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The Transition to Romanticism Ludwig van Beethoven: Early Years and Early Period

Four years before he died, Mozart gave a few music lessons to a 17-year old from Bonn, who was
effectively to bring the Classical period to an end, and open the door to Romanticism. His name was
Ludwig van Beethoven.

On his father’s side, Beethoven came from a musical lineage. His grandfather had been the musical
director (Kapellmeister) of the Elector’s Chapel, and his father was a singer. In the 18th Century it was
customary for children to follow in their parent’s footsteps. Thus, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), the
composer’s grandfather, trained his son Johann (1740-92) for a musical career, which he undertook by
joining the Chapel choir in 1758 and giving violin and singing lessons to the rich families in Bonn. In 1767,
Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87), a young widow from the town of Trier, who
became a source of strength and comfort for her family after her husband became an alcoholic.

By the age of five, Beethoven already showed remarkable musical talent. Probably with the image of
Leopold Mozart and his genius son Wolfgang in mind, Johann decided to teach his son the rudiments of
piano and violin playing. Beethoven, however, did not pay much attention to his father’s teaching
methods, preferring to spend time alone improvising at the keyboard. Nonetheless, on 26 March 1778,
his father presented him in Cologne, in a concert of his more advanced pupils. The archbishop-prince of
Bonn became interested in the child and decided to further his music education. In 1781, Christian
Gottlob Neefe became Beethoven’s teacher after the death of Heinrich van den Eeden, who had been
put in charge of child’s musical education by the archbishop prince. Influence by the ideals of the
Enlightenment, and by Leopold Mozart’s teaching methods, Neefe exposed Beethoven to the finest
composers including J.S. Bach, Johann Christian Bach, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, and the contemporary
Joseph Haydn. In fact, J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier became Beethoven’s material for learning
counterpoint. From Neefe, Beethoven would learn the humanitarian values of the Enlightenment, that
would influence so much of his later music.

In 1787, Maximilian Franz the archbishop-prince, brother of the Emperor Joseph II, decided to send
Beethoven to Vienna for further lessons with Mozart, but only two weeks after arriving there in 1787,
his mother fell gravely ill, and he had to return to Bonn. Maria Magdalena died shortly after on July 17.
His father, Johann, finally succumbed to alcoholism and Beethoven became the family’s breadwinner. A
few months later, in 1789, at age 19, Beethoven became the official head of the family.

During 1789 and 1790, the operas of Europe’s most famous composers Andre Gretry, Antonio Salieri,
and Georg Anton Benda, plus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Marriage of Figaro, and
Don Giovanni were performed in Bonn.

Understanding Beethoven as a man is crucial to understand Beethoven as an artist. He was, by all

accounts, prone to extremes of emotional bouts of melancholy or sadness followed by extreme elation.
He never married and was not easy to get along with. Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein wrote to
Beethoven in 1810 or 1811: “Again and again your friendship causes me fresh irritation and pain.”

Beethoven’s music is commonly divided into three periods, the Early Period (before 1802), the Heroic
Period (1803-1815), and the Late Period (1816-1827). These divisions are based on the stylistic
differences in the music of each period and on the personal experiences that surrounded them.

As is usually the case with a young composer, Beethoven’s early works reveal a composer trying to find
his voice. In this period more than any other, his music closely resembles the Classical traditions of his
predecessor Mozart and teacher Haydn. Another composer who influenced Beethoven was Muzio
Clementi (1752-1832). Clementi’s sonatas and sonatinas, for example this Progressive Sonatina Op. 36
No. 6 in D Major had a direct impact on Beethoven’s early piano writing.

Beethoven’s early fame in Vienna came as a pianist, so it is not surprising that his first important
compositions are for piano. The early sonatas include the Pathetique Sonata, Op. 13 in C Minor, one of
his most dramatic early works. The first movement begins with an introduction marked Grave, followed
by a powerful first theme that seems to rocket from nowhere. Later, in the second movement,
Beethoven presents a beautiful melody in a simple classical rondo form. But when the theme returns in
the final section, its rhythmic structure is altered from a simple division to a triplet or compound
division. Beethoven found important symbolism in the process of developing a particular theme
throughout a composition. To him, the progression of the theme mirrored the transformation of life
through trials. In the Pathetique, this transformation is represented by the departure from the main
theme in the B and, most importantly, C sections.

Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 (II movement)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

A section

B section

A section returns

C section
A section returns (altered)

The first two symphonies and first three piano concertos also belong the early period. His Symphony No.
1 in C Major is a monument to Classical symphonic style. In every way, it is a typical Classical symphony,
complete with a slow introduction to the first movement and a raucous rondo conclusion. In an
auspicious beginning to what will become a steady departure from Classical style, Beethoven opens the
symphony on a secondary dominant chord, effectively moving us away from the tonic before we have
even heard it.

The Heroic Period (1803 – 1815)

In the fall of 1802, Beethoven wrote a letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he
describes a continuing physical malady that has driven him to consider suicide., Indeed, the letter,
written to his brothers, Karl and Johann, reads like a suicide note. Note the extreme emotional
outpouring. There is no question of Beethoven’s emotional state here:
"But think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting
malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible). Thus it has been during the last six months, which I
have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell
in with my own frame of mind. But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the
distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove
me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life."

"Thus I bid thee farewell and indeed sadly. Yes, that fond hope which I brought here with me, to be cured to a degree
at least this now I must wholly abandon. Oh Providence grant me at last one day of pure joy it is so long since real joy
echoed in my heart - Oh when, Oh Divine One shall I feel it again in the temple of nature and of mankind Never? No
Oh that would be too hard."

As an interesting aside about this letter, biographer Maynard Solomon has observed the Beethoven
omits his brother Johann’s name everywhere it would normally occur. He surmises that it may be
because Johann was also his father’s name, and that Beethoven may not have been able to bring himself
to write it down.

The physical malady that had tortured Beethoven for at least five years was the onset of deafness. The
deafness would become more profound as he grew older. It actually caused him to become almost a
hermit by the time he was 50.

It is incredible to imagine that Beethoven wrote some of the world’s most powerful music, and yet was
unable to hear performances of some of his greatest compositions. This is even more astonishing when
you consider his compositional style. While Mozart was able to complete scores for even his largest
works with sketches, Beethoven filled reams of sketchbooks with ideas for compositions that he crossed
out, rewrote, tinkered with, or destroyed entirely. For Beethoven, the process of composition was never
easy, as is evidenced by the fact that he wrote only 9 symphonies compared to Mozart’s 41 or Haydn’s

With this background we enter one of the most fruitful periods any composer has ever experienced.
Emerging from his depression with the determination to find on through the deafness, Beethoven found
a new strength that is mirrored in his music of the Heroic period. At times profoundly sad, at other times
gloriously proud, the music of this period is at all times powerfully moving. The music from this period
includes the Symphonies 3 to 8, the opera Fidelio, two piano concertos, a violin concerto, and numerous
chamber works and piano pieces.

The 20th century writer H. L. Mencken has called the premier of the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major
(begun in May, 1803) “the greatest single event in the history of music.” For starters, the Eroica was
longer and more complex than any other symphony written before. No piece of music so succinctly
sums up the works of generations before or so profoundly affects the generations after. This
monumental work was original conceived as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, whose politics Beethoven
admired. (at first, much of Europe felt that Napoleon would prove to be the savior of democratic ideals
on the continent). When Napoleon declared himself emperor of Europe and began a military campaign
against Austria, Beethoven scratched out his original title for symphony, Bonaparte, and opted instead
for Eroica, a term that generically describes a heroic ideal.

The Eroica Symphony has four movements. The first movement begins with two E-flat major chords that
simultaneously serve as an introduction and as a thematic compression of the following cello theme.
This single movement is unprecedented in terms of scope and thematic development. The second
movement, by contrast, is a powerful funeral march that spans a wide range of emotion. The third
movement is a scherzo marked allegro vivace, and the last is a Finale, marked allegro molto. Here are
the four movements of this remarkable symphony.

Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 in E-flat "Eroica"

Movement Speed indication

I Allegro con brio

II Marcha funebre (Funeral March): Adagio assai

III Allegro vivace

IV Finale: Allegro molto

In the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (1806), Beethoven finally achieves the thematic cohesion that his
earlier works had begun to exhibit. The famous opening motive of the first movement is remarkable for
a variety of reasons. First, it sounds, as many writers have observed, like “fate knocking at the door.”
Second, it acts as a seed that grows into all of the material of the first movement, as well as some of the
material in later movements. Also noteworthy in the first movement is the poignant oboe solo in the
recapitulation. Here Beethoven departs from classical form by adding material to the recapitulation,
while providing a moving plea against the inexorable onslaught of his powerful musical material.

Among the concertos, the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, subtitled the Emperor, provides a
partner to the Symphony No. 5. The syncopation of the finale, which flows directly from the second
movement, reveals Beethoven’s infatuation with rhythmic energy.

During this period Beethoven also returned to the composition of string quartets. In particular, the three
quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky (and thus known as the Rasumovsky Quartets, Op. 59) are
some of the finest ever written. His contemporaries originally considered the first of the set, in F major
(the final movement presented here) to be too wild or crazy to be taken seriously. It took some time
before musicians realized that Beethoven’s genius lay in the fact that he was stretching the accepted
forms and concepts.

Of the remaining works from the heroic period, the piano sonatas also deserve attention. During this
period, he wrote the famous Moonlight Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2 (first movement). Another brilliant sonata
first movement comes from the Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53. This work exhibits all the qualities of
Beethoven’s heroic style: the settling of powerful primary motives, the contract of beautiful melodic
ideas, dramatic key changes, and rhythmic drive.

The Late Period (1816 – 1827)

In 1816, Beethoven’s persona life began another trial-filled period. First came the death of his brother
Karl, leading to Beethoven’s successful (albeit traumatic) adoption of Karl’s son. His deafness was now
almost complete, and he suffered bouts of poor health. The burst of creative energy that had sustained
him for the previous 15 years waned considerably.
When he returned to composing, he found a new voice that is often quiet, introspective, and more
melodic. He became intrigued with the fugue and theme-and-variation forms and sought more spiritual
depth. The music of the last period includes the Missa Solemnis, the Symphony No. 9, and the final
piano sonatas and string quartets.

Beethoven had written only two major choral works prior to the late period: the oratorio The Mount of
Olives and the Mass in C major. In those earlier works, one almost feels that Beethoven was trying to
impose his heroic will on God, to take the heavens by storm. In the Missa Solemnis, begun in 1818 and
completed in 1822, Beethoven’s approach is wholly different. It is an introspective work, full of
moments of sublime serenity. It also is much more contrapuntal than those earlier works, a common
characteristic of all his late period compositions.

Beethoven’s emphasis on counterpoint and theme-and-variations may be seen in the final piano works
and string quartets. There may be no greater example of theme-and variations form, with the possible
exception of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, than Beethoven’s Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli.
He is able to find ever-increasing levels of brilliance with each variation, like the layers of a pearl each
giving way to another, more beautiful (and more compact) pearl. The last years of Beethoven’s life were
devoted to the string quartet.

On the night of May 7, 1824, a Vienna audience gathered at the Karntnertor Theater was treated to a
concert that featured three movements from the Missa Solemnis and a new symphony, the Symphony
No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125. The composer, too deaf to direct the performance, indicated the speed of
each movement, while the real conductor, Umlauf, having instructed the singers and players not to pay
any attention to Beethoven, was in charge of giving direction to the musicians. The symphony was
commissioned and paid for by the Philharmonic Society of London, but was dedicated by Beethoven to
the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III.

Beethoven had longed for an opportunity to give voice to the symphony, and he found it in the ode to
brotherhood by Friedrich Schiller called Ode to Joy. Beethoven decided to use the poem in the finale of
the Symphony No. 9, incorporating soloists and chorus into the orchestra. In a node to the ascendance
of narrative over form, he reverses the order of the 2nd and 3rd movements so that the finale has more
significance. The symphony is full of symbolic weight, from the opening notes of the first movement, to
the beautiful lyricism of the third movement, to the relentless scherzo of the finale. And for all of its
dramatic impact, the choral finale is really a brilliant synthesis of sonata-allegro form, theme and
variation, and fugue. Although this symphony summarizes much of Beethoven’s achievement, it was not
intended as his final symphonic statement. Plans for a tenth symphony had been sketched before his
death in 1827. The first movement of this projected symphony was reconstructed in the late 1980s by
the British musicologist Barry Cooper.

Perhaps Beethoven’s most important gift to music was to open it to the world of symbolism and
metaphor, Before Beethoven, a musical theme was often treated as just a theme. Sonata-allegro form
was just a formal convenience to give a composer two prominent musical themes to manipulate and
juxtapose. If Mozart’s late symphonies opened the door to the idea that music could have a hint of
something seething behind a placid front, then Beethoven kicked that door in. For Beethoven, the two
musical ideas of a sonata-allegro form were not mere themes; they were archenemies that confronted
each other on the battleground of the development. Music without words could unleash torrent sof
emotion and universal symbolism. Beethoven, the man, was a tortured soul whose life was filled with
conflict and struggle.
Beethoven was celebrated as a pianist from his early days in Vienna. Admired by wealthy patrons and instrument
manufacturers, he received many pianos as presents throughout his life. It is said that Conrad Graf of Vienna built
him a piano that with a more powerful sound than most, to compensate for the composer's deafness. Actually, he had
built other similar instruments before.


Beethoven completed nine symphonies, works that influenced the whole future of music by the
expansion of the traditional classical form. The best known are the Third (Eroica), the Fifth, the Sixth,
Pastoral, and the Ninth, Choral. The less satisfactory Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91, is a minor 15-minute
long orchestral work composed to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s Joseph Bonaparte at the
Battle of Vitoria (Spain) on June 21, 1813.

For the theatre and various other occasions Beethoven wrote a number of Overtures, including four for
his only opera, Fidelio, one under that name and the others under the name of the heroine, Leonora.
Other Overtures include Egmont, Coriolan, Prometheus, The Consecration of the House, and The Ruins
of Athens.

Beethoven completed one violin concerto and five piano concertos, as well as a triple concerto for
violin, cello and piano, and a Choral Fantasia for solo piano, chorus, and orchestra.

Violin and Piano Sonatas: Beethoven wrote ten sonatas for violin and piano, of which the Spring and the
Kreutzer are particular favorites with audiences.

Cello Sonatas: The Cello Sonatas and sets of Variations for cello and piano, including one set based on
Handel’s See Here the Conquering Hero Comes and others on operatic themes from Mozart, are a
valuable part of any cellist’s repertoire.

String Quartets: The possibilities of the string quartet were further extended by Beethoven. Even with
his first, Opus 18 set of quartets, but it is possibly the named quartets, the group of three dedicated to
Prince Razumovsky and known, therefore, as the Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59 that are best known.
The later string quartets offer great challenges to both players and audience, and include the
remarkable Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) a gigantic work, discarded as the final movement of the String
Quartet, Opus 130, and published separately.

Trios: Beethoven wrote a number of Trios for violin, cello and piano. Two of the most popular ones are
the Archduke, and the Ghost Trios.

Piano Sonatas: Beethoven’s 32 numbered piano sonatas make full use of the developing form of piano,
with its wider range and possibilities of dynamic contrast. There are also interesting sets of variations,
including a set based on God save the King and another on Rule Britannia, variation on a theme from the
Eroica Symphony and a major work based on a theme by the publisher Diabelli. The best known of the
sonatas are those that have earned themselves affectionate nicknames, the Pathetique, Op. 13,
Moonlight, Op. 27/2, Waldstein, Op. 53, Appassionata, Op. 57, Les Adieux, Op. 81a, and the
Hammerklavier, Op. 106.
Other Piano Music: Less substantial piano pieces include three sets of Bagatelles, and the all too well
known Fur Elise, with the Rondo a capriccio, known in English as Rage Over a Lost Penny.

Beethoven’s most impressive choral work is the Missa Solemnis, written for the enthronement of his
pupil the Archduke Rudolph as Archbishop of Olmutz, but finished too late for that occasion. An earlier
work, the oratorio The Mount of Olives, is less well known.

Beethoven also wrote a number of songs. Of these the best known are probably the settings of Goethe,
which did little to impress the venerable poet and writer, who ignored their existence, and the cycle of
six songs known as An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved).

Like Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven was sometimes employed in the practical business of providing
dance music for court and social occasions. Beethoven wrote a number of sets of Minuets, German
Dances and Contredenases, ending with the so-called Modlinger Dances, written for performers at a
neighboring inn during a summer holiday outside Vienna.

There is a long list of Beethoven works without opus number – Werk ohne Opuszhal (WoO).
Additionally, in 1957, the Swiss musicologist and composer Willy Hess (b. 1906) published a catalog of
Beethoven works, and between 1959 and 1971, he also produced 14 volumes of supplements to the
complete Beethoven edition, as well as numerous editions of separate works. An interesting web project
entitled The Unheard Beethoven, provides comprehensive lists of WoO, as well as works by Hess
“Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can
orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is
achieved. But this is all mere dust...nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable
ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the
rear guard.

“Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that's the word! When
you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that
instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms—leave them to the
Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you
feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law
consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down...”

- Leonard Bernstein