first public performance of the First Symphony and the Septet. The second period extends from 1801 to 1814, from the Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor (Moonlight Sonata) to the Piano Sonata in E Minor, Opus 90. The last period runs from 1814 to 1827, the year of his death. Though the division is a useful one, it cannot be applied rigidly. A composition begun in one period may often have been completed in another, hence the existence of such transitional works as the Third Piano Concerto, which belongs partly to the first period and partly to the second. Again, the tide of Beethoven’s maturity advanced at a rate that varied according to his familiarity with the medium in which he happened to be writing. The piano was his home ground; therefore, it is in the piano sonatas that the middle-period characteristics first make their appearance, even before 1800. The mass, on the other hand, was unfamiliar territory, so that the Mass in C Major, written during the same period as the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Razumovsky string quartets, sounds in many ways like an early work.
The works of the first period, apart from the first two piano concerti, the Creatures of Prometheus, and the First Symphony (some accountings include the Second Symphony as a first-period work as well), consist almost entirely of chamber music, most of it based on Beethoven’s own instrument, the piano. All show a preoccupation with craftsmanship in the 18th-century manner. The material, for the most part, has a family likeness to that of Haydn and Mozart but, in keeping with the contemporary style, is slightly coarser and more blunt. Beethoven’s treatment of the forms in current use is usually expansive, schematically somewhat closer to Mozart than to Haydn; thus, the expositions are long and polythematic, while the developments are relatively short. Slow movements are long and lyrical with copious decoration. The third movement, though sometimes called a scherzo, remains true to its minuet origins, though its surface is often disturbed by un-minuet-like accents and its tempo is at times quite brisk. Finales are at once high-spirited and elegant. Two characteristics, however, mark Beethoven out strongly from other composers of the time: one is an individual use of contrasted dynamics and especially the device of crescendo leading to a sudden piano; the other, most noticeable in the piano sonatas, is the gradual infiltration of techniques derived from improvisation—unexpected accents, rhythmic ambiguities designed to keep the audience guessing, and especially the use of apparently trivial, almost senseless material from which to generate a cogent musical argument.
The second period may be said to begin in the piano music with two sonatas “quasi una fantasia,” Opus 27, of 1801, but in the symphony and concerto it is not fully apparent before the Eroica (1804) and the Fourth Piano Concerto (1806). Here the use of improvisatory material is more and more marked; but, whereas in the earlier period Beethoven was more concerned to show how it could fit naturally into a traditional 18th-century framework, here he explores in greater detail the logical implication of every departure from the norm. His harmony remains basically simple—much simpler, for instance, than much of Mozart’s. What is new is the way it is used in relation to the basic pulse. From this Beethoven creates in his main themes an infinite variety of stress and accent, out of which the form of each movement is generated. The result is that, of all composers, Beethoven is the least inclined to repeat himself; all his works, but especially those of the middle and late period, inhabit their own individual formal world. Other characteristics of the middle period include shorter expositions and longer developments and codas; slow movements too become much shorter, sometimes vanishing altogether. The third movement is now always a scherzo (although not always so named), not a minuet, with frequent use of unexpected accents and syncopation. Finales tend to take on much more weight than before and in certain cases become the principal movement. Decoration begins to disappear as each note becomes more functional, melodically and harmonically. Another feature of these works is their immediacy. Here Beethoven’s power is most evident; and the majority of the repertory works belong to this period.
The third period is marked by a growing concentration of musical thought combined with an increasingly wider range of harmony and texture. Beethoven’s enthusiasm for the work of George Frideric Handel began to bear fruit in a much more-thoroughgoing use of counterpoint, especially notable in his frequent recourse to fugue and fugal passages. But he never lost touch with the simplicity of his earliest manner, so that the range of expression and mood in these last works is something that has never been surpassed. Indeed, an interest in folklike material seems, as in the Ninth Symphony, to offer redemption to the growing complexities of his art, much as his beloved Schiller found an incipient nationalistic redemption in Arcadia. A form to which he gave increasingly more attention at this time was that of the variation. As an improviser, he had always found it congenial, and, though some of the sets he had published in earlier years are merely decorative, he had created such outstanding examples of the genre as the finale of the Eroica and the Prometheus variations, both on the same theme. It is this type of variation that Beethoven began to pursue in his final period. A unique feature of the sets that occur in his last string quartets and sonatas is the sense of cumulative growth, not merely from variation to variation but within each variation itself. In the quartets, everything in the composer’s musical equipment is deployed—fugue, variation, dance, sonata movement, march, even modal and pentatonic (five-tone) melody.
Structural innovations of Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven remains the supreme exponent of what may be called the architectonic use of tonality. In his greatest sonata movements, such as the first allegro of the Eroica, the listener’s subconscious mind remains oriented to E-flat major even in the most distant keys, so that when, long before the recapitulation, the music touches on the dominant (B-flat), this is immediately recognizable as being the dominant. Of his innovations in the symphony and quartet, the most notable is the replacement of the minuet by the more dynamic scherzo; he enriched both the orchestra and the quartet with a new range of sonority and variety of texture, and their forms are often greatly expanded. The same is true of the concerto, in which he introduced formal innovations that, though relatively few in number, would prove equally influential. In particular, the entry of a solo instrument before an orchestral ritornello in the Fourth and Fifth piano concerti (a device anticipated by Mozart but to quite different effect) reinforces the sense of the soloist as a protagonist, even a romantic hero, an effect later composers would struggle to reproduce.
Although, in the finale of the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven shows himself a master of choral effects, the solo human voice gave him difficulty to the end. His many songs form perhaps the least important part of his output, although his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte would prove an important influence on later composers, especially Robert Schumann. His one opera, Fidelio, owes its preeminence to the excellence of the music rather than to any real understanding of the operatic medium. But even this lack of vocal sense could be made to bear fruit, in that it set his mind free in other directions. A composer such as Mozart or Haydn, whose conception of melody remained rooted in what could be sung, could never have written anything like the opening of the Fifth Symphony, in which the melody takes shape from three instrumental strands each giving way to the other. Richard Wagner was not far wrong when he hailed Beethoven as the discoverer of instrumental melody, even if his claim was based more narrowly on Beethoven’s avoidance of cadential formulas.
Beethoven holds an important place in the history of the piano. In his day, the piano sonata was the most intimate form of chamber music that existed—far more so than the string quartet, which was often performed in public. For Beethoven, the piano sonata was the vehicle for his boldest and most-inward thoughts. He did not anticipate the technical devices of such later composers as Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, which were designed to counteract the percussiveness of the piano, partly because he himself had a pianistic ability that could make the most simply laid-out melody sing; partly, too, because the piano itself was still in a fairly early stage of development; and partly because he himself valued its percussive quality and could turn it to good account. Piano tone, caused by a hammer’s striking a string, cannot move forward, as can the sustained, bowed tone of the violin, although careful phrasing on the player’s part can make it seem to do so. Beethoven, however, is almost alone in writing melodies that accept this limitation, melodies of utter stillness in which each chord is like a stone dropped into a calm pool. And it is above all in the piano sonata that the most striking use of improvisatory techniques as an element of construction is found. Among composers of the next generation, it was chiefly Liszt who extended Beethoven’s principle of transferring structural weight from the first movement to the finale, making it the basis of his symphonic poems as well as of his two concerti. Nearly all later composers of concerti had to reckon with the innovations of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth concerti.
The works of Beethoven that undoubtedly had the most influence over succeeding generations were the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, with their progression from storm and stress to triumph; the Sixth Symphony, too, greatly influenced composers with a programmatic bent. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies, César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, and all of Mahler’s first four symphonies are striking examples of Beethoven’s spiritual progeny, though few will grant that they equal, let alone surpass, their model.
Julian Medforth Budden / Raymond L. Knapp / Source: Brittanica