Featured Composer  LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

The history of music can easily be divided into two distinct eras: pre-Beethoven and post Beethoven. With his clashing harmonies, dissonances, formal complexity, and unyielding technical demands on instrumentalists, Ludwig van Beethoven changed the Western musical canon forever. Every composer that succeeded him would be influenced by his musical output. Even Arnold Schoenberg, who did not consider Beethoven as important an influence as Bach or Brahms, could not have conceived his ultra Romantic "Verklarte Nacht" without the unsettling harmonics of the late Beethoven quartets. 

Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 17, 1770, the son of Johann, a singer and instrumentalist at the court of the Elector of Cologne. At age 12 his first compositions were published. In 1792 Beethoven moved to Vienna to pursue studies with Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet. Beethoven's non-conformist temperament led to a clash with the master. He would later study with Antonio Salieri. Beethoven's letters reveal the great respect he had for Salieri, the most prominent musician of his day. (The portrait of Salieri in Peter Schaffer's play "Amadeus" and Milos Foreman's film version was far from realistic. Czerny, Schubert, and Cherubini - as well as Mozart's son Franz Xavier - were among Salieri's other pupils.) Until 1794 Beethoven was supported by the Elector at Bonn; after which he achieved fame as a piano virtuoso, playing in private homes and aristocratic palaces rather than public concert venues.

Although Beethoven's early works owe a stylistic debt to Haydn and Mozart, his personal voice still comes through. In his first two symphonies, the rambunctious humor of the third movement Scherzos is the work of a composer with an original creative impetus - at once removed from classicism. Other works from Beethoven's "early period" include the first three piano concertos (virtuoso scores that bring the form to a new level of sublimity and drama - a step beyond Mozart's works in this genre) and six string quartets, opus 18. It is in the early piano sonatas, however, that Beethoven makes his most personal statement. The "Pathetique" Sonata of 1799 and the "Moonlight" Sonata (1801) bring a new depth of emotion, sensitivity, and heaven storming power to the solo keyboard repertoire.

In 1802 Beethoven came to realize that he was going deaf. His hearing had been deteriorating for some time and he now faced the reality that it was in curable. In the autumn of 1802 at the village of Heiligenstadt, outside Vienna, Beethoven penned a heartbreaking document. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven described, in painful detail, his devastating affliction and cursed a cruel world that, he felt, cared little about his agony. He seemed to suggest suicide was imminent. Only his genius was too strong. His urge to break new creative ground saved Beethoven from his depression. If one score can be said to personify this new "middle period" (of Beethoven's creative life), it is the "Eroica" Symphony. At once heroic, disturbing, and rigorous in its use of fugal and variation forms, this 3rd Symphony would change music forever. The famous 5th Symphony finds Beethoven adding piccolo and trombones to the standard classical orchestra. With the opera "Fidelio," Beethoven's music rose to a new sublimity. The opera reveals a new idealism and moral principle. The libretto deals with issues of political oppression, freedom, and justice - all ennobled by Beethoven's music. (As Leonard Bernstein astutely observed, "Fidelio" is as relevant today as the day it was penned.) 

The heroic scale of the three "Razumovsky" String Quartets suggests a new breadth of compositional scope and formal structure. The first quartet of this group lasts nearly 45 minutes. It concludes with a triumphant finale that embodies a Russian folk tune. The lyrical Symphony No.6 ("Pastoral") is a rare programmatic work - a tone painting of life and nature in the countryside. The bucolic vigor of the 7th and 8th Symphonies reveals a new instrumental mastery. With the lyrical 4th Piano Concerto and the heroic "Emperor" Concerto, Beethoven expanded the technical and emotional range of the keyboard concerto. (The two piano concertos of Johannes Brahms could not be far behind.) The serenity and elegance of the Violin Concerto belie its daunting virtuosic writing. It was considered unplayable in Beethoven's day. (This concerto also exists in a strange version for piano and orchestra - an apparent commission that Beethoven could not have taken seriously.) With the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" Sonatas, Beethoven brought a new heroic voice to solo keyboard music. The Romantic era was in full bloom and Beethoven was its creative giant.

Although he had become totally deaf, Beethoven's inspiration burned brightly in his "late period." There are seven extraordinary keyboard sonatas. The "Hammerklavier" Sonata breaks new ground with its turbulent keyboard writing, harsh dissonances, and challenging double fugue finale - music that tests the very limits of the instrument and of the performing artist's technique. The noble "Misa Solemnis" and the great 9th ("Choral") Symphony belong to those rare musical compositions that transport the listener to another world - a tribute to Beethoven's genius and to the transformative power of music. (In the symphony, Beethoven's setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," a hymn to the brotherhood of man, speaks powerfully in the troubled world of the 21st century.) The late string quartets break new musical ground. Beethoven abandons the standard four movement form in favor of six and seven movement works. Clashing dissonances, eerie harmonies, chorales, and complex variation forms mark scores that continue to sound "contemporary" and remain timeless. Beethoven once stated that these quartets were not for the musicians of his day but for the artists of the future. These incredibly original scores remain his greatest artistic testament.

Beethoven died in early 1827. 10,000 people attended his funeral - a remarkable tribute to a man who never cared about the public relations aspect of creating and making music. New editions of Beethoven's works continue to appear. The conductors Roger Norington and David Zinman and the forte pianist Malcolm Bilson have brought new respect to Beethoven's tempo and dynamic markings. While the metronome markings were once thought to be too fast, research by early music specialists has revealed that the music has new life and vibrancy when played with close attention to Beethoven's original indications. Beethoven remains the most original and contemporary of composers. His scores continue to reveal new secrets and subtleties. Beethoven changed music forever. Music in the 21st century could not exist without the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. His musical legacy remains immortal! 


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