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ROYAL NORTHERN COLLEGE OF MUSIC Historical and Contextual Studies 2 HCS2


How far and in what ways, did Beethoven begin to expand the formal and expressive content of the high classic style he inherited? Refer to specific works and limit yourself to the music Beethoven wrote before 1805.



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How far and in what ways, did Beethoven begin to expand the formal and expressive content of the high classic style he inherited? Refer to specific works and limit yourself to the music Beethoven wrote before 1805.


This essay will bring into discussion the various ways in which Ludwig van Beethoven expanded the formal and expressive content of the high classical style he inherited. The object of the discussion will also try to create a clear picture of Beethovens placement as a composer in the musical tradition that he was born into. The essay will restrict to the musical works which are found in Beethovens first period of creation, to about 1801, and the first 4 years of the second period, in which his creative individualism is becoming more and more visible in his musical vocabulary. At the beginning of his career as a composer, Beethoven dedicated his first three Piano Sonatas to his teacher, Joseph Haydn as a sign of his sincere appreciation. It has to be mentioned that in a short period of time Beethoven, who was born and educated in Bonn, gradually begins to be regarded as a musician of national or even European importance, after his settlement in Vienna. His first three sonatas were all composed in the old compositional style (the musical themes were written from short motives which were afterwards developed). However, even from that early age, Beethoven brought important changes to the musical language. As in a symphony, the Piano sonatas, mentioned above, have four movements instead of the conventional threemovement Classical design and in the last two Beethoven replaced the usual Minuet with a substantially more dynamic Scherzo. It is well-known the fact the Beethoven, even from his early works, was trying to substitute the tonic-dominant relationship. Charles Rosen affirmed in this respect that in the beginning of [Beethovens] career as a composer [] his efforts were prudent, not to say timid: he does indeed go to the dominant by the end of the exposition of his early sonatas, but often before doing so, he established a more remote key first: in op. 2, no. 3, the dominant minor; in op. 10, no.3, the submediant minor.1

Rosen, Charles The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Faber and Faber, London, pg. 382;

Rosen also continued by emphasising that the establishment of a succession of tonalities is typical of the early style of Beethoven, and illustrates its closeness to the loose, additive forms of his contemporaries2. It is also known the fact that Beethoven was using some particular tonalities for different moods. The famous Sonate Pathtique, composed in 1798, is a very good example in this respect. Kinderman affirms: In the introductory Grave of the first movement, the resistance to suffering is implied in the contrast between an aspiring, upward melodic unfolding and the leaden weight of the C minor tonality, with its emphasis on dissonant diminished seventh chords.3 Beethoven also took the rising melodic contour and the harmonic dissonances and transformed [them] into forceful accents in the turbulent main theme of the ensuing Allegro di molto e con brio. Beethoven, in the Grave introduction, through the use of big texture (almost of symphonic breadth) manages to create a very powerful and dramatic atmosphere which automatically brings the listener in a specific state of contemplation. Mozart had a profound influence upon Beethoven regarding treatment of minor keys, especially the C minor tonality. This influence is of great importance, especially if we are considering the countless similarities between Mozarts Piano Concerto no.24, K491 (1785) and Beethovens C minor Piano Trio op.1, no.3 (1792). The following example is even more interesting because it demonstrates how Beethoven was assimilating the musical language and expanding the formal content of his works at the same time. Beethoven composed the String Trio in E flat major having the Haydns String Quartet in E flat major, op. 20 as a model, information justified by Beethovens decision to make a score copy of this quartet, in 1794 and also by the affirmations of Elaine Sisman. Her statement will also bring forth Beethovens tendency of expanding the formal content: A comparison of the finales of Beethovens trio with Haydns [op. 20] quartet suggests that Haydns movement was the source for the thematic and harmonic details despite the strikingly smaller dimensions of the latter, 160 measures compared to Beethovens 457!!. Not only are the opening themes similar in contour, but Beethoven makes more explicit Haydns off-tonic opening [example 1 a); b)].

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Ibidem; Kinderman, William Beethoven Essays:The piano music: concertos, sonatas, variations, small forms Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pg. 117;

Haydn compresses considerable harmonic activity into the passage of syncopation emerging from the theme (mm. 11-32), while Beethoven turns into a big three-part sequence | I-vi-V| (mm. 25-53), with figuration moving from violin to cello.4 a) Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in Eb (1772), op. 20, no.1, mm. 1-3

b) Ludwig van Beethoven, String Trio in Eb (1794), op.3, finale, mm. 1-7

Beethoven also brought an enormous contribution to the development of the Lied, especially when considering both the use of the harmonic language and also the role of the accompaniment. Rosens words probably describe the best the first part of Beethovens creation. He affirmed that The equilibrium between harmonic and thematic development, so characteristic of Haydn and Mozart is often lost in early Beethoven and that Beethoven began to write in a proto-Romantic style and now in a late and somehow attenuated version. He also stated that the early song, Adelaide is as much as Italian Romantic opera as anything else: its long, winding melody, symmetrical and passionate, its colourful modulations and aggressively simple accompaniment could come easily from an early work of Bellini.5

Sisman, Elaine Beethoven Essays: Beethovens musical inheritance Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pg. 53; 5 Rosen, Charles The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Faber and Faber, London, pg.380

However he also underlines that Beethoven transformed the musical tradition [] but never challenged its validity [and] he never abandoned Haydns forms6. Another example capable to reflect Beethovens tendency towards expanding the formal content is his First Symphony in C Major. This symphony was based on the Haydn-Mozart model, in many respects. Beethoven was inspired by the more mature works of Haydn and Mozart, respectively, the 97th Symphony of Haydn, and Jupiter the last symphony of Mozart. Beethoven conflates the unison opening/harmonised sequel phrase structure of the Juptier with another C major theme structure that of a piano opening phrase restated on the supertonic. Haydns symphony concentrates very much on short figures which do not suggest expansiveness. [] Beethoven by stripping up the harmony a tone in the seventh bar and by inserting two extra pairs of purely harmonic bars with glorious stretching effect quietly makes one aware of a new scale of thought!7[ex .c),d),e)] c) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K551

d) Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 97 in C Major, Hob. I/97

e) Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 1 in C Major, Op. 21

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Ibid.; Simpson, Robert "Beethoven Symphonies" British Broadcasting Corporation, London, pg. 12, 13;

The first two symphonies are rooted more in the eighteenth century Viennese classicism than the Third which is generally considered to be the first of the Beethovenian Heroic phase which begins in 1803. In the third part of the second symphony in D Major, op. 36, 1802, Beethoven replaced the normal minuet with a more expressive Scherzo. In the third symphony, in E flat major (Eroica), op.55, 1804, he was not using the slow introduction anymore and added both the Funeral march in the second movement and the double variations in the Finale. William Drabkin affirms, in this context, that the Second [symphony], in particular, enjoys a close kinship with Mozarts Prague Symphony (K504) of 1786 with which it shares tonality, mood, and the shape of the slow introduction. The Eroica was begun immediately after the Second, but under profoundly different personal circumstances for its composer: it is the first work in which he came to terms with his increasing deafness by going far beyond the limits of the classical convention8 It was, indeed, a very difficult period for Beethoven when he realised that his hearing loss was going to become permanent. Hanning affirmed: Beethovens compositions after 1802 [are often interpreted] as narratives or dramas reflecting the struggle of his own life. Often their thematic material is compared to a protagonist who struggles against great odds and eventually triumphs. The Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, op 55 (1803-1804), which Beethoven eventually named Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony), exemplifies his new approach. In fact, it marks a radical departure in Beethoven's symphonic writing because, beyond presenting conventional moods and abstract topics, as his symphony had done, it has a subject-the celebration of a heroand expresses in music the ideal of heroic greatness. It is also longer and more complex than any previous symphony, which made it difficult for audiences to grasp at first although it was soon recognised as an important work.9 Beethoven developed in this symphony an entirely new compositional approach. This work may be considered as a novel with psychological evolution, for example, where the characters do not just come and go, they appear, they return, they evolve in the framework of this work. Russano comes with a very successful description of the first movement affirming: We may think of the first movement a very large sonata form- as a story about challenge , struggle and final victory, with its theme as the main character.

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Drabkin,William Beethoven Symphony No.3 (score preface), Edition Eulenburg,, London, pg.iv; Hanning, Barbara Russano "Concise History of Western Music [Third Edition]", W.W.Norton&Company, Inc., New York, 2006, pg. 380;

[] After two introductory chords, the theme shown beneath emerges in the triadic shape of a fanfare implying a heroic character, but sinks down suddenly to introduce an unexpected C# suggesting some inner conflict or flaw. Over the course of the movement the theme is subjected to a variety of adventures, being opposed and subdued, but eventually triumphing10.

g) Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no.3, first movement (opening theme)

Beethoven also began to encompass different concepts of life in his Third Symphony and to achieve his aim it was necessary for him to forge a new symphonic language, one direct in its impact, yet capable of a hitherto unexplored range of expression. The story of his symphonies is a story of his creation and extension of this language.11

Joseph Kerman believed that the Third Symphony is the first work of Beethoven which goes beyond the borders of the Classical Style. Kerman affirmed that: In a symphony called heroic, the emotional climate cannot, I believe, be separated off from form and style as clearly as Rosen would like12. Kerman had in some respects the same opinion as Wagner who said that the same structure is found in Beethovens last works as in his first: But let us compare these works with each other, [] and wonder at the entirely new world which meets us there, almost in precisely the same form13.


Hanning, Barbara Russano "Concise History of Western Music [Third Edition]", W.W.Norton&Company, Inc., New York, 2006, pg.380,381; 11 Ibid.; 12 Kerman, Joseph, Review of Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms, in New York Review of Books, 23 October 1980, pg. 51, 53; 13 Wagner, Richard Beethoven, Ed. William Reeves, London, 1893;

Beethovens historical position is also very important. The Beethovenian creation coincided with a period of many political reconfigurations, a period in which the economic factor brought significant changes in the way music was developed and spread. One aspect of major importance which generally tends to be neglected is the "rapid evolution in instrument design that took place throughout the 19th century was by and large a response to the demands of the largest public forms of music - symphony, concerto and opera. To fill the spacious new middle-class concert halls sprouting up all over Europe, louder instruments were essential."14 Therefore, this aspect should be really considered as a factor which significantly influenced the musical development at the end of the Eighteenth century and throughout the first half of the Nineteenth century. To conclude, Beethoven still remains an ardent subject of interest due to the various, diverse or even diametrically opposed opinions about his music. It is certain, however, that his powerful, complex and exciting personality influenced and inspired entire generations of composers, establishing the perfect balance between the great Classical tradition and the musical destiny in the Nineteenth century.


Winter, Robert "The Beethoven Quartet Companion" University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/ London, 1994, pg. 82.


1) Simpson, Robert "Beethoven Symphonies" , British Broadcasting Corporation, London, UK, 1975; 2) Breuning, Gerhard von "Memories of Beethoven", (Edited by Maynard Solomon) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York, 1992; 3) Radcliffe, Philip "Beethoven's String Quartets", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/London/New York/Melbourne, 1978; 4) Winter, Robert/Martin "The Beethoven Quartet Companion" University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/ London, 1994; 5) Arnold, Denis / Fortune, Nigel "The Beethoven Companion", Faber and Faber, London, 1971; 6) Lockwood, Lewis / Benjamin Phyllis "Beethoven Essays" Harvard University Press, Cambridge/Massachusetts, 1984; 7) Cooper, Barry "Beethoven and the Creative Process" Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, 2004; 8) Hanning, Barbara Russano "Concise History of Western Music [Third Edition]", W.W.Norton&Company, Inc., New York, 2006; 9) Ulrich, Homer/ Pisk Paul A. "A History of Music and Musical Style", Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, INC. New York/Chicago/San Francisco/ Atlanta, 1963; 10) Wallace, Robin "Beethoven's Critics: Aesthetic dilemmas and resolutions during composers lifetime" Cambridge University Press, Cambridge /New York/ London/ New Rochelle/ Melbourne/ Sydney , 1986; 11) DeNora, Tia "Beethoven and the Construction of a Genius", University of California Press, Berkeley/ Los Angeles/ London, 1995; 12) Wagner, Richard Beethoven, Ed. William Reeves, London, 1893; 13) Mies, Paul Beethovens Sketches: An analysis of his style based on a study of his sketch-books, Oxford University Press, 1929.