ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Classical Era

1750 - 1825 A.D.

Beethoven in his latter years composing in his Vienna apartment.

One of the major shifts taking place in musical thinking around this time was that music was no longer disposable; each piece had the potential of becoming an immortal work of art. This marked the birth of the concept of a standard repertoire, of works with lasting artistic value. Previously, audiences did not want to hear a “classic” or a “masterwork” from the past; everything was supposed to be new. A work only a few years old was considered passé, and composers would even recycle some of their music, figuring that the original work from which they were borrowing would not be performed again, anyway. Once the idea of lasting musical art took hold, there were all sorts of repercussions and implications for the future of music. [See Western Art Music: A Personal Perspective.]

Beethoven began his early career, as did many composers at the time, as a virtuoso performer. Since he was a pianist, most of his non-symphonic works involve the piano in some capacity—solo piano sonatas, rondos, theme-and-variations; chamber music for strings or wind instruments with piano; piano concertos. The piano was rapidly evolving in Beethoven’s time, and he seemed always to ask it to do just a little more than it was capable of.

Listen to Beethoven: “Pathetique” Sonata, first movement

The question as to whether new instruments were developed to meet composers’ demands or whether composers were simply exploiting the new capabilities of developing instruments is a chicken-and-egg conundrum; it is complicated in Beethoven’s case by his deafness. In 1801 he confided to a friend back in Bonn that he was losing his hearing, a secret he had kept to himself for several years. Once he became totally deaf, he had to struggle to reproduce in the outside world what he heard inside his head, a daunting task.

Beethoven’s deafness accentuated his reputation for being aloof or difficult. He was the first major composer to break away from royal or aristocratic patronage, relying instead upon concert attendance and music sales. Beethoven was not a humble figure like Haydn who could tolerate second-class status, feeling instead an almost aristocratic sense of entitlement—for the respect and privileges due a great artist. These were some of the qualities that contributed to the image of the composer in the Romantic era, to which Beethoven is widely regarded as a transitional figure.

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