Classical Era & Beyond: Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is probably the most recognizable name not only in the Classical era but in Western music as a whole. His compositions are among the most known and loved, and the story of his life is as inspiring as the compositions themselves. Few artists, music and otherwise, have such a compelling and emotionally conflicted life story and put it so clearly into their work.

Beethoven was raised in a dysfunctional home. When Ludwig showed musical promise his domineering, sociopathic father attempted to teach Ludwig himself and damaged Ludwig’s psyche significantly. Ludwig was eventually able to receive tuition, and emotional support, elsewhere, and it eventually became clear that he would be next in the succession of Europe’s it-musicians after the still-living Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven studied composition with Haydn. He spent his young adulthood pressured by the shadow of his predecessors, and received disrespect and doubt as he developed his unique compositional voice.

Most famously, just as Beethoven had found his footing as an internationally renowned composer and pianist in his own right, he gradually became completely deaf. His last compositions were performed and conducted by other people, without the composer being able to hear how they sounded. If that wasn’t enough for a good story, Beethoven was also in perpetual romantic despair, cripplingly shy, and although he loved and dedicated works famously to the women he loved (the Moonlight sonata, for example!), Beethoven could never get over his anxieties enough to confess, court and marry. He had no children, and judging by the way he interacted with the families of his contemporaries, his loneliness pained him deeply.

A fictional drama could do little better designing a story to compel an audience to root this poor man on. The pristine, elegant aesthetic of the Classical era just didn’t accomodate the level of pain and frustration that Beethoven had to express. In Beethoven’s attempt to express himself adequately, he singlehandedly ended an era and began a new one; Classical cleanliness gave way to the raw, emotional and, well, Romantic.

One characteristic of Beethoven music, as it diverged from the High-Classical era works of his teachers and predecessors, was a sense of extremity. It is clear that Beethoven’s own personal pain affected the emotional unpredictability of his music. Dynamics (volume, and changes of volume), are sudden, extreme and unsettling in Beethoven’s music. In formatting his multi-movement works, Beethoven’s works had more movements, and longer movements, than any of his predecessors, as if he had too much to say to fit into the frame set out for him. Instead of the tried-and-true minuet, Beethoven favors a hyper-speed mutation called the scherzo. Harmony moves unpredictably as well, sometimes with speed or stasis for dramatic effect. It’s also heavily chromatic (closely neighboring pitches, dissonant) compared to that of his teacher, Haydn. Haydn himself disapproved of Beethoven’s early works saying that the audience just wouldn’t be able to cope with his ideas.

Piano Trio, op. 1 no. 3

Beethoven composed this piano trio while studying in Vienna with Haydn, and it was with this work the Haydn decided things had gone too far. Haydn told his student that the frequent, alarming changes in volume, as well as the dark harmonies, would lose the audience. They wouldn’t understand or enjoy it; it wasn’t light enough to enjoy anyway.

Listen to this beautiful trio immediately after listening to a work of Haydn, such as a quartet from last week. This will give you the clearest sense of contrast between the two composers, and you will hear just how unsettled Beethoven was as a young man being told to compose in a certain way. In addition to the sudden volume and character changes, pay special attention to the frequent accents, or heavy demarcations on certain pitches, and the many dark, minor chords present despite this being a major-key piece.

String Quartet, op. 18 no. 4

Another shameless show of bias on my part, but string quartets are particularly important when talking about Beethoven. Since we spoke so much about them last week, this is another opportunity to hear clear contrast between Haydn, the father of the pristine string quartet, and his student who adopted his ideas and ran with them. Beethoven’s string quartets make up the core of the quartet repertoire alongside Haydn’s, and they also fall cleanly into three “periods” of his life. Beethoven’s development as a composer is clearer in his quartet writing than in any of his other genres of work.

This quartet is in his early period, but it already sounds entirely different than even the late quartets of his teacher, Haydn. The emotional state of this work is and heavy and wrought with angst. This kind of work would not do well accompanying a courtly cocktail hour and demands to be the main, and only, event in the room. While post-baroque music had been filling the role of light entertainment, it was clearly on its way to being an art form that had serious things to say and demanded a listener’s undivided attention.

Symphony number 7, op. 92

Another opportunity for contrast, this symphony is a jarring foil to the Mozart symphony from last week, even though the composers lives overlapped and the formats share much in common. I would highly recommend listening to this symphony immediately after the Mozart to see the evolution in between the two closely related but disparate styles.

Beethoven 7 is in a major key, just like the Mozart, and both symphonies begin with a stately introduction. Both present loud chords that simultaneously establish a character but also make the audience wonder what will happen next. Beethoven’s rendition is clearly heavier and more jarring, and despite the major key it is serious and profound, with a sense of rhythmic drive as if an important journey is underway.

The sonata form properly begins after this stately introduction, but carries on with the rhythmic drive throughout. The journey is just getting started, and even though it’s in a major key it will be exhausting. In addition to the loud, shocking dynamics, listen also for extended range both in low and high instruments, rhythmic excitement, and surprise changes in texture. Texture refers to the sound created by certain instruments playing together at any given time; for example the texture may change from everyone together to suddenly a quiet passage with only the strings, or a woodwind solo. Beethoven uses sudden changes in texture often to make surprises even bigger.

The best example of a shocking texture change is the end of first movement transitioning into the beginning of the second. The first movement ends heroically, with the brass giving the sense that victory has been won. This is immediately followed by the famous funeral march, which starts with lower strings by themselves. What could this uncomfortable contrast mean?

Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73

Beethoven was a pianist above all else, so I need to include one of his many incredible works for piano here as well. The 5th piano concerto, for piano and orchestra, is a listening suggestion for its beauty alone, but it’s also worth noting that this work is one of the clearest indicators that the Classical period was over and the Romantic had begun.

The piece begins with the most romantic-sounding opening that any audience had probably ever heard up to that point. Mozart and Haydn had firmly established the concerto format with a lengthy introduction in which the orchestra presented both A and B themes, and it would be several minutes before the soloist would be heard. Toward the end of the first movement, the soloist would have a chance to show off their virtuosity with a cadenza, a passage in which the soloist plays alone and can be as idiosyncratic as they wish. The cadenza was initially a way to show off technical prowess, but as the romantic period began, cadenzas started becoming emotional centers of a concerto and not just an opportunity for showing off.

With all that in mind, listen to how Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto starts. Beethoven chooses to have the soloist enter immediately, and with short cadenzas. They sound to me like a medium between technical showing-off and emotional expression, a perfect halfway between classical and romantic.

With all the terms we’ve discussed, listen to this work take note of how many times you hear dissonance, extended range (high-low sounds), melodies passed from one instrument to another for the sake of color, dark changes in harmony, and long periods spent on one single harmony for dramatic effect. In the development of the first movement, the orchestra will sit on chords for long lengths of time while the piano and the solo woodwinds create different effects on top of the chord. There is no harmonic motion, it’s all sounds for the sake of sounds, a very Romantic era trait.

The second movement is slow, emotive and harmonically richer than the status quo of Beethoven’s predecessors. Strings and winds use vibrato liberally. Cadences are drawn out to great lengths, and harmonies are slow-moving because the interest is in the feeling of peaceful stasis. The third movement is a jolly but heavy-handed scherzo, faster and more rigorous than any minuet would dare to be. The romantic period has begun.

1 thought on “Classical Era & Beyond: Beethoven

  1. […] His first piano concerto has a larger-than-life quality as soon as it begins. As we discussed with Beethoven’s 5th concerto, it’s surprising when a concerto features the soloist immediately because usually both A and […]


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