Ludwig van Beethoven: German composer, pianist, conductor. Was he really all that great? And what is it about his music that has left him his legacy? Let’s find out!
Born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany, to a family with prominant musical history – his
grandfather, also Ludwig van Beethoven, was a professional singer and Kapellmeister (city music director) in Bonn, and his father, Johannvan Beethoven, was a tenor and piano/violin teacher – little Ludvig showed wonderful musical talent at a young age (again with the child prodigy!). His father taught him music lessons for a while, and then he moved to Vienna when he was 21 years old. Beethoven then studied under Joseph Haydn and made a name for himself as a virtuostic pianist. He lived in Vienna for the rest of his life. He died in 1827 after being ill and bedridden for some time.
Beethoven’s compositions can be grouped into three general periods: early, middle, and late. Let’s take a look into each compositional time period.
Towards the beginning of his music career, Beethoven’s original focus was not composition. He wanted to become the best pianist he could be, so he studied under teachers like Haydn to hone his skill and musical understanding. As a result, his early compositions were directly influenced by Classical era composers like Haydn and Mozart. For example, his first piano trio, op. 1 no. 1 sounds a lot like something Mozart would have written (especially the first movement). Check it out (and read more about it here):
Also in his early period, Beethoven wrote his op. 13: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, commonly known as Sonata Pathétique. It was one of his more important compositions published, as it helped Beethoven establish himself as a composer and pianist in the eyes of the public. This work displays some of the key characteristics of Beethoven’s composition style. Have a listen:
The first movement of op. 13 is explosive, almost hysterical, lyrical yet nervous, and almost manic-depressive in its moods. The second movement (9:46) seems to be the opposite of the first movement; it is beautifully melodic and full of wonder and awe. Movement three (15:11) draws from the spinning energy of the first movement and tranquility of the second.
It is around this time in his life (1798) that Beethoven started to go deaf. As his hearing gradually stopped working, composing became his creative outlet. Perhaps the Pathétique was his emotional reaction to going deaf?
Beethoven’s early period also included the first two symphonies. Here is Symphony No. 1:
Beethoven’s middle period began around 1802-ish. His works during this time show off a new, ambitious, “heroic”, and more experimental style. His third symphony is especially inspired by heroism and grandeur. Even the story behind this particular work is huge (inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte; read more here). The style of this piece ranges from grand horns to surprising harmonic changes to a funeral march to complex counterpoint and virtuostic solos. He strove for – and achieved – a more contemporary sound. Not only were his treatment of musical ideas different in this symphony, but Beethoven also used this work as a means to expand the symphony (it’s about 50 minutes long!). In fact, the first audiences were unsure about this piece because of the length and Beethoven’s new, “un-Classical” ideas. Read more about the piece here, and have a listen:
Other works from his middle period include the Moonlight sonata, the Appassionata sonata, and Symphony No. 5 in C minor. His middle period compositions became known for their push away from Classical tendancies and towards something unique built on surprises and emotion.
Beethoven’s late period began around 1815. Unlike the Classical output of his early period and the experimental works in his middle period, his late period compositions are characterized by intellectual depth (achieved through musical and technical complexity) and extremely personal emotional expression. This is partly due to the fact that he began studying Bach and Handel’s works in depth. These two Baroque composers are known for their intellectual composition style, so it’s no surprise that Beethoven incorporated his study of counterpoint in his own compositions. And sadly, Beethoven was nearly completely deaf during this time of his life. One might say these last, intellectual, highly personal works are a result of his own search for self and happiness.
One of his most famous works composed during this time (and some say his entire life) is his 9th symphony. The huge, monumental work requires a large orchestra – the largest he ever required for any of his music – as well as vocalists. This piece is a masterful journey of struggle and strength, but audiences at the time didn’t fully comprehend the strange new musical ideas. Read more about the work here, and listen here (the music starts at 1:51):
Another piece characteristic of Beethoven’s late period compositional style is Piano Sonata No. 30. His second-to-last piano sonata, op. 109, was composed in 1820 and is one of his more intimate works. Listen here:
The introspective first movement is quiet and lyrical, a dialogue between some sort of contrapuntal voices full of falling lines and graceful arpeggios. The second movement (4:31) kind of reminds me of a pirate shanty, a frantic dance full of storm and contrast. The third movement (7:19) is a beautiful theme and variations that Beethoven very carefully thought out. This movement takes motifs and ideas from the first two movements and expands on them all, as if the first two movements are an introduction to the third. Likewise, each variation builds on the emotional intensity of the previous variations to an intense climax. Read more here.
So why is Beethoven such a big deal? We’ve seen that his compositional style is full of surprises, especially during a time when audiences were enjoying the balanced, simple, relatively unemotional music of the Classical era. Beethoven pushed for emotion, complexity, and intelligence in his work. And he was deaf for most of it! His need to reach beyond typical Classical style helped to usher in the Romantic musical era, which was a time when music was full of emotion and imagery. His music shows a passion for getting to the core of the individual human, an idea not much explored prior. Beethoven was early in creating specifically programmatic music (music that describes a painting or poem) – look up his Pastoral Symphony here and read about it here. (While other composers before him had written programmatic music – think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – it wasn’t an often used compositional style until the Romantic era.) He expanded musical form – the symphony became long, and he combined vocal and orchestral music to create something new. By doing all of this, he raised instrumental music to a new form of art. Composers after him looked back on his music as inspiration to try new things and reach outisde of known musical ideas. He changed the very views of music; it is not to be one specific way. Beethoven shaped the future of music forever, and without him who knows how that would have changed instrumental music as we know it?