The evolution of Beethoven

Early Period

String quartets. Op. 18 no. 1

The first few bars of Op. 18 no. 1 are very Classical in their formulation, clearly showing the influences of Beethoven’s musical forebears, especially of course Haydn and Mozart. Although the work conforms to the traditional four movement form one can’t help but wonder if the composer was being purposefully “showy” in his final self-professed understanding of the string quartet.

The allegro con brio is indeed lively and spirited with lots of dynamics and this earlier work already shows Beethoven’s penchant for using the muscle of loudness to emphasise punctuation.

The second quarter, Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, maintains the positive feel of the allegro while opening up the chords between the instruments. The interactions maintain interest through this slower section and surprising fortissimo trills within the four writhing string parts showing that even within a genre that he’s not entirely at home with he’s not afraid to make the audience jump.

Moving to the third, the Scherzo: Allegro molto we’re back in a technical arena with plenty of cascading scalar runs and airy question and answer sections. Of all of the movements, this is the one that betrays Beethoven’s (comparative) inexperience with the quartet with some of the phrases seeming a little too “easy” where perhaps he might have explored a little more.

The final allegro seems the most “Beethovenian” of all, composed of many textures and including lovely octave drops providing dramatic effect. Perhaps showing us the shape of things to come, Beethoven doesn’t worry about making the cello player work when trading lines with the viola.

Listen to it here.

Pathétique Sonata. No. 18 Op. 13

The dramatic and contrasting opening to the Grave section of the first movement is charged within the first six bars and although the tension is briefly released by a scalar section followed by a voluptuous melody, we’re soon back into the realms of tension and drang. We’re left wondering until it all kicks off with that rolling bass line and sharp dyads into the first subject.

Such is the beginning of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata. The musician is twenty nine years old, an accomplished and famous pianist, and his compositions have come of age.

The Adagio cantabile is the one that everybody knows. For some people, this movement defines the piano and it’s testament to Beethoven’s natural talent that this early piece should become one of his benchmarks. There are no histrionics, just an extraordinarily beautiful piece of music.

The final Rondo is a sparkling display of Beethoven’s compositional virtuosity which we can assume was used almost as an advertisement for his playing as he was at this time still performing at the keyboard in his own compositions and for his patrons.

Listen to it here.

Middle Period

Piano Sonata No. 14 – The Moonlight Sonata

This is such stuff that dreams are made on and indeed, the full title of the piece “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” might be translated as “Sonata in the style/manner of a fantasy”.

Beethoven is clearly an older, more experienced composer and this first movement could be seen as a mirror of his darkening humour as he has to come to terms with his increasing deafness. The music moves forward smoothly, driven by the patterns of arpeggios that define the piece.

Just a few crescendos disturb the washing back and forth of the melody and time is of no consequence as we feel how the music should be, then hear it, as if we were part of the composition process and we understand exactly what Beethoven’s saying. This music could have sounded no other way.

A much lighter movement follows with the Allegretto, the composer puts us back on familiar ground in providing an easy to consume section that would, to any other composer, be simply magnificent. Unfortunately, the composer’s Beethoven, and the Allegretto’s sandwiched between two other absolutely outstanding movements.

Finally the Presto agitato  unleashes all of the frustration that was promised in the repressed first movement. Here is the composer telling us what he feels in a furious release of technical artistry. Beethoven had written the Heilgenstadt Testament in 1802, trying to explain to his family how he felt about his increasing loss of hearing and how thoughts of death accompanied him. He was angry, frustrated, and a genius. With this in mind we might not think of the first movement being “romantic” in the passionate sense, rather a sullen drawing back of the fist, ready to hit and keep on hitting until the world understands.

Listen to it here.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55

Beethoven’s Eroica (Heroic) symphony was composed with the image of a hero in a time of enlightenment and change in Europe. This more than any other work defines the composer’s middle period. Originally dedicated to Napoléon Bonaparte (although this dedication was removed when Beethoven learnt that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor), this is a long work in four movements which includes a funeral march, allegedly written for the military leader.

The first movement, Allegro con brio, gives no quarter as it throws itself upon us with two orchestral bursts and swathes of staccato violin. As the movement settles down we’re given lush legato strings which define the theme and set the mood for this initial section. This is one of the melodies which every man on the street knows and is part of the reason that Beethoven is so revered. These momentous themes just keep coming.

The second, Marcia funebre (along with Barber’s adagio for strings), has become a staple for solemn moments and although dealing with a dark subject, might give us an idea of Beethoven’s feelings at the time. As previously mentioned, he had written the cathartic Heilgenstadt Testament in 1802 and had possibly arrived at the realisation that although he might not be able to hear in the conventional sense, he could still compose and hear the music in his head. This funeral march might be seen as a new dawn for our hero.

The Scherzo, coming as it does after such a lengthy and weighty second movement is a welcome relief with its batting back-and-forth of phrases between the strings and woodwind. The shortest of the four sections, it’s the most straightforward and allows the audience time to recompose before the final lengthy movement.

The last quarter, Finale: Allegro molto, is the more technically complex of the four and running to around fifteen minutes makes considerable demands on both the audience and the orchestra.

Variations and fugal sections based on previous ideas intertwine with vaguely Slavic-sounding phrases and keep up a relentless pace in this finale with only short releases of tension before Beethoven starts to build again. The last ten minutes recapitulate the aura found in the Allegro con brio and provide a suitably heroic conclusion.

Listen to it here.

Late Period

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73:The Emperor concerto

No. 5 in E-flat major (Emperor) was the last piano concerto composed by Beethoven.

The piece starts with explosive phrases from the piano, moving up and down the range and underlined by three roars from the orchestra until we’re off and are presented with the first subject. This first allegro is broadly in sonata form and is, at around twenty one minutes, quite long. The moniker “Emperor” wasn’t given by Beethoven but by a friend and the music lives up to this with its grandiose entrance. This atmosphere of royalty is kept up throughout this first section with orchestra and piano trading places for the most haughty expression of the themes that are presented as we progress.

The second, an Adagio un poco mosso, rolls gently in with expansive top and middle strings and strong pizzicato support from the bass. We could be satisfied with just these components for a full adagio but the piano joins them and seems almost distant, not entirely at one with the orchestra.

This calm to and fro between the two camps continues until the piano gently outlines the theme that it’s been knocking around for a while, twice, then makes its move and lays it out forte for all to hear at the start of the last movement, the Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo. Finally, orchestra and piano find common ground and set off together to explore this idea for the rest of the movement in exhilarating patterns.

This expansive, inventive, celebratory concerto was completed when Beethoven was around thirty nine (Grout and Palisca, 1996, P. 554), by which time his hearing was a real obstacle to his playing. The Emperor was the last piece that he attempted but, realising that he simply couldn’t perform, handed the solo to his student, Carl Czerny. The composer was known as an eccentric with an erratic, suspicious temperament, exacerbated by his frustration at not being able to hear his creations. He was by now well into the third and final phase and ready to give the world the composition of his life, the Ninth Symphony.

Listen to it here.

Symphony No. 9 in D minorOp. 125

Beethoven’s Ninth, his last complete symphony, his last great work and what many believe to be the finest piece of music ever written. This might be gushing praise but there is absolutely no doubt that this is an absolutely outstanding work from a man that regularly produced outstanding works.

The composer’s use of a chorus and solo voices in the finale is the composition’s most striking and innovative facet but the piece as a whole rejoices in its own splendour. Beethoven delivers his magnum opus in four movements and within it incorporates a picture of his ethical ideals, religious faith and, as is almost brutally lain out in the fourth movement, his ideal of “universal fellowship through joy” (Grout and Palisca, 1996, P. 559).

The first movement, the Allegro ma non troppo, opens with shimmering strings overlain with cascading intervals of a fifth, a fourth, a fifth, as we are led to believe that we might be in for a soft start. The rest of the orchestra join the crescendo and before the first minute is out we’re back in classic Beethovenian drama and contrast. The theme is worked throughout the movement with plenty of percussion and bass to keep the tension up, the initial intervallic motif occasionally peeping over the battlements.

The second, Scherzo, opens with another brief look at that motif, this time by the whole orchestra, and we move smoothly into a fast-moving, complex quarter involving massed rhythmic sections employing the whole orchestra, moments displaying fugal tendencies, shades of Handel and a delightfully pastoral episode of woodwind, strings and brass passing the theme around. Dynamics are in abundance here and the overall development of the scherzo, loud-soft-loud (or hard-soft-hard) is completed by our familiar theme in the closing of the movement.

Soft brass and woodwind gently open the third movement, an adagio, soon accompanied by strings moving between consonance and dissonance, eventually settling down to a contemplative period in contrast to the turbulent first and second movements. As with the allegretto in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, this beautiful piece would stand handsomely on its own were it composed by someone else or placed in another symphony. Unfortunately, like the allegretto in Piano Sonata no.14 it comes immediately before the big moment, possibly the biggest moment, the fourth movement, and so will always be the bridesmaid, never the bride.

The tension is immediately felt as we rush into the fourth movement, the presto, and the theme that we all know from the finale shows itself occasionally alongside our friend the intervallic theme first encountered in the very first bars of the opening allegro. Before long the main theme becomes prevalent alongside dancing woodwind and the crescendo becomes inevitable and invited among waves of strings.

This leads us to the choral finale and the bass voice coming in with “Oh friends, not these sounds”. Massed voices, soprano, alto and tenor join alongside the orchestra and we’re into one of the greatest artistic creations the world has ever known.

Beethoven was fifty four when he finished the ninth, just three years before his death, and by this time was almost completely deaf to the sounds of the world around him. Nevertheless, at the première of the work he stood on the stage with the theatre’s director of music and directed the piece alongside him. History tells us that the symphony was received rapturously by the Viennese audience and Beethoven, not hearing the applause, had to be shown the vociferously approving crowd behind him by one of the soloists.

Before his death aged just fifty seven, Beethoven had evolved to become the archetypal classical composer, shifting the balance to allow his further evolution into romanticism and onwards toward all modern Western music. He was great not because he wrote one or two outstanding pieces but, alongside other greats such as Mozart and J. S. Bach, consistently produced extraordinary work, despite his impairment, and continuing to do so until his death, proving himself to be the definitive “artist as hero”.

Listen to it here.

Grout, D. and Palisca, C. (1996) A history of western music. Fifth edition. New York: Norton and company.

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