Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven lived within the date range of the Classical Era. Musically he started as a Classical style composer, emulating the work of Mozart and Haydn. He is a fascinating composer because he began composing in one style, but pioneered many ideas that would be expanded upon in the Romantic Era, and even hinted at some Impressionist Era ideas. While many composers either pioneer new ideas or master existing ones, Beethoven was both a pioneer and a master of ideas.

More remarkable is that all of this came from a composer who lost his hearing!

Variety of Sounds

Tumultuous is a good way to describe a lot of Beethoven’s music. There is angst in the opening of his famous 5th Symphony, his Egmont Overture opens with the sound of a dirge and ends with the sound of Egmont’s execution – heck, even his Pastorale Symphony has a thunderstorm in it!

On the other hand, his glorious Ode to Joy in Symphony 9 rises from the depths of the bass section, seeming to overcome all difficulty that came before, and the opening to the Vivace section of Symphony 7 movement 1 sounds absolutely care-free. How can all of these sounds come from the same composer?

Beethoven, Revolution and Napoleon

Beethoven lived during a tumultuous time. The French Revolution in the late 1700s started as a victory for the common people, morphed into a reign of terror and ended with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor, leaving France back where they started. People felt victorious, then defeated; relaxed, then anxious over and over again.

Beethoven composed a symphony in honor of Napoleon as he rose to power promising to correct the excesses of the reign of terror, but later changed the name to Eroica Symphony when Napoleon’s seizure of power seemed excessive to Beethoven. Certainly some of this experience is reflected in Beethoven’s music as he followed current events closely.

The fact that this composer gradually lost his hearing to the point of complete deafness also must be heard in his music.

Classical, Romantic and Beyond – 3 Periods of Beethoven

Beethoven’s compositions can be grouped into three major periods of musical style:

  • First Period – Beethoven’s music during this period draws heavily on the influence of the Classical masters Haydn and Mozart, exemplified by his first Symphony.
  • Second Period – During this period Beethoven starts to expand Classical forms and harmonies leading to the ideas of Romanticism. Symphonies 4 through 8 are examples of this period.
  • Third Period – By this period Beethoven’s hearing loss was nearly complete and he composed tones that were only heard in his head. He continued to stretch his development of melodic themes and musical forms. He developed new combinations of instruments, harmonic concepts and voicings. He started to blur the lines of music, putting cadences in unexpected places and creating harmonies that did not clearly lead to a resolution. These concepts would be further developed by the Impressionists.

Click here to find out what all of those WoO numbers mean.

Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano, WoO 37

The Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano, WoO 37 was composed in 1786 by a teenage Beethoven. This work is from his First Period and exhibits a strong influence of Mozart and Haydn.

Video: Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano, WoO 37

Adagio from Violin Sonata No 5, Op 24

This Adagio from Violin Sonata No 5, Op 24 is performed by flutist Jean Ferrandis. I had the great pleasure of studying with Jean during a summer class in Italy. He plays a broad range of musical styles, which adds freshness to his classical performance. His enthusiasm for music is tremendously influential, and his understanding of composers as humans and what they try to convey through music is immense. Enjoy!

Video: Adagio from Violin Sonata No 5, Op 24

Symphony 3 “Eroica”, Finale

This video is something different – it is a visualization of the different musical lines! It allows you to see exactly how complex some of Beethoven’s writing becomes. This movement is also interesting to me because it includes a lot of variations on the same melody with a development section that fragments that melody.

Listen for the flute solo around 4 minutes – that is a solo that is often requested at major orchestra auditions.

Video: Symphony 3 “Eroica”, Finale

Symphony 6 “Pastorale”, movement 2 “Scene by the Brook”

This symphony is a great example of the “program music” that would become favored by Romantic Era composers – that is, music that tells some type of story, portrays a feeling, or invokes a thought (as opposed to “absolute music”, which is music that simply exists on its own). The end of this movement uses the woodwind section, initiated by the flute, to portray birds and other natural sounds.

Video: Symphony 6 “Pastorale”, movement 2 “Scene by the Brook”

Symphony 9, movement 4

This video includes Beethoven’s entire Symphony 9 – this is the last symphony he composed, and the video is nearly 1 hour and 15 minutes long. This is a testament to how much Beethoven expanded musical form compared to the Classical Era (a symphony by Mozart or Haydn typically is 15-20 minutes in length).

Not only is this symphony significantly longer, but it includes a full chorus and vocal soloists. These changes to the symphony are things that Romantic Era composers utilized and expanded upon – it is easy to forget when you listen to this symphony that Beethoven actually died before the end of the Classical Era because so many Romantic Era concepts are fully developed.

The link below is set to start this recording in the fourth movement, near the beginning of a famous piccolo solo from this work that is often used for orchestral auditions.

Video: Symphony 9, movement 4

Bonus Listening

The following pieces are well known works by Beethoven that you may have heard before.

Moonlight Sonata, Adagio Sostenuto

This piece is normally performed by solo piano, but this video is an arrangement for piano and orchestra. The first movement, Adagio Sostenuto, is quite well known.

Video: Moonlight Sonata, Adagio Sostenuto

Fur Elise

Fur Elise, or For Elise, was not published during Beethoven’s life – it was discovered after he died. As such, there is not a record of who Elise was, but we do have this lovely piano piece that people have enjoyed ever since.

Video: Fur Elise

Symphony 5 – Peter Schickele

Everyone loves Beethoven’s Symphony 5, and the opening 4 notes of the first movement are nothing short of iconic. This video is Peter Schickele’s take on Symphony 5 using his pseudonym of PDQ Bach, the lost and forgotten “son” of J.S. Bach.

Peter Schickele is a music history teacher who uses cleverness and humor to teach music. His version of the first movement of Symphony 5 presents it as a sportscaster would talk through a sporting event! Enjoy some silliness, some comments on what is going on musically, and of course this great work!

Video: Symphony 5 – Peter Schickele

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