This season, orchestras around the world are celebrating the works and human spirit of Ludwig van Beethoven: 2020 marks 250 years since the composer’s birth.
As conductors and orchestral players move through professional careers, we all become steeped in Beethoven’s music. Surveys show year after year that his music is performed by orchestras more than that of any other composer.
We’re so lucky to have Beethoven’s music – not only is it individually gratifying, but it also has a lot to teach us about the period in which it was written.
Beethoven’s music in context
Beethoven’s music sits in the pivot between the Classical period (c. 1750-1830) and the Romantic period (c. 1830-1900). So, understanding and preparing to either perform or listen to the music of Beethoven can help enlighten us about what to expect from both of those musical periods.
The music of the Classical period usually offers listeners and performers a fairly predictable roadmap. For example, if a piece states that it includes a Minuet and Trio, those familiar with the Classical period will know what the likely structures of the movements might be, and we can take these expectations with us when we listen to a Minuet and Trio.
However, a composer’s job is also to show his own unique creativity – so in any of the sections, the composer might alter something in the music that we might have become accustomed to hearing (for example, he could suddenly shorten or extend an expected phrase length, slightly embellish the melody, or suddenly change dynamics). These changes in elements permit the composer to be a creative artist while also working to honour the expectations of the form of a movement.
The beauty of Beethoven’s early music – which is reflective of the Classical period – is how the music maintains balance between being predictable while simultaneously injecting elements of complete surprise. Beethoven’s capacity as a composer who understood the architecture of form – but who was also able to satisfy his audience with beautiful music and keep them alert with the surprises hidden in his compositions – is what makes his music so satisfying to experience.
I often find that concert hall audiences don’t give themselves enough credit – they will say, “I don’t know why… I just like it.” I am confident that there is an underlying sensitivity in everyone – for the ear and mind to find balance, and to experience measures of variety, surprise, drama, and beauty. Although you might not be able to verbally explain this regarding your own listening preferences, I am confident it is there. And just like a composer, it is completely unique to you.
My work as a conductor is equally unique. Although conductors worldwide might use the same score for a Beethoven symphony, it would be impossible for two conductors to interpret a score of Beethoven in exactly the same way.
What I love about Beethoven’s uniqueness as a composer is that he didn’t let his technical work get in the way of his artistic voice. He was an excellent technical composer – of this there is no doubt. But during his own lifetime, Beethoven’s bravery in his own compositional voice, and how he worked to create elements of drama and surprise, is what began to lay the groundwork for the transition from the Classical period to the Romantic period.
As we listen to Classical music from the likes of Haydn and Mozart, there is a clarity in the writing, and a reverence for clear melody and harmony in order to highlight the formal structures of the movements. As Beethoven began to get a hold of his mature voice, these forms began to be stretched. They were challenged by more elaborate harmonic elements; they were injected with greater dramatic qualities. There are some movements that have great reverence to the natural world, or even humour.
To me, Beethoven’s music is both beautiful and personal. No one else could have written it. It is also important to acknowledge that although we now consider Beethoven a lion of compositional practice, audiences of his time did not always celebrate his work. To them, sometimes the “newness” of his efforts really did not settle in their ears. His output prepared the orchestral world for the compositional giants of Mahler and Wagner – two composers who would then change the foreground of compositional practice for the composers who followed in their path.
The music of the Classical period, and indeed of Beethoven as a transitionary figure to the Romantic, gives us much to celebrate. I mentioned Beethoven’s spirit earlier, so let me address this now. Beethoven was a human being who struggled on many personal levels – he did not communicate well, and his deafness was a living scar that would forever cause him greater pain throughout his life. This led him to write a document titled “The Heiligenstadt Testament”, which was a self-written acknowledgment that he considered taking his own life once he realised his deafness was irreversible. With regards to love and personal companionship, we know he longed for it, but he often had to love from afar. He regularly had to put on concerts for his own financial benefit, and they were not always a success.
But there are also stories of great triumph – of so much adulation from audiences that he had to be turned around from the podium so he could see the applause, because he could not hear it; of being revered by younger composers and sought out for advice; of being a beacon of an artist who could allow his voice to not only mature, but to change (author Roland Barthes declared “Beethoven won for artists the right to reinvent themselves”). In all of this, coupled with his love for nature, and his choice of text for his 9th symphony on universal brotherhood, we find a man with a deeply contemplative spirit, who simply wrote the music he felt inspired to write.
As you listen to Beethoven’s music, keep in mind its context within the Classical period, and listen for him to inject greater drama, greater dynamics, and greater elements of evolution. You’ll find you are listening to an artist painting musically in real time.
See you at the concerts!