It’s not only because this year is the 250th anniversary of his birth that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is the obvious composer with whom to begin a series like this, just as it’s no accident of history that almost two centuries after his death, Beethoven is still seen as the archetype of the great composer – the gruff, uncompromising genius increasingly cut off from the world by deafness, who forged his own artistic path, increasingly regardless of what others thought of him and his work.
The music you might recognise
The music by which he’s known to the wider world – whether it’s his Fifth Symphony, with its V for Victory motto that became such a symbol of hope for the allies during the second world war, the setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy that ends his Ninth, or piano works such as the Moonlight Sonata and the bagatelle Für Elise, known to generations of aspiring pianists – tells only a small part of the Beethoven story. Such familiar works hardly hint at his significance or the magnitude and breadth of his achievement, let alone explain why he is such a pivotal figure in the history of what we generally regard as “classical” music, and how it developed from the baroque of the 17th century to the modernism of the 20th.
His life …
Before Beethoven, composers mostly wrote music to order, whether for the church or rich patrons (as JS Bach did) or as employees of European noble courts (as Haydn and Mozart were for much of their creative lives). If the great composers of those eras were often able to transcend such constraints to create music that was elegant and profoundly personal, Beethoven was determined to take that idea of creative independence much farther.
He was born in Bonn, where his father (a tenor in service of the archbishop-elector of Cologne) gave Ludwig his earliest music lessons. He started formal composition and piano lessons at 10, and even published some pieces in his early teens, but little of what he wrote between 1785 and his move to Vienna in 1792 was heard in his lifetime. And, as his father’s alcoholism got steadily worse, young Ludwig increasingly took on the responsibility of supporting his family through teaching and playing the viola (getting to know the opera repertory in the process). In Vienna, he studied briefly with Haydn, but really began to establish himself as a pianist rather than a composer, although he was already attracting a number of wealthy sponsors, as he was able to do for much of his life. When he made his public debut as a pianist, in 1795, it was playing what is now known as his Second Piano Concerto (actually written before the first).
… And times
It was a time of turmoil around the world – the US was only a little more than a decade old, while the reverberations of the 1789 French Revolution, and Napoleon’s rise to power in its wake, were being felt across Europe, and the beginnings of the industrial revolution were creating massive social changes of their own. There was revolution in the arts, too, with Romanticism already well established in literature, led in Germany by Goethe (whom Beethoven hugely admired but did not meet until 1812) and in Britain by Wordsworth and the Lakeland poets. It’s dangerous to look for parallels between great artists in different art forms, but if there is a contemporary equivalent to Beethoven in another medium then it would be Goya, an artist who straddled two stylistic eras, whose own journey from court painter to iconoclasm, and his social isolation through his increasing deafness, mirrors that of the composer.
Why does Beethoven still matter?
Beethoven’s musical journey is traditionally divided into three periods – early, middle and late – but from the early 1800s on the music he composed was constantly evolving, always following its own groundbreaking creative path.
The music he wrote in his 20s at the end of the 18th century, such as his first two piano concertos and the first set of string quartets (the six Op 18 works), might seem to belong to the same musical world as Haydn and Mozart, but it contained signs that Beethoven was already worrying away at the boundaries of the classical style he’d inherited. Even his earliest piano sonatas are conceived on a far grander scale than anything his predecessors had written, and the energy that drives them often seems to signal his impatience with the constraints of classical sonata form. For just as his life straddled the closing decades of one century and the opening ones of the next, so his music marked the division between two great eras, the classical and the Romantic – and accelerated the transition from one to the other.
Almost every musical genre Beethoven explored was never quite the same again after he’d reinvented it. His first two symphonies do more or less toe the classical line, but the Third, the Eroica, first performed in 1805, was on a different scale altogether. An unambiguous statement of intent – harmonically, formally and expressively – Beethoven was determined to take the symphony into realms never imagined by his predecessors. As if to underline its revolutionary ambitions, he dedicated the score to Napoleon, whom he saw as embodying the democratic, republican ideals of the French revolution. But when, in 1804, the Frenchman declared himself emperor, the composer angrily scratched his name from the title page.
By then, the first signs of Beethoven’s deafness were apparent. In an extraordinary letter, the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, which he wrote but did not send to his two brothers in 1802, he had already made clear his determination to “seize Fate by the throat” and follow his own artistic path, come what may.
He did what he promised. Each of the symphonies after the Eroica broke new ground, too. The stark, compelling drama of the Fifth was followed by the descriptive music of the Sixth, the Pastoral, which, in its quieter way, was just as revolutionary – no one before had conceived a large-scale instrumental work that so explicitly evoked pictorial scenes (spawning the idea of programme music, taken up so keenly later in the 19th century). The irrepressible energy of the Seventh, which Richard Wagner described as “the apotheosis of the dance”, was unprecedented, too, while the monumentality of the Ninth, with its final celebration of universal brotherhood, took the form even farther into new territory. After Beethoven, no composer could contemplate conceiving a symphony as other than a profoundly personal musical statement.
His take on concertos, sonatas, piano trios and string quartets was equally revolutionary: in all those forms, his music went where none had gone before. Before Beethoven, no piano concerto had begun with the unaccompanied solo piano as his Fourth Concerto does, just as none had matched the rampaging scale and grandeur of the Fifth, the so-called Emperor Concerto. His only violin concerto positively luxuriates in its own expansiveness, while the scale and rhetorical power of piano sonatas such as the Waldstein, Op 53 and the torrential Appassionata, Op 57, were unmistakably public statements in a musical form the previous century had considered more suited to the salon.
All these works, as well as the violin sonata known as the Kreutzer Op 47, the song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte (the first example of the song cycle form) and the three “Rasumovsky” string quartets Op 59 (named after the Russian ambassador in Vienna who commissioned them), are some of the greatest products of what’s regarded as Beethoven’s middle period. His only opera, Fidelio, also dates to those years. Conceived as a Singspiel, in which spoken dialogue alternates with musical numbers, Fidelio took eight years to reach the form in which it’s usually heard today. Opera is perhaps the only major musical genre whose development was hardly affected by Beethoven’s genius, even if Fidelio’s subject matter, especially the paean to liberty with which it closes, embraced themes that were always close to his heart.
Throughout this period, his deafness was steadily getting worse. He made his last public appearance as a pianist in 1814 and through the last decade of his life he was forced to use notebooks to converse with friends. Though he was hailed as the leading composer of his time, he became more and more isolated and irascible, and wrote relatively little during these years, during which he was embroiled in a prolonged dispute over the legal guardianship of his nephew.
The music he did compose increasingly showed little concern as to whether or not it would be understood by his audiences or his peers. If the two great choral works, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, both first performed in 1824, were his last great public statements, then the final piano sonatas – the Hammerklavier, Op 106, and the final trilogy of Op 109-111, and the last five string quartets, written in the two years before his death, took his music into a wholly different and rarefied sphere of harmony and thematic and formal intricacy that often baffled even his closest friends and admirers.
So, if in his middle-period works Beethoven had ushered in the Romanticism of the 19th century, then in those very final works, especially the late string quartets, he peered even farther into the future. Even to modern ears the ferociously uncompromising Grosse Fuge, intended as a monumental finale to the B flat Quartet, Op 130, remains a tough, almost gruelling experience. It was described by Igor Stravinsky as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary for ever”, which says everything about Beethoven’s uniqueness, astonishingly forward-looking achievement and continued relevance.
Almost all of Beethoven’s substantial output has been thoroughly explored through the recordings, and there are now multiple versions of his greatest works spanning almost a century, all easily available and often in sharply contrasting performance styles. Among the finest recent accounts of the nine symphonies performed on modern instruments are those conducted by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon) and Riccardo Chailly (Decca), while among the historically informed cycles, using performing techniques on instruments as near as possible to those of Beethoven’s time, are those by John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv) and Frans Brüggen (Glossa).
For the piano concertos, there is Maurizio Pollini’s cycle with Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon), and Stephen Kovacevich’s with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Philips). Among modern versions of the string quartets, the Takács Quartet remain in a class of their own, while the complete piano sonatas offers a multitude of options – Claudio Arrau (Philips) and Daniel Barenboim (Warner Classics), both from the 1960s, and Annie Fischer (Hungaroton) from the 1970s are still hard to beat.
• Our composer guides are running weekly throughout the summer. They aim to offer a brief overview of the life and work of some of the best-known composers. Tell us what you think in the comments section. The music links are to YouTube or Spotify. Apple music and other streaming services also offer a wide choice of music.