A Beginner's Beethoven
When people talk about the great classical composers, three names inevitably crop up: Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Bach, the great composer of unshakable Protestant faith, a master of form whose music embraces the sublime; Mozart, the great portrayer of the human condition, the master of perfection whose music caresses our hearts and souls; and Beethoven, the first great Romantic, the man whose music grapples with Destiny.
The life of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) spanned the turn of the 19th century and saw one of the biggest social changes in history. The Old Order was challenged and a new democratic wave surged through Europe — Beethoven applauded Napoleon's ambitions (at least until hubris made him crown himself Emperor). Beethoven was the first great composer never to be in the employ of an aristocratic household or to be employed by the Church (he had wealthy patrons, but he was never an employee). Musically, he propelled music into a new age: in the journey from his first symphony to his last he expanded the form, he challenged preconceptions and he left a legacy of nine works which have remained unequalled as a symphonic output. He took the string quartet and the piano sonata and similarly turned them into forms of expression that are eloquent, passionate and which reach a level of intensity that, nearly 200 years on, still takes the breath away. His deafness, which started in 1802, had a massive effect on his life and creativity. His single opera, Fidelio, engages with the issue that he held most dear — freedom, not just of expression but of physical liberty itself. Beethoven's music — when compared with the works of his predecessors — seems to be on a different, much larger scale.
Just as he exploded the bounds of symphonic form with his Third Symphony, "Eroica," so every work seems to have a concentration unlike anything that went before. By the time he reached his last work in any genre it was as if that genre had undergone a transformation: his last piano sonata is a vast creation, grappling with issues so complex that the form seems barely able to contain them; his last string quartet, too, has grown from the beautifully proportioned, classical poise of his first, to a spiritually complex, probing exploration of the psyche that sometimes makes the listener feel as if he or she shouldn't be there.
After Beethoven, music would never be the same again.