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Remembering Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)


Phil Eiger Newmann, Beethoven, 2020.

2,640 words

Today is the 250th anniversary of the christening of Ludwig van Beethoven, a titan of classical music and one of the greatest composers of all time. Beethoven transformed every genre in which he wrote and singlehandedly changed the trajectory of classical music. Rooted in the Classical idiom of Mozart and Haydn, he paved the way for the Romantic era and influenced composers such as Brahms, Liszt, and Wagner. His works remain cornerstones of the classical repertoire.

2020 would have been the year of Beethoven concerts, but the coronavirus put a halt to that. The George Floyd debacle has also chilled the celebrations. Since May, there has been more pressure than usual to program more non-whites and women and fewer dead white men. Music courses in universities have also become more overtly political. As the quintessential dead white male composer, Beethoven is becoming increasingly unfashionable. For instance, a recent Vox article [2] decried Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a symbol of classical music’s history of “exclusion and elitism.” A few orchestras are even ignoring him altogether; in place of Beethoven commemorations, the New York Philharmonic has launched an initiative to promote female composers.

The charges that classical music is rooted in “whiteness” and elitism are, of course, true. Classical music was created by white Europeans and belongs to the legacy of European civilization. And as a field that prizes talent and rigor, classical music is out of step with egalitarian liberalism. The image of Beethoven as a lone, heroic genius and an exemplar of German achievement is particularly at odds with the spirit of our age.

It is common for woke liberals to vacillate between condemning Western civilization as evil and racist on the one hand and rewriting its history to align with their agenda on the other. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They condemn classical music as “racist” and “exclusionary,” but they also claim that Beethoven had black ancestry and revel in dredging up obscure non-white and female composers from the past.

The claim that Beethoven was “black” is based on the theory that one of his Flemish ancestors had an affair with a Spanish person of Moorish descent. There is no evidence to support this beyond the fact that he had dark features, and plenty of Europeans have similar complexions. Beethoven was never once referred to as a Moor during his lifetime. Even if the theory were true, Beethoven’s ancestry would still be overwhelmingly European.

Beethoven was born in the town of Bonn to a Flemish-German father and a German mother. The date of his birth is unknown, but he was baptized on December 17th, so he was most likely born on the 16th. He displayed prodigious talent from a young age and could play Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at a mere 11 years old. His first teacher was his father, Johann van Beethoven, an alcoholic who beat his son and occasionally locked him in the cellar. He was later taught by Christian Gottlob Neefe, an opera composer and conductor. His early compositions, which are often neglected but nonetheless are of historical interest, include three promising piano sonatas (generally omitted from the canon of Beethoven sonatas), an octet for woodwinds, and a cantata written upon the death of Emperor Joseph II. Beethoven’s style matured considerably when he moved to Vienna in 1792. In Vienna, he studied composition with Haydn, counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, and vocal composition with Antonio Salieri.

Beethoven’s career is typically divided into three periods. (For all the limitations of this framework, it is convenient and useful, and most scholars adhere to it.) His first period corresponds to the decade following his arrival in Vienna. His most notable early works are the “Spring Sonata” for violin and piano; Piano Sonata no. 7 in D major, op. 10 no. 3; Piano Concerto no. 3; Symphony no. 1; and String Quartet no. 6. All of the above are distinctly Beethovenian despite their debts to Haydn and Mozart. His Symphony no. 1, for instance, is filled with sudden key changes and his trademark sforzandi. Its unusual orchestration and deceptive beginning also foreshadow Beethoven’s later innovations.

In April 1802, by which point his hearing had begun to decline, Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the advice of his doctor. There he penned a moving letter to his brothers now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, wherein he describes his despair over his hearing loss and his suicidal ideation. Beethoven never sent the letter, which was discovered by his friends Anton Schindler and Stephan von Breuning after his death. In October 1802, he returned to Vienna, marking the beginning of his middle, or “heroic,” period. The prevailing theme of his “heroic” works is the overcoming of suffering through willpower and self-actualization, reflecting Beethoven’s determination to continue composing in spite of his condition.

The first major work of Beethoven’s middle period is Symphony no. 3 (“Eroica”), his largest and most ambitious work up to that point. The symphony’s emotional depth and monumental scope distinguished it from its predecessors. It was conceived as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, but Beethoven famously scratched his name from the title page when Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804; he admired Napoleon’s genius and heroism but abhorred his imperial designs. (When Beethoven learned of Napoleon’s victory at Jena, he declared, “Pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music; I should yet conquer Napoleon!”) [1] [3]

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell lived long after Beethoven, but one could loosely interpret the “Eroica” through the lens of the hero’s journey. As Berlioz remarks, the symphony is a retrospective look at a hero’s life, having little to do with battles and armies as is sometimes assumed. [2] [4] The dissonances and irregularities of the first movement parallel the hero’s “road of trials,” the juxtaposition of the mournful funeral march with the lively, spring-like scherzo can be likened to the hero’s death and rebirth, and the finale, with its triumphant coda, represents the hero’s ultimate victory. Given the perennial nature of the monomyth, it is not surprising that it can be mapped onto Beethoven’s account of the hero’s struggle.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, written between 1804 and 1808, is an equally important landmark in the history of Western music. The legend that the famous opening motif represents “fate knocking at the door” is apocryphal, but the image is apt, as the symphony’s raw heroism recalls Beethoven’s declaration that he would “seize Fate by the throat.” [3] [5] Like the “Eroica,” Beethoven’s Fifth has an almost programmatic quality, and its tight construction — this symphony is a prime example of Beethoven’s mastery of motivic development — gives it the feel of a unified narrative. The journey from the stormy key of C minor (Beethoven’s most dramatic works are in this key) to the resounding finale in the sunny key of C major evokes a hard-won victory over the elemental forces of nature.

Some scholars, such as music theorist Rudolph Reti, have interpreted motivic development as the musical representation of a heroic narrative. The theme of a symphony in this scheme is the “hero,” and its various manifestations and interactions with new material represent the hero’s evolution. [4] [6] Indeed, the technique calls to mind the Romantics’ emphasis on “becoming” and self-actualization (e.g., Goethe’s “Die and become!”). Whether or not Beethoven had this in mind while composing the Fifth Symphony, it is an interesting idea.

The bulk of Beethoven’s 11 overtures date from his middle period. The Coriolan Overture, written in 1804, is the second one he wrote, the first being The Creatures of Prometheus. It was written for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy Coriolan, wherein Coriolanus, a legendary Roman general, kills himself when faced with the choice of avenging his honor and invading Rome after being exiled from the city or respecting the wishes of his family. A martial theme in C minor, representing Coriolanus’ valor, enters into a dialogue with a tender theme in E-flat major, representing his mother’s pleading. The turbulent development, evoking his inner conflict, is followed by a dramatic recapitulation that dissolves into a pianissimo ending, signifying Coriolanus’ death. The effect is powerful and haunting.

The subject of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, written between 1809 and 1810 for Goethe’s play of the same name, is Lamoral, Count of Egmont, a 16th-century Dutch nobleman whose opposition to Spanish rule cost him his head. The overture is essentially a short tone poem in sonata form. Its solemn beginning evokes the oppressive political climate, and the fiery exposition represents Egmont’s fight against Spanish rule. A dramatic silence, representing Egmont’s execution, is followed by a triumphant fanfare that pays homage to Egmont’s heroism and alludes to the Dutch Republic’s eventual independence. Because of its nationalistic significance, the overture was frequently played during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Beethoven considered his Symphony no. 7, written between 1811 and 1812, toward the end of his middle period, one of his best works. Its distinguishing characteristics are its vitality and rhythmic ingenuity. The exuberant outer movements and scherzo are contrasted by the melancholic Allegretto, one of the most beautiful pieces Beethoven ever composed.

Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies are performed less frequently than his odd-numbered ones, but they are well worth listening to. His Symphony no. 4 is especially underrated. Its Olympian serenity and poise show that Beethoven was quite capable of writing music of a more Apollonian cast, a side of him that is sometimes overlooked. His Violin Concerto, another masterpiece of his middle period, is also a good example of this.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 (“Pastoral”), an antecedent of the tone poem, is notable for being his only explicitly programmatic symphony. Each movement depicts a scene in nature; the symphony contains musical representations of bird calls, flowing water, a shepherd’s pipe, peasants’ merrymaking, and a thunderstorm. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, the Sixth Symphony is built on a foundation of motivic cells that are developed in a myriad of ways throughout the piece.

Apart from the aforementioned works, Beethoven’s most notable middle-period works are the “Appassionata” and “Waldstein” piano sonatas; Fidelio, his only opera; the “Razumovsky” quartets (three string quartets dedicated to a Russian diplomat); and the Piano Concerto no. 5 (“Emperor”).

Beethoven’s late period begins in the early 1810s. His later works are characterized by a greater degree of introspection, experimentation, and intellectual depth. During the 1810s, Beethoven embarked on a study of Bach and Handel, and many of his later works incorporate contrapuntal textures, such as the Große Fuge; the last movement of the Piano Sonata no. 31 in A-flat, op. 110; the finale of the Symphony no. 9; and The Consecration of the House (a stately, and underrated, Handelian overture whose centerpiece is a four-voice double fugue). His major late-period works are his five last piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, his six last string quartets, the Symphony no. 9, and the Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven’s late string quartets exemplify the style of this late period. His celebrated String Quartet no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131, for example, opens with an otherworldly, melancholy fugue that is among the most moving works he ever wrote. The quartet also defies convention by explicitly quoting the opening theme in the finale, stretching to seven movements that are meant to be performed without interruption, and setting the first six movements in different keys. Beethoven’s most experimental work for string quartet, however, is his thorny, enigmatic Große Fuge, a massive, single-movement fugal composition that has been the subject of extensive analysis since its premiere in 1826. His late string quartets, particularly the Große Fuge, bewildered 19th-century audiences, but they are now considered to be among his greatest achievements.

Modern commentators’ overweening praise for the more radical and proto-atonal aspects of late Beethoven can obscure the fact that there is great beauty to be found in his late works. A case in point is the third movement of his String Quartet no. 15 in A minor, op. 132, “Heiliger Dankgesang,” a moving hymn-like piece written in 1825 after Beethoven had recovered from a serious illness. His Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major, op. 109 is also very beautiful.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, written between 1822 and 1824, is his most ambitious work. It is scored for a large orchestra (relative to his other symphonies), chorus, and four vocal soloists and lasts about 70 minutes. By the time Beethoven composed it, he was almost fully deaf.

The opening of the symphony has an air of vastness, thanks to the open fifths at the beginning and Beethoven’s technique of resolving harmonic sequences on weak beats (a feature of some of his later works). The explosion of the first theme is reminiscent of the opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. The dissonant Schrekensfanfare (“shrieking fanfare,” as Wagner called it) that opens the finale is just as striking. It is followed by cello and bass recitatives interspersed with material recycled from the previous movements, and then by a set of variations on the famous “Ode to Joy” theme. Running at almost 25 minutes, the finale is something of a symphony within a symphony, as it also contains a scherzo, a slow (Andante) section, and a lengthy coda beginning with a large choral fugato. With the finale of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven inaugurated the genre of the choral symphony, and several composers emulated his model.

More than perhaps any other figure, Beethoven embodied the duality of universalism and nationalism that exists in German culture, and the Ninth Symphony, which is both a paean to universal brotherhood and a symbol of German identity (partly due to his unconventional choice of a German-language text), is the best example of this. Beethoven’s universalism, like Wagner’s in The Artwork of the Future, was of a distinctly German kind, that which involves striving for transcendence and all-encompassing consciousness. Wagner described Beethoven’s Ninth, which he saw as a precursor to his operas, as “the redemption of Music from out her own peculiar element into the realm of universal Art.” [5] [7]

It is a mistake to portray Beethoven as a proto-globalist who would have been on board with the modern neoliberal globalist agenda. Beethoven despised imperialism and was averse to authority, but he was hardly opposed to nationalism. Enlightenment republicanism and opposition to the conservatism of Metternich were aligned with the cause of nationalism during Beethoven’s time. I imagine he would have shared the views of Johann Gottfried Herder, who advocated a form of nationalism that upheld cultural pluralism. Though he had little formal education outside of music, Beethoven was highly literate and was familiar with the writings of Herder (three of whose poems he set to music), Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Kant, Rousseau, Homer, Plato, Plutarch, etc.

Like Herder, Beethoven loved epic poetry, particularly Ossian and Homer, who were his favorite poets along with Goethe and Schiller. [6] [8] The heroic and life-affirming spirit of epic poetry pervades his greatest works, whose dramatic scope and depth look back to Homer and forward to Wagner. It also characterizes Beethoven the man, a Promethean genius who triumphed in the face of great suffering. It is fitting that Heinrich Schenker dedicated his analysis of the “Eroica” Symphony to “Beethoven the Hero.” [7] [9]

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I wish to draw your attention to the following works on this site:

In reference to Beethoven:


[1] [12] Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven, The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in His Own Words (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), p. 69.

[2] [13] Hector Berlioz, A Critical Study of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies: with “A Few Words on his Trios and Sonatas,” A Criticism of “Fidelio”, and an Introductory Essay on Music (London: W. Reeves, 1913), p. 41.

[3] [14] Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven’s Letters, trans. J. S. Shedlock, ed. A. Eaglefield Hull (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), p. 24.

[4] [15] Rudolph Reti, The Thematic Process in Music (New York: Macmillan, 1951), p. 136.

[5] [16] Richard Wagner, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Vol. I, trans. William Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1892), p. 126.

[6] [17] The Man and the Artist, p. 60.

[7] [18] Heinrich Schenker, The Masterwork in Music, Vol. 3, trans. Ian Bent et al., ed. William Drabkin (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 10.