Episode Number: 002
Title: Ludwig Van Beethoven, Pt. I
Infroduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach; obtained from the wikipedia commons.
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale and originally recorded on August 13th, 2007
Ludwig Van Beethoven was one of the most influential composers in the history of Western Music. He straddled two periods of music that we refer to as the Classical (and that’s with a capital C) and the Romantic periods. Classifying composers or music into particular periods is tricky because the periods themselves are only rough timeframes created to help us understand the musical trends a little easier. Beethoven’s music was built upon the styles and conventions of the Classical period but his innovations forever changed the way future composers would write music. His music would serve as a model for many composers of the Romantic period.
Music scholars have divided Beethoven’s works into three separate periods, based upon style as well as the chronological order. The boundaries of these periods are not set at precise instances in time, but they do provide a practical way of studying Beethoven’s music. Much like how we assign names to different periods, styles and trends in Western music, we can apply the same approach to Beethoven’s music. The first categorical period of his life extends to 1802, where the young composer was soaking up as much of the current musical trends and techniques of the day and finding his own voice amidst it all. His first two (out of a total of nine) symphonies fall into this period, as well as six string quartets, three piano concerti and the piano sonatas through op.28. Haydn and Mozart influenced Beethoven greatly, especially the former since Beethoven would study with him. The keyboard pieces of Clementi and Dussek would also greatly influence Beethoven as heard in his early piano pieces.
Ludwig Van Beethoven was born on December 16th, 1770 in Bonn, Germany; though we are not 100% sure that was the day. He was baptized on December 17th and did celebrate his birthday on December 16th so this probably is the correct day. At this point in time Bonn was still part of the Holy Roman Empire and would be for another twenty-four years. 1770 is also the same year the Boston Massacre occurred in America, the English poet William Wordsworth was born, and Captain James Cook claimed Australia for Britain. As a child, Beethoven received music lessons from his father, who was a singer in a chapel at Bonn. His father pushed Ludwig’s progress with the hopes of making him the next Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been a child prodigy and enjoyed fame from an early time in his life. Ludwig and his father never had the same relationship that Mozart and his father had had; Ludwig’s father was an alcoholic and was rumored to sometimes come home from the bar, drunk, and force young Ludwig out of bed to practice the piano until morning. Beethoven never achieved childhood fame the way Mozart did, but when Beethoven traveled for the first time to Vienna at the age of 17 he was able to play for Mozart, who remarked that Beethoven would astonish the world some day. Beethoven was forced to return home from Vienna in 1787 when his mother passed away; he was also forced to raise his younger brothers because his father was too much of a drunkard to do so himself. As fate would have it, Franz Joseph Haydn, who was one of the most famous composers of the day, visited Bonn on his way back to London. Somehow he was exposed to Beethoven’s music and was able to convince the Archbishop elector (who was Beethoven’s employer) to allow Beethoven to return to Vienna for further musical training. Beethoven was able to study with Haydn until Haydn returned to London in 1794. In Vienna, Beethoven was also able to study vocal composition with Antonia Salieri (whom you may have heard about in the movie Amadeus, though his portrayal in the movie is not accurate) and counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger who was a famous teacher of the day.
In Vienna, Beethoven established himself as a virtuoso pianist and with the help of his previous employer made important connections with the Hungarian, Bohemian and Austrian aristocracy. During this time he was able to sell some of his compositions, while performing as a concert pianist and teaching piano lessons. By these means he was able to support himself as a freelance composer, which was not common at this time in Europe.
Somewhere around 1796 Beethoven began to lose his hearing, and we now believe he suffered from tinnitus (which basically replaces normal sounds with high-pitched ringing). Beethoven hoped this malady would go away or be cured but in 1802 he finally gave up this hope when he wrote the now famous Heiligenstadt Testament, which was merely a semi-legal document for his two brothers intended to be read after his death. For the sake of time I will not read this letter but you can read it online on the page for this episode. In this letter Beethoven explained the daily suffering he went through by being almost entirely deaf. He knew people believed he was rude and antisocial but he was either too proud or embarrassed (or probably both) to make his ailment be publicly known. He expressed how depressed this made him feel and how he even contemplated suicide. However, he resolved to continue living so he could continue to create music. It was during this year that he wrote his second symphony. Being deaf did not keep him from composing, however it did limit his concert playing. At the premier of his last symphony, (symphony number nine) he had to be turned around after he finished conducting because he could not hear the overwhelming applause from the audience. When he realized this, he began to weep. On a side note, the 1994 movie Immortal Beloved does a pretty good job of portraying Beethoven’s personal life, though the overall plot is based on speculation. The incident at the 9th symphony was portrayed very well, in my opinion.
Throughout this first period of Beethoven’s life he took Classical style and form and altered it to suit his own creativity. In his first symphony, which debuted on April 2nd, 1800, he follows the Classical four-movement form for a symphony pretty closely. However he gave more prominence to the woodwinds (which was not usually done at this point in time) and his use of dynamic shading comes through as it did in much of his first period works. In the second symphony he decided to alter the four-movement form by replacing the customary minuet movement with a scherzo (which is Italian for a joke). Movements were also stretched by adding additional themes as well as adding and rearranging sections. Already would the standard way of composing set by the previous generations of composers of the Classical period begin to be bent by the will of Beethoven.
A History of Western Music - Grout and Palisca, 6th ed.
Beethoven The Creator - Roman Rolland, 1928