Famous Composers: Ludwig van Beethoven

Famous Composers Ludwig van Beethoven  Sonatica Blog

When I was a small boy the master who had to correct my fortnightly ‘essays’ used to insist that they should stress only the best features of the subject under discussion, skirt round any defects and avoid deleterious comparisons. But I think I was unconvinced then as I am now that an essayist should necessarily be an advocate. The putting forward of all points pro to the exclusion of those con has a proper function in any mutual exchange of views between the knowledgeable few, but when standing alone is liable to produce a false impression on the uninitiated many, who may never hear the other side of the argument and cannot be expected to read between the lines or recognize the significance of what counsel for the defence has (purposely) left unsaid. The reputations of many painters, poets, authors and composers have on balance lost more than they have gained through such well-intentioned but unthinking advocacy, often misinterpreted as implying adulation and thereby laying itself open to superficial counter-attack.


No famous composer has suffered more in this respect than Ludwig van Beethoven. It would be a relatively simple matter to put his enemies to flight and his detractors to shame, did one not simultaneously face the task of saving him from friends blind to his weaknesses and from champions determined to ignore them. Since friends and champions have included such honoured figures as George Grove and Donald Tovey the rescue operation is a delicate one, and it is with trepidation that I propound the theory that both these distinguished essayists followed too closely the precepts of my old English master. Grove was a very trustworthy biographer but some of his more pompous pronouncements on his idol’s music should not be taken too seriously. Every student is in debt to Tovey for his six classic volumes of Essays in Musical Analysis (nearly all based on extended programme-notes for the Reid orchestral concerts in Edinburgh which he conducted from 1914 until his death in 1940), and in programme-notes he was often justified in eschewing deleterious comparisons; indeed it is fascinating to observe the forensic skill with which he conscientiously made out a good case for composers with whom he was temperamentally out of sympathy - Tchaikovsky, for example. But his warmth of feeling for Beethoven led him to become a skirter-round and even to declare that ‘what Beethoven does I accept as evidence’ - which was surely tantamount to saying that he was prepared to find everyone else out of step. Now although Beethoven was honoured during his lifetime and on his death, he became a puzzle to the immediately succeeding generation and it needed the fervent propaganda of Berlioz and Liszt to spread his fame round the continent in the 1850s and 1860s; in Britain it was not until the George Grove days of the late nineteenth century that he was deified and it became blasphemy not to fall down and pay homage. When the twentieth century was under way the inevitable reaction set in and the avant-garde began to denounce him as nothing more than a sacred cow of the Victorians.


Fortunately vituperation of this sort, understandable enough in the prevailing climate of musical opinion, caused broadminded scholars to realize that a detached approach was overdue. In 1905 Ernest Walker, a staunch admirer of all that was best in Beethoven, went so far as to admit that ‘compared with many of the great composers his output is distinctly unequal’; one work was castigated for its ‘uncouth inconsequence’. Walker, though a traditionalist, was a wise and upright judge. His high-pitched verbal comments on a more recent and briefer assessment by my colleague Norman Suckling (incorporated in his valuable study of Gabriel Faure!) might not be entirely unsympathetic; it would be only a friendly bone that he had to pick with Jean Renoir, who observed that ‘Beethoven is positively indecent the way he tells us about himself; he doesn’t spare us either the pain in his heart or the pain in his stomach’. (Although Renoir’s metaphor was blunt he here scored a shrewd and palpable hit, hammering home that Beethoven, instead of emulating say Bach or Mozart as an objective observer of human emotions, forced his own emotions on a world which was at first too stunned to accept the proposition that he was a superman - and later too stunned to reject it.) Despite the fair-minded Walkers, the sceptical Sucklings and the outspoken Renoirs, many music lovers regard Beethoven as the greatest composer that ever lived - and there can be no complaint about that so long as they don’t hold the opinion merely because they have been told to. He was in any case the greatest born between 1756 and 1797 and, moreover, was endowed with definable attributes which set him apart from any predecessor or contemporary - and which must be noted right away.

Beethoven is the first composer we have met who might be described as a rebel, for his career was spent in a struggle not only against poverty and ill-health (common enough adversaries) but also against anything that he rated as unjust in politics or unworthy in art. This outlook drove him to choose an unusual modus operandi: in his sketch books (mercifully preserved) one can trace in detail how preliminary jottings-down of a few notes led eventually to the emergence of the finally polished article. They have a further and less technical interest, since they make it clear that some of his finest works, so far from being spontaneous inspirations of the moment, had gradually evolved in his mind, and on paper, over many years. From the outset of the tonal era until Beethoven’s day nearly all music held a measure of predictability: every phrase, every bar, sometimes even every note, was an explicit thread in the tapestry; with composers of the Bach/Mozart calibre there was often a perfection of seeming inevitability where any alternative phrase or bar or even note would have been unthinkable. Beethoven’s was a different sort of perfection and inevitability had little to do with it. His sketch books show that the goal was reached through a slow and painful process of conscious striving; as Romain Rolland put it, ‘once he takes hold upon an idea, he never lets it go until he possesses it wholly’. Consequently his music is rarely predictable in the sense that one might apply the term - without any disapprobation - to much of Bach’s or Mozart’s; indeed, one of Beethoven’s outstanding characteristics is his unpredictability. Bolts from the blue like the ‘irrelevant roaring C sharp’ (Tovey’s phrase) in the finale of the eighth symphony have been and no doubt will continue to be interpreted according to taste as strokes of genius, as good jokes, as bad jokes, or as attacks of indigestion. But whatever else they may have been they were unquestionably part of the essence of Beethoven - which had nothing in common with the essence of Bach. Nor for that matter had it as much in common with the essence of Brahms as has sometimes been made out: the grouping together of these composers as the three Bs was merely a convenient and rather inept analogy favoured by the pious ‘Brahmins’ of the 1880s (see page 163). No; Beethoven was emphatically not a middleman between Bach and Brahms. On the contrary, he was the propagator of an entirely new line of descent leading through Berlioz and Liszt to Wagner, all of whom were tarred with the same revolutionary brush and adopted much the same approach to the problems of musical composition - with varying degrees of success. Beethoven was partly Flemish by ancestry (please note that he was Ludwig van, not Ludwig von) but for fifty years or so before his birth his grandfather and father had earned their keep by playing or singing at the court of the Elector of Cologne and it was at Bonn (515 - now 20 - Bonnstrasse) that he first saw the light of day on 16th December 1770. Few composers were less addicted to travel: during his teens (when he displayed extraordinary ability as a pianist, particularly in extemporization) he never left his native Rhineland except for a trip to Vienna in 1787; when he went there again in 1792 he realized that the Austrian capital was his spiritual home - and for the rest of his life he lived either there or at nearby Modling on the edge of the Wienerwald. Somewhat unprepossessing in appearance and brusque in behaviour, Beethoven was no ladies’ man, and although he fell in love once or twice he remained a bachelor. For practical purposes, therefore, the record of his life is the record of his music.


He did not take seriously to composition until he settled in Vienna where for a time he studied with Haydn and others, but he was an awkward pupil: he was already in his twenties and when he did not see eye to eye with his teachers he adopted an attitude of aggressive self-assurance; formal lessons were soon abandoned by mutual consent and he came to rely not so much on tuition as on intuition. During the nine years 1792 to 1800 inclusive he composed eleven piano sonatas (the best of which were op. 10 no. 3 and op. 13, the ‘Pathetique’), the concert aria Adelaide (a fine song, splendidly representative of this early period), four violin sonatas of no more than average merit, two piano concertos each of which held its charm but neither of which was remarkable, six string quartets, one symphony and a host of less important pieces. The quartets (op. 18) were stylistically in the Haydn manner but in all but one of them Beethoven replaced the traditional minuet with a faster ‘scherzo’ - literally ‘joke’. (In no. 4, which did incorporate a minuet, the fugal second movement was entitled a scherzo.) His first symphony, too, owed much to Haydn; it is so pleasant to listen to - and in the third movement (designated a minuet but in effect a scherzo) presages such mastery - that it may be captious to point out that it might rarely have been played during the last hundred and fifty years had it been written in a moment of exceptional inspiration (as it possibly could have been, apart from the scherzo) by some talented but less well known contemporary like Johann Schenk or Adalbert Gyrowetz.

It was during the next nine years (1801-9) that unser echte Beethoven emerged, the Beethoven who was to stimulate Grove to panegyrics and goad Renoir to fury; the Beethoven of the ‘Waldstein’ sonata with its frightening prestissimo octave passages; of the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata, demanding unprecedented virtuosity on the part of the violinist; of the ‘Rasumovsky’ string quartets which imparted a new look to chamber music; of the ‘Eroica' symphony with the calculated false entry at the start of the recapitulation in its first movement and the quixotic opening to its last; of the solitary violin concerto where surprising prominence was given to the kettledrums (with an effect so poetic in the context that not even a Renoir could cavil); of the opera Fidelio, the like of which had never before been seen on any stage. Yet recognition of the genius which Beethoven demonstrated during this period does not - or should not - depend solely upon his capacity for puzzling or shocking people, for in retrospect it can be seen that he was often in equally confident mood when not doing so. The ‘Waldstein’ is undeniably a fine sonata, but nowadays many musicians prefer the more serene op. 28, the more ardent op. 57 (the ‘Appassionata’) and the more descriptive op. 81a (‘Les Adieux, l’absence et le retour’). To say that the ‘Kreutzer’ is with one exception (op. 96) the most satisfying of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas might be a backhanded compliment to its composer, for in eight out of the ten he was not at his best.


The three ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets of op. 59 are great beyond doubt, but hardly greater than the suavely beautiful op. 74 - nor than the two well-contrasted and more conventional piano trios of op. 70. There is no accounting for taste and I have to confess that personally I find the much-admired ‘Eroica’ symphony, no. 3, apart from its superb scherzo, less attractive than nos. 2, 4 and 6 (which by comparison are sometimes underrated) and less impressive than the famous and popular no. 5. The violin concerto, magnificent up to a point, is, I feel, somewhat marred by a finale in which Beethoven slips perilously near banality. Fidelio is unique in conception and contains some wonderfully fine scenes, but taken as a whole it is not really a very good opera in the accepted sense of the term; fortunately Beethoven provided it with no less than four overtures - all of them excellent. The fourth - known as the Fidelio overture - was written for a revival some eight years after the original production; thanks to its forthright breeziness it is admirably suited to the theatre, but in the concert hall it yields pride of place to the three earlier Leonora overtures — whose slightly varying orchestral treatment of Florestan’s lovely aria ‘In des Lebens Frühlingstagen’ is of absorbing interest to students of technical empiricism. (Leonora no. j must be awarded the palm but the others run very close.) Two out of the three piano concertos dating from these years - the romantic no. 4 in G major and the more vigorous but equally expressive no. 5 in E flat major (the ‘Emperor’) - leave an impression of genuine spontaneity; in the concerto field these inspired and perfectly proportioned works have rarely been surpassed. Beethoven, as a social rebel, was enraged that the musicians of his day had to depend for their livelihood upon feudal, political or ecclesiastical patronage; on principle he had no time for Gluck’s empresses, Haydn’s princes or Mozart’s archbishops. Yet he had to live in the world into which he had been born and during his early days in Vienna had not been too proud to accept pecuniary assistance from Prince Charles Lichnowsky, Baron Pasquati and Count Browne - three noblemen whose names would be forgotten had they not befriended a struggling composer who later achieved greatness. In 1809 three other notabilities - Prince Lobkowitz (descended from the one mentioned on page 41), Prince Kinsky and Archduke Rudolf of Habsburg - clubbed together to provide him with an annuity; in the event devaluation of currency (an inescapable phenomenon even in those days) played havoc with their good intentions but nevertheless he was thereby enabled to maintain himself well above starvation level. Unfortunately he had other troubles to face which no patron, however wealthy or well-disposed, could alleviate. One was the onset of deafness and buzzing in the ears, first noticeable about 1798 and from 1812 onwards an increasing cause of distress and frustration. The other cross he had to bear was guardianship of his scapegrace young nephew Karl, whose delinquencies brought dishonour on the family name and were a continual source of worry and expense. It is not surprising, therefore, that Beethoven’s third nine-year period in Vienna (1810-18) was less prolific than those which preceded it - but what it lacked in quantity it made up in quality. In their respective categories the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata op. 106, the string quartet op. 95, the violin sonata op. 96, the song-cycle An die feme Geliebte and symphony no. 7 maintained throughout a level of excellence comparable with that of the Leonora overtures and the two great piano concertos. Symphony no. 8 and the two cello sonatas of op. 102 were less consistent.

To the last nine years of Beethoven’s life (1819-27), when his deafness and his nephew were driving him nearly frantic, belong the Mass in D major, the symphony no. 9 - which between them took four years to complete and were not finished until 1823 - and five string quartets (ops. 127, 130, 131, 132 and 135) all dated between 1824 and 1826. The Mass has its moments of beauty, notably the marvellous ‘Et incarnatus’ section where Beethoven catches the spirit of Palestrina; but in the double fugue ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ - as in, the choral finale of the ninth symphony - imaginative enthusiasm demands an excess of lung-power and agility on the part of the singers and an excess of intellectual concentration on the part of the audience. However both the first movement of the ninth symphony and its scherzo (placed second and not, as usual, third) are arrestingly vital; the slow movement, too, with its alternations of mood and key, is wonderfully effective. Yet for all its calm dignity it is not so deeply expressive as the ‘cavatina’ from the string quartet op. 130 or the lento from op. 135, both of which remain rare examples of music which bridges the gap between earth and heaven: listening to these sublime strains might surely bring comfort and bope to an anxious soul at the dread moment when it is about to pass from the measurable known to the limitless unknown.


The elusive characteristics of late Beethoven, however, are not always so easily communicable: some listeners find the last quartets heavy going and have to ride roughshod over such stumbling blocks as the second movement (vivace) of op. 135. Pace Donald Tovey, what Beethoven does here one is not prepared to accept as evidence: harsh music remains harsh no matter who put his name to it. Rather therefore than pay the customary lip-service to these extraordinary works (for their mysterious profundity, ethereal grandeur, inspired anticipation of the methods of Bela Bartok, etc.) let us recognize and accept the fact that they are in parts rough-edged and excuse it by recalling that they were put to paper at a time when Beethoven had become stonedeaf : it is significant that alongside passages of almost divine beauty (as in the two slow movements already referred to) are some which in theory ought to sound well but in practice don’t; others which are so fragmentary in construction that they look (and sound) as though they were preliminary sketches for an orchestral composition on a larger scale. One is driven to assume that many of the shadowy ideas surging through a mind still active but by now out of touch with the world of familiar hearing were beyond interpretation in any known instrumental medium, that the eagerly searching spirit of Ludwig van Beethoven was already in tune with the infinite, that from time to time his inspiration was no longer adjustable to a language of earthly comprehension.

Release from mortal shackles came on 26th March 1827; at the moment of his passing a violent thunderstorm was raging, which might be seen in retrospect as symbolizing the tremendous impact of this remarkable composer upon generations of musicians as yet unborn. Take him for all in all he was a great genius; it is improbable that we shall look upon his like again.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.