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The Classical: An Introduction to Beethoven

By ; April 30, 2011 at 9:14 PM 

In this monthly feature I’m going to try and provide a small insight into the world of classical music – you know, that long, grandiose stuff that retired people and school children learning the clarinet listen to. The snobby, expensive music that you would get around to listening to if you weren’t so busy tracking down rare Throbbing Gristle bootlegs and listening to that compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. Except none of that is really true – classical music is for everyone, not just an elite few who can afford to see it live, and it’s never been easier to get hold of vast quantities of it for free. You’re only ever a short google away from getting hold of the complete works of the greatest composers who ever lived. Not only that, but if you’re willing to cast aside any preconceptions you might have about this much maligned but spectacular music, then you can free yourself (to an extent) from the tyranny of contemporary music, the need to always be listening to the right thing, and to always be ahead of everyone else. In classical music, there are no obscure new artists, no need to pretend to like things – all the major practitioners are very much on the dead side of things – the whole canon is pretty much decided, all you have to do is listen. Which is where I come in, providing you with a brief introduction to a different composer each time, starting with this rather moody character:

#1: Roll Over Beethoven

Walter Murphy – “A Fifth of Beethoven”

Mozart: “But Haydn, how will you live in London, you barely speak the language!”
Haydn: “Don’t worry – the language I speak is understood everywhere.”

Or so the anecdote goes.

A recent review conducted by the long-running BBC Radio Four programme Desert Island Discs of its decades of archives revealed that, of the eight most popular choices ever made, all were classical pieces, and half were by a single composer. Mozart, although the most popular composer overall, was curiously absent from this particular leaderboard. Bach, too, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was one Ludwig van Beethoven who had pipped both of his illustrious forebears to the musical post. And the most popular choice of all? Which work, like more recent efforts The Godfather, Citizen Kane, OK Computer or “Like a Rolling Stone,” has become burdened with the title “greatest ever”? This honour fell upon the so-called “Choral Symphony, the Ninth,” and the last such work Beethoven was to compose. Here, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein eloquently describes this life-affirming work:

Leonard Bernstein performs Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”

This towering orchestral monolith, over an hour in length, stands as Beethoven’s most enduring and powerful statement – of belief in the human spirit, visceral joy, universal brotherhood, personal faith, and redemption. It was the final flowering of a set of beliefs he had carried all his life, even when facing suicidal despair. In the comfortable, if conservative, world of Biedermeier Vienna, these themes probably seemed less remote and idealistic than they do today, when we are as likely to praise music which revels in alienation and angst as the feeling of sincere enjoyment.

But enough about best-of lists and greatest-evers – Beck and Tom Waits deliver the last word on that subject. Classical music is frequently accused of elitism and inaccessibility, yet these same criticisms could just as easily be levelled at serious music today. Don’t get me wrong, I love pretty much any organised sound I can lay my hands on, but exposure to classical music can fundamentally change the way you listen, hopefully for the better. It can also seriously test your relativism, as even within its seemingly narrow confines, classical music accommodates everything from Gregorian chant to atonal mess. It requires a different set of skills, a different means of evaluation, stretches you in different directions – yet the essential elements are the same as any other music – what is the style? Do I enjoy it? What do I invest in it? How can I defend it? How does it make me feel? It’s almost like discovering a whole new country, which can make the one you came from occasionally seem drab by comparison, although it will always be your home.

It is hard to imagine music which speaks more directly, or more powerfully, to basic human emotions than Beethoven’s. His work, therefore, seemed like a logical place to start in my meagre attempt to justify centuries of human endeavour in music to an audience which has become increasingly estranged from it, and seems to regard classical music as useful only for relaxation. While it can be a source of comfort, I think limiting any music to so narrow a scope would be a terrible act of cultural vandalism. Beethoven’s body of work spans everything from anxiety to unadulterated euphoria – if you want something gentle, look elsewhere.

Beethoven is, for my money, the greatest composer, and perhaps the greatest musician, who ever lived. He is one of the few people who lives up to the kind of endless hyperbole that is usually spent describing less interesting people. In a musical career of around thirty years, which spanned tumultuous periods of revolution, the rise and fall of dictators, and the conflict between liberal and conservative factions in a repressive post-war environment (Now, where have I heard this before?), Beethoven wrote over 150 works. But don’t worry, I’m not going argue that Beethoven’s music “has a new relevance for modern listeners” or try to paint him either as the artist-hero of 19th century historiography, or as an antecedent of modern liberalism. His work should be considered on its own merits, and is intended to inspire a deeply personal, and profoundly subjective experience in each listener. Although his life is fascinating in its own right, it would be a mistake to draw too much upon it in interpreting his work.

Beethoven, like his idol Mozart before him, wrote for, and in the process revolutionised, almost every genre of music which then existed. How many musicians could make such a claim today, where musical genres, their dogmatic value systems and attendant subcultures divide along strict tribal lines? Beethoven undoubtedly felt that he was writing music for the ages, and for all humanity, and the implicit narrative of much of his work – that of the suffering and eventual triumph over adversity, be it personal or political – is something that almost everyone can understand, regardless of petty quibbles about taste. It is also worth bearing in mind that Beethoven achieved all this, for the most part, through instrumental music alone, without the benefit of words to carry meaning – there’s a reason no one says “Here’s three chords, now write a symphony” – unless they’re Philip Glass, of course, but that’s another story.


Whether it was orchestral, chamber, vocal or solo instrumental music, Beethoven’s output was extremely wide-ranging and almost always meticulously constructed, a fact that is all the more remarkable given the deafness (amongst many other physical and mental ailments, not to mention alcoholism) which afflicted him for much of his life. The character of his music is clearly apparent in his most well-known works – the symphonies. They contain some of his powerful and intense writing, at times violent and frenzied, at other moments brooding and reflective, and occasionally sounding a bit like the theme from Blackadder – doing justice to his style in words is a near impossible feat – as the man himself is reputed to have remarked: “I would rather write a thousand notes than a single letter of the alphabet.”

The symphonies also neatly illustrate the conventional way in which his works have been divided into three distinct, but inter-related periods – the first and second symphonies, while definitely worth hearing, are of the early period, and as such are regarded as a kind of musical apprenticeship in which he drew heavily from his predecessors Mozart and Haydn. From the third symphony until the eighth, we encounter Beethoven’s so-called heroic phase, which contains some of his most characteristic work, while the ninth is a classic example of his late style, in which he looked back further into musical history to the example set by Bach and Handel, and attempted to recreate their dense contrapuntal style in a New Romantic context. As such, Beethoven (along with contemporaries such as Cherubini, Weber and Hummel) bridged the gap between the beautiful, but formally restrained classicism of the late 1700s, and laid the foundation for future generations of Romantics, who interpreted his work in hugely divergent ways.

Through these nine colossal works, Beethoven utterly transformed the symphony as a means of expression, taking what had been, in the hands of his teacher, Haydn, a somewhat formal classical model, and recasting it as a truly gargantuan means of personal expression. He took Haydn’s rollicking ‘galante’ style, and then proceeded to turbocharge it. He increased the size of orchestras and vastly expanded the possibilities of this kind of music, leaving an indelible impression on the rest of the nineteenth century, and beyond. Beethoven, for the most part, put drama ahead of beauty, and breathtaking thematic development before the polish and ornament of earlier composers. He redefined the relationship between different sections of the orchestra, adding new colour and depth to instrumentation, and making greater use of what music producers might today call “the low end.” As a result, his works have an unmatched energy, drama and emotional intensity, yet avoid bombast and unnecessary showmanship.

While all of this might seem slightly intimidating, getting to know the works is very easy – they pull off the incredible trick of having both clarity and depth, so that the first listen can be as rewarding as the hundredth. Besides – you probably already know some of them already, even if you don’t realise it – films as diverse as Fantasia, A Clockwork Orange and even The King’s Speech have all used extracts from some of the most well-known symphonies, and the famous opening of the fifth is virtually synonymous with dramatic events – as Beethoven’s secretary described it, “Thus fate knocks at the door!”:

Beethoven – “5th Symphony”

Another problem people often seem to encounter with the world of classical music is the struggle to find a suitable place to begin. If you’re new to classical music in general, there is perhaps no better introduction than these symphonies, particularly the third “Eroica” (inspired by Napoleon), fifth, sixth (the “Pastoral” – one his few explicitly programmatic works), seventh (an exercise in rhythm which Wagner later christened “The Apotheosis of Dance”) and of course, the ninth. They are amongst the greatest works of the entire symphonic repertoire, and of European art music in general. I’ll avoid any long-winded musical ekphrasis and just let you listen. Each symphony is in four separate movements, but I’ve picked out the highlights:

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 7″

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 6″

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 3″ (1st Movement)

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 5″ (4th Movement)

Beethoven also wrote a stunning series of concertos (pieces for orchestra with a prominent solo part for a virtuoso instrumentalist) including five for piano, which range from Mozartean high classicism to full-blown, explosive Romanticism, and one for violin, as well as a number of orchestral overtures. The concertos (or concerti, it really doesn’t matter) span a relatively short period in Beethoven’s oeuvre, and show his development as a composer beginning to find his own inimitable voice. Beethoven was also an extremely accomplished pianist, and would frequently give the premieres of each concerto personally, until his deafness prevented him from doing so:

Beethoven – “Piano Concerto No. 5″

Beethoven – “Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major”

Beethoven – “Piano Concerto No. 5, Rondo”

Beethoven – “Violin Concerto” (Movement 3)

Beethoven – “Egmont” Overture

However, if you prefer music on a slightly smaller scale, Beethoven also contributed his genius to the field of chamber music – which, as the name suggests, is played by a number of people small enough to fit into an ordinary room. Here too, he expanded the expressive range of the genre, stretching it almost to breaking point in his later works. One of the most accessible of these works is the “Archduke” Piano Trio, written for his patron Archduke Rudolph of Austria:

Beethoven – “Archduke Trio” (1st Movement)

Beethoven also excelled at writing haunting pieces in this form, most notably the slow movement from the aptly named “Ghost” Trio:

Beethoven – “Piano Trio no. 5″

Also of particular note are the Violin Sonatas “Spring,” Number 5 (as played by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Love and Death) and the “Kreutzer,” Number 9:

Beethoven – “Spring Sonata”

Beethoven – “Kreutzer Sonata” (1st Movement)

Or if you prefer woodwinds to strings, try the Octet:

Beethoven – “Octet in E Flat for Winds”

However, it was in the string quartet that Beethoven truly excelled, and while all his sixteen efforts in this area are brilliant, it is his staggering late quartets that have come to be regarded as some of his greatest works, and indeed some of the finest pieces composed in any genre. Most notable are the “Heiliger Dankgesang” or “Holy song of Thanksgiving,” which Beethoven wrote after recovery from a period of illness, and the “Great Fugue,” which is his most thoroughgoing exploration of the fugal forms he developed after studying the work of baroque composers. It remains amongst the most technically demanding pieces to play in the entire repertoire, and although greeted with bemusement at the time of its composition, it is now recognised as one of his most accomplished and complex pieces:

Beethoven – “Heiliger Dankgesang”

Beethoven – “Große Fuge”

Also worth mentioning is “La Malinconia,” the final movement of the last of Beethoven’s early quartets, and a work which has been interpreted by some as possible evidence of the composer having suffered from bipolar disorder, veering wildly as it does between slow, foreboding passages which are the aural equivalent of depression, and excitable, dance-like moments which give musical form to the symptoms of mania:

Beethoven – “String Quartet No. 6 in B Sharp”

The piano sonata was another form Beethoven took up from his main inspirations, Haydn and Mozart, and expanded its vocabulary enormously, writing some thirty one sonatas altogether. As with the other works I’ve mentioned, it tends to be the ones with nicknames that are most interesting, particularly the incredibly famous “Moonlight’ sonata” (the chord structure of which also underpins The Beatles’ “Because”), but also the “Pathetique,” “Waldstein,” “Appassionata” and, most of all, the spectacular “Hammerklavier,” another classic example of the late style:

Beethoven – “Moonlight Sonata” (1st Movement)

Beethoven – “Hammerklavier”

Aside from this, there is also a wealth of other piano material, such as the almost universally recognised “Für Elise” and the vast set of variations on a theme by Diabelli, in which Beethoven ripped up the rulebook on how variations were composed, taking tiny fragments of the original theme and expanding them into intricate studies of incredibly refined technique, to create a work which was only rivalled by Bach’s landmark Goldberg variations of some eighty years before:

Beethoven – “Für Elise”

Anton Diabelli – “33 Variations on a Waltz”

And for the more adventurous amongst you who think you can stomach some German opera, Beethoven’s single contribution in the genre – “Fidelio”; a tale which celebrates the theme of political liberty, is hugely underrated:

Beethoven – “Fidelio”

Beethoven – “Fidelio Marzelline Aria”

Beethoven – “Fidelio (Chorus of Prisoners)”

And if you’re feeling especially patient, the huge “Missa Solemnis” is well worth the effort it requires:

Beethoven – “Kyrie (Missa Solemnis)”

Beethoven’s back catalogue, like more recent prolific musicians, is somewhat disorganised, and once you’re better acquainted with the most famous works (and if you like them enough), you can dig deeper. However, unlike modern artists, the work of classical composers is not only more consistent in quality, but also improves towards the end of their lives, and Beethoven is no exception to this rule. With occasional exception, almost all of his work is worth listening to – I’ve personally narrowed it down to about three solid days of material, and even after a couple of years of obsessive listening, I still only feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg. If you’re looking for a new musical world to explore, try searching out this old one first.

Other Classicals:

#2 – Rock Me Amadeus: An Introduction to Mozart
#3 – Tch-Tch-Tch Tchanges: An Introduction to Tchaikovsky
#4 – Schubert Dip: An Introduction to Schubert
#5: Bach To The Future: An Introudction to Bach



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