I know, I know. Beethoven? This is a site about rock and roll! Its about music that says something, music that speaks out about the injustices of life, that rebels against the establishment, that's full of angst and changes the world!
Well guess what, folks. As far as radicals go, ol' Ludwig was about tops on the list. The reason that Beethoven is widely considered to be one of the best composers who ever lived is because he changed the face of music forever, in more ways than one. Beethoven almost single-handedly took the world from the Classical Era of music to the Romantic Era, and managed to speak out against some of the injustices of the world in the process.
So why write this article? The main goal is to dispel some of my fellow rockers of the notion that classical music is obsolete, and that there's nothing to be learned from the centuries of music that came before Chuck Berry. But also, and maybe this is even more important, its to get you to listen to some of this fantastic music, without being forced to, and without the preconceived notion that it will bore you. If you let it, this music will change your life, and change the way you look at music in general. So lets get started.
First, some background on the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. His father, Johann, instructed Beethoven in piano during the early part of his life, and several relatives taught him to play violin and viola. In his early 20's, Beethoven moved to Vienna and studied with the imminent composer Joseph Haydn, who is largely considered to be the Father of the Symphony. Throughout his studies, he composed many works, a few of which were published, and saw an increase in the complexity and maturity of Beethoven as a composer. Around the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. The cause of this is not certain, and for our purposes, relatively unimportant. Beethoven had several methods of coping with his hearing loss. He had a special rod affixed to the soundboard of his piano, which he then bit, which would transfer the vibrations of the piano into his jaw and help him hear them. He also had a collection of ear horns and primitive hearing aids. Perhaps the most interesting object pertaining to Beethoven's hearing loss are his conversation books: books which detail conversations between him and other people. They provide a unique insight into his views on music and indeed life itself. Many people portray Beethoven as a moody, often volatile man who's frequent outbursts led him to spend the end of his life alone and without human contact. While it is true that Beethoven had a legendary ire, he was frequently surrounded by friends who were attracted to him for his quick wit and strength of character. Beethoven was born a Catholic, and while it is not entirely without controversy, it is believed that his religious beliefs found outlet in his work. He also was interested in the Enlightenment, and was rumored to be a Freemason. At the time of his death in 1827, Beethoven had written nine symphonies, sixteen string quartets, thirty-two piano sonatas, two masses, nine concerti, and a plethora of other works for varied combinations of instruments and voices.
Beethoven was a rebel, rebelling both against the musical norms of his teachers and predecessors as well as the norms of society at large. We'll start with his radicalization of music.
The first main way that Beethoven radicalized music is simply the expansion of the Symphony. Beethoven's 1st Symphony was written for the standard Classical orchestra, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. By the premiere of his 9th, he had expanded the orchestra to piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, a full choir, and strings. He also expanded the length of the Symphony. While his first symphony clocks in at just about twenty-three minutes, his ninth symphony takes over an hour to perform. While these developments are hugely important, they are but the tip of the iceberg.
At the beginning of his career, the public lauded Beethoven as being the successor to Mozart. It is very easy to hear the influences of Mozart in Beethoven's early works. However, by the time Beethoven was composing his First Symphony, he had taken the ideas and considerations of the Classical composers before him and began experimenting with the norms of music of that time. One only needs to take a peek at the beginning of this First Symphony to discover how even these early experiments had turned the music world on its ear. The very first chord of the symphony is a secondary dominant, using a note that is not even in the C Major key that is the eventual home base of the symphony. It was completely unheard of in those times to start a piece of music away from the key in which it belongs. The true key of the symphony is not really revealed at all until after the entire introduction has past. This was a stunning and unheard of twist at the time of the symphony's premiere in 1800.
In 1803, Beethoven composed his Third Symphony, the Eroica. This symphony is widely hailed as the birth of Romanticism in music. In the first movement, Beethoven employs a motive which is essentially an Eb major arpeggio. However, its resolution is to C#, a note that has absolutely nothing to do with the key of Eb Major. The second movement plays with the listeners emotions, taking us from a funeral dirge to transcendent major harmonies. The scherzo employs one of the first use of French Horn as a melodic instrument in a Symphony, and when woven together, it is a tapestry of human struggle and triumph. It is perhaps the most emotionally charged work of music to date, and it thumbs its nose at the ideas that music needs to be high-brow, classy, and elegant.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony again treaded unfamiliar ground. The First Movement may be the most played of any piece of music Beethoven ever wrote. Its musical importance, however, is that it is the first time that a single motive has been the subject of an entire symphonic movement. Again, Beethoven had done something that had never been done before.
And then we come to the Ninth. The last Symphony Beethoven wrote was one of epic proportions. As we have already discovered, it is huge in comparison to other symphonies, calling on mammoth orchestral forces and taking over an hour to complete. But, the music itself also tells of Beethoven's revolutionary tactics.
Beethoven's Ninth is the first symphony ever to pair an orchestra with a choir. That alone makes this piece a monumental work in the orchestral rep. But there's so much more to talk about here. Beethoven begins to use techniques that will not fully be developed until years after his death. Things such as "Cell Writing" in which a single melodic unit is repeated and transposed, as well as melodic use of the tritone, something very rarely done in music of Beethoven's time, mark some of the highlights of this monumental work. The last movement is often referred to as "A Symphony within a Symphony." At over 22 minutes long, it is a monster for symphonies of the day. In fact, the last movement itself is about the length of Beethoven's entire 1st Symphony. The text Beethoven used for the choir is a poem by Gunther Schiller called "An die Freude" or "To Joy." For the record, the text does NOT mean "Joyful Joyful we adore thee" as is commonly found in some Protestant Hymnals. If you would like to read the text, simply type "Beethoven 9" into Wikipedia, and it'll be there for your reading pleasure.
This ends our discussion on the manner in which Beethoven changed music, but what I have given you is really only scratching the surface. Entire books could be devoted to the subject at hand, but, in the interest of not typing for the next seven days, lets move on.
As I mentioned previously, Beethoven was very interested in the ideas of the Enlightenment. At the end of the 18th century, he was especially enamored with Napolean, then First Councilor. In fact, as he was writing his Third Symphony, he named it "Napolean." Right around the time Beethoven completed this epic work, Napolean made his true intentions known, and this drew the ire of the sometimes volatile Beethoven. After already promising the score to Bonaparte, he, in a fit of rage, crossed out Napolean's name on the manuscript so violently that it tore a hole in the cover page. From then on, Beethoven's Third Symphony was known as the "Eroica" or "Heroic" Symphony. How's that for rebellion?
While this particular statement was done on the international stage, Beethoven was very fond of showing disdain for authority. In his early days, he made a lot of his income as a touring pianist. If he felt that the audience was affording him less than their full attention, he would stop playing, either altogether or until he had regained their complete candor. If he was suddenly called to play on at a dinner or party, he would refuse outright. These indiscretions would ordinarily have repercussions from the royalty; however, for Beethoven, it was deemed that rules of the court did not apply. Beethoven was a man above the law. (Well, not really, but you get what I mean.)
You see? Its very important to recognize Beethoven for what he was, a catalyst of change. In considering his music, Leonard Bernstein says (and I'm paraphrasing) that a lot of what Beethoven did was not the most perfect. He spent his entire life trying to write a decent fugue, his settings of texts sometimes do not make the greatest sense, his instrumentation was sometimes outright bad, and he never succeeded in writing a masterful opera (although he did write one, "Fidelio", it was a critical failure.) However, the joy in Beethoven lies in the fact that nobody before him, and nobody since him has had such an acute sense of what music should sound like. When listening to a Beethoven melody, one knows what note is coming next, because it is the only note that can come next. Beethoven has a way of inviting the inevitable.
I sincerely hope you enjoyed our look into the past, and I hope you've realized that Beethoven, though he may have lived 200 years ago, his music, and his life, is still relevant today. When listening to Beethoven, you should strive to listen to the entire work, not just excerpts. Everybody knows the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth, but can you give me more than the first few bars? You might be surprised to learn what comes after that famous "Fate" motive.