May 2014: What's so great about Beethoven?

Some people use clocks to mark the passing of time, some watch the sun, but I listen to Radio 4. First thing in the morning, the Today programme wakes me up and in the evening some portion of PM, the news at 6, the 6.30 comedy or Front Row (the early evening arts show) will greet me as I come home. Because Radio 4 provides trailers of its own programmes instead of adverts I often hear about Desert Island Discs although I very rarely get to listen to the show itself (I’m nearly always busy at 9.30 on Friday mornings so it goes on my ever-lengthening list of podcasts I should listen to) which is a shame because it’s a wonderful format and the guests are often fascinating people from whom you would otherwise never hear. The premise of the show is that you find yourself on a desert island with eight records of your choice and very little else to while away the months before you are rescued. I’ve often considered which eight records I would pick (it wouldn’t do to be caught unawares by either a shipwreck or a call from Kirsty Young, the presenter) and there is some debate in my mind as to whether Fleetwood Mac or Van Halen deserve a higher billing but I’m sorry to say that classical music never gets a look-in. It was therefore a shock to find that the most popular tracks and artists on the BBC Archive (looking back over seventy years) are all classical. Moreover, of the top eight pieces of music, four were by Beethoven. My education being seemingly incomplete, I set out to discover what is so special about Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Germany in 1770, moved to Vienna in 1792, went deaf from about 1800 and died in 1827. At some point during this time he became one of Europe’s greatest classical composers (only Bach and Mozart have similarly stellar reputations: each in turn dominated European music – first Bach, then Mozart and then our hero Beethoven). He composed nine symphonies (far fewer than Mozart but more than Bach who predates this form of music) and a large body of other works for orchestra or piano (including five piano concerti for solo piano and orchestra). He was an accomplished pianist and would often perform his own music before he started to go deaf. Beethoven’s deafness was a conductive hearing loss which meant that the quality of the sound was unaffected – he was merely unable to hear it if it was too quiet. This is in contrast to other kinds of deafness where sounds can become indistinct or distorted and making them louder is of no help: Beethoven was able to continue to appreciate the beauty of music – just so long as it was loud enough!

Beethoven’s importance in Musical History is that his work marks the end of the Classical period of classical music and the beginning of the Romantic period. Unfortunately the same word, “classical”, is used generally to describe everything composed before about 1952 (and some of what has been written since) and is used specifically to describe European music from the period 1730-1820. This can be confusing. Given this failure of vocabulary it is, perhaps, not surprising that Romantic music comes from a specific period (1815-1910) and is not particularly related to affairs of the heart.

During the Classical period, composers moved away from polyphonic music (where there would be several different melodies played at once: Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto is an example) to homophony where a single melody (tune) is supported by harmonies making pleasing chords. The symphony was an invention of Classical music, developed to show off the increasingly large orchestra. Mozart and Haydn were great composers of classical symphonies (Mozart composed about 40, Haydn over 100). Mozart’s 40th Symphony is considered a masterpiece of this genre.

The move into the Romantic period was marked by an attempt by the composer to say something with the music that went beyond the sound itself: music that was able to conjure moods, to tell a story (the name Romantic comes from the use of the word “romance” to mean story) or to represent a nationality. Beethoven’s music marks a step towards this from the pure Classicism of Mozart: it is more emotionally charged (and often louder - many of Beethoven’s greatest pieces were composed after he went deaf). The clichéd depiction of Beethoven tousle-haired and hard-of-hearing, seated at his piano, caught up in the music he’s playing is a useful one: the key things too look for in a Beethoven piece are pianos (although not in the Symphonies), emotion and loudness.

Three of the four Beethoven pieces to make the Desert Island top eight were Symphonies (Symphony 7 in eighth place, Symphony 6 in fourth and Symphony 9 in first place) and this is a good place to start in beginning to understand Beethoven’s Music. The first two Symphonies are part of Beethoven’s “early period” (up to about 1802) and are not particularly noteworthy in comparison with Beethoven’s other works but are remarkable for showing that even at the beginning of his career he was going to try new things rather than follow the standard formula. Beethoven’s works are characterised to some extent by a challenge of the formal musical “rules” that had been carefully developed over the Classical period by Mozart, Haydn and others; and his first two symphonies have a Scherzo (a musical jest – the composer having fun with his tune) instead of a Minuet (a formal dance in 3/4 time) as their third movements. The Scherzo from Beethoven’s Second Symphony is not, perhaps, his greatest composition but reveals something of a composer’s sense of humour (it also contains several examples of a Beethoven trademark: sforzando – a sudden loud note or chord).

Beethoven’s third symphony is entitled the Eroica and it was dedicated to the memory of a heroic man: originally it was dedicated to Napoleon (1769-1821 a contemporary of Beethoven) but he abandoned this plan either because Napoleon declared himself emperor (and thus a tyrant) or because he would have lost a fee he could earn by dedicating it to a patron (it’s not quite clear which but the evidence, surprisingly, seems to favour the former explanation). On Napoleon’s death, Beethoven said that he had already composed the music for the funeral (the second movement of this symphony is a funeral march which was played on the deaths of both Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy). The piece is heroic in that it has a lot (three rather than the traditional two) of horns (which sound heroic) and in that it is, at fifty minutes, about twice as long as a Classical symphony (and thus getting through it is heroic).

Beethoven’s even numbered symphonies are considered less “great” than the odd numbered ones (this is the opinion of critics rather than some design of Beethoven and the first seems to be an exception). This, like many considered opinions, is not entirely fair and the sixth “Pastoral” symphony has a substantial number of fans (as is demonstrated by its position on the Desert Island Discs list). The fourth symphony was commissioned by a relative of Beethoven’s patron and he set aside his work on the fifth symphony to complete this cheerful and generally conventional Classical symphony. Beethoven called his eighth symphony his “little symphony in F”: it is about 26 minutes long and relatively light hearted. Beethoven and George Bernard Shaw (separately, they were not contemporaries) believed it to be a better piece than his seventh symphony (completed at about the same time) but most other critics seem to disagree. The sixth “Pastoral” symphony has, of the even numbered symphonies, the best claim to greatness. It is the only one of Beethoven’s symphonies to have programme notes (text written by the author to explain what the music is depicting: these were an innovation of the Romantic period as music began to try to be more than just music). The first movement contains a well-known and beautiful melody and represents the awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the country; the other four movements (another innovation: a conventional Classical symphony only has four movements) represent a brook, a happy gathering of country folk, a storm, and a shepherd’s song. For a visual imagining of this piece you can turn to Disney’s Fantasia which contains animation designed to accompany a variety of classical pieces.

The first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony are arguably the most famous in Classical music: they are said to resemble the knocking of Fate on the door. The symphony is in the key of C minor – a key used by Beethoven for several of his greatest and most tempestuous pieces and illustrates the degree to which emotion has been brought into orchestral music. It is also a very large sound: the orchestra for Beethoven’s fifth symphony consists of a piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, one contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. In comparison, Mozart’s fifth symphony (which he composed at the age of nine – Beethoven was in his mid-thirties when he composed his) is scored for two horns, two oboes and strings.

The seventh symphony is lively and filled with dance-like rhythms. It has had mixed reviews, the most amusing of which is from the conductor Thomas Beecham who said (about the third movement) “well, what else can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.” It still made eighth place on the Desert Island Discs list which says something about yaks.

Beethoven’s ninth (and last) symphony is called the Choral symphony because it contains a choir (who sing a setting of the Ode to Joy, a poem by the German poet Schiller, to a tune that has been adopted by the European Union as some sort of super-national anthem). Choirs were not part of the symphony orchestra and this is the first example of a choral symphony written by a major composer. It also has an even larger orchestra than other Beethoven symphonies. The fourth movement (the one with Ode to Joy in it) is very long – it is in fact considered to have four sub-movements and to be a symphony within a symphony. This makes the symphony as a whole very long and gives rise to a legend (the veracity of which I’m unable to confirm) that the length of a CD was fixed at 74 minutes in order to accommodate Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recording (his name alone makes this a legend worth retelling).

Beethoven’s Symphonies: a summary –

1st: Early symphony – contains some departures from Classical convention
2nd: Early symphony with humorous Scherzo
3rd: Eroica – definitely not dedicated to Napoleon (except for the funeral march)
4th: Composed to please a patron – delayed the writing of the fifth
5th: Most famous opening bars in music. Fate knocks at the door.
6th: Pastoral – depicts a visit to the country
7th: Very lively – sounds like a herd of dancing yaks
8th: Little Symphony in F – much appreciated by George Bernard Shaw
9th: Choral –Schiller’s Ode to Joy is a European Anthem.

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are justly famous but they represent only a portion of his composing output.  Other great works include his Missa Solemnis (solemn mass), composed towards the end of his life, at about the same time as his ninth symphony. Many classical composers wrote settings of the Mass (a set of Latin words used in a church service) but very few are considered as great as the Missa Solemnis (Bach’s Mass in B minor is one contender). The Missa Solemnis contains some of Beethoven’s most remarkable music (the Sanctus in the fourth movement is said to be transcendently beautiful) but is so difficult to perform that it is usually only attempted by professional orchestras and choirs.

Beethoven wrote five piano concerti (or concertos – both plurals seem to be acceptable) numbered 1-5 plus an early concerto (Concerto 0?) the orchestration of which has been lost and an unfinished sixth (seventh?) concerto. The fifth piano concerto is considered the greatest and is entitled the Emperor (not by Beethoven but by his publisher); it was written in 1809-10, between the sixth and seventh symphonies. It is sixth on the list of Desert Island favourites. The second movement is particularly beautiful with a touching, almost haunting tune. He also wrote thirty two piano sonatas (a piece for a solo piano) and this collection can be considered to be the greatest exploration of this musical form. His early piano sonatas tend to be in the Classical form and as his career progressed he became more experimental and pushed the boundaries of what was expected or acceptable. His eighth piano sonata – the Pathétique – is a great example of an early sonata (it is also my favourite of all the pieces I’ve linked to): it was composed before any of his symphonies and is clearly influenced by Mozart; it does, however, have some clearly Beethoven touches, for example it is in C minor, his emotionally stormy key, and one can imagine the tempestuous Beethoven throwing his heart and soul into the playing of the piece. The Moonlight sonata was composed in 1801, between his first two symphonies, and represents a movement towards Romanticism: it was titled by Beethoven “A sonata like a fantasy” (the name Moonlight was given to the sonata much later on the grounds that one poet thought it sounded like moonlight on Lake Lucerne). One of the musical devices used by Beethoven to conjure up a dreamlike fantasy sound is to specify that it should be played without dampers so that the notes blend into each other and fade away gradually (normally, when you press a key on the piano two things happen: a hammer hits a string and the damper is removed from the same string; when you release the key the damper returns to the string and the sound stops. There is a pedal that lifts all the dampers from the strings). Piano technology was developing quickly during the 19th Century: Beethoven was able to take advantage of several effects to which Mozart would not have had access. Modern pianos have strings that will sound for much longer than the instruments Beethoven had in mind and this provides modern players with a challenge of how best to replicate Beethoven’s desired effect without creating the discord that results from having all the strings sounding at once. The Hammerklavier Sonata is from Beethoven’s late period, composed in 1817 and 1818 as he was beginning work on the 9th Symphony. It is long: at 45 minutes about twice the length of a classical Sonata and much longer than solo pieces were expected to be in the early 19th Century; it is difficult: it is said that one of the reasons for its under-appreciation before the 20th Century was the lack of sufficiently accomplished performances; and it is loud: it contains a fff marking (where f is loud and ff is very loud) – rare even for Beethoven.

Beethoven also composed a large body of chamber music and his String Quartets are considered to be some of the finest examples ever written. Being Beethoven, of course, he was unwilling to restrict himself to merely writing brilliant Classical quartets: instead, he challenged the format to such an extent that contemporary critics called his Große Fuge “repellent”, “incomprehensible” and “a confusion of Babel”. Modern musicians have rated it more highly: it is now considered one of his greatest accomplishments and a piece that stands the test of time. Other works by Beethoven include a large number of sonatas for piano and another instrument (violin, cello or horn), another mass (in C), an opera (Fidelio) and a whole host of incidental music and song settings.

Beethoven, then, is innovative, challenging, beautiful and loud. What carries his music to desert islands more often than other composers (it is true that Mozart, with his enormous output, has more total nominations than Beethoven but none of his compositions singly make it to the top eight) is probably the emotional brilliance of his work. His music is less intellectually (or at least, mathematically) clever than Bach and less musically perfect than Mozart but perhaps when contemplating years alone with nothing but a gramophone to keep you company, one turns to music that stirs the soul and which is filled with passion to tear you away from a land of palm trees and sand to the countryside of Austria and the moonlight on Lake Lucerne.