Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) was born in Bonn, Germany, the son of Johann Van Beethoven, a court singer. Johann recognized Ludwig's talent at an early age and tried to make a "Mozart" out him. Johann's hopes of monetary gain trapped young Ludwig in an uncomfortable childhood: Papa Beethoven was known to stumble home from the pub and roust Ludwig from bed and make him practice piano until dawn. In spite of his father, Ludwig did well: at eleven he was assistant organist at the Bonn Court and at twelve published his first piano pieces.
Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis | Joseph Karl Stieler (1781–1858) | Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Up until 1802, Beethoven lived the life of a composer-pianist. In 1792, at the age of twenty-two, he moved to Vienna to study composition with Haydn. Beethoven quickly excelled as a piano virtuoso, an area where Mozart struggled only a few years later. Beethoven was bold in social circles demanded equality and respect from noble patrons without the repercussions Mozart had suffered the previous decade. When a young count spoke during his performance, Beethoven called him a swine and stormed out of the concert, and was more popular than ever, even daring to have affairs with women of noble rank. Beethoven was not shy about his station in life:
“There are and always will be thousands of princes, but there is only one Beethoven!”
By his late twenties he was well established as a composer, and his earnings from commissions and publication was considerable. Beethoven was the first composer in history to live independently of exclusive patronage and earn a comfortable living from sales of his works. Publishers fought over his music:
“They no longer bargain with me... I demand, and they pay.”
Beethoven's genius, lack of convention and boldness caused a sensation: publishers, nobles and the middle class couldn't get enough of him. This composer-pianist period, while containing the seeds of Romanticism, was firmly rooted in the Classical forms and procedures of Haydn and Mozart.
The Grosse Gehege near Dresden, 1832 | Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) | Dresden State Art Collections | Friedrich is the most important German Romantic landscape painter of his era.
Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 13 “Pathétique”
Beethoven's Piano Sonata in C Minor Op. 13, Pathétique, was written in 1798 during his composer-pianist stage in Vienna. Like most of his piano sonatas, it has three movements in a fast-slow-fast tempo scheme. The first movement, Grave, Allegro molto e con brio, has a slow introduction and is in sonata form. The second movement, Adagio cantabile, shifts the main key to A Major and is organized around a lyrical rondo theme (A B A C A). The third movement, Rondo-Allegro, returns to C minor with a roof rising rondo (A B A C A B A). We'll focus our listening on the first movement. The other two movements are on the video if you wish to hear them.
Pathétique opens with a slow and dramatic introduction of upward moving dotted rhythms. This material will reappear later in the development and coda.
After the slow introduction, the tempo shifts to allegro and the first theme of the exposition appears, played against pulsing broken octaves in the left hand:
The bridge or transition theme is closely related to the first theme:
The second theme is more lyrical and has a short motive which bounces between low and high registers of the piano:
As the exposition closes, it wanders through a few keys and brings back parts of the first theme.
Beethoven's development is unconventional insomuch as it suddenly slows and quotes the opening of the introduction, making for a massive contrast in tempo and mood. Then, just as suddenly, the normal development and tempo resumes, with modulations and the bridge theme and a fast version of the introduction theme mixing it up.
The recapitulation is fairly conventional save for another reappearance of the slow introduction theme in the coda.
Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 13 (Pathétique, 1798): 1. Grave; Allegro molto e con brio (8:45) | Ludwig Van Beethoven
String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4
Beethoven was fond of the string quartet and wrote extensively for for it, transforming it from home entertainment to concert music. Most string quartets had four movements in a fast-slow-dance-fast tempo scheme. The final movement was usually a rondo. The fourth movement from his String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4, written in 1801, is cast in a textbook perfect rondo form:
| A | B | A | C | A | B | A | coda |
The rondo theme (A) is lively, in the minor mode and stylized after the sound of a Gypsy violin:
After the brilliant and vivacious Gypsy rondo theme, the B episode shifts into a major key but with a sweeter and more lyrical character:
Each rondo theme (A) recurrence is more agitated. The C episode, like B, is in a major key to enhance contrast with A. The coda ends the movement with a prestissimo blaze of glory.
String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4: Rondo (4:36) | Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The next stage of Beethoven's life, 1802-14, saw his career as concert pianist winding down due to hearing loss during his late twenties. The physical and emotional torment of this disability caused him to avoid people and turn inward to composition. As his style became more intensely personal, he broke the boundaries of the Classical style and plunged head long into Romanticism, serving as both a model and standard for generations of Romantic composers in the nineteenth century.
As a composer, Beethoven labored endlessly, sketching and reworking pieces for years. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven's music was often autobiographical: a reflection of his powerful personality and tortured lifestyle, e.g., struggle and victory, man against nature, etc. Beethoven didn't consider music mere entertainment or expression and stated:
“I must despise a world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor Op. 67
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was completed in 1808 during the height of his middle period. He worked on it sporadically during a four year period, scoring it for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets and timpani. It has four movements, but we'll focus on the first movement, the Allegro con brio.
Like most symphonic movements of this era, the Allegro con brio is cast in sonata form. The first theme of the exposition appears straightaway, played by the strings:
After the first theme is developed and repeated in nearly every way possible, the bridge brings us to the second theme, first played by the French horns in E-flat major. The opening of the second theme is related to the first theme but the idea is extended with a lyrical horn call motive:
The horn call leads into the remainder of the lyrical second theme, initially played by the violins while the lower strings chant the first theme motive beneath:
Again, Beethoven plays with the themes and cadences after the codetta. There's a short pause and the exposition repeats. The development begins with the second theme but soon the two themes are paraded through multiple key changes and fragmentation, creating great power and intensity of feeling. The recapitulation brings back the opening material with a few new wrinkles and caps it all off with a huge coda, continuing to develop the motives and gain energy until the powerful chords at the end.
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor Op. 67 (1808): 1. Allegro con brio (7:37) | Ludwig Van Beethoven
Abbey among Oak Trees, c. 1810 | Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) | Alte Nationalgalerie, National Museums in Berlin
From 1814 to 1827 Beethoven was completely deaf and isolated from both sounds and people. Music existed only within the realm of his imagination. And yet many of his greatest and most original works were created during this time. The musical visions in his mind evolved beyond Romanticism and became increasingly introspective, spiritual, improvisational, contrapuntal and profound. The dissonance of his harmonies and complex rhythms also make this music the most difficult for audiences to understand.
Beethoven's style spans the Classical and Romantic eras. He made major contributions in every major genre, especially symphony and string quartet, and changed and expanded traditional forms to fit his expressive purposes rather than making his material fit the forms. He almost single handedly freed music from the restraints of the Classical era and paved the way for individualism and subjective feeling in music.
When Beethoven passed in 1827, he left a legacy of nine symphonies, overtures, five piano concertos, a violin concerto, thirty-two piano sonatas, twenty-one sets of piano variations, ten violin sonatas, sixteen string quartets, nine piano trios, an opera, an oratorio, a Mass and numerous smaller works. Although the amount of pieces is considerably less than Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's works tend to be longer, more individualistic and detailed compared to earlier composers.
The Tempest, 1826 | Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | High Museum of Art