When, exactly, did Ludwig van Beethoven become Ludwig Van, the heroic mover-and-shaker we now celebrate at the drop of a hat? Was it in 1792, when, already slightly famous, he moved from his hometown to Vienna, there to “receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands,” as one patron put it?
Probably not. During those early years, Beethoven worked at mastering his craft under the direction of Haydn and other tutors (e.g., Salieri and Albrechtsberger) and wrote a number of works firmly rooted in Mozartian style. Listen to the way his Piano Sonata in A, op. 2 no. 2, from the mid-1790s, kicks off:
Right out of Mozart’s playbook, leavened with Haydnesque wit. We get a first theme built on Mozart’s stock masculine/feminine phrases, quickly establishing the key. Opening salvos fired, a flowing extension follows, taking us on a longer ride. Then it all repeats, condensed, with register flips and a cadence in A (the tonic). Now the modulation begins, using the same material (no doubt Haydn emphasized thrift!) while veering predictably away from A.
But wait a minute. We did arrive (0:26) in E (the dominant), but it was E minor, a little weird. And you probably noticed that it didn’t even stay there too long—it kept moving, through G major, B-flat major, and finally to dominants and diminished 7ths on E major. Whew. A longer closing section, à la Papa Haydn, followed, stabilizing the new key.
Nevertheless the language was pure Classic, with repeated short cadence strokes, triadic materials, and familiar guideposts used in familiar manner. The rest of the movement, and the sonata itself, followed suit.
If we want to get a little closer to the moment when Beethoven became Beethoven, we should fast-forward to 1798 or ‘99. That’s when he wrote, then published the first of his piano sonatas that wholeheartedly embraces Romanticism—he even gave it a Romantic subtitle, “Pathétique.” Here’s the first movement of that sonata:
Here and elsewhere in the work, Beethoven evokes a soul plunged in grief who struggles to overcome it. This is a new template for music. It goes beyond the special-flavors category of Sturm und Drang, the Classic model that allowed artists to indulge in dramatic contrasts and shocking violations of structure. Instead of a series of witty but politely offered horrors, here we get closer to a true narrative.
It isn’t just a case of a young artist getting up to speed with the new style in town. What happened with Beethoven in the 1790s is known to everyone who’s ever been a parent. The child wants to show the world that he can beat Dad at his own game. But who was “Dad” in this case? Probably not Beethoven’s biological father, whom he had already bested. Johann Beethoven, a tenor at the court of the Elector in Bonn, had sunk into alcoholism and been displaced as family guardian by his son, who obtained a court order garnishing his father’s wages and making him head of the household.
No, the father whom Beethoven now sought to displace was his teacher Haydn, the Grand Old Man of European music. In the last years of the 18th century and the first of the 19th, Ludwig van Beethoven systematically composed, performed, and published works in every genre in which Joseph Haydn had distinguished himself. These included not only piano sonatas but also symphonies, string quartets, even a Mass and oratorio.
Of his early efforts to master these genres, Beethoven’s op. 18 string quartets—published in 1800 as a set of six, just like Papa in his prime—may be the most important. In them Beethoven acknowledged his debt to Mozart and Haydn but also began to stride past them. Listen to the slow movement of no. 1, for example:
Many of Haydn’s quartet slow movements serve as an interval of relief or consolation after a more strenuous first movement and before returning to a vigorous scherzo and finale. In this Adagio, Beethoven offered no relief. Instead, as he told a friend, he had been inspired by the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet, creating an impassioned setting in which the lovers’ dilemma is depicted with increasingly desperate tonal language as it approaches a tragic climax:
Yes, that was from the “development” section—unlike many slow movements, this one adopts full-blown sonata form, the better to construct a storyline with a climactic crisis point—definitely not your father’s Adagio.
Elsewhere in the op. 18 cycle, Beethoven goes over the top with eccentric syncopations and mashed-up meters, the kind of device that Haydn played with but never carried to such extremes:
That was the Scherzo from op. 18 no. 6, the finale of which is marked Malinconia (“Melancholy”) and begins with a slow, somber, mood-evoking prelude at least as programmatic as the grandiose introduction to the Pathétique sonata. Twice it interrupts the uptempo danza alla tedesca that follows, lending a deeper sense of psychological realism to the Struggle Leading to Triumph trope that Beethoven would increasingly employ in years to come. (In the video below, the finale begins at 18:24.)
We have now arrived at Beethoven’s earliest symphonies and piano concertos. Haydn had written over a hundred symphonies—he was the legendary “father” of that genre, as he had been dubbed the “father” of the string quartet—so it was inevitable that Beethoven would have to display his own wares in a symphony, the most public of all contemporary forms. His Symphony No. 1 in C Major op. 21 seems to comment on the Classical conventions of symphonic writing even as it observes them.
But first, some background information: did you know that one of the most common ways of beginning a piece in the 18th century was to strike a chord? Listen:
The third clip is baby Mozart’s piano concerto modeled after (okay, copied from) J. C. Bach’s piano sonata, which you heard in the second clip. All those opening chords have one thing in common—they sound the tonic, or home-base, harmony, giving us I (the so-called “One” Chord) straightaway. Now listen to the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1:
Instead of I, he gives us a series of three separate chord progressions, i.e., V7 to I (or in the second progression, V7 to vi, known for obvious reasons as a “deceptive cadence”), dominant-seventh-to-tonic. Anyway, none of them ends with the real tonic of the piece! It will get sorted out, but only as the introduction moves along. Here are Christian Thielemann and the Vienna PO to take us well into the lively main part of the first movement (although Mr. Thielemann doesn’t let things get too lively):
So, is this Beethoven breaking away? Actually, it’s more like him photo-bombing a family portrait. He’s still in the picture with his elders: Haydn himself used similar devices in slow introductions to some of his “London” symphonies. But his erstwhile student now presents the trick in more radical fashion. Still, we can hear Beethoven’s first two symphonies as rougher incarnations of Haydn.
To get to the Real Beethoven, we will need to move ahead to the year 1804. It was a tumultuous time for the composer, who had begun to face a personal issue—his hearing loss—and for Europe as well. Napoleon Bonaparte had emerged as a dynamic military and political force. Nobody knew for sure whether he would prove to be the liberator of the age or one more tyrant—a king in all but name, lacking even the pretense of nobility. Beethoven had intended to dedicate Symphony No. 3 to him but then scratched that out on the title sheet. (In the meantime Napoleon had had himself crowned Emperor.) Here is how Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” begins:
Chords are struck! In this case they are tonic chords. But no one would mistake those two lightning bolts for a standard Classical introduction. They lead abruptly into the main themes of the Allegro. Bang, like that. And the kinetic energy they generate never lets up. In fact (as if to accommodate all that extra energy), the “Eroica” is distinguished by something else besides an abrupt beginning and continuous propulsion thereafter: its length. It was the longest symphony that had been heard in Europe up to that point. In the first movement, the development section is longer. The coda is much longer. It just goes on and on, unstoppable. Heroic. (And quite confusing to the audiences who first heard it.)
There are other ways the “Eroica” symphony differs from Beethoven’s earlier symphonies. Its first movement pours out a complex latticework of themes. Only as they repeatedly return and/or morph into one another do we become aware that they’re all related, all derived from the same triadic ur-motive. Beethoven also applies metric mash-ups and harsh dissonance with greater force than was available to him in the op. 18 quartets:
We get an overall sense here that the composer is no longer content to serve up, in conventional 18th-century manner, something his audience will find satisfying. Instead, he has chosen to create music that will lead listeners to another way of hearing the language of music. He’s in charge; we’d better get with the program. It’s no coincidence that the early 19th century firmly established the notion of genius—extraordinary talent, singular achievement—in the public arena. Beethoven didn’t wait to be discovered. With the “Eroica” Symphony, he boldly laid claim to his rightful position. (The finale of the symphony is a set of variations on a theme from his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, which suggests that Beethoven considered creative genius—Prometheus having stolen fire from the gods and breathed life into statues he’d sculpted—a kind of ultimate heroism. In other words, the real hero of Beethoven’s “Eroica” was Beethoven.)
At this point I probably should recap Beethoven’s efforts to displace Haydn in the genres of Mass and oratorio. But the works with which he attempted that—the very fine Mass in C and less-fine Christ on the Mount of Olives—have never found their way onto his Greatest Hits list. In the case of the Mass in C, written for the man who commissioned Haydn’s late Masses, that’s a shame. But it’s always been overshadowed by the later Missa solemnis, Beethoven’s “Eroica” in vocal music. Now there’s a piece that strives to transcend, that demands bucketloads of stamina, and is very, very long—it must be a masterpiece. We’ll get around to it someday.
For now let’s glance at Beethoven’s piano concertos. Like Mozart, Beethoven was a star keyboard player. And like Mozart, he wrote works for himself to perform with orchestra. Whereas Mozart wrote nearly thirty such works, Beethoven wrote just five. The closest we come to an “Eroica” among them is No. 4—although No. 3 in C Minor certainly has Romantic moments, especially in its affecting slow movement. And (as in the symphonies and quartets) from the very beginning of his efforts in this genre we see him tweaking the conventions. Consider the opening of No. 1:
Uh huh. We get the I chord, plus a flourish, then the V7 chord, plus a flourish. But as Leif Ove Andsnes remarks in the notes for his new recording, “By bar 13, there’s this enormous crescendo, suddenly saying: ‘Listen! Listen to what I can do with this stupid material!’” That’s not Mozartian.
An easy way to compare Young Beethoven with The Full Beethoven is to grab Andsnes’ CD of Concertos No. 2 and 4. Concerto No. 2, which was actually composed between 1793 and ’95, before No. 1, is graceful and well proportioned, perhaps the most Mozartian of all Beethoven’s piano concertos. After you’ve absorbed that, give No. 4 (1806) a try. Here’s how it starts:
The piano begins alone, more meditative than world-shaking. The orchestra responds with an even gentler entry. Its harmonies lie nowhere near the pianist’s establishing phrase, nowhere near G. But because the orchestra tiptoes in, it doesn’t threaten, even in B major. That’s what I like about No. 4. Just because it’s Full Beethoven doesn’t mean it’s bombastic or lengthy—it strikes the ear even more tenderly than Mozart might.
The slow movement of No. 4 is another revelation. Piano and orchestra alternate in a fanciful dialogue in which the lone, quiet soul—the pianist—seems to prevail over whatever dark force is represented by the unison strings:
Liszt and others reportedly declared that this movement represented Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music, or perhaps pleading with the underworld for the return of his beloved Euridyce. In any case, it’s a powerful and radically creative transformation of the traditional concerto middle movement. Here we meet another mature Beethoven, the one whose lyrical gifts likewise shine in the Symphony No. 4 and the Violin Concerto.
We’ve been listening to several good recordings of these works. Ronald Brautigam (BIS) has done all the sonatas on fortepiano—very fresh-sounding but somehow right, chock-full of Beethovenian integrity. For the symphonies, I still like Paavo Järvi’s recent cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie for RCA Red Seal—it packs a real wallop but in a manner that seems both authentic and thoroughly up-to-date. If you prefer a modern recording with a bit more upholstery—bigger band, silkier approach—why not give Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS) a try? Both sets offer high-resolution sound and solid performances (except for No. 9, in which Vänskä clearly wins the match).
In the early quartets, I’m still plumping for the Jerusalem Quartet on Harmonia Mundi. In the piano concertos, my loyalties are split between Leif Ove Andsnes for Sony Classical (the disc with Nos. 2&4 is nominated for Gramophone Record of the Year) and the historic set with Leon Fleischer and George Szell, now nearly sixty years old and available in various budget-priced boxes.
Why these recordings? First of all, good sound. Second, strong performances that seem appropriate to the historical context. For years I kept the old Alban Berg Quartet recording of op. 18 on my shelf, but having heard the Jerusalems do this music without exaggerating its dynamic contrasts, accents, and tempi—i.e., without turning it into Tchaikovsky or even heroic-period Beethoven—I am no longer comfortable with the ABQ. Judge for yourself: you can access their op. 18 on YouTube beginning here. With the concertos, I am not yet ready to give up Fleisher. Mr. Andsnes, who conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on his cycle, sometimes over-emphasizes elegance and control. His No. 4 is more poetic than dramatic, and, in a very few places, more tidy than poetic. No wonder the Brits love him.
Some of you may be curious about another sort-of-new Beethoven issue. It’s a Blu-ray video reissue (from Arthaus Musik) of Frans Brüggen’s performance of the “Eroica” with his Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. This was a remarkable group of about 55 early-instrument specialists that Brüggen assembled to do Bach and Mozart. Their 1987 live recording from the Concertgebouw has acquired legendary status in some circles—it may offer a sense of what Beethoven’s original forces sounded like. Try a taste of the YouTube posting:
To me, it seems a quirky mixture of “you-are-there” with “why’d-they-do-that?”. But you may find it irresistible. Be warned that Blu-ray processing will not have improved either the 1987 audio quality (PCM stereo) or the definition in the Academy-ratio broadcast video.
Speaking of Beethoven. While we’re on the subject, can I pull in a couple of un-usual suspects? We take for granted that Beethoven was enormously influential. Everything he did, especially in symphonic music, led to whole new styles, genres, and territories for succeeding generations. Consider the beginning of the Symphony No. 9. Its from-nowhere, gradually coalescing start became a trope and then a cliché. It has been recycled dozens of times, in Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen. But how’s this for recycling?
And what is it, exactly? It’s the San Francisco SO midway through the first movement of John Adams’ 1982 Grand Pianola Music, described in the recording’s program booklet as music that “approaches Beethoven—especially the composer of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto—tongue-in-cheek.” Each of the two pieces on the album “acknowledges [Adams’] admiration for Beethoven.”
the whole vehicle suddenly gives way to a Niagara of piano cascades in the “hero” keys of B-flat and E-flat major.
Yes, those are the keys that Beethoven uses in the “Eroica” Symphony and also the “Emperor” Concerto. Yet I was momentarily puzzled about this being an “approach” to or acknowledgment of Ludwig Van. Then I listened again to the “Emperor” Concerto, which I hadn’t heard in years. And I got it. (Also, I remembered why I hadn’t listened to that piece in a long time.)
The “Emperor” Concerto can seem vast, loud, and empty. It contains many crashing chords, luxuriant arpeggios, grandiose holding patterns and Alberti-bass-like accompaniments. And that’s just the piano part. So why shouldn’t John Adams score a long Minimalist work for two pianists, three singers (doing Steve Reich-y doo-wop in the clouds), and about 20 winds and percussion, invoking not only Beethoven but also (per Adams) “everything from brass band marches to Gospel piano and gaudy Revivalist anthems”? Fine by me. (By the way, I now find it easier to hear Beethoven’s “Emperor” in there than any “gaudy Revivalist anthems.” Mr. Adams may be stretching a point.)
The other work on the album is Absolute Jest (2013), not a tribute to David Foster Wallace—that would be Infinite Jest—but a more serious take on Beethoven. Adams draws mainly on ideas from the late quartets but also throws in some things from the 7th and 9th Symphonies and the “Waldstein” Sonata. The result is a grand scherzo (joke, remember?) scored for string quartet and orchestra, an accomplishment in itself: the orchestra doesn’t obliterate the quartet, which makes scrappy, important contributions throughout. Here Adams himself talks about the piece. There are also some pirate videos of the San Francisco premiere on YouTube.
I liked both works but not as much as some of Adams’ other music, like Chamber Symphony, Son of Chamber Symphony, Harmonielehre, the Violin Concerto, El Niño, and two or three others. The recording quality is quite good, as you’d expect. Maybe it’ll grow on me. There’s a lot going on in there, Adams being his typical rambunctious self.
And that’s all we’ve got room for this month—I’ll see you in October for more Beethoven, more Music Under the Influence of L.v.B., and much more. Happy listening.