The Beethoven Connection

How understanding the music of the past can help you in your future musical endeavors.

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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 The main goal is to dispel some of my fellow rockers of the notion that classical music is obsolete, and that there's nothing to be learned from the centuries of music that came before Chuck Berry.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.

Enjoy!

-John

57 comments sorted by best / new / date

    KENZI199
    Interesting article. Well composed and a nice spin on what some may consider to be an old fart.
    Lrn2play
    I like how everyone here pretends they are the only ones who care about classical music. Considering the influence neo-classical guitarists have on this site, with Canon Rock being one of the most demanded tabs on the internet and all, its pretty much safe to say a majority of the people here aren't unfamiliar with Beethoven.
    gnomieowns
    Lrn2play wrote: I like how everyone here pretends they are the only ones who care about classical music. Considering the influence neo-classical guitarists have on this site, with Canon Rock being one of the most demanded tabs on the internet and all, its pretty much safe to say a majority of the people here aren't unfamiliar with Beethoven.
    Pachabel wrote Canon in D which Canon Rock is based off of, not Beethoven. most musicians probably know who Beethoven was, but I wouldn't go as far as saying that most are familiar with him. anyway, good article. you really gave a nice, concise overview of Beethoven and his achievements.
    AtrumVox
    illyria wrote: a friend once said to listen to classical music for he said it is the base of metal. but i thought it is boring. it's got such a dull image. the image f an boring elderly man. can someone tell me classical music that refutes/blasts away this image for me. for i still see it that way.
    Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz is great, especially the final movement which is the "Dream of a Witch's Sabbath" and has some very cool instrumentation and "darker" themes.
    Aliens-exist182
    I like how everyone here pretends they are the only ones who care about classical music. Considering the influence neo-classical guitarists have on this site, with Canon Rock being one of the most demanded tabs on the internet and all, its pretty much safe to say a majority of the people here aren't unfamiliar with Beethoven.
    LOL!! i kno rit
    Syv
    Awesome article. I love romantic and baroque music but stuff like this is great to get an understanding of what you're listening to, like a tour guide pointing out stuff you might not know otherwise.
    RobinTrower12
    I had a great time analyzing the opening of Bheethoven's 9th symphony in theory class. Haha Next year I'll be studying the Romantic period in University, look forward to it!
    duzit89
    there were other composers.. and according to my memory of childhood.. i seen a big f*cking wall of these guys.. and they were all really great
    destijl
    modestguitarist wrote: matt bellamy is the new beethoven, amazing composer of our time
    please just leave here forever i prefer other classical composers, Mozart was a lot better than Beethoven imo for romantic vivaldi + chopin dominate though ty for posting this article, the little "rock" kids are pretending to know about classical music to look cool and smart for people who don't like classical music - it's the greatest music ever written. that's why we're still listening to it 400 years later. we will still be listening to it 400 years from now. it is timeless. i guarantee you that muse will not be played in 400 years, though.
    severed-metal
    It's interesting to say the least. Makes me want to look into this a lot further, i've always enjoyed classical music, and it's all new to me, really. Great article.
    J.A.M
    Another thing; composers like Mozart were treated like servants. They also wrote music for people when required; Beethoven put an end to this; he simply composed music he wanted to hear and if somebody wanted to buy it, that was fine by him.
    Heminator89
    destijl wrote: for people who don't like classical music - it's the greatest music ever written. that's why we're still listening to it 400 years later. we will still be listening to it 400 years from now. it is timeless. i guarantee you that muse will not be played in 400 years, though.
    Like you could POSSIBLY know that. Beatles wasn't classical music but even now after 50 years they are very relevant and will be so for a long time to come. Classical music is amazing yes (I'm not a great follower of classical music. Just starting to get the hang of it) but today's music and mainly progressive is taking classical forward. Don't come here and stereotype "rock kids" and act like an elitist douchebag. Many people (excluding me) are more knowledgeable in music than you can imagine.
    Karlboy
    Very good article. Not enough info to really get the point across, but it definately is enough to maybe make some of the rock-purists on here begin to appreciate some of these composers' work.
    Warehouse
    What a great article. I love classical music whenever I hear bits and pieces of it, but have never actually sought it out. Now I have the urge to.
    Cerelil
    bnull24 wrote: Cerelil wrote: Paganini, Vivaldi, Bach > Beethoven. As much as I like all three of those composers. This is simply wrong. Comparing Bach to Beethoven is one thing, but Beethoven is so far out of Vivaldi and especially Paganini's league, it is laughable. All four were great in their own way. But Bach and Beethoven compete with Mozart for greatest composer of all time, and Beethoven wins over them all. Paganini was revolutionary in violin technique and in composing around the soloist, but neither he nor Vivaldi had anywhere near the impact on music that Beethoven or Bach had. Beethoven was pretty much the first composer to fully imbue his works with true, dynamic human emotion. His music was so far ahead of its time that nobody is comparable. You might prefer Vivaldi and Paganini's works, but they pale in comparison to Beethoven's body of work. From the piano sonatas, to the string quartets, to the symphonies (especially the ninth), Beethoven was so monumental that only Bach and Mozart even hold a candle to him.
    Actually, this is how far the "emotion vs technicallity" debate goes back, with blues etc vs shred. If you are a guitarist and want to get into classical music, access it with neoclassical metal, then neoclassical covers, then stuff like Bach and Paganini. Check out Paul Gilberts Bach covers, Jason Beckers paganini stuff as well, and Yngwie Malmsteens hilariously named stuff (He uses music theory words randomly, Is icarus dream suite op.4 the 4th song he wrote? He didnt even write it.)
    bnull24
    Cerelil wrote: bnull24 wrote: Cerelil wrote: Paganini, Vivaldi, Bach > Beethoven. As much as I like all three of those composers. This is simply wrong. Comparing Bach to Beethoven is one thing, but Beethoven is so far out of Vivaldi and especially Paganini's league, it is laughable. All four were great in their own way. But Bach and Beethoven compete with Mozart for greatest composer of all time, and Beethoven wins over them all. Paganini was revolutionary in violin technique and in composing around the soloist, but neither he nor Vivaldi had anywhere near the impact on music that Beethoven or Bach had. Beethoven was pretty much the first composer to fully imbue his works with true, dynamic human emotion. His music was so far ahead of its time that nobody is comparable. You might prefer Vivaldi and Paganini's works, but they pale in comparison to Beethoven's body of work. From the piano sonatas, to the string quartets, to the symphonies (especially the ninth), Beethoven was so monumental that only Bach and Mozart even hold a candle to him. Actually, this is how far the "emotion vs technicallity" debate goes back, with blues etc vs shred. If you are a guitarist and want to get into classical music, access it with neoclassical metal, then neoclassical covers, then stuff like Bach and Paganini. Check out Paul Gilberts Bach covers, Jason Beckers paganini stuff as well, and Yngwie Malmsteens hilariously named stuff (He uses music theory words randomly, Is icarus dream suite op.4 the 4th song he wrote? He didnt even write it.)
    First of all, I'm a HUGE neoclassical and classical fan, and I don't think shredders lack emotion at all. I'm simply saying (and most scholars would agree), that Beethoven was the first to have true, raw, dynamic emotion in his works. Obviously composers wrote with emotion in mind before, but Beethoven's music kind of smashed the barrier between emotional reality and the fantasy of music, fully fusing them together. And Yngwie did write Icrarus Dream Suite. Only the intro is Albanoni's Adagio, not the whole thing.
    jslick07
    An addendum: The text to the Finale of Beethoven's 9th was written by FRIEDRICH Schiller, not to be confused with the horn player Gunther SCHULLER, as I did. Sorry guys.
    jslick07
    MT_Obsidian wrote: Gustav Mahler is also a very good classical composer-- though he is filed under the late Romantic era of classical music. His symphonies are monsters (the best example being the 5th movement of his 2nd symphony: a whopping 32 minutes!) but their musicality is unparalleled. I always find things in his symphonies that remind me of some more intricate metal bands, like BTBAM. If you would like good classical music, I'd say give Mahler a try.
    I LOVE MAHLER. As a brass player, there's nothing I like better than those giant block chords for 20 minutes. Makes a fella feel like a man. And not only were his symphonies monsters, the orchestras he wrote for were monsters too. His 8th Symphony is nicknamed "Symphony of 1000" because it literally calls for 1000 players/singers. No joke. His 2nd Symphony has 10 horn parts! 10! Even today's composers barely ever use more than 4!
    ammetal4life
    well i dont know about all of you... but frederiko chopin.....is much more awesome....he doesnt care how much chromatic notes he uses...chopin doesnt beat beethoven's greatest motif, the fifth symphony though.
    MT_Obsidian
    jslick07 wrote: I LOVE MAHLER. As a brass player, there's nothing I like better than those giant block chords for 20 minutes. Makes a fella feel like a man.
    \ I hear you there. As a violin player myself, his parts for the strings continually astound me. I always wonder where he gets the ideas for such obscure string motifs that mostly only fit with the rest of the symphony... But the brass parts-- I get the chills from so many of the brass choruses. Good example: beginning of his 5th.
    jslick07
    MT_Obsidian wrote: jslick07 wrote: I LOVE MAHLER. As a brass player, there's nothing I like better than those giant block chords for 20 minutes. Makes a fella feel like a man.\ I hear you there. As a violin player myself, his parts for the strings continually astound me. I always wonder where he gets the ideas for such obscure string motifs that mostly only fit with the rest of the symphony... But the brass parts-- I get the chills from so many of the brass choruses. Good example: beginning of his 5th.
    Well what's more than that, he does it for like an hour and a half at a pop, and he does it one of two ways, and both are equally hard. He either hits you with SO MUCH material, like the 2nd or the 5th, or he takes the same material as would be in, say, a standard Beethoven Symphony, and finds cool new ways to use it over and over again so it never gets old. Either way you look at it, it's genius.
    bnull24
    Cerelil wrote: Paganini, Vivaldi, Bach > Beethoven.
    As much as I like all three of those composers. This is simply wrong. Comparing Bach to Beethoven is one thing, but Beethoven is so far out of Vivaldi and especially Paganini's league, it is laughable. All four were great in their own way. But Bach and Beethoven compete with Mozart for greatest composer of all time, and Beethoven wins over them all. Paganini was revolutionary in violin technique and in composing around the soloist, but neither he nor Vivaldi had anywhere near the impact on music that Beethoven or Bach had. Beethoven was pretty much the first composer to fully imbue his works with true, dynamic human emotion. His music was so far ahead of its time that nobody is comparable. You might prefer Vivaldi and Paganini's works, but they pale in comparison to Beethoven's body of work. From the piano sonatas, to the string quartets, to the symphonies (especially the ninth), Beethoven was so monumental that only Bach and Mozart even hold a candle to him.
    MT_Obsidian
    Gustav Mahler is also a very good classical composer-- though he is filed under the late Romantic era of classical music. His symphonies are monsters (the best example being the 5th movement of his 2nd symphony: a whopping 32 minutes!) but their musicality is unparalleled. I always find things in his symphonies that remind me of some more intricate metal bands, like BTBAM. If you would like good classical music, I'd say give Mahler a try.
    Kylianvb
    Interesting article about a part of musical history many of the people here just ignore.
    demonofthenight
    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.
    Now that I realise it, Beethoven didn't write that many songs, at least not compared to Bach. Bach wrote over 1000 different songs professionally.
    michal23
    Great article, very well written. My only complaint is that I wanted more! :p
    Wolffgang
    Nice, nothing wrong with a bit of the old Ludwig van... Sharpens you up for a bit of ultra-violence... I say this only because I am a self-admitted grammar-nazi, but Haydn was an eminent composer, not an imminent one... Makes it sound like he was laying in wait, just about to BURST into composing at ANY second. Which I found hilarious. Full marks.
    dm1925
    Wolffgang wrote: Nice, nothing wrong with a bit of the old Ludwig van... Sharpens you up for a bit of ultra-violence...
    Love that book. Very good article!
    Phill-Rock
    Nice article, nothing that was really new to me though. Listening to classical music is still a great source of inspiration. Something can catch your ear, get you to write your own piece, and it could sound cutting edge without a hint of classical music. So it still relates to modern music today.
    Vabolo
    You know, a few years back, I could have told you of his surdity, of what he died, and that I have the same initials as him , but not about what he represented for music itself. Good read, but it feels a little short.
    satch_magic
    cool article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm doing a lot of research on Beethoven myself right now and I completely agree with you. I wish more modern musicians would pay attention to his influence as well as other classical composers. I'm a music ed/guitar major in school so I try to keep an open mind bout this stuff. I love beethoven and classical but I also listen to modern rock, progressive, metal, opera, blues, jazz, techno and everything in between. its really worth the listening!
    metallica4life_
    You know, heavy metal probably has more roots in classical music than in blues. For example, the haunting sounds and the change of rhythms, etc.
    Musefan161
    I heard Beethoven's ninth in third grade and made the decision right then and there to play an instrument. Great article sir!
    SpeedLives
    the only thing i found disappointing about this was the length i was hoping for a huge wall of text with tons of details and information XD otherwise, good read.
    MrReMo
    Oh yes! At last! Music! Although Beethoven, he represents the top of the iceberg. Go and find Debussy's revolution in harmony, Schenberg with atonality (oh this is mental), Dvorak, Schumann, Wagner, Mozart and the list goes on and on. Great post
    jslick07
    Hey everyone, thanks for the comments! When I was typing this, I accidentally hit "Submit" before I intended to. I guess the email I sent didn't find the UG team. Well, no matter, expect a part two to this article in the near future!
    vIsIbleNoIsE
    modestguitarist wrote: matt bellamy is the new beethoven, amazing composer of our time
    beethoven shudders at the thought
    GS LEAD 5
    metallica4life_ wrote: You know, heavy metal probably has more roots in classical music than in blues. For example, the haunting sounds and the change of rhythms, etc.
    You know,Bach's "Orchestral Suite No 2, Minuet and Badinerie" has bits which remind me of Children of Bodom's "Kissing The Shadows". His "Toccata" also sounds a lot like the kind of stuff you usually get from Yngwie Malmsteen....
    Icarus Lives
    I will go on to study all this in Uni next year. Can't wait. To author: brilliant article, but I can't help but notice that you overuse the word PLETHORA a bit. No biggy, just saying.