Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cultural Context: Beethoven and the Romantic Artist

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) played a pivotal role in the transformation not only of classical music, but also of the artist's role in society. Though born to a humble station in Bonn, Germany, he quickly established himself as a pianist and composer of note, studying briefly with Joseph Haydn (see earlier post on him) and cultivating a series of aristocratic patrons. However, Beethoven was impatient with convention (like so many Romantic artists!) and began experimenting with the expressive possibilities of form (similar to Walpole). A true child of sentiment and feeling, even Beethoven's earliest works probe deeper than the more facile works of his contemporaries; he was drawn to the expressive possibilities of the great classical forms such as the symphony, the sonata, the concerto, and the string quartet. While honoring the innovations made by former composers (especially Mozart, whom he revered), Beethoven added a crucial element that echoed the literature, philosophy, and politics of his time. In a word we might call this "romanticism," though "revolution," "rebellion," and simply "defiance" will also do. His music pushed all the known boundaries of classical music, taking a four movement symphony that usually lasted about 25-30 minutes and pushing it close to an hour. And what did he do in that hour? Taking the example of his longest, and at the time most audacious symphony, Symphony No.3 "Eroica" (The Heroic), he created music that spoke of a revolutionary struggle against the world, where tragedy, perseverance, and sheer irreverence walked hand-in-hand. Not coincidentally, Beethoven originally dedicated the score of this work to Napoleon Bonaparte, who at this time (1804) was beginning his fateful military career. Beethoven admired his revolutionary spirit and defiance of conventional monarchy...until Napolean invaded Austria. The manuscript of the score shows this dedication scratched through so vigorously that only a hole remains. Nevertheless, the revolutionary ideals in the music remain, sounding the triumph of the artistic spirit, and the freedom of art to rise above the dogmatic indifference of the unenlightened.

Beethoven began to lose his hearing in his early thirties, making public performance difficult--and eventually impossible. However, it made his compositions grow more introspective and demanding: he created challenges that many players at the time thought impossible (such as the piano parts in his Piano Concertos, as well as the singing parts in his final symphony, the all-important Ninth). With each new major work he made an artistic statement, sometimes defiantly, sometimes playfully, but always conscious of his role as an artist and a seeker of Romantic truth. Indeed, whereas former composers were content to be employed by this or that aristocratic patron, Beethoven refused to be treated as a servant: he demanded respect and fully expected the rich and powerful to support him...if they had any taste, that is. While the public scrambled to keep up with his innovations, Beethoven wrote some of his most important and lasting works: Symphony No.5, with its famous "duh-duh-duh-Dah!" motif (later used as a musical symbol for Victory in WWII), Symphony No.6 , "The Pastoral" (a musical depiction of Nature--very much in the Wordsworthian vein), Symphony No.9, his shockingly ambitious choral symphony, which concludes with the famous "Ode To Joy," as well as several late string quartets and piano sonatas, works of such extreme intimacy that one can only compare them love letters or private diary entries. Few understood their prophetic insight at the time, and even Beethoven was unable to truly "hear" them alongside his audience. Nevertheless, Beethoven wrote both for his time and the one to follow, content that art was the one form common to all men, and the true means for ennobling his or her spirit and ideals.

After Beethoven, few artists were content to hang their heads and lap up the scraps from a nobleman's table. Beethoven's works became what gifts of land once were to nobility--it gave him a metaphorical coat of arms, castles, and international prestige. Though his music and personality shocked the older generation (the poet Goethe, for example, could only shake his head), it inspired an entire generation of composers, writers, and artists. Like Lord Byron, the great English poet, sometimes his image preceded the work itself, with society embellishing his legend to truly Romantic (and at times, Gothic) proportions. One story has it that, on his deathbed, thunder rolled over the roofs, prompting Beethoven to sit up in bed and shake his first at heaven. “Not yet!” he was reported to scream, which smacks more of Walpole than Beethoven’s biography. Something of this legacy carries over to the Gothic works of the period, notably in Mary Shelley’s depiction of Victor Frankenstein, another Romantic artist who defies God in his quest for creation and scientific truth.

Selected Work: Symphony No.3, “Eroica”

Symphony No.3, his heroic symphony, is in the traditional four movements: the first speaks of heroic struggle and drama; the second is a broad funeral march, opening with desolation and growing more defiant; the third is a flippant “scherzo” (Italian for “joke”) that laughs with jolly tunes; and the fourth, the finale, is a series of variations on a theme from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. This famous myth, about the giant Prometheus who bequeathed fire to mankind, was a famous theme of the Romantics—notably in Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.” This encoded reference to Prometheus is yet another link to the revolutionary ethos of the symphony itself, and certainly Beethoven’s intention in writing it.

Writing of the slow (second) movement, Barbara Hanning writes: “It is the second movement—the Funeral March—more than anything else in the symphony that links the work with France, the republican experiment there, and Napoleon. The customary slove movement is replaced by a march in C minor, full of tragic grandeur and pathos, and a contrasting “trio” in C major [a trio is typically a contrasting section in a lighter mood in a longer work, called a “trio” because originally only three instruments—usually wind instruments—played in it (my note)] brimming with fanfares and celebratory lyricism, after which the march returns, broken up with sighs at the end. At the opening of the Funeral March, the thirty-second notes of the strings imitate the sound of muffled drums used in the Revolutionary processions that accompanied French heroes to their final resting place” (Concise History of Western Music, 367).

Other works of “Gothic” interest…
* Symphonies 4, 5, 6 and 9
* Piano Sonata Nos. 8 “Pathetique,” No.14 “Moonlight,” and No. 21 “Appassionata”
* Piano Concerto Nos.1-5
* Overtures for Egmont, Corolian, and the Creatures of Prometheus
To listen to entire excerpts from the symphonies and other works, click on the following:


  1. I'm having trouble with the link to the excerpts from the symphonies and other works . . .

  2. I'm reposting it...try again later. I liked that site since the recordings were very good--most with Karajan, who is one of the great conductors, especially of German Romantic repertoire.