Beethoven – six compositions

Posted on March 20, 2013

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If anyone asks a lay person or even a child of primary school age to name a composer it is highly likely they will say the name of Beethoven. Also, he has remained central to the concert repertoire in all the countries of the Western world and a point of reference for all composers living in the last two centuries. To understand the Beethoven phenomenon it is equally important to look at his achievements as a musician and to the historical period when he lived.

Beethoven was born in 1770 and his lifetime spanned through an era characterised by radical changes in social structure and values, the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, emergence of ideals of equality and human rights, undermining the power of aristocracy. There was a strong tendency to idolise individual freedom and power, to assign mythical characteristics to the person struggling and coping with life’s adversities. The example of Napoleon, a soldier and war hero who became the First Consul of the French Republic set the example of extraordinary potency within a single individual. Also, the fact of Napoleon crowning himself emperor and the failure of the Napoleonic wars left many with a sentiment of disillusionment. The public was longing for heroes who would eventually transcend the human condition, overcoming “fate”, vulnerability to failure and corruption, and they seem to have found Beethoven being just the right person for this role. Beethoven, with his prodigious talent, a background of a maltreated child, unfulfilled love affairs and struggle with a progressive illness affecting his hearing became the ultimate romantic idol.

The accounts of Beethoven’s contemporaries and acquaintances, although highly valuable, are often romanticised accounts and statements that could hardly be entirely grounded in reality, and appear to be selective to elements that fitted popular expectations about a character of a quasi mythical stance. These would include letters by C. G. Neefe (Beethoven’s early teacher in Bonn), Bettina Brentano von Arnim, Carl Ludwig Junker, Anton Schindler as well as essays by E.T.A. Hoffman and Immanuel Kant. In addition, the Beethoven phenomenon became a symbol of German national unity and German superiority in instrumental music competing with the Italian vocal and operatic tradition. Thus Beethoven became a synonym of strength, superiority and fate-defying heroism, an image that continued to persist into the popular media until the present time. Nineteenth century descriptions of Beethoven’s person and music emphasise his independence, isolation, superiority, struggle with fate, expressiveness and strength of his art. Although I suppose all these traits are well grounded in reality, as are visible in some (the most publicised), of his works, an accurate picture of him as a person has been notoriously difficult to trace.

Listening to his music – and not just to the most popular pieces – would reveal a much more complex and finely nuanced personality, which is in contrast to this simplistic popular image. It seems to me that his music, besides dramatic power, reveals Beethoven’s extreme sensitivity to the entire spectrum of emotions and moods, not just to the dramatic, glorious, gloomy, dark and mysterious (exemplified mainly by his compositions in C minor like the Sonate Pathétique or the fifth symphony), but also to the lyrical, light, joyous and fragile (e.g. Quintet for Piano and Winds, the sixth symphony or the Piano Sonata no. 32). These works reflect his character as an individual in all its inner wealth, open to all aspects of life. What provides special power to his work, however, is not just his struggle with fate, but his proneness to introspection and his unprecedented ability to express whatever he had found in his inner self. This will set the direction to other composers in the following centuries to explore the depths of their own psyche, transposing their findings into music.

 

Regarding the development of his music, most Beethoven-biographers, even during his lifetime, have described three stages – early, middle and late period. In the following sections I would like to briefly present a few compositions that I found representative for each of the three sections.

 

 

Early period

Beethoven’s early stage ranged from his earliest experimentations in Bonn as a youngster when he studied extensively the music of Bach (e.g. playing through the Well Tempered Clavier series for keyboard, improvisations on piano and violin) and his more mature works composed in Vienna after a fluent assimilation of the classical style studying the works of Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, Hummel, Salieri and Albrecthsberger. During his period he composed his first piano sonatas and first two piano concertos, as well as string quartets, chamber music and his first symphony. These works are relatively well grounded into the classical style prevailing in those times. He was using the sonata form in most of these compositions, although the minuet is often replaced by a scherzo (musical joke) and his compositions already abound in idiosyncratic use of form as well as unexpected turns and harmonic progressions serving the composers inner expressive needs.

 

Quintet for piano and winds

This piece was composed in 1796 in a classical style reminiscent to the works of Mozart. It strikes me as one of the best early pieces of Beethoven where the clarity and elegance of the classical style is combined with the already blooming originality of the young composer and the delightful sonority of the instruments employed. It is written for piano, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn. It includes three movements – the first movement bears the tempo marking Allegro ma non troppo and it is a light-hearted and upbeat introduction of a rich thematic material that is developed further in the following sections. The second movement is an Andante cantabile, which gradually leads into a truly quieting meditative mood. Here we can enjoy beautiful melodies and long notes played by the wind instruments in successive sections, distributed in a balanced fashion throughout the movement, on a background of a light piano accompaniment. The third movement Rondo returns to the playful mode of the first one, where the piano seems to be dancing around with all the other instruments in perfect harmony and reciprocity.

 

Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3

This piece was published in September 1798 and dedicated to one of Beethoven’s patrons, Countess Anna Margaret von Browne. I have chosen this piece as an example as it stands out of the early works of Beethoven due to its extraordinary expressive force and musical maturity, displaying a wide range of emotions. The classical form is being used and freely modified to serve the purpose of Beethoven’s expressive needs. The first movement (Presto) is upbeat and dramatic, it is broadly designed along the rules of the sonata form and it is based on a four note theme that is exploited to the extreme taking us through a dramatic rollercoaster with many unexpected turns. The second movement (Largo e mesto) is written in D minor, contrasting with the first one dominated by D major. This movement is a triumph of expressive music as it grasps the quintessence of the emotion of grief over the loss of a beloved person. It is of note that by the time Beethoven composed this piece he already went through grief three times in his lifetime, losing both his parents and his beloved grandfather Ludwig. In this piece he distilled his emotions in a beautiful way that is truly impossible to describe. The movement is based on a grave pulse on the left hand with melody line of extraordinary lyrical beauty floating above (tempo rubato). It bears tension that gradually increases in crescendo sections, leading to slow parts of silent contemplation, revealing the extraordinary sonority of the pianoforte instrument at both extremes of its range of intensity. And as it still doesn’t seem to have enough expressivity for Beethoven, short moments of silence are introduced with great skill, leading to breath-taking effect. The third movement (Menuetto) follows in starkly different Allegro tempo, it is sweet and lively, as if celebrating the emergence of new life. I find this contrast of moods very characteristic to Beethoven’s music, it remind me of his fifth and ninth symphonies. The fourth movement (Rondo) continues in the same tempo and positive, affirmative tone. In this part of the piece I feel that the expressiveness is delivered by virtuosic passages of not quite regular rhythms and unusual harmonic modulations.

 

Middle period

This period is considered to follow an emotional crisis in Beethoven’s life brought about by his hearing loss, which pushed him into a depressive state and isolation in 1802. As he expressed it in the letter addressed to his brothers, later known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven survived a state of despair bordering to suicide during the fall of 1802 when he was living in the quiet town Heiligenstadt. This was a time of radical inner transformation for him, the composer gradually regaining control over his life reconciling with his incurable illness, finding sublime consolation in music. With the decline of his hearing came an escalation of his musical ambitions leading him to write music of sophistication and novelty never seen before. It appears that as a consequence of sensory and social isolation he became increasingly introspective, exploring the inner depths of his mind, which will be reflected in his later music. Another important factor influencing his music was his admiration and later disillusionment in Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he regarded as the leading force behind the reorganisation of the European societies and who caused major disappointment to Beethoven when he crowned himself emperor. In the same time, Beethoven was already considered the leading figure of European music, and he was offered a lifetime annuity by his most influential patrons, Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Kinsky and Archduke Rudolf, with the only condition to remain in Vienna. As a consequence, Beethoven enjoyed a level of freedom and never experienced by a composer before his time, allowing him time to gradually build up and polish each piece of work that he composed. He was striving to create something new with each of his compositions. Also, the narrative and dramatic element in his music gained a central importance.

 

Symphony No. 3

The 3rd symphony is an ambitious experimental composition of a large scale unprecedented before and with a declared scope of self-expression. The symphony has a strong narrative and autobiographical character. The person initially inspiring this symphony was Napoleon Bonaparte in an analogy with Prometheus – a partly-mortal-partly-mythical character bringing fire, light and freedom to people. However, Beethoven’s own struggle with illness and pending doom also seems to penetrate through the music (as it is suggested in most sources), providing direct personal drive and power to it, which is manifest in the large scale and expressive depth of the symphony.

The first movement Allegro con brio emanates an immense sense of power and determination, introducing the heroic personality, struggling with his inner destructive tendencies. The latter is reflected in dissonant seventh chords, a descent from the E flat major tone to the darker G minor through a chromatic C sharp and the interruption of the triple meter beat by intrusive short double beat sequences in the exposition. The movement leads to a triumph of harmony over chaos in the development section, with the dissonant and dysrhythmic elements missing in the recapitulation and the coda. The second movement, Marcia funebre Adagio assai is a solemn funeral march. There are two themes and two scales competing with each other (C minor contrasting with C major), the low tone, slow, dark, serious starting theme side by side with a lighter theme played by high violins and woodwinds, evoking life, dreams and perhaps illusions that have been left behind. The third movement Scherzo. Allegro vivace represents one of Beethoven’s innovations of musical form, i.e. replacing the classical minuet with a more passionate scherzo style. It turns the musical journey back to a lively tempo and brilliant melodic mosaics complementing each other to lead the music towards an uplifting moment at the end of the movement. This connects seamlessly with the fourth movement Finale. Allegro molto with a playful, almost humorous theme taking away the burden of any earthly worries, introducing a long celebratory episode representing the transcendence of the human condition into eternity by music that equally stimulates the senses, the intellect and emotions.

 

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

This piece is an example from the middle period of Beethoven’s musical development. It was premiered in the home of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, and presented to the larger public on 22 December 1808. The latter concert was Beethoven’s last public performance as a soloist with an orchestra, due to his progressing hearing loss. The concerto sets the standard for the genre of Symphonic Concerto, in which the solo piano and orchestra are regarded as equals, having an approximately equal share of the thematic material. Pianoforte instruments of the time were still rather fragile constructions, hardly bearing the demands of such pieces requiring both force and virtuosity. However, compositions like the 4th concerto had fuelled demand for a series of improvements by manufacturers.

In his 4th Piano Concerto Beethoven continues to stay loosely connected to the classical style, making radical changes to this form according to his creative wishes. It is a three movement piece starting with a first movement in Allegro moderato, featuring a rather unusual double exposition (two separately composed themes rather than the same exposition repeated by solo instrument and orchestra) where the piano introduces the first theme in G major, followed by the orchestra introducing the second theme in B major. A bit later a third theme is introduced in A minor, making the movement very rich in melodic material. The second movement Andante con moto is an example of the representation of romantic heroism in music. Here the gentle and poetic sound of the piano competes with, and eventually overcomes a heavy string section playing a dark theme in a serious, robust, menacing manner. This is one of the most lyrical andante movements composed by Beethoven, building up a quietly optimistic atmosphere, anticipating the triumphant and radiant third movement Rondo (Vivace). In this latter movement piano and orchestra rejoice in a magnificent celebratory force, providing a brilliant framework for episodes of virtuosic pianistic cadenzas. Cadenzas for this movement have been composed by several generations of pianists and composers, including Clara Schumann, Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Rubinstein and Marc-Andre Hamelin.

 

Late period

 

In his late period, lasting from 1815 to his death in 1827, Beethoven was striving to develop his work to reach the highest possible level of musical complexity. It appears that as his body became increasingly frail with illness and almost complete deafness, his intellect was longing for higher and higher achievements. His works from this period reflected a tendency to bring together in a synthetic way everything that was realised in music up to that point. He developed further his counterpoint technique and became interested in the art of fugue used in the baroque era (the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata, the late String Quartets, the Ninth Symphony). He studied ancient sacral music for his Misa Solemnis and was using the Dorian minor mode – a scale hardly ever employed in the classical era – along with vocal sequences of fugal structure of a complexity almost impossible to perform.

 

The Ninth Symphony

I would like to start this section with a personal account. When I was a 16 years I was mainly listening to rock music, the memory of my childhood piano lessons had almost faded away and

I was rather naïve to concert music. Aiming to increase my listening repertoire I went to the largest record store of my town, as I had some money, and asked the shopkeeper to give me the best recording that he had in the store, no matter what genre. As you would guess, he gave me a recording of the Ninth Symphony. I went home, I listened to it again and again and again, I just could not switch it off. For a while I completely forgot about all my teenager worries, anxieties and uncertainties, this music gave me perfect comfort, as it has done so many times later. It naturally opened up the world of “classical” music for me, leading me to discover other composers, such as Schubert, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and so many others.

The Ninth Symphony is widely considered one of the greatest artistic creations of the human civilisation. It is a thoroughly unique composition that defies inclusion into any pre-defined category or musical style, but rather it brings together music and literature, orchestra and chorus, past, present and future. Beethoven uses techniques stretching through several centuries of Western music and musical ideas from two or three decades of his own creative life. It builds up a utopian image of the future where humankind lives in fraternity, respect and harmony.

The first movement in tempo Allegro seems to emerge from thin air and the highest degree of ambiguity, reaching an intensity never seen before in a symphonic movement. It follows the lines of sonata form, and oscillates between the keys of D minor and D major, the former sounding dark and terrifying, the latter bright and radiant, both of them powerful and majestic. At several points the music seems to disintegrate in chaos and dissonance, amidst the gigantic confrontation of the opposing forces. The movement ends with a clear victory of the dark side, expressed in the form of a funereal march intermixed with, and concluded by powerful chords suggesting impulsive destruction. The second movement Scherzo molto vivace. Presto seems to continue in the tone set by the first one, with a faster tempo. It follows a scherzo-trio-scherzo sequence, changing from D minor through B major to D major, shifting the balance of the symphony towards the bright side. The third movement written in Adagio and Andante tempos is meant to bring in the lyrical, soft and gentle, something that would counterbalance the dramatic, powerful and impulsive measures that we heard in the first two movements, something that would heal the wounds of a terrible fight. The three movements discussed so far prepare the ground for the last one, which can be regarded as an epic philosophical, ethical conclusion of the symphony, a summary and final statement of the artist about some of the major questions of human civilisation. It starts with a conversation between the lower string section and the orchestra about the values and attitudes presented so far – tragic, heroic and lyrical. The dominant theme is introduced gradually by the lower strings, taken over, reiterated, developed and embellished by different orchestral sections in succession with each other, then unified in full orchestral power. The terrifying D minor theme returns once more for a few seconds, being cut short and sent into oblivion by the tenor vocal voice singing Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy). There is no more dissonance and no more conflict in the following minutes, just a joyful and triumphant celebration of the ideal of fraternity expressed as explicitly as possible.

String quartet no. 13 in B flat major Op.130

This string quartet is one of the latest works of Beethoven, consisting of six movements. The last movement was composed in two variants, as the original one Große Fuge was considered too radical and difficult to enjoy by the nineteenth century audience. Beethoven replaced it with a much lighter second version in 1826, and the Große Fuge was published separately. However, in later times the original version has become more valued by modern audiences. Starting with the first movement, which is loosely following sonata form based on two alternating tempos Adagio and Allegro we can be witness to the struggle between the opposing forces of old and new – the allegro classical template broken to fragments by a rebellious adagio causing disturbance, distortion and blurring. Any predictable harmonic progression is abruptly interrupted by a turn in the music and a change in the tempo, making it impossible for the listener to find respite for more than a few seconds in “something usual”. The second movement Presto is a hilarious upbeat scherzo, which sounds like a caricature of the classical style. To intensify the comic effect, the composer introduces a segment when the first violin sliding off-track on a sequence of chromatic notes is “corrected” by three unison abrupt shouts by the rest of the instruments, like a temperamental music teacher instructing the inattentive student. The third movement is more homogenous in its structure, it is a light, charmingly humorous Andante restoring the balance after the more exuberant Presto. The forth movement Alla danza tedesca evokes the style of a popular German peasant dance, it retains a simplicity and sentimental character of this popular genre, preparing the ground for and contrasting with the more profound and overwhelmingly emotional movement that follows. The fifth movement Cavatina is a seamless flow of music, the sounds of different musical instruments intimately walking together in harmony. To me the Cavatina evokes the sentiment of serenity, reminiscent of spontaneous improvisative singing. It reminds me of the meditative Indian Raga music. It is hardly surprising that what follows the Cavatina in the sixth movement Große Fuge was difficult to comprehend by the composer’s audience. Beethoven uses the form of complex polyphonic fugue to create something radically avant-garde, that even a hundred years later would have been considered courageous. While the previous movements appear to be stylistically relatively homogenous on their own, the Große Fuge seems to integrate elements of all of the previous movements impulsive beat. If the Cavatina was conjunct and homophonic, the sixth movement is very heterogeneous, with returning episodes of complex fugal variations inserted on an impulsive, assaultive beat. At this point we can say that Beethoven wrote twentieth century music in the nineteenth century. To me this is neither classical, nor romantic, but essentially modern music of the highest degree of individuality, defying any attempt of categorical inclusion.

 

References and interesting links:

 

Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

 

Lockwood, L. (2003) Beethoven: the music and the life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

 

Samson, J. (ed) (2002) The Cambridge history of nineteenth-century music. Cambridge University Press

 

Mai, F. M. (2007) Diagnosing genius: the life and death of Beethoven. McGill-Queen’s University Press

 

Wikipedia (2013) Ludwig van Beethoven [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beethoven [Accessed 15th February 2013]

 

Wikipedia (2013) Piano Concerto No.4 (Beethoven) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._4_%28Beethoven%29 [Accessed 15th March 2013]

 

Wikipedia (2013) Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._3_%28Beethoven%29 [Accessed 15th March 2013]

 

Wikipedia (2013) String Quartet No.13 (Beethoven) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_Quartet_No._13_%28Beethoven%29

 [Accessed 15th March 2013]

 

Wikipedia (2013) Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninth_Symphony_%28Beethoven%29 [Accessed 19th March 2013]

 

Greenberg, R. (2011) The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works. United States of America: The Teaching Company

 

Greenberg, R. (2011) How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. 3rd ed. United States of America: The Teaching Company

 

Weinberg, L. G. (2008) Beethoven’s Janus-faced Quartet: Opus 130, the Groβe Fuge and the Allegro A thesis submitted to the faculty of Wesleyan University

 

 

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