THE great debate in music is whether Beethoven was a Classical or Romantic composer. Heck, I had to write a paper on this very question for my high school music theory class. I took the position that Beethoven had clearly been a Classical composer at the start of his career, but by 1803 had evolved to become Beethoven—a singular genius who existed outside of any recognized aesthetic and anticipating music that wouldn’t be composed for more than a century later. Spoiler alert: I did not get a very good grade on my paper, but I continue to hold that opinion today.
Beethoven was the undisputed titan of his age, revered both during his lifetime and afterwards. Even half a century after he died, Beethoven’s music continued to dominate concert programs, even as it continues to do so today. No composer has more keenly tapped into that central struggle of what it means to be human and perhaps that is why his music continues to speak to us like none other.
But even setting aside his uniquely enduring popularity, Beethoven’s music went beyond merely revolutionary. Yes, Monteverdi nearly single-handedly dragged Renaissance music into the Baroque, but Beethoven’s revolutionary compositions were of a completely different scale. I’ve gone to many concerts where 20th century composers’ works were featured alongside Beethoven’s—only to come away with the impression that it was Beethoven’s music that was the most edgy, difficult, and distinctly contemporary.
This view is far from unanimous. As I’ve said previously, the English composer/documentarian Howard Goodall has animated quite a lot of my thinking here and he takes a decidedly contrary view: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/beethoven/guides/howard-goodall-beethoven/. Incidentally, the very reason that Goodall cites for not loving Beethoven—“I feel quite strongly the presence of the composer in every nuance, every detailed instruction, every decision he makes”—is exactly why I love Beethoven so much. I am no composer, but my personal Conversation with Beethoven is the strongest of any composer. That, in a nutshell, is why I love art—the private, emotional dialogue with artists across time and space.
Beethoven began his career as a true Mozartian, turning out lovely, Classical scores—mostly for piano, where his prowess rivaled Mozart himself. Indeed, Beethoven was also a child prodigy—and very much the tormented child prodigy that everyone wrongly believes that Mozart was. Leopold Mozart may have been strict, but he reveals himself in his correspondence with his son to be a truly loving father, who was bearing the burden of raising a genius in a field in which he also excelled. Leopold’s guidance, advice, love and admiration for his son is unmistakable.
Beethoven, in contrast, was not so lucky. His entire adolescence coincided with Mozart’s prime and, let’s face it—why go see the copy when the original is still around? Beethoven was raised to be the next Mozart and, when Mozart died in 1791 and Beethoven celebrated his 21st birthday, he was, in a sense, released from the burden of competing with a living god. Art had to move forward and Mozart had given Beethoven the cues on where to go next.
Let’s pick up the story in 1798-1804, the start of Beethoven’s middle period. Deafness was already encroaching on him and his production had noticeably slowed. As his hearing problems first manifested at upper ranges, these pieces reveal a shift to lower registers where his hearing was still intact. Ultimately, Beethoven would rely on the vibrations created by these lower notes to test his musical ideas before ultimately composing entirely in his mind.
Here are three standout works from that period. Beethoven composed over 700 works in his lifetime, but only the major works are afforded an “opus” number. As with Bach and Mozart before him, choosing from among these is incredibly difficult. But, as pretty much everyone loves Beethoven, I feel like we can pause here with the great man for some time, to fully revel in his art and in his genius.
First up is his “Pathetique” piano sonata. Like Mozart, Beethoven is absorbing ideas from his contemporaries (here, Jan Dussek’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major) and finding new ideas and greater emotional depth from them. There is only one choice (for me) here—the seminal recordings by the Russian pianist Emil Gilels. My father was a very talent pianist, and I grew up listening to him play these pieces and to his favorite pianist, Gilels. No one, in my view, captures the depth of these pieces in quite the same way.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”:
And here is Beethoven’s primary source for this work.
Jan Dussek, Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, No. 35, Op.3:
A bonus Conversation. If you thought that the theme from the second movement of the Pathetique seemed familiar, this is why. Billy Joel took the basic melody and chord progressions, added a back beat, and turned it into a 1950s style rocker.
Roll over Beethoven indeed.
Billy Joel, This Night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNOXu_yoDYI