Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven, Part 1

I've been working my way through music history for a couple of weeks now, starting with this post on Guillaume de Machaut. As I explain in the introduction there, an acquaintance with the great works of literature is (or was) assumed to be part of the knowledge of a civilized person. If someone had no knowledge of Shakespeare or Homer or Dante we would, I hope, not think them very well educated. But this same person does not seem to have an equivalent knowledge of Bach, Beethoven or Dufay. Who? Yes, exactly! So my series of blog posts bravely (heh) assumes that there are great masterpieces of music, as worth knowing as the great works of literature and visual art, and that there are people who would be interested in knowing about them.

Which brings us to Beethoven. I was tempted to title this post "Schroeder was right!" because Schroeder, from the Peanuts comic strip, is perhaps the most famous Beethoven advocate in popular culture. Here he is playing the Adagio cantabile from the Sonata op 13 "Pathetique", by Beethoven:

Amazing how much sound he gets out of that toy piano! Oddly, another figure in popular culture has recently also put a movement from this same sonata in the public space. Here is my post on that. The different way the sonata is presented is interesting. In 1969, the television show plays the whole movement, as a performance on piano and I assume, even though one can't tell from the clip, that who wrote the music was not kept secret from the audience. Now, when Lady Gaga gives us a bit of Beethoven, the piece and the composer are not mentioned--in fact, even the music reviewers seem to have no idea who wrote the piece, referring to it in their essays merely as "piano music". Perhaps I was right in my last post and all musical knowledge has been sucked out of the universe. So let's stick it back in!

Beethoven in 1815

The two greatest composers in the history of Western music are Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Bach has luckily escaped Hollywoodization and Oprahfication so far, but Beethoven has not been so lucky. He has acquired a certain wild mythology, perhaps connected with the films that involve his music, most notoriously A Clockwork Orange from the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess and the 1971 film by Stanley Kubrick. Musicologists have, in the last few decades, been shying away from Beethoven because he doesn't fit into their currently fashionable narratives of gender, class, race and modernity. Beethoven is simply a great composer, nothing interesting there! So let me try and resurrect his music and show why it is as great as it is.

The basic facts of his life may be found in the Wikipedia article: born in Bonn in 1770, when Haydn was 38 and Mozart 14 years old, he would later gravitate to Vienna, the center of musical life at the time. In 1790 he met Haydn, and may have met Mozart as well on a trip to Vienna, but evidence is scanty. In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna. He studied counterpoint with Haydn, the violin with Schuppanzigh, who was later to lead the quartet that premiered most of his string quartets, and Italian vocal style with Salieri. Beethoven became known as a virtuoso pianist, playing often in the salons of the nobility where he was renowned for his performances of the Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach and for his improvisations. As the WTC was not printed until 1799, Beethoven must have known the work from hand-copied manuscripts. Beethoven, along with Haydn and Mozart, was among the first composers to eke out a living as an independent artist. Previously, all composers had been in the employ of particular noblemen or church leaders, as had Haydn for most of his life and Mozart for the early part of his. Beethoven's music attracted much support, both public and private and in his later life, he received a stipend from a group of noblemen.

Beethoven came along at just the right moment: Haydn and Mozart together had constructed a musical 'language' and style that was organized, flexible and capable of supporting powerful expression. One could easily argue that the precise years of Beethoven's life, from 1770, when Haydn was finished creating Classical style, to 1827, when it was starting to break down under the pressures of Romanticism, were the most productive years in music history. In Classical style, all the elements of music, melody, rhythm and harmony, are in perfect balance, but this balance only lasted until the death of Beethoven and it was his music, most of all, that appeared to burst apart the perfection of Classical style.

That should set the scene, let's listen to what he did. Here is a very early post I did on Beethoven:


As I have talked quite a bit about the piano sonatas, let's look at the first string quartet we have from Beethoven. His set of six quartets, op 18, were written between 1798 and 1800 and published in 1801. The first to be written was No. 3 in D major. Here is the first movement:

Beethoven, at this time, was a young man of 27 who was trying out the string quartet genre for the first time. All he had written so far, apart from a few songs, were piano sonatas and a couple of concertos for piano. So the string quartet was a major new undertaking. The standard was very high: Haydn and Mozart had both written extraordinary sets of quartets. Beethoven's first attempt is a very respectable essay in Classical style, but it does not quite sound like either Haydn or Mozart. Instead of the concision of the former and the elegance of the latter, we have a kind of broad energy. As we work through some more pieces by Beethoven, I think we will see how this plays out. For now, just listen to the other three movements of the D major quartet:

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