ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Classical Era

1750 - 1825 A.D.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven (1770-1827) has become, for the Western world, the archetypal figure of musical genius; a solitary and frequently misunderstood figure whose works transcend the limits of time; the possessor of a genius so great that it overcomes all obstacles—social barriers, economic woes, even physical deafness. It is not for nothing that the late Charles Schulz portrayed his cartoon piano prodigy Schroeder with a bust of Beethoven on his piano. No other image is so powerful an icon of total dedication to music in its purest and highest sense.

Beethoven pushed the envelope, as we say nowadays, in every way imaginable. His harmonic palette grew bolder and more diverse, and much of his music seemed to lose the patina of elegance and delicate filigree that had been the hallmarks of Rococo art. (The term Rococo is used more often for architecture and decorative art of the early 18th century, marked by elaborate scrollwork and foliage, but is also applied to the music of the early Classical period.) The orchestra for which Beethoven composed became larger, and Beethoven used it in bolder ways. Needless to say, his innovations challenged the critics and audiences of his time. Reviewers called his Second Symphony “a hideously writhing wounded dragon that refuses to expire,” labeled his Fidelio overture “incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting,” and his Third Symphony “impenetrably obscure in design” and “full of unaccountable and often repulsive harmonies”!

Even more revolutionary and influential was his new procedure of motivic development. Where other composers had used themes that were, essentially, full-blown melodies, Beethoven became fond of using a small melodic fragment or kernel as the basis for his compositions, expanding it, varying it, combining it with other musical fragments, until it became something entirely new. A prime example is the first movement of his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; unless you grew up in a cave in the Himalayas—and maybe even then—you have previously heard this most famous of symphonic selections. Moreover, the work’s fame and popularity is well-earned; the first movement generates an incredible amount of musical tension and accumulated energy. Yet the famous four-note opening (“Fate knocking at the door,” as it has come to be known) by itself is rather unexceptional; it is what Beethoven does with it that is astonishing.

An autograph manuscript of a composition by Beethoven

He produced fewer works than his predecessors. Where Haydn composed over 100 symphonies and Mozart over 40, Beethoven composed only nine. Instead of cranking out a set of 12 concertos at a time, as had been done in the Baroque era, or publishing string quartets by the six-pack, Beethoven—as did others after him—lavished more care and attention on each individual piece, trying to make it say something more, be something more, than whatever had come before it. The survival of many of Beethoven’s “sketchbooks,” in which he jotted down musical ideas and various permutations of them, documents the long, sometimes painful process through which he forged his music—in stark contrast to composers like Mozart, who apparently could toss off a composition with seemingly little effort.

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