“No composer occupies a more central position in musical life than Beethoven”, Kinderman.
If Shakespeare is central to a secular approach to understanding how to live well and decently because of his theatrical and poetic genius, Beethoven is equally central because of his musical genius. Like Shakespeare, Beethoven is difficult to approach because so much has been written about him, his music is everywhere, and while it is often stirringly beautiful, it is not always easy to access in this day and age unless this music has formed part of a person’s ‘memed’ experience. Equally, his musical output is quite extensive and covers a vast canvas of sound.
As with Shakespeare and other Resonators in Cantokentigerni, I propose to walkthrough Beethoven’s works in chronological order and provide some level of commentary as I go. I will use Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven”, New York, 1977 revised 1998 as the basis for the creation of my framework, and refer to others as necessary. I should openly admit that I agree with Solomon’s arguments that music has ‘meaning’ in a very specific sense, and that Beethoven exemplifies this in an unmistakable way.
Because I rely heavily on Solomon, Taruskin’s comments on him are useful: “’The precise nature of Beethoven’s programmatic intentions’, Maynard Solomon cautions, ‘will always remain open,’ turning the Ninth Symphony into a vast symbol, ‘the totality of whose referents cannot be known and whose full effects will never be experienced.’ And this ultimate uncertainty, Solomon avers somewhat more controversially (but very much in the romantic spirit), is ‘true to the nature of music, whose meanings are beyond translation – and beyond intentionality.’ The message – Solomon’s to be sure, but perhaps Beethoven’s as well – is clear. We may interpret Beethoven’s meanings in endless ways, depending on our perspicacity and our interests. What we may not do, on the other hand, is to claim to have arrived at a definitive interpretation, or, on the other, to deny the reality of the semiotic dimension or its relevance to the meaning of the work. This is romanticism of the purest strain. What must forever remain controversial about it is the implication (which Solomon, if not Beethoven, makes explicit) that such is ‘the nature of music’. Meanings like those Solomon describes had not figured in previous musical discourse…..Conventionally embodied meanings [e.g. The Storm passage in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony] …were always public meanings…..The meanings embodied in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are no longer public….they have become subjective, hermetic, gnomic, ‘not of this world’. They are not so private as to render the musical discourse unintelligible, but they do render its message ineffable and inexhaustible and, to that extent, oracular. Intuitive grasp, aided of course by whatever can be gleaned by code or study or experience, is the only mode of understanding available. Just as we often may be deeply moved without quite knowing why or how. And that must be what Beethoven meant by insisting, in his later years, that he was not merely a composer (Tonsetzet) but a ‘tone-poet’ (Tondichter).” (Taruskin, 680-2). He concludes his overview of Beethoven with: “It is easy to see now why Beethoven has always been ‘the one to beat’. One can sympathize with those who have opposed his authority, and one can do so without any loss of belief in his greatness. The very fact that after two centuries Beethoven is still the standard-bearer of the universalizing claims of classical music, and still receives the brickbats of resisters, is all the evidence we need of his centrality to the musical culture that we have inherited, and that is ours to modify as we see fit.” (739). [See Richard Taruskin’s two excellent chapters on Beethoven in his “Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, Oxford, 2010, in which he covers all of the main issues surrounding Beethoven’s music and his ‘image/myth’].
So, what follows will be a form of “romanticism of the purest strain”, which will be qualified as necessary as we progress. Ezra Pound had argued that a person could recognize a masterpiece immediately. [See his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, where he sarcastically quotes a Mr. Nixon as saying: “And no one knows, at sight, a masterpiece”]. Many hear Beethoven’s music and are immediately captured by it, knowing, at hearing, a masterpiece. Tovey expressed a similar view: “nothing in a work of art has a real aesthetic value unless it can reach the consciousness of the spectator or listener through the evidence of the art alone, without the aid of technical information.” (Beethoven, 1944). Berenson used a similar argument for painting: “We must look and look and look till we live the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it. If we do not succeed in loving what through the ages has been loved, it is useless to lie to ourselves into believing that we do. A good rough test is whether we feel that it is reconciling us with life. No artifact is a work of art if it does not help to harmonize us. Without art, visual, verbal and musical, our world would have remained a jungle.” (Dedication, Looking at Pictures with Bernard Berenson, 1974). The appeal of the poem Cantokentigerni is similar: we all must, in our own ways, make some effort to improve our lives, and this requires some level of effort, be it to listen (as to music, literature, theatre, etc., and other people), be it to see (as in painting/sculpture,etc., and other people), and, above all, to reflect, think and explore what other thinking humans have recorded.
For those to whom music is a closed door, Shakespeare and others remain open.
I use the Complete Beethoven Edition, 20 volumes (87 CDs) which Deutsche Grammophon produced in 1988. I indicate whenever I use additional sources. YouTube has coverage of much of the music, at times with varying sound quality. Andras Schiff is well represented on YouTube both as performer and as commentator (his Guardian (audio only) discussions on each piano sonata are invaluable).
Maynard Solomon Framework from his Book on Beethoven:
Solomon divides his book into four sections:
•Vienna: The Early Years
•The Heroic Period
•The Final Phase
In each section he devotes a chapter to the music of the period, after having provided general background.
Section I: Bonn:
Beethoven was born in Bonn in December, 1770. Both his father and grandfather were musicians at the Court of the local Prince, and he was given a rudimentary musical education. His father was an alcoholic, and Beethoven grew up with all the challenges this involves. He was a diligent student, became an accomplished pianist and began to compose in his late teens. He was sponsored to study with Haydn in Vienna in 1792.
The Music: Of the various works which he wrote in Bonn, three stand out as indicators of his talent:
• Variations on Righini’s “Vienni amore”, WoO 87, 1791. This is a delightful piece with glimpses of future development. (S. p.65). This is definitely worth listening to.
• Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87, 1790. This is an ambitious choral work which was never performed, but is an impressive piece. (S. 67-68).
• Cantata on the Elevation of Leopold II, WoO 88, 1790. This is a less successful choral work which also was never performed. (S. 68-70).
Solomon argues that Beethoven “now had to master counterpoint and the forms and styles of the Viennese school.” (73).
Section II Vienna: The Early Years:
Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792. He had met Mozart previously, but Mozart was to die in 1791. Haydn was in the midst of his successes in London at this time, but Beethoven had excellent references from Count Waldstein from Bonn and, because of his brilliant piano technique, was an instant success in the salons of Vienna. Beethoven’s relationship with Haydn was a complex one, summarized by Solomon as follows: “it [is] rather probable that Haydn was unable or unwilling to embrace Beethoven’s greater achievements. This must have been a source of pain to the young composer. Certainly it reinforced his feeling that he had to make his own way – even without the appreciation and encouragement of the man he venerated above all living composers.” (103). [See my separate note on Haydn’s String Quartets].
And he did make his own way: “Overall, Beethoven’s first Vienna decade was a period of growth, challenge and achievement. He had carried the Viennese salons and concert halls as a virtuoso, launched a major career as a composer, and forged for himself a significant place in the greatest musical tradition of his time. Whatever fears he may have entertained of a repetition of the failure of 1787 [his first short visit to Vienna] proved unfounded; Beethoven had left home, traveled to the city of the emperor, and conquered it. He rejoiced in his liberation, both from the rigors of feudal service and from the weight of family responsibilities that had burdened him in Bonn. He had loosened the reins on his creative powers and attained a consciousness of his potentialities. To be sure, there were stresses – external and internal – that would inexorably lead to later crisis, but in the main, he was well contented by his rich productivity, public appreciation and financial reward. It was a time in his life when Beethoven could unrestrainedly take pleasure in friendships and his newfound fame and to become …’a happier man’.” (113-4).
Beethoven always believed that he had been born two years later than his actual birth-date, and claimed to be of aristocratic lineage until the courts ruled that he was not. Solomon refers to these issues as the ‘Family Romance’ and the ‘nobility pretense’. Because Beethoven was (and remains) a very complex character, I will quote Solomon at length:
“The nobility pretense leads, then, back to Beethoven’s Family Romance. By means of the pretense he sought transcendence of his parentage and his humble origins; through it, he could perhaps pursue his quest of a mythical, noble father to replace the mediocre court tenor who had begotten him. Thus, the pretense may well have been a medium by which Beethoven ‘lived out’ his Family Romance. Perhaps here we have the materialization of an archaic daydream, an attempt to transform reality as the only ‘sure’ way of fulfilling a deeply held wish.
The mythic hero fulfils his quest in a distant city – Thebes, Troy, Jerusalem, or Rome. Similarly, the creative genius often must leave home in order to find his destiny. Handel travels to London; Mozart must escape to Vienna to dissolve the ties that bind him to Salzburg; Chopin and Stravinsky settle in Paris. Perhaps certain forms of genius can flower only under conditions of exile or alienation. Perhaps, too, the genius needs to take on a new identity congruent with his creative accomplishments and capabilities, an identity possible only in a city of strangers who are unaware of the facts of his birth and the circumstances of his past. In the new city his origins are clouded, thus becoming the subject first of speculation and then of a variety of legends. With Beethoven, the conquest of the new city was accomplished by his adoption of a new persona and by the fabrication of a noble lineage.
On some level, the nobility probably sensed all along that Beethoven was not one of them; his manners, education and speech surely marked him as a commoner, despite his best efforts to achieve an aristocratic polish through dancing lessons, horseback riding, and self-education. It is conceivable that members of the aristocracy tolerated the great composer’s pretense with a fine combination of tact and secret amusement.
But Vienna would have tolerated much more from Beethoven: for he and his music played an increasingly vital role not only in Viennese musical life but in the shaping of a people’s image of itself at a crucial moment in history.” (120; see also 126). Already, there are peculiar elements of Beethoven’s emerging personality which will influence how he continues to transform himself within his ‘facticity’ of Vienna, and which will be dealt with later.
The Music: 1790-1802:
“The piano was the central vehicle for Beethoven’s musical development during these years, both as composer and as virtuoso.” (S. 129). Solomon chooses to address the piano sonatas only after addressing all of the other compositions during this period, and I have followed his choice. I prefer to listen to the music as it is, without paying too much attention to any influences from Haydn or Mozart which might be traceable. Equally, because I am following the chronological order of compositions, I resist the temptation to leap ahead and make comparisons with future works. This is the process I followed in the walkthroughs of Shakespeare and Verdi. (See Resonator column).
• Trios for Piano, Violin, and Cello, op.1, published 1795. These are three delightful pieces, all in four, as opposed to the traditional, three movements. Trios 1 and 2 are bright, witty, at times quite boisterous, virtuoso pieces. Trio No. 3, in C minor, however, while sharing all of the above with the other trios, includes a more somber, menacing tone, surprisingly not in the slow second Adagio movement, but in the third and fourth movements. The Finale actually ends quite quietly. These are all bravura pieces, with a propulsion, power and intensity which is entirely new to musical expression in this form. The DGG CDs are excellent, as are those of the Beaux Arts Trio, but the efforts of Barenboim, Du Pre and Zuckerman are fascinating when taken within the context of these performers (Dupre on cello is a must hear in any Beethoven piece she recorded).
• Cello Sonatas, op. 5, 1796. Both of these sonatas were composed for performance in Berlin before the King of Prussia, himself a recognized cellist. His principal cellist was J-P Duport who performed these sonatas with Beethoven himself. This must have been a remarkable event. W. Drabkin in the DGG booklet points out that there is no precedent to a sonata for piano and cello. The first sonata is in four movements and is a bravura piece, with a massive second movement which lasts 12 minutes, is of great intensity and power, and which leads into third and fourth movements of great virtuosity. The second sonata has three movements, opening with an Adagio which has reflective and lyrical moments combined with bravura intensity. The pace then picks up with an Allegro, followed by a Rondo which is a brilliant bravura piece. These are magnificent pieces, magisterial and brimming with self-confidence. Despite being lesser known, these are rewarding listens for anyone who wants to hear young Beethoven at his best! The DGG disc features Argerich and Maisky, who are explosive together. The earlier Kempff/Fournier version is much more sedate. Barenboim and Dupre require special mention.
• The Violin Sonatas: Beethoven wrote 10 violin sonatas, all but two being composed between 1797-1802. (Op. 47 and Op. 96 will be dealt with later). According to Drabkin (Notes to DGG Complete Beethoven, p. 14) it remains a mystery why Beethoven wrote the first eight sonatas since there appears to be no special occasion or commission involved. I listened to four different recording sets: The DGG Complete Beethoven with Argerich and Kremer, the set by Mutter and Orkus, the set by Pires and Dumay, and the older set by Menuhin and Kempff. While Argerich probably plays closest to Beethoven’s pianism, Kremer is the weakest of the violinists. The Pires/Dumay set is magnificent with Dumay magisterial, and Pires slightly more amenable than Beethoven ever could have been on piano, yet delightfully in synch with Dumay throughout. Mutter and Orkus are more reflective, subtle, less violent, but with a lyricism that at times is quite beautiful. Zukerman and Barenboim are less impressive without Dupre. Menuhin and Kempff seem to be uninspired. There are videos of performances of the sonatas on YouTube.
• Op. 12: 1797-98. A set of three sonatas. The first is a magnificent bravura piece, already quite definite in its voice and not mistakable for any of its Mozart predecessors. The second bristles with wit and poignancy and equal bravura. The third is quite marvelous with more voice to the piano and with a thrilling Rondo finale.
• Op. 23 and Op. 24: 1800-01. Single sonatas intended to be a set. Op 23 is a bravura piece with much wit in the Andante and explosive outbursts in the Allegro finale. Argerich is in her element here and takes over leadership on this sonata. Op. 24, ‘The Spring’, is a beautifully lyrical piece, probably the best known violin sonata ever written. No real explosions or sheer bravura passages, but rather a reflective, beautiful statement, more akin to Mozart. All three versions are very good, but Dumay is my top choice, Mutter second.
• Op. 30: 1801-02. A set of three sonatas. No.1 is a broad, brilliant piece with a beautiful opening Allegro followed by a hushed and pensive Adagio, concluding with a light Allegretto finale which flows into variations full of wit and bravura. All three versions are superb, with Argerich providing quite a robust piano at times. No.2 is a magisterial piece, full-bodied, certain and bold, stated immediately with the Allegro, and followed with a tranquil, beautiful weave of instruments in the Adagio. A witty, bravura Scherzo leads to the Finale with its brilliant flashes and threatening undertones. This is a must hear with Dumay and Pires. No.3 is dazzling in its opening and closing Allegros but less than satisfying in the middle movement, Tempo di Menuetto, which I found to be slightly uninspired. In a sense, No.2 (in C minor) dominates this set, and is the one to listen to.
• The String Trios: “Beethoven’s chamber music for strings…marks a stage in the loosening of his reliance on the piano as his anchor of his compositional style.” (S.133). The String Trios Op.9, 1797-98 is a set of three sonatas which Simpson sees as exploratory by Beethoven for the composition of string quartets, within the context of Mozart and Haydn (who was still writing quartets). Nos.1 and 2 are wonderful displays of his grasp of the medium, with beautiful Adagios flanked by virtuoso movements. No.3, in C minor, stand out as a mature, masterly piece, full of self confidence, and quite brilliant.
• The String Quartets: Op.18, 1798-1800, published in 1801. A set of six.
Sources for the Quartets:
While remaining within Solomon’s framework, there is a need to include some other sources, especially for the Quartets. This is because the Quartets, for me, represent a specific experience of Beethoven which I have always found to be extraordinarily enrichening. (More on this later, once the walkthrough has been completed). I rely mainly on Joseph Kerman (The Beethoven Quartets, 1960) as well as Robert Simpson, (“The Chamber Music for Strings” in The Beethoven Companion, edited by Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, 1971), and The Beethoven Quartet Companion, edited by Robert Winter and Roger Martin, 1994, which opens with this startling statement:
“The seventeen Beethoven string quartets are to chamber music what the plays of Shakespeare are to drama and what the self-portraits of Rembrandt are to portraiture.” (p. 1).
[Haydn: An Aside: It is also worth noting the effect Op. 18 had on Haydn:
Landon believes Haydn intended to write a set if six quartets but completed only two, with a third incomplete (Op. 103), but stopped because of ”his first direct confrontation with Beethoven.” (L, IV, 502-5). He refers to Beethoven’s Op. 18 as the basic cause of Haydn’s retreat into choral works. He argues that Haydn was “a composer with a distinctly depressive, if carefully hidden, side to his being which is so much at variance with the ‘official’ portrait he presented to society that one wonders if even his most astute contemporaries realized the profound dichotomy in Haydn’s psychological make-up. Such a movement as the D minor Adagio from Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 1, is deliberately, indeed brilliantly, pathetic – a piece of rhetoric which is near to the declamatory world of opera seria. Next to it, Haydn’s last restrained, unpathetic, undemonstrative, undeclamatory style must have seemed pale beside Beethoven’s growl of thunder on the dark horizon. From the rapier-swift lunge, the reserved old man withdrew. And many hardly seemed to take note of his absence….” (L, IV, 508). See my ‘The Haydn Quartets’.]
Performances on CD.
There are many performances of all 14 quartets in box sets to choose from, but I have limited myself to:
• The Lindsays: My preference
• The Smetana: very close, best sound
• The Vegh: very close
• The Quartetto Italiano: very close
• The Alban Berg: very close
• The Emmerson: very close
• Tokyo (Late Quartets only): very close
• The Complete Beethoven Edition, DGG (Amadeus, Hagen, Mendelsshon, Emmerson, Lasalle): close
• The Tallich: OK
• The Budapest, mono and stereo: OK.
Opus 18. The Early String Quartets: 1798-1800
While historically these quartets were written in what is now the accepted order of 3, 1, 2, 5, 4, 6, I follow Beethoven’s published order.
• No. 1, in F major.
The Allegro is bold, forceful, virtuoso with full texture; it is assertively dramatic in tone; arresting; almost a frontal attack. The Adagio is very slow, poignant, beautiful, moving, then solemn, ominous, threatening, with haunting development moving to a climactic pitch. The Scherzo opens lightly, with slight wit, then a grand sweep with virtuoso surges. The Allegro has a witty opening soon dispelled by a flourish with variations of virtuoso brilliance, with an insistent throb throughout.
This quartet is unlike anything I have heard so far. There are echoes of Haydn and Mozart, but I hear a distinctive voice here. Already Beethoven reaches out forcibly in this deeply moving quartet. There is an assertive power and momentum here which is immediately arresting.
• No. 2, in G major.
This quartet is not quite in the same class as No.1! It is more witty, more in the Haydn mode, with less ferocity and intensity. The opening Allegro is somewhat stiff, with virtuoso elements, while the Adagio never quite settles into a depth of feeling. The Scherzo is something of a throwaway, with witty, virtuoso playing. The Alllegro is a bravura piece, brimming with self-confidence and wit. Kerman argues that this “is Beethoven’s wittiest composition in the genre,” (44) but adds later that wit “is a dangerous game – Haydn’s game, not Beethoven’s. His sense of humor is not far to be trusted at this time of his life.” (49).
• No 3, in D major.
This quartet is light, airy and quite calm in most respects. There are passages of virtuoso bravura, but overall this is a quietly meditative piece, which is pleasant to listen to, distinctive, but not really arresting. According to Kerman in this quartet “there is technique to burn, but the theme works too hard and, in some ultimate sense, lacks conviction.” (25).
• No. 4, in C Minor.
This quartet is a bright, airy, unassertive piece which flows gently through all movements. The closest quartet to Haydn’s atmosphere so far. Kerman sums up his response to this piece: “the exceptional work in the Op. 18 series; exceptional, by its weakness, in the entire corpus of the Beethoven quartets.” (71).
• No. 5, in A major.
This is another bright, playful virtuoso piece, which is reminiscent of Mozartian lightness. Kerman notes: ”Effortlessness – that is the key term, maybe, for Beethoven’s most imponderable and unruffled quartet. It must be counted the least personal of the quartets: pursuing again and again the will-o’-the-wisp of Mozart.” (64).
• No. 6, in B flat major.
This quartet is much more assertive, brooding, yet lyrical piece with lots of bravura outbursts throughout. The Finale is the famous ‘Malincolia’ with its final bravura dash. Of this Kerman has much to say: “La Malinconia is the most unusual, the most original movement of the Op. 18 Quartets. The other quartets are not, most of them, really Haydnesque or Mozartian; but they could conceivably be predicted on the basis of the earlier composers. Or – not to flatter ourselves too far – when in the actual case we set them against their predecessors, these other movements reveal a derivation that the mind can at least encompass, after the event. Of La Malinconia this can no longer be said, any more than it can be said of the Eroica Symphony or of the Great Fugue. The piece cuts drastically across the entire mass of Beethoven’s early music, an arresting premonition of achievements to come.” (76).
Opus 18 is, then, as a whole, the work of “an assured young man, ready to set out on his own; and to give voice to his personality he quickly developed a correspondingly and constantly expanding musical vocabulary” (Steinberg, in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, p.149. See also Kerman, pp 82-6). Both writers point out that we tend to listen to the early Beethoven from the perspective of the middle and late Beethoven, and this can lessen the impact of these early pieces. Certainly, for me personally having come through the ‘45’ string quartets of Haydn, together with Mozart’s string quartets, the effect of Op. 18, No 1 was stunning, as was the effect of the final No. 6. I agree that with the rest of the quartets, it is a mixed bag, derivative in part, but still sparkling with innovation and a new voice full of confidence. I would recommend listening to the later quartets prior to listening to Op. 18 if one is not immediately familiar with the works of Beethoven.
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, 1801.
Both Simpson (251) and Solomon praise this Quintet. Solomon provides a succinct appraisal: “It is a characteristically spacious, sonorous, and fully controlled work, with smoothly flowing thematic development, a lyrical Adagio molto espressivo, an inventive and unflagging Scherzo, and – with much tremulo accompaniment – one of the most successful ‘stormy’ finales…of Beethoven’s early years.” (135). He adds in the same breath that it is “worthy of a place alongside Mozart’s works for this combination of instruments”, while Simpson elaborates further, that “none of Mozart’s string quintets is a possible model for Beethoven’s.” I have not spent time with the string quintets of Mozart, but plan to do so. Op. 29 remains a very pleasant piece, worth listening to, but not quite in the same category of the first and last quartets of Op.18.
Three Piano Concertos, Op. 15, No.1 (1795-1801); Op. 19, No.2, (1788-1801); Op.37, No.3, (1800-03).
The chronology of these works is open to debate. We know that No.2 was finalized prior to No.1, but Beethoven tended to work on various pieces at the same time, and would hold works back from publishing in order to retain his monopoly over them for public performances. Mozart had made the piano concerto a top billing favourite in Vienna, and the ambitious, self-confident young Beethoven intended to use the piano concerto as a way to demonstrate his ability both as a pianist and as a composer. Also, Beethoven revised much of his music for re-publication, and wrote several cadenzas for his early piano concertos. Hogwood has recorded the piano concertos on period instruments, using the fortepiano, and this is probably as close to Beethoven’s Vienna experience of this music as we can achieve. I do not want to race ahead and enter into the debate of the Beethoven legacy, and how the listener of today hears the music of Beethoven. I prefer to stay with Solomon’s chronological, evolutionary approach.
I will not treat these concertos separately since they have become so widely known. The concertos “belong to that select…group of works performed and recorded regularly as a cycle” (Winter, Notes to Hogwood CD box set, p.8). Most people will recognize various sections of each piece, since they have become an integral part of the global popular musical culture. This will apply to much of Beethoven’s orchestral music. The first concertos are marked by the Mozartian context in which they are written, but are also the early manifestations of the power, intensity, yet tenderness of Beethoven’s musical output. They are also testaments to his prowess as a pianist, since he was the original pianist (except for the Fifth Concerto) in their performances.
Solomon summarizes thus: “ Both concertos [Nos 1 and 2] are fairly unadventurous in formal organization, in the balance between solo and orchestra, and in the nature of the piano writing. The Concerto No.3 in C minor, op 37, which was written over a period of time extending from as early as 1799 to 1802-3, represents a marked advance over its predecessors, and it became an established model of Classic-Romantic concerto form for the nineteenth century…[it] represents Beethoven’s first effort in this genre to record something far beyond merely exterior wit or refinement, and to move towards dramatic oratory.” (136).
They are all three spectacular works, each becoming progressively more sophisticated in every aspect. Many who listen to this music for the first time are entranced by it, and I am one of them, and this is the case even on repeated listenings.
Performances: There is an infinite variety of recordings of all of the three early concertos. I provide a snapshot from my collection. I rate them primarily on my response to the individual pianist, who represents Beethoven to me, more than the conductor, though clearly the partnership is vitally important. The balance in the recording plays a part also.
•Brendel/Haitink is simply outstanding for me
•Brendel/Levine is slightly less so because of Levine
•Kissin/Davis is brilliant with wonderful sound
•Argerich/Sinopoli is outstanding because of Argerich
•Gould/Golschman/Bernstein is a bravura piece because of Gould
•Barenboim/Kemperer is outstanding because of the combination!
•Kempff/Leitner is outstanding because of the combination!
•Kempff/van Kempen is outstanding because of Kempff (sound is mono, but OK).
•Ashkenazy/Solti is outstanding because of Ashkenazy
•Pollini/Abbado is the tops
•Pollini/Bohm wins my triple crown!
•Pollini/Jochum is good (poor sound).
•Peraiha/Haitink is very good
•Weissenberg/Karajan disappointed me
•Eschenbach/Karajan (No 1) disappointed me
•Aimard/Harnoncourt disappointed me
•Hogwood’s original music leaves me puzzled.
[All of these recordings are in sets, except for Eschenbach].
The First Two Symphonies: No 1, in C major, Op. 21, completed 1800; No 2, in D major, Op. 36, completed 1802.
Landon points out that “Beethoven composed no symphony until it was clear that Haydn was not going to write any more”. (DGG Booklet Vol. 1, in The Complete Beethoven Edition, p. 14). Solomon quotes Tovey in arguing that the First Symphony was a fitting farewell to the eighteenth century. (137). Tovey also refers to this symphony as written in the style of the Comedy of Manners, and this piece, intense and explosive as it is, has a lightness to it, and seems to mix the joie-de-vivre of the young master with his extraordinary intensity. This all breaks out more fully in the Second Symphony which Solomon states “is already the work of a mature master who is settling accounts – or making peace – with the existing symphonic tradition before embarking on an unprecedented musical voyage. It is a work that has both retrospective and productive characteristics, firmly rooted in Mozart’s and Haydn’s last symphonies while anticipating Beethoven’s later development by its dynamic contrasts, unexpected modulations, and propulsive movement, all of which are controlled by a confident and flowing classicism.” (137). Simpson describes it as “a work of superb breadth, power and exhilarating mastery, with a slow movement that can still rank as an outstanding marvel of beauty and grace.” (The Complete Beethoven, DGG, Vol. 1, p. 20). Everyone should listen to these two works. I recommend either the von Karajan 1961 DGG CD version, or the Karl Bohm DGG CD version with the Vienna Philharmonic. [I will provide other performance commentaries when we reach the Third Symphony, the Eroica].
The symphonies of Beethoven are of fundamental importance to music in general, and to me in particular, so much more needs to be said about them, but not until later, because the piano sonatas have still to be included, and that is the next musical group to be addressed in Solomon’s framework.
Ballet Music for The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43, 1800-01:
This music is rarely played, but is a work of the mature Beethoven which had great success in Vienna, the ballet being performed no less than 22 times. It fascinatingly uses the “Prometheus Theme” which he would later use in his Variations for piano Op. 35, and for the finale of the Eroica Symphony.
The 20 Piano Sonatas written between 1794-1802.
Beethoven wrote a total of 32 piano sonatas. “The first twenty were composed in the eight years up to 1802, and it is in them that Beethoven’s first unquestioned masterpieces are to be found. These sonatas fall readily into two groups: Thirteen written between late 1794 and mid 1800 – op. 2 to op. 22, plus two ‘easy sonatas’, op.49 – that explore and expand the possibilities of sonata form; and seven sonatas, op. 26 to op. 31, that constitute a new line of development and experimentation. Even the earliest sonatas, however, are spacious in design and rich in detail and invention, and were clearly intended as major efforts. Where Haydn and Mozart had relied almost exclusively on a three-movement layout, six of Beethoven’s first sonatas (including his first four) used the four-movement scheme – by means of an added minuet or scherzo – usually reserved for symphonies and quartets. These sonatas were on the average almost one and a half times as long as those written by his predecessors. The sonatas run the full gamut of Sturm un Drang [storm and stress] sentiment – passion, reverie, exuberance, heroism, solemnity, nobility, and dramatic pathos – but they are also full of abrupt harmonic and dynamic effects, piquant episodes, unusual rhythms, syncopations, and brief departures for distant keys, all of which signify that this young composer was not content to remain a dutiful exponent of a great tradition. It is Beethoven’s unification of two opposing trends, what Tovey calls his ‘epigrammatic’ manner along with an overall striving for spaciousness, that is a distinguishing characteristic of his early Vienna style.” (Solomon,137-8).
• Sonata No. 1, in F minor, Op.2, no.1; Sonata No. 2, in A major, Op.2, no.2; Sonata No. 3, in C major, Op.2, no.3, 1793-5: These are ambitious and challenging works in a set, with the third the most spacious and showy of the set, and the one to be listened to.
• Sonata No. 4, in E flat major, Op. 7, 1796-7: This work is on a large scale combining breadth with energy, and merits a hearing.
• Sonata No. 5, in C minor, Op. 10; Sonata No. 6, in F major, Op. 10; Sonata No. 7, in D major, No. 3, 1795-98: The first two of this set are shorter works, but the third is the finest written so far and a must hear.
• Sonata No. 8, in C minor, Op 13, “Pathetique”, 1797-8: Solomon notes: “the most dynamically propulsive of Beethoven’s piano sonatas yet written, the first to use a slow, dramatic introduction, and the first whose movements are clearly and unmistakably linked through the use of related thematic material and flashbacks or reminiscences. In its ardent, youthful way, it opens up the path to the ‘fantasy sonatas’ of the following years.” (138). This music is now quite familiar to many listeners, but is a must hear.
• Sonata No. 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 1; No. 10, in G major, Op. 14, No. 2, 1798-9: These are shorter pieces, with a less dramatic subject matter, but delightful.
• Sonata No. 11, in B flat, Op. 22, 1800: Often referred to as the ‘Grande’ Sonata “closes out this mature Classical phase of Beethoven’s sonata development on a note of absolute confidence in his mastery of the form. Beethoven was especially proud of it: ‘This sonata is really something’, he wrote to his publisher.” (Solomon, 138). This is a must hear.
• Sonata No. 12 in A Flat, Op. 26, 1801: This is an innovative piece which contains “a funeral march for the death of a hero” as its third movement, and which paves the way for Beethoven’s next development of the “fantasia.” It is a gloriously exciting piece, somewhat overshadowed by the next two sonatas, but well worth listening to.
• Sonatas No. 13 in E Flat, Op. 27, No. 1; No. 14 in C sharp, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”, 1801: Solomon notes: “Beethoven gave the title ‘Sonata quasi una Fantasia’ to each of the opus 27 sonatas, a designation that has no readily apparent precedent….Jurgen Uhde sees the opus 27 Sonatas as standing at the crossroads of eighteenth-century optimism and emergent Romantic pessimism, and the ‘quintessence’ of these sonatas as a ‘breakthrough from meditation to activity’, providing a metaphor for the improvement of the world.” (138-9). Regardless of the historical interpretations possible, these works remain extraordinary weaves of pianistic sound and deserve to be heard on their own merits.
• Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”, 1801: Solomon refers to this as “calm and reflective…Like so many of Beethoven’s works that follow hard upon a dramatic achievement, opus 28 celebrates the peace that comes from the fulfillment of a difficult creative effort and withdraws to a relative traditionalism, from which Beethoven will gain strength for a new creative surge.” (139-40). There are some quite wild moments in this piece, mixed with some real tranquility. Still one of my favourites.
• Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No 1; No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “The Tempest”; No. 18 in E Flat, Op. 31, No. 3, 1802: Solomon argues that it is difficult to say whether this set “opened or closed an era.” (140). Blom considers the G major of the set to be “undoubtedly the least favoured by musicians and the public at large.” (125), although I would avoid such comparisons, since it remains a joy to listen to. The D minor is much more popular and is quite a powerful piece, with the E flat, rounding out a relatively unadventurous sonata set, which is still wonderful music with its powerful finale Presto con fuoco.
• Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1; No. 20, in G Major, Op. 49, No 2, 1795-7: These pieces are short (only two movements), and it appears likely that Beethoven never intended them for publication. Blom quotes Tovey’s reference to them as “the two most beautiful sonatinas within the range of small hands and young players.) (141). They do not really fit within the context of the rest of the sonatas.
• Piano Variations: On an original Theme, Op. 34; The Eroica Variations, Op. 35, 1802: These are wonderful pieces which Beethoven considered quite highly (these are the first Variations to be given an Opus number). The final variation of Op. 34 is breathtaking and forms the basis for the fourth movement of The Eroica Symphony.
Solomon’s Summing Up of the Early Vienna Years:
“One senses during these years, and especially the years 1798 to 1802, Beethoven’s determination to achieve a mastery of the Viennnese Classical style within each of its major instrumental genres. The challenge of the piano was met earliest, with opus 1 in 1795; the string trio with opus 9 in 1798; the string quartet with opus 18 in 1799 and 1800; the string quintet with opus 29 in 1801; the duo sonatas with opuses 23, 24, and 30 in 1801-2; the piano sonatas with opuses 22-28 in 1800 and 1801; the symphony with the Symphony in D in 1802; and the piano concerto with the Third Concerto between 1799 and 1803. It was Beethoven’s tendency, having mastered a genre, to withdraw for a time from the further expansion of the implications of his advance and turn elsewhere. Until 1802, Beethoven seems to have restrained the pull of his imagination each time it threatened to move him beyond the limits of the Classical style and, with what appears to have been conscious deliberation, occupied himself in less dangerous terrain. This may be why several works of this period – such as the two symphonies and the Sonatas, op 28 and opus 31, no.1 – have a somewhat conservative cast when viewed alongside several of the String Quartets, op. 18, and the Piano Sonatas op. 27 and op. 31, no 2.
Beethoven had gained the high ground of the Viennese tradition; he was now faced with the choice of repetition of his conquests or casting out in an uncharted direction. According to Czerny, it was soon after the composition of the Sonata in D, op. 28, that Beethoven said to his friend the violinist Wenzel Krumpholz, ‘I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.’ Several paths were open to Beethoven. One of these lay in the direction of romanticism, towards the loosening and imaginative extension of classical designs and the consolidation of an internal, probing, transcendent style. For reasons that are necessarily obscure, he did not immediately pursue this path, perhaps because in the years 1801 and 1802 he found within sonata form new, unexplored possibilities: thematic condensation; more intense, extended, and dramatic development; and the infusion of richer fantasy and improvisatory materials into an even more highly structured classicism.
Beethoven was now well launched upon his ‘new path’ – a qualitative change in his style that would become the turning point in the history of music itself. It was a transformation of great magnitude, and it coincided with a biographical crisis of major proportions.” (140-1).
Section III: The Heroic Period
The Heiligenstdat Testament, October, 1802.
Solomon argues that the year 1801 “saw the richest publishing harvest of his career so far, both in quantity and in musical scope.” (145). But Beethoven also manifests at this time “an undercurrent of malaise, a feeling of anxiety mingled with the dread of some unknown yet dreaded misfortune.” (145). This is the point at which his growing deafness is undeniable, and he begins to disclose this in letters to his friends Wegeler and Amenda. A year later, on 6 and 10 October, 1802, he writes his famous ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, addressed to his brothers, but found in his papers only after his death: “The emotional tone of the Heiligenstadt Testament, the most striking confessional statement in the biography of Beethoven, is curiously uneven, alternating between touching expressions of Beethoven’s feelings of despair at his encroaching deafness and stilted, even literary formulations emphasizing his adherence to virtue. There are passages of real pathos, but these are also so intertwined with self-conscious dramatics that one begins to realize that this neatly written document is a carefully revised ‘fair copy’ that has been scrubbed clean of much of its original emotion. In particular, one remains unpersuaded by the references to suicide:’I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back’; ‘Thanks to [virtue] and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide.’ It is as though Beethoven were being deliberately laconic in order to avoid reviving distressful feelings.
Probably the testament was written after the passions that gave rise to it had begun to cool…Naturally, the awareness of advancing deafness had a traumatic effect, but one senses that there is much more at work here than a mere reiteration of sentiments he had already voiced to Wegeler and Amenda fifteen months earlier.” (154-5).
Solomon concludes” “What can be said is that the Heiligenstadt Testament is a leavetaking – which is to say, a fresh start. Beethoven here metaphorically enacted his own death in order that he might live again. He recreated himself in a new guise, self-sufficient and heroic. The testament is a funeral work, like the ‘Joseph’ Cantata and ‘Christ on the Mount of Olives’. In a sense, it is the literary prototype of the Eroica Symphony, a portrait of the artist as hero, stricken by deafness, withdrawn from mankind, conquering his impulses to suicide, struggling against fate, hoping to find ’but one hour of pure joy.’ It is a daydream compounded of heroism, death and rebirth, a reaffirmation of Beethoven’s adherence to virtue and to the categorical imperative.” 157-8).
Solomon points that Beethoven’s deafness was indeed gradual, and not total until his last decade, and may even have acted as some kind of stimulus to his creative composing and that “ultimately, Beethoven turned all his defeats into victories….Between the writing of the Heiligenstadt Testament, in 1802, and 1810 there are only two references to his deafness in Beethoven’s correspondence, along with one revealing note on a leaf of sketches for the ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets in 1806:’Let your deafness no longer be a secret – even in art.’ Beethoven had come to terms with his deafness.” (161-2).
I am referring now, out of sequence with Solomon, to two major works of Beethoven at this stage prior to addressing the Third Symphony.
• “Christus am Olbege” (Christ of the Mount of Olives), Op. 85, 1803: Solomon argues that “both in its subject matter and in its size it opens, however haltingly and imperfectly, the path to the Eroica and Fidelio.The ‘heroic’ style seemed to be struggling for emergence, and Christus is a step toward that emergence, in which Beethoven returned, almost instinctively, to a form similar to that of the ‘Joseph’ Cantata, in which he earlier treated the subjects of death and heroism. Here, as in that cantata, the discursive oratorio proved insufficient for the task.” (250).
[Insert: It is noteworthy that the Heiligestadt Testament raises the issue of suicide, in Hamlet’s sense. Beethoven clearly raised the question of to be or not be in confronting his progressive deafness. It is also significant that Pasternak later conflates Hamlet with Christ on the Mount when he asks to let the cup pass. There is some evidence that Beethoven had read Hamlet, but it is not elaborated. See Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven, New York, 2003, p.114, where he refers to the letter Beethoven’s letter to Amenda, and Note 5 where he refers to Emily Anderson as the only editor who refers to Hamlet, and where Lockwood states that “Beethoven knew Shakespeare in the Schlegel translation, of which eight volumes had appeared by 1801.” Presumably Hamlet was one of the plays contained therein].
• Violin Sonata, No. 9, in A minor, “Kreutzer”, 1802-3
This is an explosively virtuoso piece written for an outstanding English violinist whom Beethoven accompanied at its first performance. They subsequently had an argument and the piece was later dedicated to a French violinist, Kreutzer, who never performed it. The exuberance of the opening Adagio – Presto is breath-taking, as is the wit and spaciousness of the Andante. The Finale is a magnificent gallop. Here Beethoven shows off his brilliance and it must have been spectacular to have experienced the Vienna performance! The Argerich/Kremer version is spectacular, as is the Dumay/Pires and Mutter/Orkis (on cd, and visually on DVD). The Menuhin/Kempff is sedate. To be heard if only to capture the explosive genius of Beethoven when paired with a virtuoso of high talent.
The Heroic Decade (I)
Solomon identifies the period 1802-1812 as years of remarkable productivity for Beethoven as well as great public popularity. But Beethoven was never a settled person, always restless, always seeking something more, not simply artistically, but in a lived sense, such as income security, and a bride. In 1804 he seems to have seriously considered moving to Paris. Solomon thinks he may have felt that he should have received some kind of appointment with salary commensurate to his talents, and “his disappointments in love may have been greater than has been supposed”. (170).
And, of course, the turbulence of the times must have added to Beethoven’s restlessness. It is hard to imagine how Vienna must have reacted to the French Revolution, Napoleon’s ascendancy, and the eventual replacement of permanent revolution by permanent warfare (Vienna was occupied twice by the French, in November, 1805, and again in May, 1809, just as Haydn was dying). Beethoven’s famous dedication of the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon, then its subsequent alteration once Napoleon had crowned himself emperor is now part of the myth of Beethoven. Solomon does an admirable job of dispelling much of the myth (for example, that Beethoven was already outraged when Napoleon signed a concordat with the Vatican in July 1801 which reestablished Catholic worship in France). Solomon’s summary merits quotation in full:
“There was a component of caution, an excess of discretion, even a failure of nerve, in Beethoven’s removal of the Bonaparte inscription. This should not, however, lead us reject other levels of motivation and meaning. As we have seen, Beethoven regarded Bonaparte as an embodiment of Enlightened leadership, but, simultaneously, he felt betrayed by Bonaparte’s Caesarist deeds. Beethoven’s ambivalence mirrored a central contradiction of his age, and it is this contradiction that finds expression in the Eroica Symphony. The Eroica arose from the conflict between Enlightened faith in the savior-prince and the reality of Bonapartism. Bonaparte – whose image replaced Christ’s in myriads of European homes – had inherited the displaced messianism of his time; Beethoven, who rejected blind faith and hierarchical orthodoxy in his personal orthodoxy, now rejected its secular equivalents. As an artist and as a man, Beethoven could no longer accept unmediated conceptions of progress, innate human goodness, reason, and faith. His affirmations were now leavened by an acknowledgement of the frailty of human leadership and a consciousness of the regressive and brutalizing components in all forward-thrusting stages in social evolution.
Beethoven, ever questioning, spurred by doubt, rejecting the passivity of superstition and the false confidence of ideological certainty, never abandoned his central faith in the values of the Enlightenment – altruistic love, reason, and humanistic ideals. The Enlightenment abjured superstition and dogma and supplanted theological pessimism with a harmonious and optimistic view of mankind’s freedom to develop its potentialities within a framework of natural law and political reconstruction. This is not to say that its philosophers were unaware of the problem of evil or that its views were predicted upon a banal rejection of skepticism. Nevertheless, as Ernst Cassirer observed, “This era is permeated by genuine creative feelings and an unquestionable faith in the reformation of the world; and he quoted Voltaire’s maxim “Some day all will be well, is our hope; all is well today is illusion.” Beethoven rejected the latter illusion, and cleaved to the principle of hope.
[Note: I have appended a brief note on George Washington at the conclusion of this walkthrough of Beethoven. It is surprising that Beethoven never seems to have appreciated the achievements of Washington as revolutionary leader, one who actually succeeded in managing a relatively peaceful and bloodless transition of power in a new revolutionary republic established on the principles of liberty and equality. It is questionable if a better understanding of Washington by Beethoven would have influenced him in his life and compositions, given the historical realities of Vienna at this time, but it could be interesting to speculate].
Beethoven could not have ‘journeyed to Paris’, which is to say, transferred his allegiance to France, without becoming a musical conformist working in conventional formulas, as Gossec, Mehul, and Spontini had done. French Revolutionary music (and painting) largely ignored both the Revolution and the Terror, stressing instead nobility of motivation and action and substituting heroic portraiture and triumphal rhetoric for conflict and tragedy. Idealism and simple faith alone, however, are insufficient grounds for greatness. Conflict is absent from such ideological formulations, and the artworks that result accordingly require no formal containment, but merely craftsmanlike expression. For it is the conflict between faith and skepticism, the struggle between belief and disbelief – which Goethe described as the most important theme in world history – that creates those dynamic tensions that tend to expand and threaten to burst the bonds of form. The Eroica Symphony is Beethoven’s elaboration of that theme in the closing hours of the Enlightenment.” (184-5).
Beethoven’s life during this period is a whirlwind of composing, creating his only opera, and managing his business affairs, more as an entrepreneur (organizing concerts, publishing music, etc). He finally manages to persuade some aristocratic friends and supporters to guarantee him an annuity if he stays in Vienna and continues to compose. As Solomon notes, the agreement of 1809 gave Beethoven “the highest degree of independence and security possible within a semifeudal mode of patronage. Between him and his patrons there was no longer a relationship of personal dependency, let alone the slightest hint of subservience. Indeed, the contract did not even require that Beethoven compose a number of works or that he render any services of any kind as a musician.” (194). It was just at this time that Napoleon occupied Vienna, and both Beethoven’s physician (Schmidt) and Haydn died. This was time of gloom: “I no longer expect to see any stability in this age. The only certainty we can rely on is blind chance.” (195). Beethoven continued to pursue women with a view to marriage, but was constantly rejected. Solomon acknowledges that “we cannot measure the suffering that the series of rejections caused Beethoven” (202), but adds that “it may have been the very nature of Beethoven’s creative impulse that barred his way. Indeed, it may well have been necessary that all competing outlets – his virtuosity, his hearing, politics, love, and marriage – be sacrificed to his composer’s vocation. In Schopenhauer’s words, ‘If Petrarch’s passion had been gratified, his song would have fallen silent’.” (204).
Solomon then adds his thoughts on the enigmatic Egyptian inscriptions which Beethoven copied from Schiller, which he framed and mounted under glass, and kept on his work table:
“ I am that which is.
I am everything that is, that was, and that will be. No mortal man has lifted my veil.
He is of himself alone, and it is to this aloneness that all things owe their being.”
Precisely what these inscriptions meant to him we cannot know. They seem to have both a Masonic and theological significance, and may have some bearing on Beethoven’s deep attraction to exotic formulations on the attributes of divinity; perhaps, too, they are somehow related to Beethoven’s feelings of isolation from the world. But he knew from Schiller that the first two were found on monuments of the Egyptian mother goddesses. In these matriarchal inscriptions, the goddess asserts her capacity to conceive and give birth without the cooperation of man…..The third inscription derives from an Egyptian initiation rite current at a later, patriarchal stage of development, but it, too, contains precisely the same privileging of the solitary, except that it denies the necessity for a woman to participate in the act of generation. These irreconcilable matriarchal and patriarchal inscriptions remained in plain view on Beethoven’s worktable throughout the later part of his life, poignant reminders of the composer’s withdrawal to an impregnable self-sufficiency, a self-sufficiency that ultimately prevailed against his longings for love.” (206).
Solomon pursues his line of thinking in his exploration of “The Immortal Beloved”, the woman to whom Beethoven’s letter of July 6-7, 1812 was addressed, Antonie Brentano. He argues that in this letter, Beethoven acknowledges that he “understood that for one moment in his life he had within his grasp a woman’s unconditional love. His union with Antonie was barred, not by his need for a ‘steady quiet life’, but by unspecified terrors that overwhelmed the possibility of a fruitful outcome….Beethoven could not overcome the nightmarish burden of his past and set the ghosts to rest. His only hope was that somehow he could make Antonie understand (as he himself did not) the implacable barrier to their union without at the same time losing her love. It is to Antonie Brentano’s eternal credit that she was equal to this apparently impossible task. In return she has earned a special sort of immortality.” (246). Solomon provides his interpretation of the letter, which leads to the conclusion quoted above. (240-6). Like everything else about Beethoven, so little is really known. The letter was found in his personal effects after his death, so was never sent, and no other copies have surfaced. It is enough to recognize that Beethoven’s pursuit of love and marriage was not exclusively a record of rejection, but that one woman did reciprocate his feelings, but that the relationship did not lead to marriage.
Solomon includes Christ in the Mount of Olives, Op. 85 as well as the “Kreutzer Violin Sonata, Op. 30 in his chapter on the music of this period, but I have preferred to refer to them above, since I believe this period of Beethoven’s compositions is dominated by the Eroica Symphony, on which I will spend considerable time.
• Symphony No. 3, in E-flat, Op. 55, “The Eroica”, 1803:
Solomon writes that with this work “we know that we have irrevocably crossed a major boundary in Beethoven’s development and in music history as well.” (250). “Beethoven was the first composer fully to fuse the tempestuous, conflict-ridden subject matter of the emerging heroic style with the sonata principle, thus inaugurating a revolution in the history of music. Beethoven took music beyond what we may describe as the pleasure principle of Viennese Classicism; he permitted aggressive and disintegrative forces to enter musical form: he placed the tragic experience at the core of his heroic style. He now introduced elements into instrumental music that had previously been neglected or unwelcome. A unique characteristic of the Eroica Symphony, and its heroic successors, is the incorporation into musical forms of death, destructiveness, anxiety, and aggression as terrors to be transcended within the work of art itself. This intrusion of hostile energy, raising the possibility of loss, is what will make affirmations worthwhile.” (252).
“But Beethoven’s heroic music is not primarily a conventionally tragic, let alone a death-haunted, music, for most of his works in this vein close on a note of joy, of triumph, or transcendence. The Funeral March of the Eroica yields to an animated, explosive Scherzo and a broad, swinging Finale, marked allegro molto; in Fidelio, Florestan and his anonymous fellow prisoners ascend into the light; the precipitating ‘Fate’ theme of the Fifth Symphony is supplanted by the rising march theme of its closing movement; the representation of Egmont’s death is followed by a Siegessymphonie (victory symphony). In this respect Beethoven remained true to the spirit of classicism and to the Kantian vision of Schiller, who wrote, ‘The first law of the tragic art was to represent suffering nature. The second law is to represent the resistance of morality to suffering.’ Furthermore, Beethoven’s music does not merely express mankind’s capacity to endure or even to resist suffering – the conventional qualities of tragic art. His sonata cycles continue to project on a vastly magnified scale, the essential features of high comedy: happy endings, joyful reconciliations, victories won, and tragedy effaced. If, as the aesthetician Susanne Langer has observed, tragedy is the image of Fate and comedy the image of Fortune, Then Beethoven’s music presents the collision of these images, a clash from which Fortune emerges triumphant, so that the hero may continue his quest.
Beethoven’s heroism defines itself in conflict with mortality, and mortality in turn superseded by renewed and transfigured life. Thus, the components of Beethoven’s concept of heroism are more extensive than appears at first glance, encompassing the full range of human experience – birth, struggle, death, resurrection – and these universals are expressed through a fusion of comic and tragic visions of life.” (252-3).
Solomon refers to the extended timeframe of the Eroica (almost twice as long as any symphony written before) (253) and refers to “music that appears to be self-creating, that must strive for its existence, that pursues a goal with unflagging energy and resoluteness, rather than music whose essence is largely present in its opening thematic statement.” (254). “More fundamentally, Beethoven’s style is now informed with a rhetorical fluidity and structural organicism that gives the symphony its sense of unfolding continuity and wholeness within a constant interplay of moods.” (255).
Solomon summarizes quite succinctly what most of the other commentators have to say about the Eroica (Tovey, Kinderman, Lockwood; although Lockwood has much detailed observations of interest based on his analysis of Beethoven’s Eroica sketches combined with his own theory of growth of musical themes (which he attributes to Goethe: see Lockwood, Beethoven. Studies in the Creative Process, Harvard, 1992, pp. 123, 150, 164-66, 180).
I will not spend any more time on background material, but will simply invite the reader now to listen to the Eroica. I provide my reactions to some of the CDs and DVDs currently available.
My Choices of Performances of the Eroica:
• Von Karajan: Yes, I still love his early DGG sets, specifically the 1962 set as remastered in 1997 for the Complete Beethoven (better sound than the original, and the 2011 remaster). I like the sound of the 1984 version best, but it lacks intensity, and I rank the 1975-7 version the lowest of the DGG recordings. The EMI 1952 set has thin sound, but is intense. The most satisfying experience of Von Karajan, BPO and Beethoven is the 1971 DVD set which provides a visual and auditory experience which is intense and exciting. Of course it is far too much centred on Von Karajan, whose ego must have been quite vast, but what an orchestra, and what leadership from Von Karajan, and what music they create as they bring Beethoven right into your living room! By contrast, the Sony Classical DVD of 1980, despite its magnificent sound and image, presents HVK as too old, past it, and the music suffers as a result.
• Karl Bohm: His 1972 version with the Vienna Philharmonic is incandescent with great sound, and is only marginally superior to his 1959 Berlin Philharmonic version.
I rank these two conductors as the best of the older way of playing Beethoven, superior to Klemperer, Bernstein, Szell, Weller, Solti, all of whom merit a hearing, but only after the rest of this list!
Attractive versions of more modern conductors:
• Haitink: The 1987 version with Concertgebow Orchestra is outstanding, possibly the best sound recording of all. His 2005 version with LSO is disappointing.
• Mackerras: His version with the Royal Liverpool Orchestra of 1994 is very good, but his version with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra of 2006 is superb.
• Barenboim: Staatskapelle Berlin, 1999 is closest of all to the Furtwangler version (which I have accessed only on Youtube with poor sound), clocking in at almost 55 minutes, compared to Ziniman at 45, and the average at 50 minutes). This is a moving version and well worth hearing.
• Chailly: Gewandhaus Orchestra, 2008 has good sound and excellent performance.
• Zinman: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, 1998. The quickest version to date, with good sound, Ok performance. Uses Del Mar score.
• Abbado: Berlin Philharmonic, 2002 (also on DVD) is excellent sound and solid performance, superior to the earlier 2001 version. Uses Del Mar. The DVD is overlit, and, despite its magnificent sound and performance, underlines the genius of Karajan in 1971. Simply no comparison in the overall experience of the audience.
Period Instruments; Del Mar Score
• Hogwood: Academy of Ancient Music. 1989. Outstanding.
• Gardiner: Orch Revolutionnare et Romantique, 1993. Outstanding
• Harnoncourt: Chamber Orchestra of Europe, 1991. Outstanding.
A Must Hear Despite Age of Recording:
• Toscanini: NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1949. Remastered sound, mono, slightly thin, but an electric performance that must be experienced.
The Eroica is highly recommended as a must musical experience.
• Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, “Waldstein”; Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”, 1804-5.
Solomon links these two sonatas together, arguing that, with them, “Beethoven moved irrevocably beyond the boundaries of the Classical keyboard style to create sonorities and textures never previously achieved. He no longer reined in the technical difficulties of his sonatas to permit performance by competent amateurs, but instead stretched the potentialities of both instrument and performers to their outer limits. The dynamics are greatly extended; colors are fantastic and luxuriant, approaching quasi-orchestral sonorities. For this reason, the critic Wilhelm von Lenz called the ‘Waldstein’ ‘a heroic symphony for piano.’ The ‘Appassionata’ – which along with the Sonata in F-sharp, op. 78, was Beethoven’s favorite piano sonata until his opus 106 – has evoked comparisons…” of a wide variety. (255-6). Solomon also notes that While the “Waldstein” ends on a note of “typical joyous transcendence”, the “Appassionata” maintains an unusual tragic mood throughout.” (256).
Both of these sonatas must be experienced by the listener. Here, Beethoven is in full stride in his new heroic mood, and sweeps us up with him.
Performances of the Piano Sonatas:
This is my response to the performers in my collection:
• Kempff: I prefer the mono version made in the 1950’s to his later 1960 stereo version in The Complete Beethoven Edition. They are both magnificent performances of the entire set.
• Brendel: The 1993-96 set is out of this world; the 71-77 set is also outstanding.
• Barenboim: I prefer the 1970 EMI version to his 1984 DGG version. His later DVD provides excellent visuals of the fingering. I am always intrigued by his performances.
• Goode: This is a magnificent set, somewhat ‘cool’ in approach, but bravura performances throughout.
• Askenazy: An excellent set, at times patchy, but overall outstanding.
• Arrau: A very idiosyncratic set, well worth listening to, once one of the more impressive sets have been appreciated.
• Backhaus: Similar to Arrau, although sound is not great.
• Schnabel: For enthusiasts this is a must. A 1935 recording, so mono, but still remarkably clear.
• Pollini: His recordings tend to focus on the late Beethoven, but are definitely high value performances.
Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra in C major, Op. 56, 1804-05.
Lockwood summarizes most commentaries on this work: “In sheer quality the Triple Concerto has always been regarded as marginal…it lags behind his other concertos in quality of thought.” (Beethoven, 240-1). Tovey does much to defend the piece by pointing out the challenges Beethoven was facing in trying to create a new concerto form: “The indiscretion of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto consists in combining a problem that makes for dryness of matter with a problem that makes for exceptional length.” (Essay, Vol. 3, p. 100). Solomon barely mentions this piece. Of course, it is overshadowed by the extraordinary works which follow the Eroica, but fresh ears will be rewarded by the sheer rejouissance of this virtuoso showpiece. The performances of Zeltser, Mutter and Ma with Von Karajan are superb. This is a piece mainly for the connosseur.
Leonore: Opus 72, 1804-6
This opera was subsequently revised in 1814 under the title of Fidelio. Some commentators argue that these are really two distinct works, while others argue that Fidelio is the “real” version, with Leonore only a first draft, if you will. Like Verdi’s various revisions, I take the final version as being the one to focus on, but I also believe we ought to listen to the first version as well.
I listened to the Gardiner version in the DGG Complete Beethoven Edition. I did not find the editing out of the spoken dialogue with the replacement by a Narrator edit to be helpful, but rather found it distracting. I also wanted to hear the text of the original as well as the music. The musical performance is very good and is marginally briefer (138 minutes compared to Bernstein’s Fidelio in the same set at 144 minutes). It is divided into three acts and contains elements which are excised in Fidelio. A comparison of the three editions of the opera (1805, 1806, 1814) is given in the DGG booklet (pp156-67). I do not intend to spend time at this point in comparisons, but will focus only on the opera.
First of, this is an opera unlike any other, not just because it is an amalgam of different genres, and picks up echoes of Mozart and Cherubini, but because its dramatic base is not the interaction of the characters but of the conflict of the political ideologies in which the characters find themselves, namely the French Revolution versus the “ancien regime”. While the opera begins with a domestic scene and a portrayal of everyday life, it quickly moves into a level of universalism which transcends the individuals and forces us into the musical confrontation between two opposing ideologies. As Roman Rolland states: “It is no longer the adventure of a human pair that is being sung: it is Liberty and Love…an immense choral symphony to which there is nothing comparable in all music with the exception of the finale of the Ninth” (Beethoven the Creator, New York, 1929, p.227). Indeed, he refers to it as “a choral tragedy”. The music is superb throughout, at times very movingly tender, at others explosively “heroic”.
I take a moment here to point out how extraordinary this work is. First of all, the central character is a woman, Leonore, disguised as a man, who liberates her husband by pointing a pistol at his captor, and who in the final scene takes the key to release her husband from his chains. Her husband, Florestan, is also heroic in that he had, two years earlier, opposed his captor, Pissarro, for his corruption and tyranny, only to be thrown into Pissarro’s dungeon where he is condemned to die of hunger. He believes he has done his duty, has been faithful to his beliefs, and longs only for freedom to rejoin his wife Leonore and overthrow tyranny. The fellow prisoners represent all of humankind when they sing of liberty and the horrors of tyranny and imprisonment. So this is the plot which Beethoven chooses for his first opera. The libretto was originally written in French and was clearly referring to the Revolution and the “escape” theme which became popular once the Terror was over and some semblance of order had been restored in France. And it is clearly the Revolution which Beethoven embraces in his music and in his adaptation of the original play. The opera is about the breaking out from the barriers which enable tyranny to flourish and the redefining of the memes that can suffocate the freedom of the individual. It is no accident the central character is a woman who breaks all barriers imposed on her from without – clothing, gender role, perseverance, courage to face an armed enemy, draw a pistol, and be prepared to kill him if necessary. She is motivated by the overriding desire to free her husband, but when she discovers the prisoner in the dungeon and cannot yet identify him as her husband, she decides she will set him free regardless of the cost to her. She is motivated by love and by the desire for liberty, and these values drive her to cast aside so many of the memes she has inherited. And at the conclusion of the opera, she achieves all of her goals including the logical next step, equality with her husband, universalized into equality of man and woman, of all humanity. To experience this opera is to live through the emotional movement from the tyranny of memes to the freedom of Dasein (See Heidegger). As such, it is an appeal to action from everyone to set out on the transformational renewal of the self in the pursuit of love and liberty.
I would recommend listening to the version of 1814, Fidelio, and only after this, listening to the original Leonore. I would opt for the CD version of the opera by Bohm on DGG with Karajan on EMI marginally less preferable. The versions by Bernstein, Klemperer, Davis on CD are OK, but not stellar. The DVD version by Bohm is tops, with Levine from the Met commendable. The versions from Bernstein and Donanhyi are fair
Fidelio, Paul Robinson, Cambridge, 1996. Outstanding contribution. Robinson argues that Fidelio is the final version, with Leonore as a sort of first draft. A must read for anyone interested in Leonore/Fidelio.
Fidelio. English national Opera Guide 4, editor Nicholas John. Contains the original 1814 German text of Fidelio with English translation.
The “Razumovsky” Quartets, Opus 59, nos 1 – 3; 1806.
Leonore had consumed Beethoven from late 1804 to spring of 1806, when he wrote these three quartets as a set. These are extraordinary works, totally new and explosive, ushering in a new era within Beethoven’s context of the “heroic”. Kerman states: “Hearing the second period quartets today, one breathes and listens differently than one does to Haydn, Mozart, and the Quartets of Op. 18.” (92). Kerman accepts the division of early, middle and later quartets as a meaningful one, and I follow him (and Solomon).
In reference to the Quartet in F major, op. 59, no.1, Kerman states: “There had never been such a quartet before; and the piece remains breathtaking in any context.” (100). He also argues that this quartet shares similarities with the Eroica “the primary impression is not so much of fecundity as of span, purposeful span.” (100). The reader now has no option but to listen to this piece and be captivated.
The Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, no. 2: Kerman believes this quartet “struggles repeatedly with pathos all through its compressed, nervous fast movements, admitting in its middle an exaggerated contrast of rather grim serenity.” (119). The listener can be the judge of this, for this is an extraordinary piece of music, bursting with new energy and new explorations, just like its predecessor, which Kerman ranks much higher than the other two in the set.
The Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, no. 3: Kerman sees this quartet as “the most fluid” of the set (134). He notes that the Adagio “is an astonishingly impressive piece and quite unlike anything else Beethoven ever wrote.” (145). He does not really care for the Finale’s ending – “brainstorming fury” and sees a tendency in Beethoven to evidence, like Napoleon, “the accents of the hero turned demagogue.” (144).
Summary of “Razumovsky” Quartets”:
Kerman states that “they were the first great works by Beethoven to have been lost on their essential audiences. This is an ominous tribute to their temerity, and to their unprecedented individuality as well.” (119). He also points out that “all of Beethoven’s mature concertos – the last three for piano, the Triple Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and the Romances for violin and orchestra – were conceived within a year or two of the ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets. (138).
Most penetrating is Kerman’s argument:
“The quartet could also have got lost in the shuffle of the great style change [after Eroica], as did the violin sonata, comparatively speaking, and the oratorio, and the wind ensembles of the 1790’s. The first thing to appreciate is the imaginative leap whereby the quartet was made to seem even available, at this juncture of Beethoven’s career. Something in the genre clearly held his interest: something in the texture, or the tradition, or the expressive possibilities inherent in the intimate confrontation of equal members. Perhaps something had been suggested to him by the quartets of Op. 18, half a dozen years before, though it would require some special pleading to maintain this on the evidence of these works alone. Perhaps it was simply a vision, an aspiration.
If so, it was one that instantly proved itself. The expressive range that Beethoven found available to him as he composed the second and later third-period quartets seems actually broader and more deeply radical than the contemporary symphony, sonata, or anything else. (The point is worth making; if it did not hold, a book of this sort would probably not come into existence. This vision, and this realization, made the string quartet for Beethoven a major genre as it has been for only one or two other composers – Haydn and Bartok)….
The ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets are flawed simply by a slightly hectic infusion of Beethoven’s characteristic vital energy. After the Eroica, in the great rush of revelation of what was crying out to be done with notes, we could hardly expect it to have been otherwise. We would hardly want it otherwise.” (151-54).
In short, these quartets are the necessary companions to the Eroica, and are the most apt gateways to the next two quartets just prior to the final period quartets, where Beethoven enters a new dimension. The world of the string quartets is a fascinating one, and one which I will explore separately once the Beethoven walkthrough has been completed.
It is now time to turn to the other outpourings of Beethoven at this very productive time in his output.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, 1804-6.
This is a magisterial work which surpasses Beethoven’s previous three attempts at the piano concerto. Deane follows Tovey in arguing that : “Beethoven’s solution, one of genius, is to introduce the piano at the outset.” [of the first movement]. (Beethoven Companion, 326; Tovey, Essays, vol 3, 78.). The problem is the balance between piano and orchestra within Beethoven’s symphonic approach to composition. Solomon quotes Becker’s description of this concerto as “characterized by quiet, reflective gravity, by a latent energy, capable from time to time of expressing intense vitality, but usually preserving the mood of tranquility.” (262). Solomon sees here a retreat from the “grand manner” symphonic style of Beethoven’s recent post-Eroica output – “a temporary retreat from exalted rhetoric into a more lyrical, contemplative, and serene style” which he attributes to “certain qualities of magnified chamber music.” (261). Deane describes the second movement, Andante, as follows: “Its poignancy is unique and quite indescribable” (327), while Tovey provides us with one of his magnificent flourishes when concluding his remarks on the third movement, Rondo: “the irrepressible wood-wind and pianoforte have a little more to say before ending this audacious masterpiece of gigantic and inexhaustibly varied proportions with that astronomical punctuality which gives solemnity to Beethoven’s utmost exuberance of high spirits.” (84).
In this concerto, the sheer virtuosity of the pianist is on show throughout. Beethoven “played the soloist part at its first performance, and played very impulsively and at a tremendous pace.” (Tovey, 76). And this is the impression almost all performances listed above provide. This is a must hear piece.
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60, 18, 1806.
This symphony is tucked in between the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony and has tended to be neglected as a result. It has none of the heroic, revolutionary passion of these two longer symphonies and yet it is a masterpiece in its own right. It is extraordinary that Solomon barely mentions this symphony at all, and most other writers provide very little insightful comment.
I find Simpson’s comments to be very apt: “there is no trace of crudity or lack of dignity in this wonderfully balanced, richly executed symphony. Its grace, on the other hand, is surely neither maidenly nor Greek – it is that of a giant who performs relaxed athletic movements with gigantic ease and fluency. There are muscles of steel beneath the fine-textured skin. Sometimes they tense and flex with sudden force….In the slow movement there is a deep tenderness of a peculiarly masculine kind…Too often this work is described as purely exuberant. It does demonstrate the joys of creation, but its meaning is that light is no longer light if darkness becomes inconceivable….There is as much drama as the heroics of Nos. 3 and 5, albeit of a less directly arresting kind; it is based on much subtle thought, and its depths have not yet been fully penetrated.” (Complete Beethoven Edition Booklet, Vol. 1, pp. 23-4). [Robert Simpson also requires a walkthrough of his symphonies and quartets, as well as his extraordinary life. Later].
Tovey’s commentary is enigmatic for me. He talks of this symphony as being “perhaps the work in which Beethoven first fully reveals his mastery of movement.” (Essays, I, 35)…The Finale represents Beethoven’s full maturity in that subtlest of all disguises, his discovery of the true inwardness of Mozart and of Haydn; a discovery inaccessible to him whenever, as in a few early works (notably the Septet), he seemed or tried to imitate them, but possible as soon as he obtained full freedom in handling his own resources.” (37). He concludes by arguing that to do justice to “the boldness and power that underly all the grace and humour of this finale” would be “the study of a lifetime.” (37).
What is clear is that Simpson and Tovey both place a very high value on this work. For me, it is a masterpiece in its own right, but is seldom performed well, for some reason (perhaps for the same reasons for its neglect and avoidance by commentators and conductors). Karl Bohm’s version (Collectors Edition, DGG, with Vienna Philharmonic) is my personal top preference, with von Karajan 1963 as close second. Another must hear!
32 Variations (in C minor) on an Original Theme, WoO 80, 1806.
This is a relatively short set of variations lasting approx 11-12 minutes. Barry Cooper suggests “Its stature and originality suggest that it ought to be counted among Beethoven’s greater works, yet surprisingly he published without an opus number or dedicatee, and its origins are somewhat obscure.” (The Complete Beethoven, Vol 6 booklet, 36-37). Lockwood describes it as “a parade of short, brilliant pianistic transformations in the same rigorously maintained length and form.” (Beethoven, 288). This piece is of interest because it is part of this extraordinary creative burst by Beethoven at this time.
The Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, 1806.
This is a magnificent piece. Tovey writes: “Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is gigantic, one of the most spacious concertos ever written….All its most famous strokes of genius are not only mysteriously quiet, but mysterious in radiantly happy surroundings. The whole gigantic scheme is serene.” (Vol.3, 88). He even argues that “the whole point of this slow movement [second movement, Larghetto] is that it cannot end.” (93). This is echoed by Lockwood: “Listeners have never failed to feel the serenity of the slow movement” (Beethoven, 247). Deane argues that “the greatness of the concerto lies in the integration of lyricism with symphonic structure on the largest scale.” (Beethoven Companion, 324). It is often linked with the Fourth Piano Concerto, composed at the same time, as well as the Fourth Symphony – all three works combine lyricism with large scale symphonic structure. It is important to note these mood explorations, because Beethoven’s next work will explore quite different ones.
There are so many excellent performances of the concerto, many available on YouTube. I continue to favour the von Karajan/Mutter version on DGG for its overall excellence of violin and orchestral virtuosity within Karajan’s vision of the piece, and complemented by good sound engineering.
This is a side of Beethoven not immediately expressed in the Eroica and in his next major works and is a must hear for everyone!
“Coriolan” Overture, Op. 62, 1807.
Solomon notes in reference to this overture that “Beethoven did not always insist on joyful conclusions, but was able to locate transcendence in the acceptance of death itself.” (263). Lockwood describes the overture as “a work of gigantic strength” (Beethoven, 262). He also spends time comparing the relationship of Collin’s and Shakespeare’s versions of the play: Collin has Coriolanus kill himself at the conclusion of the play. This overture is the beginning of what was to become “programme” music, culminating in the “tone poems of Lizst and Strauss.” (Lockwood, 262). Simpson believes this to be “one his most incandescent pieces. It also ranks with the first movement of the Fifth Symphony as one of his most concentrated symphonic utterances, and its explosive opening is unlike anything else in his music.” (Complete Beethoven, DGG, vol. 3, 38). Tovey is magnificent in his incisive comments, and concurs with Wagner’s commentary on this Overture in that it is “a musical counterpart to the turning-point in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the scene in the Volscian camp before the gates of Rome (Act V, sc.iii)”. (Essays, Vol.4. p. 43). [I will return to Wagner’s commentaries on Beethoven once the walk-through has been completed].
This is an extraordinary piece of music, so powerful, so heroic, requiring an excellent orchestra and conductor. It is also brief at under 9 minutes, so very condensed. A must hear!
The Overtures are contained in most of the Symphony sets on CD, as well as YouTube. My preference is Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic, edging Karajan out because a better recording.
Mass in C major, Op. 86, 1807.
This is a largely neglected work of Beethoven’s, being superseded by his later Missa Solemnis finished in 1823. It was commissioned by Prince Esterhazy, grandson of Haydn’s patron, in what had become a tradition in this family (Haydn composed 6, and Hummel 3 masses for the Esterhazys). Lockwood states: “The expression of personal religiosity – of an individual quest for ‘inner peace’, to borrow the words Beethoven inscribed on the score of the Dona nobis pacem of the much grander Missa Solemnis – is of the essence of the Mass in C….the channeling of the subject’s feeling not simply toward an aesthetic state but towards God.” (Beethoven, 273).
While there are some hauntingly beautiful passages in this work, it somehow lacks coherence, even conviction. Kerman admits this is “an uncharacteristically quiet work” at this period of his creative output. (Complete Beethoven, DGG, Vol. 19, p.15). Solomon has virtually nothing to say: “Beethoven was less successful with the affirmative stance of his first religious work in traditional liturgical style.” (263). I will return to this piece once I reach the Missa Solemnis, but for now I would not recommend spending much time listening to it before having listened to much more of what is yet to come.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, 1807-08.
This is one of the better known works of Beethoven. He had worked hard on this piece, beginning in 1804, but not tackling it fully until 1807. Solomon points out that Beethoven himself “left no programmatic references that would link his Fifth Symphony to contemporary events”, even though “its concentrated energy, its heroic stance, and, especially, the triumphal – even military- character of all of its movements save the scherzo, may have carried overtones of patriotic sentiment to Beethoven’s contemporaries.” (265). He the states that this symphony “came to be regarded as the quintessential Beethoven symphony, revealing new layers of meaning to each successive generation”. This point is also made by Simpson” “No matter how familiar we are with the C minor Symphony we can always find something new in it. (The Complete Beethoven, DGG, Vol I, p.24). Solomon adds that “audiences have learned to identify the work with public virtues (the opening motif was a symbol of resistance to fascism during World War II), perhaps as a means of allaying the untranslatable and inexpressible terrors that this symphony arouses in every listener, despite Beethoven’s cathartic C-major effect.” (265-6).
I will reflect on some of the interpretations of this music once I have completed the walkthrough of the entire output. For now, it is enough to listen to this symphony, coming on the heels of the Eroica and the Fourth, and to experience the power and intensity of this sound. Listeners will find something specific to themselves in this piece, something deeply moving, perhaps not the “terrors” Solomon alludes to, but some other form of deep emotion, something akin to exuberance (rejouissance).
Again, there are so many excellent performances. For me, none equals the intensity and overall élan of the Von Karajan 1962 version, although Kleiber and Bohm with the Vienna Philharmonic are also superb. YouTube provides extensive coverage of most versions, and there are numerous websites devoted to Beethoven and the Symphonies. This is an absolute must hear!
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”, 1808.
Written is the same period as the Fifth. Simpson argues that this piece is “as deliberately controlled a masterpiece as Beethoven ever wrote…This is imagination of supreme genius….the ‘Pastoral’ is one of the most original of Beethoven’s symphonies and, in its way, as powerful as any of the others.” (The Complete Beethoven Edition, DG, Vol 1, pp. 26-7). Deane states: “where the Fifth is intensive and troubled, the Sixth is expansive and serene.” (Beethoven Companion, p. 301). Solomon elaborates thus: “With the Pastoral Symphony, the working out of Beethoven’s post-Heiligenstadt projects seemed to be coming to a close. It was especially fitting that this cycle should terminate in idyllic repose, with an Arcadian conclusion to the heroic quest of the preceding half decade. Beethoven’s struggles with fate – which is to say, with every embodiment of authority, domination, and mortality – were not yet at an end, but were temporarily set aside while he rejoiced in a richly deserved return to nature and to childhood, which symbolize, perhaps, the twin realms of the bountiful mother.” (266). Tovey, with his own marvellous common sense, comments: “The first and last word of common sense about programme music in general was said by Beethoven on this symphony in particular. He said it was the ‘expression of feelings rather than painting.’ This has not prevented the usual ‘roaring cataract of nonsense’ from descending upon this intensely musical work and swamping it in volumes of literature.” (Essays, Vol 1, pp. 44-5). He also emphasizes, as does Simpson, that “the Pastoral Symphony has the enormous strength of some one who knows how to relax.” (47). And in reference to the second movement, ‘By the brook side’, he states: “In this as everywhere else the movement remains true to type, a perfect expression of happiness in relaxation.” (51).
I am not entering the debate on ‘programme music’, but it is extraordinary that Beethoven has this capacity, not only to work on two such diverse symphonic outpourings as the Fifth and Sixth, but that he can move with such ease between deeply troubled and serene emotions. I will return to this element of his genius at the conclusion of the walkthrough, but Solomon’s reference to ‘the bountiful mother’ pushes us into the realm of Jung’s thinking, and of his challenge for each of us to confront ‘anima/animus’ in each of our selves. More of this later. For now, this is perhaps one of Beethoven’s most accessible symphonies, performed well by most, with von Karajan 1962 and Bohm still my personal favourites.
“Choral Fantasy” in C minor, Op. 80, 1808
This is a brief, sunny piece, somehow part of the complex creative process within Beethoven which would eventually produce the Ninth Symphony. Simpson comments that “its delightful cool innocence conveys a spirit not unlike that found in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.” (The Complete Beethoven, DGG, Vol. 19, p.37). The same can be said of “Gegenliebe” (Requited Love), WoO 118, written in 1794/5 but never published, and which contains the original melody taken up in the Choral Fantasy and finally transformed in the Ninth’s Ode to Joy. This is then a fascinating insight into Beethoven’s creative process, but not to be considered as one of his masterpieces. I enjoyed the Abbado version with Kissin.
Sonata for Piano and Cello in A major, Op. 69, 1807-08.
This is a magnificent piece. Solomon refers to it as “a work of quiet solemnity and moderation of emotional expression” (269), while Karl Schumann refers to “the basic character of the work: songlike nobility, peaceful animation and lyrical grace.” (Booklet for Kempff and Fournier 2 disc set of Beethoven: Works for Cello and Piano, DGG, p. 13).
The performances I would suggest are the two Jacqueline Du Pre versions in her Complete EMI Recordings (with Barenboim; live recording, but bristling with intensity) and Kovacevich (studio recording, less instense). The Argerich /Maisky performance is superb virtuosity and sound, but Du Pre remains my favourite. The Kempff/Founier version lacks the intensity of these other performances.
[The Christopher Nupen films on Du Pre are also a must see. They provide a glimpse into the world of virtuoso performers in their youth, and underline the tragic circumstances of Du Pre’s life].
Trio in D major, “Ghost”, Op. 70, No.1; Trio in E flat major, Op 70, No. 2 (1808); Trio in B flat major, “Archduke”, Op. 97, (1810-11).
Although these trios were written two years apart, they represent such a major achievement when heard together that I have brought them together, again, following Solomon. For me these three Trios are masterpieces of the mature Beethoven. Solomon argues that “whereas in his heroic symphonies Beethoven had generated the architecture of his compositions from the release and control of energy stored within condensed, explosive germinal motifs and rhythms, he generated the architectural monumentality of the ‘Archduke’ Trio from the development of broad, moderately paced, and flowing melodies. This practice creates a sense of calm, spaciousness, and measured nobility of rhetoric, which we have already encountered in the Cello Sonata, Op. 69, the Violin Concerto, and the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. Audacious touches in the Scherzo and moments of brusque wit in the finale contrast effectively with the spaciously sublime quality of the opening Allegro moderato. The ‘Archduke’ represents Beethoven’s summation of the impulses towards a new type of classicism that characterized his chamber music with piano between mid-1808 and 1811.” (271).
Performances: The Beaux Arts Trio are outstanding, as are the Kempff, Szeryng, Fournier versions on DGG, and the Florestan Trio on Hyperion. I am most attracted to the Barenboim, Du Pre, Zucherman versions, and admit that the Christopher Nupen films have visually made a difference to how I hear these performances by this young trio.
These trios take us into a new world of sound, which is quite egalitarian in the balancing of all three instrumental voices, but which is so exhilarating. These are absolutely must hear pieces, perhaps with the ‘Archduke’ as the first entry point.
Piano Concerto No. 5, in E Flat, Op. 73, “The Emperor”, 1809.
This is such a magisterial work in every sense. Keller is quoted as calling this ‘the Symphony-Concerto’ because it is so symphonic, the orchestra and piano dialogue in an extraordinary way throughout, it is heroic yet serene, and altogether breath-taking. My personal preference in performance is for a very strong, extroverted pianist (so Kempff, Kissin, Pollini with Bohm) with excellent orchestral accompaniment. This was Beethoven’s last piano concerto, which he could not play in public because his deafness had progressed too far. My sense is that Beethoven would have been more of an extroverted pianist, but this is simply my own bias and is based on no factual evidence.
This is a joy awaiting anyone who has not heard it before, and a joy without limit for those already familiar with it. This is a piece which requires no commentary.
Piano Sonata in F sharp, No. 24, Op. 78; Piano Sonata in G, No. 25, Op. 79; Piano Sonata in E flat, No. 26, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”, 1809.
Solomon states: “In late 1809 Beethoven returned to the piano sonata after an absence of four years and wrote three sonatas in a short period of time. In none of them is there the slightest indication that their immediate predecessors in this genre had been such works as the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” Sonatas: rather, visible in them is an extension of tendencies in pre-Eroica sonatas such as Opus 28 and Opus 31, no. 1, as well as glimpses of Beethoven’s last-period style.” In fact, these are pieces of high quality, but they fit strangely into this extraordinary creative period in Beethoven’s life. I find them OK to listen to, but not quite of the same caliber of his other contemporary pieces.
String Quartet in E flat, Op. 74, 1809.
Kerman describes this work as “a rather marvellous piece written at a time when the composer could not fully concentrate.” (158). Beethoven had just negotiated an annuity which provided him with some level of financial stability, and was beginning to think seriously of marriage. He later sums up: “The Quartet in E flat is not one to raise deep questions and great issues – that is what D’Indy saw. Liberation from the necessity to raise and meet them, indeed, helps give the piece its special élan, as does also a sense of quiet exhilaration in artistic processes circumscribed and carried through with elegance and tact and perfect accuracy. These qualities, which are hardly to be dissociated from the fact of technical control, do rather definitely represent an element of novelty in Beethoven’s bank of expressive resources.” (168). Simpson, on the other hand, argues that “Op. 74 is an underrated masterpiece of deep, consummate beauty of thought and execution.” (Beethoven Companion, 260). It should be listened to with attention.
String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, “Quartetto Serioso”, 1810
Kerman argues that this quartet differs from Op. 74 “so radically that one almost imagines him setting himself some sort of spiritual exercise…Instead of a classizing work whose one faintly troubling tendency may be in the direction of facility, this is first and foremost a problematic work which thrusts in the direction of eccentricity and self-absorption. But Beethoven at his most quirky is Beethoven possessed. In this quartet, as in none of the others so far, he evokes that almost tangible sense of the artist assaulting a daemon of his own fancying; and unless our response is to call the whole illusion into question, we are likely to admire (or worship, if we are Sullivan) the process of assault, conquest, assertion, or becoming that the illusion permits. Not only does the quartet belong safely on Sullivan’s major axis, it probably counts as Beethoven’s most perfectly coordinated axis composition to date, and by any reckoning his least prolix.
The F minor Quartet is not a pretty piece, but it is terribly strong – and perhaps rather terrible. One does not hear it with the joy….that the E flat Quartet should evoke; the piece stands aloof, preoccupied with its radical private war on every fibre of rhetoric and feeling that Beethoven knew or could invent. Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension. But strength, not strain, is the commanding impression; the listener is confronted with expressive authority as secure as that of the E flat Quartet. Once again, this authority is not to be dissociated from consummate technical control, a quality that comes out clearly, I believe, if the composition is compared with the E minor ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet…..The F minor Quartet is a nugget statement of the world of E minor.” (169). Earlier, Kerman had argued that, with this F minor Quartet, “the quartet becomes for the first time Beethoven’s private workshop.” (157).
[The reference to Sullivan is to his “Beethoven: His Spiritual Development”, which Kerman quotes at length on page 168, and which I will address at the completion of the walkthrough].
Kerman provides a wide-ranging analysis of this Quartet and summarizes: “In the opinion of the present writer, and not his alone, certainly, the Quartet in F minor stands at the highest summit of Beethoven’s artistic achievement up to the end of the second period.” (184). He prefers to see the contrast between the Quartets Opp. 74 and 95 as “one looking outward, the other inward, is closer to the aesthetic point….The Quartet in F minor…is Beethoven’s most self-absorbed and uncompromising and fraught with energy, the energy turned squarely in on itself. A quartet is not a spiritual diary, but some quartets much more than others appear to take substance from a deep inner process of introspection and emotional synthesis. It is the penetration and (I believe) the hitherto unmatched directness of the inward look that establishes the particular greatness of the Quartet in F minor. It would be pleasant to think that in entitling it Quartetto serioso, Beethoven was referring to its unmatched seriousness in insight. That quality too points to the future. It is, in fact, ultimately the chief signpost to the third period.” (187).
Simpson refers to “the fantastically concentrated F minor Quartet” (261) and believes there may be some connection between it and the Egmont music Beethoven was composing at the same time: “The same key, the same dissociation, and the quartet, moreover, written without a commission, from inner compulsion alone – Beethoven must have been absorbed in Goethe at the time, and I do not see how an inner connection between the two works can be disproved.” (262). “The whole quartet is concerned (perhaps like Egmont) with two worlds, the real and the ideal, the first embedded in the harsh F minor (Beethoven’s ‘barbarous’ key), the other imagined in remote keys, or keys deliberately made to seem unreal, such as the D flat in the first movement…..Beethoven was neither romanticist nor pessimist; human realism in a terminal situation is perhaps the burden of this, his most genuinely revolutionary work. It may be that Egmont did not give him the outlet he needed to explore the nature of the revolutionary mentality; the F minor Quartet certainly did. The revolutionary element in Beethoven’s nature was never iconoclastic or destructive; he was always consolidating – not only his own discoveries, but also the past, whose achievements he never ceased to study with the deepest respect. We can understand the late quartets only in the light of this.” (264).
This then is a quartet that must be heard, probably several times!
• Egmont, Op. 84, 1809-10:
Solomon argues that “Beethoven was inspired by Goethe’s play to produce his most dramatic theatre music.” (274). The play is a mix of national liberation and personal freedom, similar to the theme of Leonora/Fidelio, but with both male and female protagonists dying for their ideals. This is music for the Beethoven aficionado only. See also Tovey’s notes (Essays, Vol. 4, pp.45-7).
• The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113, 1811: King Stephen, Op. 117, 1811:
Solomon suggests “Beethoven did not have his heart in these compositions, which clearly were done as hackwork to gratify a royal patron.” (273). Again, these pieces are not for the general listener, but need to be acknowledged because they are produced during this otherwise extraordinary period of creativity which will now produce the 7th and 8th Symphonies!
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, 1811.
Tovey states that this symphony is “so overwhelmingly convincing and so obviously untranslatable” (Essays, Vol. 1, 57). And Solomon, in discussing both the Seventh and Eight Symphonies states:” They exist in a festal paradise, outside of time and history, untouched by mortality. They transpose us into a sphere of laughter, play, and the exuberant release of bound energy.” (276). Simpson argues that: “No. 7 is so exhilarating…the music rivets attention…Everything in this magnificent symphony depends on everything else, and even when Beethoven seems at his wildest, he is in control of every note.” (The Complete Beethoven, DGG, Vol. 1, 27-28). This is such a magnificent piece of music that it must be heard. Karajan remains my favourite, with Bohm and Kleiber.
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, 1812.
These symphonies tend to be discussed together most of the time, and were first performed together at the same concert. Tovey compares Beethoven’s reputed remark that the 8th is “so much better” than the 7th Symphony to that “unique sense of power which fires a man when he finds himself fit for a delicate task just after he has triumphed in a colossal one.” (62). Deane argues that the 8th “demands a more sophisticated response from the listener than any other symphony in the series.” (Beethoven Companion, 305). It is far less immediate than the 7th, and has never achieved its level of popularity, yet it remains a magnificent creation. Both of these symphonies are simply magisterial, self-contained, magnificent. Again, Karajan is my favourite, but the Bohm version is a better sound.
Violin Sonata No. 10, in G major, Op. 96, 1812.
This is another magnificent violin sonata, written after a ten year interval since the (the “Kreutzer”). It is another masterpiece. Solomon refers to its “heartfelt, exquisite communicativeness, capped by a refined pastoral finale in which nostalgia and beauty are the twin images of desire, thus providing a quietly imaginative coda to the middle period.” (177). My preference is Mutter/Orkis, then Dumay/Pires, with Argerich/Kremer and Kempff/Menuhin tied for third!
At this point, Solomon calls an end to the “middle period”.
Section IV: The Final Phase
I will continue to follow Solomon for this period, although there is much controversy surrounding what actually was going on inside Beethoven’s mind during much of this time. I will summarize my own thoughts once I have completed the walkthrough.
Solomon has probed the puzzle of “The Immortal Beloved”, the woman to whom Beethoven addressed his letter of July 1812 and with whom he was deeply in love. Solomon has argued that Antonie Brentano was prepared to leave her husband and to live with Beethoven, but that he had hesitated, and allowed the opportunity to slip by. Shortly after this Beethoven had a quarrel with his younger brother Nikolaus Johann over his liaison with his housekeeper, Therese Obermayer. Beethoven attempted to intervene legally, but was thwarted by the couple’s decision to marry. Solomon argues that “By mid-1813, Beethoven had fallen into a state of mental and physical disorder that drastically affected his musical productivity…For the first time since his adolescence, no momentous new projects were being sketched or actively considered.” (285). This was also the time of Napoleon’s decline (the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812 and his major defeat on the Iberian Peninsula with Wellington’s triumph at Vittoria in June, 1813, followed in October by the French defeat at Leipzig. Beethoven had been approached by an entrepreneur named Malzel to compose music for ‘Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vittoria”, which was performed “to sensational acclaim on December 8 and 12, 1813, and repeatedly thereafter” (285). “Overnight, Beethoven attained a level of national popularity that he had never previously experienced, one equal to that achieved by Haydn following his oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.” (286). Beethoven followed this by writing other incidental pieces in the same vein. “These works, filled with bombastic rhetoric and ‘patriotic’ excesses, mark the nadir of Beethoven’s artistic career. In them his heroic style is revived, but as parody and farce. Rather than moving forward to his late style, he here regressed to a pastiche of his heroic manner. The heroic style, forged in doubt, rebellion, and defiance, had ended up in conformity.” (287). Solomon argues that Beethoven “surely set great store by the profits and praise that such works brought him during the glittering and exhausting festivities that accompanied the convening of the Congress of Vienna from September, 1814 to June 1815.’ (289). Solomon, however, defends Beethoven: “Indeed, aside from the politically motivated compositions, 1814 may be regarded more favorably as the year of the final version of Fidelio (including the Fidelio Overture), the touching ‘Elegischer Gesang’, op.118, and the Piano Sonata in E minor, op. 90; and 1815 as the year of ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ and the Cello Sonatas, op. 102” (192). He then notes that “the dissolution of the heroic style did not occur suddenly or even dramatically, nor is it altogether certain that Beethoven was conscious of the process that was taking place…..Beethoven composed no symphonies between 1812 and the completion of the Ninth in 1824; he completed no concerto after 1809 and no piano trio after 1811; and he abandoned the duo sonata after 1815. Five years elapsed between the Piano Sonata in E flat, op. 81a, of 1809, and the Sonata in E minor, op. 90, of 1814. He wrote no sets of variations for piano between 1809 and 1822-23. In 1815 he considered returning to the standard genres, sketching extensively a Piano Concerto in D and a Piano Trio in F minor, but these were abandoned in a fragmentary state. We have arrived at one of the turning points of music history.” (293). With the close of the Congress of Vienna, Beethoven “faced the necessity of finding new avenues for his creative energies.” (293). In addition, Beethoven lost, in rapid succession, almost all of his patrons. “The era of the connoisseur aristocracy that had nurtured Gluck, Haydn, and Beethoven had come to an end.” (294). “In 1815, Beethoven faced a situation new in quality…The breadth of his ideas remained undiminished. Despite the exhaustion of his heroic style, Beethoven was not yet done with the problems of heroism, tragedy, and transcendence. The task he would set himself would be the portrayal of heroism without heroics, without heroes.” (295). But his problems continued to compound. His hearing was deteriorating to “clinical deafness”; his creative struggles to find a new direction for his creativity were slow to distill. “These cumulative events had a grievous effect on Beethoven’s self-esteem and pride. For now, in a sense, it was not merely his hearing but his music that had ‘failed’ him. The heroic style had served him well: it had helped to ward off anxieties and to defend against internal dangers. Indeed, the style, the birth of which coincided so closely with the onset of Beethoven’s hearing difficulties, may have helped for a time to compensate for his deafness and even to ease the pain of his sexual isolation. But now the sense of failure extended beyond Beethoven’s deafness and his sexuality. It threatened to derail his creativity.” (298).
At this point, Solomon takes time out to explore what happened to Beethoven and his nephew. “On November 15, 1815, Beethoven’s brother Caspar Carl died of tuberculosis, leaving a widow, Johanna, and a nine-year-old son, Karl. Beethoven thereupon moved to assume the exclusive guardianship of the boy. A protracted conflict ensued in which Beethoven and the boy’s mother contested the guardianship, with Beethoven eventually emerging as the Pyrrhic victor in 1820. Six years later, in late July 1826, Karl attempted suicide in an ultimately successful attempt to break away from the domination of his uncle, whose suffocating embrace had at last become unbearable.” (297). This was a dreadful period for Beethoven, and for everyone connected to him, and yet, “the formulation of Beethoven’s late style as well as substantial work on several masterpieces took place in the midst of an emotional firestorm.” (322). Solomon does attempt to try to understand Beethoven’s psychological state at this time, and his arguments, as ever, are quite plausible. I am unable to account for Beethoven’s pathological behaviour towards his nephew and his sister-in-law. Indeed, he appears to me to fall into the same trap Napoleon fell into, and which he had so rigorously opposed, namely, the abuse of power to control rather than to liberate. Perhaps this was inevitable, as Solomon seems to argue, but this was a choice Beethoven made on his own volition, and one which remains quite baffling. For me, it parallels Verdi’s choice to have an affair with Teresa Stolz (see Resonator column on Verdi).
Unlike Verdi, however, Beethoven’s final years were quite deplorable. Clinically deaf, his physical health in major deterioration after 1815, with jaundice appearing by 1820, leading to cirrhosis of the liver “no doubt accelerated by a substantial in take of alcoholic beverages.” (334). He continued to compose masterpieces, which will be considered below, but his world was one of loneliness, alcohol, illness and isolation, while he was considered by most to be insane. His pathological behaviour towards his nephew cleared up somewhat only by Karl trying to blow his brains out, and while they were finally reconciled, this period in Beethoven’s life remains perplexing and repellant. And yet the music continues to pour out of him in an extraordinary way, and he will produce the Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy’ plus other masterpieces.
For me, Beethoven remains an enigma. He appears to me to be unhinged in his endless efforts to control his nephew and to exclude his mother. And yet who could ever consider Beethoven at that time to be competent to act as guardian for a young man? The whole episode is so sordid, with Beethoven winning his legal case only via the aristocratic influences which he persuaded to support him. In Beethoven the ”guardian” we see a mirror-image of the Napoleon he had previously denounced – Beethoven, too, had become a tyrant. Some argue that Beethoven somehow felt obliged to pursue the guardianship of his nephew out of some form of ‘categorical imperative’ analogous to Fidelio’s sense of ‘duty’, but I am not persuaded that the evidence supports this. Of course, it is almost impossible to reconcile how Beethoven lived, (his obsession with Karl and his vituperative onslaught against his sister-in-law), with his extraordinary creative output at this final stage of his life. More on this in my final summing-up.
However, before continuing with Solomon, it is necessary to make mention of Fidelio, the revision of his earlier opera, Leonore, written in 1804-06, and sharing the same opus number, op. 72.
Fidelio, Opera, Revision of Leonore, Op. 72, 1814.
I have referred to the ongoing debates about the merits of Leonore and Fidelio as separate compositions, but tend to support the argument that Fidelio is the definitive version, although it is worthwhile to experience the original Leonore. Fidelio is an opera unlike most others in that the dramatic plot is extremely weak yet is asked to support a serious set of ‘arguments’ about liberty, tyranny, marital love, the categorical imperative, the nature of the love between man and woman, and between woman and woman. As such, it lacks Shakespearian dramatic force and is completely outside of the Italian operatic drama tradition. There are echoes of Mozart in Fidelio (Cosi, and Magic Flute) as well as anticipatory echoes of Wagner. There are moments of sublime musical intensity combined with moments of almost banality. And yet, this is an opera that must be experienced by lovers of Beethoven. I am still biased in preferring to listen to an opera rather than merely watching/hearing it, so I recommend the CDs of Bohm and Karajan as first stops, with the Met/Levine DVD version as the best visual (although the Liebermann production for the Hamburg State Opera of 1968 merits viewing). The CD performances by Klemperer, Bernstein and Davis are passable, with Fricsay a shade better. The DVDs of Dohnanyi and Bernstein have little to recommend them. Fidelio enjoyed great success in 1814 and was performed regularly. It has now attained something of a cult status as the opera which re-opened most of the German and Austrian opera houses following World War II. Regardless of context and a tendency to produce the opera as a “statement” on contemporary politics, it remains a powerful musical experience when well conducted and sung. A great deal more could be written about this opera, and I may return to it another day.
For now, I do not intend to spend time in detailing this period of Beethoven’s life, which has been covered by most commentators. And I will return to Solomon’s psychological interpretations once the walkthrough is complete. For now, it is time to turn to the great masterpieces of his Final Phase.
The Music: 1813 – 27.
Solomon argues that “late Beethoven is characterized by a highly concentrated exploration of counterpoint and polyphonic textures, a serious interest in Bach and Handel, a new awareness of the church modes, the utilization of Baroque-style ‘theme-types’ with specific rhetorical meanings, a turn towards instrumental recitative, a pre-Classic ornamentation employed for monothematic development and variation procedures….One can only hint here at the extraordinary and unique characteristics of the late style (see the excellent discussions in Kerman, Martin Cooper, Riezler, and Tovey).” (386).
[I have dealt with Fidelio, 1814, above in 1806 when the first version, Leonore, was performed]
Solomon opens his review of the Final Phase, or Late Style with a discussion of Beethoven’s later song music, with particular emphasis on Op. 98.
An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), Op. 98, 1816.
Solomon states: “Still, ‘An die ferne Gelibte’, which Kerman calls ‘a quiet herald of the third-period style’, occupies a special place in Beethoven’s life and work. It seems safe to say that it bids farewell to his marriage project, to romantic pretense, to heroic grandiosity, to youth itself. It is a work that accepts loss without piteous outcry, for it preserves intact the memory of the past and refuses to acknowledge the finality of bereavement…it was the first through-composed song cycle and became the point of departure for the cycles of Schumann and many others (though not for Schubert….).” (390).
German Lieder is a special music form which does not attract everyone. Orrey does not believe this cycle “rises above a good average” and is “uneven in quality” (Complete Beethoven, 436, 439). The version on The Complete Beethoven features the magnificent voice of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and is highly recommended for Lieder lovers, but not for those unfamiliar with this genre.
Piano Sonata in E minor, op. 90, 1814: This is in short two movement form. Blom comments: “we have here two wonderfully contrasted movements which do suggest, in a way applicable to mankind at large, some sort of passionate quest attended by a satisfying discovery, some agitated problem followed by a calming solution.” (190). Lockwood argues that the second movement “reveals his renewed capacity for sustained musical intimacy.” (343). This sonata is quite beautiful.
Cello Sonatas, Op. 102, no. 1 in C major, no. 2 in D major, 1815: These are both extraordinary pieces of music, quite unlike his previous sonatas for these instruments. Both reflect Beethoven’s new tendency for terseness, being much briefer than their predecessors. The performances by Argerich/Maisky are highly recommended.
Solomon then turns to Beethoven’s late piano music: “His song cycle completed, Beethoven turned once again to the piano sonata, composing his last five of these between mid-1816 and the beginning of 1822. These sonatas, along with the Diabelli Variations, op. 120, and the Bagatelles, op. 126, form one of the pillars of Beethoven’s creative achievement in his last years. In them, he first worked out the fusion of fugue, variation form, and sonata form that is fundamental to the formulation of his new musical thought….With the Sonata, op. 101, it became clear the fugue finale of the Cello Sonata in D, op. 102, no. 2, was not an isolated musical event but rather the first expression of a veritable contrapuntal obsession during Beethoven’s last decade.” (391). “The first climax of this preoccupation with polyphony occurs in the Sonata in B-Flat (‘Hammerklavier’), op. 106, of 1817-18….it presents technical difficulties that place it far beyond the reach of amateur pianists…eventually, through the efforts of Liszt and Moschelles in particular, it came to be considered one of the greatest and most challenging works of the piano repertory.” (392).
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 101, 1816: Blom argues that in this piece “all is expression, nothing merely display or technical contrivance. There are difficulties demanding brilliant playing, to be sure, and the writing has the ingenuity of the completely self-possessed master; but it is due precisely to this self-possession that Beethoven is now able to concentrate his whole creative mind on emotional expression in the most poetical terms of which music is capable. The means by which this is attained through manipulation of the composer’s craft, and put into logical shape by his instinctive knowledge of how to handle and adjust form, came to him quite naturally by this time, provided that he was seized by the fever of irresistible inspiration, as in this glorious work. They had simply become part of the expression itself.” (195). For Blom, this is an “unceasingly enchanting work.” (201).
Martin Cooper argues that this is “the first work that belongs unequivocally to Beethoven’s ‘third period’. It combines, that is to say, great freedom of design and intimacy of feeling, which may find expression in forms that are irregular or fragmentary, with strict canonic and fugal episodes in the dramatic style with which Beethoven always now invested his contrapuntal music. Other features that we shall observe as common in this third period style – syncopations, anticipations, individual use of trill and extremes of pitch contrasted or combined – are also to be found most markedly in this sonata.” (M. Cooper, Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817-27, Oxford, 1970, p.146). This work had been composed in the summer of 1816, which had been “a particularly bad time for Beethoven, who was deeply disturbed emotionally by the new responsibility for his nephew and his guilty feelings about the boy’s mother. The sonata in A major seems like an oasis in this wilderness, the escape into an ideal world from cares that only find, perhaps, an occasional echo in the finale’s fugato. There could be no stronger contrast than that between this sonata and the op.106, begun the next year.” (146-7). Cooper concludes: “Good humour, deep and tender reflection, the acceptance and transfiguration of suffering, and the high spirits of creative achievement – the sheer joy of exercising a faculty that is art and craft, an intellectual activity, and emotional release and a unique means of communication with oneself and one’s fellow men – this is all to be found in this sonata, which is the most physically euphoric of all the last five. Here certainly there is no trace of anything that could be possibly called literary or metaphysical or speculative, or indeed anything but unadulteratedly musical.” (156).
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106, ”Hammerklavier”, 1817-18:
This is Beethoven’s longest piano sonata and is considered to be one of the greatest and most challenging works in the piano repertory. Solomon states: “Here the textures are harsh and angular, and the counter-point rough-hewn and granitic, bursting outward with explosive force, the fugue’s jagged qualities accentuated by the occasional lyrical passages that interrupt its unremitting advance. Martin Cooper writes, ‘There is in this finale, as in the Grosse Fugue, an element of excessiveness…an instinct to push every component part of the music….not just to its logical conclusion but beyond,’ and he feels that in a sense Beethoven was thereby ‘doing violence to his listener.’ [Cooper, 172]. “The violence is not in Beethoven’s intent, however, but in his subject matter, for here, as in the Grosse Fugue, the fugue’s closest analogue is the process of creation (or birth), the pain-ridden, exultant struggle for emergence. The passage through the labyrinth, from darkness to light, from doubt to belief, from suffering to joy, cannot be without its unique torments. By the same token, such an emergence is not without its manic raptures – the aspect that led Rolland to stress the mood of turbulent caprice, the laughing spirit that erupts from the fugal texture.
Rosen has demonstrated the organic unity of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata in a detailed analysis showing that all of its movements are built up from a ‘central idea’: a relentless use of chains of descending thirds. [Rosen, The Classical Style, pp.410-33]. In summary, Rosen observed that opus 106 ‘is not typical of Beethoven, and does not sound it; it is not even typical of his last period. It is an extreme point of his style. He never again wrote so obsessively concentrated a work. In part, it must have been an attempt to break out of the impasse in which he found himself.’ [Rosen, 434].” (393).
All commentators spend a great deal of time on this sonata. Rosen is the technical leader, with Cooper, Blom, Lockwood, Barford (Beethoven Companion) providing useful overviews, with Brendel providing some interesting inputs from a performer (Alfred Brendel, Music Sounded Out, Robson, 1990).
All of the performances I have on CD are very good. My preference still is with Kempff (1959) and Barenboim (EMI), Backhaus. (Pollini also recorded the last sonatas). But this is a piece that requires serious listening, almost certainly with several hearings.
I will return to Solomon’s interpretation (“struggle for emergence”) once I have completed the walkthrough, as well as Kinderman’s: “Like the Eroica, yet even more profoundly, the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata implies an analogous [analogous to Prometheus] narrative progression of heroic struggle and suffering, leading to a rebirth of creative possibilities. After the purgatorial Adagio sostenuto, the return of vital forces in the slow introduction to the finale, and the fiery defiance of expression in the fugue itself, embody one of Beethoven’s most radical artistic statements, a piece of’ new music’ among the most uncompromising ever written.” (210). Cooper adds his own controversial slant: “Beethoven saw his struggle with his sister-in-law for the guardianship of her son in terms of absolute right and wrong; and the scale which that struggle assumed in his mind was hardly less than that of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This may seem a pathetic delusion when it prompts the outbursts that we find in Beethoven’s letters or conversation books. In music, whose proxima causa [proximate cause] is always subjective and may often seem trivial and disproportionate, all that has objective value is the work of art.” (158). Blom’s comments also need to be included: “ Beethoven, we all know, was an impossible man to live with; but though that intractable personality peeps out everywhere from the sonatas, they have not only proved endurable: they have endured. Their greatness has softened the composers asperities and rudenesses and made them for us, over and above their purely musical wonders, into an intensely individual expression of the most irresistible fascination. Though we could not, any one of us, have lived with Beethoven for a week, we still live with his sonatas, and the world will go on doing so long as it has such civilization of the mind as it managed to keep in spite of its failure to attain to that universal brotherhood of mankind that was Beethoven’s delusion.
He lived at a time that believed in a new heaven and a new earth. A revolution was supposed to have brought them about. Democracy, which in art was the assertion of personality, and republicanism, which meant music’s delivery from empty courtly formatity, were not to be shown up until much later as but another road to enslavement by human greed and opportunism, in spite of many later revolutions, new democracies and new republics. But even now that they are thus exposed, Beethoven, their chief musical champion, remains great by reason of his unfailing power of individual expression and his self-controlled independence in the matter of form. His individuality, grasped at once on hearing any representative work of his, is not to be laid hold of by analysis; his form can be theoretically seized easily enough, and the descriptions that follow may reveal something of Beethoven’s mastery over its adjustment to invention.” (3-4).
Sonata in E major, Op. 109, 1820; Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110, 1821; Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, 1822.
Solomon treats these three sonatas together: “Here, Beethoven no longer attempted to impart a symphonic breadth to his sonata style, but returned to the smaller dimensions of the Sonatas op. 90 and op. 101, infusing the new works alternatively with a variety of rigorous polyphonic textures and an etherealized improvisatory tone. In each of the last three piano sonatas, the climax has again been shifted to the finale; in opus 110 this is a long and complex fugue, one that, however, has none of the cross-grained quality of opus 106. It is the smoothness of Beethoven’s fugal finales and surely one of the most moving, with its introductory recitative and Arioso dolente (‘sorrowful song’), which returns to alternate with the fugue and thus to prepare for the sonata’s harmonious conclusion. In the two other sonatas, however, the concluding movements are sets of variations – the first time that Beethoven had used the variation form in the finale of a piano sonata, though he had done so earlier in the closing of the Eroica Symphony, the String Quartet, op. 74, and the Violin Sonatas, op. 30, no. 1, and op. 96.
By 1820, Beethoven had written more than sixty sets of variations, either as separate works or as movements of larger cycles. With opus 109 and opus 111, he imbued the form for the first time with a ‘transfigured’, almost ecstatic content and a profundity of expression, which indicated that he had found in this basic musical form a new vehicle for his most imaginative thoughts. Thereby, variation form joins fugue as one of the leading features of the late style, and variation movements appear in many of his last masterpieces, including both the Adagio and finale of the Ninth Symphony and crucial movements of the String Quartets, opp. 127, 131, 132 and 135. The crowning work of this new preoccupation is the Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, op. 120.
In his middle period, the presumptive model for Beethoven’s sonata cycle was drama – comedy, tragedy, and the combined forms of these that touch upon mythic and collective levels of experience. This model retained its resiliency and power in the last ‘public’ works: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Perhaps the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata embodied Beethoven’s powerful desire to hold on not only to classicism and the received sonata style but to the dramatic model as well. Beethoven’s aggressive and disruptive contrapuntal procedures had already undermined this model, however, while retaining the dialectical and synthesizing functions that are characteristic of fugue as of sonata. But with ‘the grand variation’ or ‘chorale with variations’ (as D’Indy alternately names Beethoven’s late variation works), a quite different model comes to the fore.’ (395).
Solomon then introduces a magnificent aside on the nature of variation, which is most revealing as a supportive argument for Popper’s ‘Open Society’ [see Resonator Column]: “Variation is potentially the most ‘open’ of musical procedures, one that gives the greatest freedom to a composer’s fancy. It mirrors the unpredictability and chance nature of human experience and keeps alive the openness of human expectation. Fate cannot knock at the door in variation form: such concepts as necessity and inevitability need a dialectical musical pattern within which to express their message, whereas the variation form is discursive and peripatetic, in flight from messages and ideologies. Its subject is the adventurer, the picaro, the quick-change artist, the impostor, the phoenix who ever rises from the ashes, the rebel who, defeated, continues his quest, the thinker who doubts perception, who shapes and reshapes reality in search of its inner significance, the omnipotent child who plays with matter as God plays with the universe. Variation is the form of shifting moods, alterations of feelings, shades of meaning, dislocations of perspective. It shatters experience into splinters of previously unperceived reality and, by an act of will, reassembles the fragments at the close. The sense of time is effaced – expanded, contracted – by change in tempo; space and mass dissolve into the barest outline of the harmonic progressions and build up once again into intricate structures laden with ornamental patterns. The theme abides throughout as an anchor, as though to prevent fantasy from losing contact with the outer world, but it is ever in the process of dissolving into the memories, images, and feelings that underlie its simple reality.” (396). This is Solomon’s way of introducing the Diabelli Variations.
33 Variations in C on a Waltz by Diabelli, op. 120, 1819-23:
Solomon notes that “two-thirds of the Diabelli Variations were drafted in 1819, but the set was taken up again in late 1822, completed in the spring of 1823.” (396). He then adds: “In a number of the Diabelli variations, the melodic tie is tenuous, or even effectively absent. Beethoven had become increasingly attached to the harmonic (analytic, structural) variation style during his middle period.The melodic variation was, perhaps, perceived by some as a superficial procedure, and indeed, in the typical ornamental, melodic variation, few risks are taken: the composer strays no farther than the garden gate, reluctant to leave the comforts of home. By his last years, Beethoven was nothing but a risk taker; hence, far from abandoning the melodic variation procedure, he turned to it for the expression of his deepest meditations, as in several of the present variations and in the Piano Sonatas, opp. 109 and 111, the Adagio ma non troppo of the String Quartet, op. 127, and the Adagio molto e cantabile of the Ninth Symphony. In these, increasingly elaborate ornamentation of the theme creates the sense of strophic song whose accompaniment comments on the implied text and magnifies its meaning….The Diabelli Variations is a work in which extremes meet to an extent previously unknown even in Beethoven’s music: here the tawdry and the sublime rub shoulders; Leporello materializes amid music of the spheres; the miniature and the fresco merge into one; the perpetual motion of variation 19 collides with the virtual motionlessness of variation 20; variation 32’s constructive synthesis dissolves in a coda in which ‘the material seems to be gradually broken up and scattered into dust’ [Blom].
The Diabelli Variations was Beethoven’s last extended work for piano.” (397-98). These are not an easy listen by any means, but demonstrate the sheer range of Beethoven’s creative expression. Cooper argues that “the variations are an epitome or microcosm of his musical world. The variety of treatment is almost without parallel, so that the work represents a book of advanced studies in Beethoven’s manner of expression and his use of the keyboard, as well as a monumental work of art in its own right.” (205). Kinderman argues that the “impetus behind the Diabelli Variations is basically comic in nature….no other work by him is so rich in allusion, humour, and parody.” (212). Rosen is quite emphatic about this work: “Eventually Beethoven was won over to Diabelli’s unprepossessing waltz: he saw that it had possibilities, and wrote not only one but thirty three variations that can lay claim to being his greatest work for piano – at least it is the work that allows us to best to grasp almost all the facets of his genius.” (Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, 247). All in all, this is an essential listening experience once one has listened to the progression of the sonatas.
Eleven Bagatelles, op. 119, 1820-22; Six Bagatelles, op. 126, 1824:
Cooper notes that “the publication of these two sets during the last years of his life does not argue any change in his attitude, only the need for ready money. The bagatelles were in fact pot-boilers; but, as we should expect, Beethoven’s pot-boilers are often quite as interesting as other composers’ most ambitious and carefully considered works. Hardly one is without interest.” (214). Op. 119 strikes me as being rather run-of-the-mill, but I would agree with Cooper’s comments on Op. 126: “The term ‘bagatelle’ is surely a huge understatement for such masterpieces as these.” (Booklet for vol. 6, The Complete Beethoven, DGG, p. 41).
Solomon argues: “With opus 126 and the Diabelli Variations, Beethoven revealed himself as a master miniaturist, capable of sketching a variety of emotional states in a few quick tone strokes. The opus 126 Bagatelles were conceived as a cycle….and perhaps as a first sketch of the multimovement form of several of the late quartets. It would not be the first time that the piano, with all its inadequacies….had opened the way toward new creative possibilities.” (398-99). Solomon concludes his section on the late piano music with following: “In his last years, according to Schindler, Beethoven’s playing at times ‘was more painful than agreeable…The outpouring of his fancy became scarcely intelligible.’ Sometimes he would place his left hand flat upon the keyboard ‘and thus drown, in discordant noise, the music to which his right hand was feelingly giving utterance.’ As always, he did not want his private musical thoughts to be overheard. Thus, even at the end, the piano remained Beethoven’s most intimate means of communing with himself.” (399).
The Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, 1819-23.
This is Beethoven’s second Mass, written for his pupil and patron Archduke Rudolf’s consecration as Archbishop. Beethoven failed to complete the Mass in time, but presented the score to the Archduke upon its completion. It is written as a “solemn mass” which means it is supposed to represent a solemn occasion usually accompanied by pomp and splendour.
It is virtually impossible for a twenty-first century person to understand what such an occasion might be like, although the UK still has some examples of royal ceremony surrounding the Queen. It is also extremely difficult to understand what a mass represented to Beethoven’s contemporaries, being spoken in Latin, with a priest dressed in extraordinary and expensive costumes (vestments), in a church attended by most parishoners (because it was mandatory), lit by candles, incense aroma everywhere, with virtually no connection between what is going on at the altar (the equivalent of the theatre stage) and the people in the pews (seats). Beethoven was not a church-goer, and it is unlikely that he had much empathy for what was going on in these services in these churches. But he was a man of his times, and he did need to make a living, and as Solomon points out, he did hope to gain a job as Kappelmeister with the new Archbishop (which did not transpire). So he set about taking the opportunity to write a mass, and indulged in some shady business practices to try to squeeze as much money out of it as possible. (400).
Most of the commentators attempt to relate Beethoven’s “Deism” with his treatment of the liturgical text of the mass, but this is not an easy task, and one which I prefer to avoid. I prefer to listen to the music, no matter how difficult this might at times be. In this regard, the commentary by Tovey seems to me to be the best written so far (Essays, vol. 5, pp. 161 – 184). Drabkin’s Cambridge booklet is less rewarding for me (although his notion that “the idea of the Mass as oratorio rings true for the dimensions of the work in its final form” (97), does make sense, as does his comment on the Agnus Dei as the “most original part of the Mass” because it was “conceived in its entirety only after the shape of the other movements had been more or less fixed” (108). Cooper and Lockwood seem slightly over the top in their comments, and Solomon relies on too many other commentators to be convincing in his thin commentary. I will come back to Beethoven’s “Deism” later in my summing up. For now, I remain with Tovey for commentary, and Beethoven for the music.
But there is a need to comment on the text, or the libretto if you will, which is the “Ordinary of the Mass”. This text has been used since Palestrina for sung masses which go beyond the constraints of the traditional Gregorian Chant. It is, like the traditional Catholic liturgy, an amalgam of different texts which have been handed down as necessary accompaniments for the celebration of the “eucharist” (the breaking of bread and drinking of wine [in short, a meal] recommended by Jesus the night before he died). The language of the liturgy in Europe was Latin, reflecting the Western tradition of Rome. Despite this, it opens with a Greek statement, the “Kyrie”, and will later use some Hebrew – “Sabaoth,” “Hosanna”). It did not seem to matter that few people understood what these words meant; indeed, as time passed, very few people even understood the Latin of the remaining texts. Luther and Calvin changed all of this, but the Catholic Counter-Reformation responded by digging in and solidifying the ritual in a rigid fashion. This rigidity remains today, where, despite Vatican Council II’s efforts to achieve “aggiornamento” (becoming up-to-date), all that was achieved with the Mass was a translation of these ancient and somewhat incomprehensible) texts and rituals into the vernacular with no real change in anything else.
Thus the texts which are put to music present the composer with a serious challenge. For one, they are virtually incomprehensible. The “Gloria” is almost a stone-age hymn to a primitive deity which requires some knowledge about the nature of myth to appreciate it. The “Credo” is a didactic declaration of what a Christian must believe, and is quite esoteric, requiring a significant theological education to begin to understand remotely what it is implying. The “Sanctus” reflects the mythic aspect of the Gloria, and the “Agnus Dei” does the same (the notion of a sacrificial lamb which somehow atones for people is a poetic image which has significance only within the mythology of primitive thinking).
It is no surprise to learn that Beethoven worked hard and long to try to understand these texts in order to compose accompanying music, and that his final creation is at times as equally baffling as the text. This should come as no surprise. And yet, listening to this piece is a profoundly moving experience. It is not the music as such which is forbidding, but the text and context, and this is probably one case where some work independent of the listening is required to come to some appreciation of the text itself prior to listening to the sung music. And this is because, as Tovey argues, Beethoven’s case, unlike that of so many other composers of masses, is quite unique: “…Beethoven’s eminently dramatic genius responded naturally to the possibilities of a chorus supported by an orchestra that had for more than a generation been accustomed to express itself dramatically; and how in the Gloria and the Credo the multiplicity of words gives Beethoven occasion to produce some of his most gigantic symphonic designs. I say ‘symphonic’ in full view of the fact that the forms thus produced are in no way a priori, but are dictated at every point by the course of the words. But now Beethoven, who had no models for these special choral symphonic designs, transcends them all, and comes, like Palestrina, into his full heritage where symbols and forms transcend all words…The great creative artists have an idea of form which is so free that it becomes a matter of unconsciousness to them whether the form they have in hand has been classified or not; the right thing will enter in the right place, and no naïve listener will be able to tell from its manner whether it happens to be a subversive paradox or the most familiar conventional of its epoch. In art there is no fundamental distinction between form and matter; but every work of art is created under practical conditions which the artist regards as his data. These conditions are given and cannot be altered. The tendency will be to call these data the ‘form’ and everything else in the work the ‘treatment’ In the last resort a correct analysis will break down the distinction between form and treatment…in other words, that form and treatment become one and inseparable.” (177-78). It was no accident that Beethoven most admired Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah, works where Tovey’s remarks would be equally applicable. Later, Verdi would face similar challenges in his Manzoni Requiem. His constant struggle to find the right words from his librettists showed how inseparable word and music were for him, and his treatment of the Requiem text (with its even more challengingly archaic “Dies Irae”) demonstrated this. (See Verdi in the Resonator Column, and scroll down to Requiem).
I have found Harnoncourt’s version with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe to be magnificent and highly recommendable. Gardiner’s version is good, but on period instruments. The Karajan, Bohm and Levine versions on DGG are excellent, but the sound is not great due to the immense forces they use in orchestra and choir in a sound recording context which is not as supportive as Harnoncourt’s. YouTube has many examples for perusal.
I would recommend this piece only after hearing (and loving!) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is a masterpiece. In this regard, his earlier Mass in C is completely dwarfed by his Missa Solemnis and is understandably passed over by most listeners.
Symphony No. 9, in D minor, Op. 125, 1823-24.
Harvey Sachs argues that the Ninth Symphony “is one of the most precedent-shattering and influential compositions in the history of music.” (The Ninth. Beethoven and the World in 1824, New York, 2010). Sachs writes for the general reader and is less demanding than the other commentators I have been using. There is, however, no easy way to enter the world of the Ninth precisely because Beethoven introduces the poetry of Schiller to be sung in the fourth movement of this symphony, something that had never been attempted before. In the Missa, the words he used were in Latin and were archaic, liturgical texts which offered no challenge to the restored monarchies of Europe. Schiller’s poem, on the other hand, was revolutionary in tone, and Schiller’s plays had been banned in Austria for several years. So Beethoven made a very conscious choice of this text, to be sung in German, and to be understood by his listeners. An “Ode to Joy”, it speaks of the universal brotherhood of man within a deistic framework which echoes much of the language used by ‘les Philosophes’ just prior to the French Revolution. We are thus forced to examine this poem within the context of the preceding three symphonic movements, and this is no easy task.
There are those who argue that the choice of a choral final movement was simply a mistake. Others, like Tovey, Solomon and Lockwood argue the opposite, that the choral finale is essential to what Beethoven was attempting to create and to express. What is undeniable is the extraordinary popularity of the “Ode to Joy”, which has become the anthem of the European Union, is played on television as background music for soccer and a wide variety of events. The Ninth Symphony is played annually at New Year in Japan, and at various major events, including the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Such wide popularity and general acceptance as a masterpiece of symphonic music makes the symphony easy to access for most listeners, and I am assuming that most readers who have come this far with me will have no difficulty in loving this magnificent piece of music. It is, of course, a disturbing piece of music if only because of its sheer grandeur, and the fact that it is usually played with full orchestra and very large choir. Solomon sees the Ode as a way for Schiller and Beethoven to recall the ‘golden age’ (‘Acadia’ – the time leading up to the French Revolution) while attempting to enter ‘Elysium’ (a form of Utopia in the mind, rather than in everyday reality. The Revolution had failed with the rise of Napoleon, but hope remained that the golden age could return: “Beethoven’s Ninth is his refusal to accept the finality of that failure…” (405). Solomon also argues that “From one point of view, we may say that Beethoven wrote his own text for the Ninth Symphony’s “Ode to Joy.’ He utilized only half of the eighteen sections of Schiller’s version of 1803 and freely arranged them in accordance with his own poetic vision….In the last analysis, Beethoven’s private quest and his ideological thrust are identical: a search for an ideal, extended communal family to assuage the inevitability of personal loss, to maintain and to magnify the sanctified memory of his – and everyone’s – personal Eden.” (408-09). He then argues that Schiller and Beethoven both agreed that: “to arrive at a solution even in the political problem, the road of aesthetics must be pursued, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom;” just earlier he had argued that “the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets, the trumpet call of Fidelio…..keep alive humanity’s hopes and sustain faith in the possibilities of renewal.” (412). It is necessary to explore the final quartets in order to follow Beethoven’s creative impetus at this stage of his life, and this I intend to do now, but will return to a fuller discussion of the implications of the Ninth once the walkthrough has been completed.
Peformances: The Karajan 1962 and 1967 DVD versions are still outstanding, as are Bohm’s versions with the Vienna (the 1985 version is very slow), but the Harnoncourt CD version with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is my favourite alternative version, and the one I would recommend for first listening, for the reasons cited above in Missa Solemnis. YouTube provides ample coverage. There is also an Apple/DGG App which provides 4 sound versions (Karajan, Fricsay, Bernstein, Gardiner) as well as the score and libretto, plus several commentaries, which is an outstanding source of joy and learning, and which I highly recommend.
The Final Movement: Ode to Joy: Tovey (Essays, vol. 2, p. 35ff), Lockwood (p. 433ff.), Cooper (p. 323 ff), Sachs (p.155ff) all provide excellent analyses of the text (German and English) and music in the final movement. The Apple Apps is indispensable in this regard.
The Late Quartets:
These are very special works, composed on commission from Prince Galitzin between 1822-26. During this period, Beethoven did not work on any other compositions, which was not his usual fashion of composing. A great deal has been written about these works, and they are held in the highest esteem by most lovers of Beethoven. It is unlikely that Beethoven considered these to be his final works, as he did have plans for future works. What many argue is that, in this final phase, Beethoven was evolving into a newer style which had grown almost organically from his previous styles; a style more lyrical and more inwardly personal.
There is so much available on the late quartets that I do not intend to spend a great deal of time on each of them, but will rely on the reader to go listen to them, listen again, and then again. I will, however, quote some typical comments as expressed by Lustig: ” Beethoven’s late quartets have always been considered difficult music. They are difficult to perform, to hear for the first time, to become comfortable with: difficult to explain by any schema of music history, or by any of our familiar pictures of Beethoven in his last years….the last quartets stand alone in the musical literature. Most commentators list them among the very highest achievements of Western music, if not its single greatest pinnacle. A worshipful attitude surrounds them; they represent perfection: a musical expression stripped of all that is merely conventional, leaving only direct emotional statements. Only a few works of Bach are accorded a similar status: that of secular, yet entirely private and spiritual work.” (R.L.Lustig, Notes for CD box set of Beethoven Late Quartets by the Tokyo String Quartet, RCA Victor/BMG, 1993, pp.4, 5). Cooper argues that Beethoven, in these last quartets, used ‘a new kind of part-writing’ in which “to put it in a nutshell, all instruments function polyphonically as independent lines while blending together harmoniously. Beethoven was helped in the creation of this learned, spiritually elevated and highly original style by a new type of sketching which he developed, in which he drafted large sections of the quartet over and over again in full score so that he could manipulate all four parts more effectively. The result is some of the most sublime creations in the whole of music…” (M Cooper, ‘Wonderful, Refined Invention’, notes to Box Set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets, Quartetto Italiano, Phillips, 1996, p.15).
Kerman refers to Beethoven’s palpable “urge to reach out to listening mankind” and adds that “the deepening expressivity that every listener recognizes in this music (at least today) has resisted the best efforts of generations of commentators and critics. Perhaps the truest commentary on this music was made by another creative artist, when T.S.Eliot issued his last great poems, four meditations on life and art which are similar in form as well as in theme, under the title The Four Quartets. ‘Read Shakespeare’, Beethoven said when he was asked to explain one of his sonatas. Read Eliot on the late string quartets. [See Eliot in my Resonator column]. What is widely agreed is that, one way or another, Beethoven’s musical imagination turned inward…away from its earlier audiences….the quartet players…the concert public…the composer. Beethoven at the end of his life achieved the privatization of the string quartet…Today the ordinary way for quartets to be experienced is on recordings, in privacy, by a very view listeners at a time, or just one…This novel sense of audience…seems to be an essential component of the emotional quality of numerous famous individual movements in these works…The music is sounding only for the composer and for one other auditor, an awestruck eavesdropper: you.” (“Beethoven and the String Quartet III” in the booklet for The Late Quartets in The Complete Beethoven Edition, DGG, 1997, Vol. 13, pp. 10-14).
I will follow Kerman’s chronology for the composition dates of these late quartets, since the opus numbers are notoriously misleading (The Beethoven Quartets, p.224):
• Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, May – February, 1824-25:
• Quartet in A minor, op. 132, July 1825.
• Quartet in B flat major, Opus 130, August-November, 1825.
• Grosse Fugue for String Quartet in B flat, Opus 133, 1825.
• Quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131, July, 1826.
• Quartet in F major, Opus 135, October, 1826.
Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, May – February, 1824-25:
Kerman argues that “lyricism…is at the heart of this quartet.” (239). In addition: “Individuality, integrity, coherence – these are hard conceptions to distinguish, and in my view, the Quartets in E flat, A minor, and C minor are Beethoven’s greatest works because each creates a more profound and individual impression of coherence than he or anyone else had achieved before. Contrasts – within movements or between movements – may be more extraordinary than ever, but the really extraordinary thing is how inevitably the expanding range of sentiments is subsumed into a total integrity….It is not enough to allow the late quartets a certain ‘wholeness’; each of them provides us with a separate paradigm for wholeness. What truer criterion could be found for individuality in works of art is hard to know.” (228-9). This is Kerman’s argument that each late quartet, despite some similarities, ought to be taken as a separate creation, independent of the others. (Simpson expresses the same opinion, Beethoven Companion, p.268, and I cannot resist including his witty comment: ”Each is self-contained, an organism; we must grasp each individually as such before generalizing further. I have no objection to such generalizing, provided it recognizes the integrity of individual works of art. As soon as it ceases to do so, my interest evaporates. Unfortunately, much writing on this subject, however ingenious, is as valuable as a survey of the surface of Mars from a submerged submarine in the Atlantic.”!!). Already, we can see that we are entering a different world, not only of music, but of opinion. I will deal with the opinions later, but for now it is enough to listen to this quartet and to enjoy its richness and magnificence.
Quartet in A minor, op. 132, July 1825.
Kerman argues that Op. 127 is somehow a “world of play and song”, and refers to its “lyrical vision”, and contrasts this with Op. 132 which he sees as more a world of “pain”. (242). “No other piece by Beethoven carries a sense of suffering so close to the skin and treats the experience so deeply and so objectively, at least to my apprehension. One can speak of objectivity, I think, because for once Beethoven seems to be dealing with pain itself, rather than with attitudes or responses to pain.” (343). He continues with this notion of contrast between both quartets: “The expressive contrast is between song and suffering, between play and pain.” (265). He then adds a qualifier: “This language may appear to suggest a conception of the quartet in terms of an extra musical program. I have in mind no series of events or pictures, whether autobiographical or not, but the musical image of an underlying psychological progress that is generalized and essentially inchoate. Such an image appears in one great composition after another in Beethoven’s oeuvre….The sense of a particular psychological sequence is what gives the late quartets their particular individual intensities – in spite of technical threads crossing from one to another. And among the late quartets, the personality of the A-minor [Op. 132], because most agonized, is probably the most distinct of all.
One can hardly attend to the first movement, I think, without submitting in some way to an impression of suffering and frustration. Material, gesture, vocabulary, and form all contribute to this impression. The second movement turns from this root experience to a private world that is as perfect as it is surreal. The transition is really the most mysterious in the whole quartet…this mood is shrugged off by the Alla Marcia [4th movement] in a suspiciously off-hand way.” (266). He then refers to the Presto which concludes the 5th movement: “Despite an impression of liberation, even of play, the Presto is informed by a consciousness or encompassment both of the abstracted second movement with the country dances and also the outer movements with their characteristic note of pain…” (266).
He argues for the integrity of this quartet: “the work has scarcely ever failed to impress listeners or critics as a convincing unity.” (267).
I still argue with Tovey for the direct listening to music as it is heard, without any need to know extraneous details about the composer or the circumstances under which the piece was written. So it is always a challenge when Beethoven writes a long descriptive note on the score at the opening of a movement (the 3rd movement has the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” statement, and this was written following a very serious illness of Beethoven’s which interrupted his work on this quartet). Kerman deals with this issue quite effectively (pp. 253-60) so I will pass on.
Quartet in B flat major, Opus 130, August-November, 1825.
Kerman describes this quartet as “a mercurial, brilliant, paradoxical work, toying with the dissociation of its own sensibility and toying with the listener’s limping powers of prediction. Force jostles with whimsy, prayer with effrontery, dangerous innocence with an even more dangerous sophistication. The quartet…is the most problematic of Beethoven’s great compositions, a fact he himself was almost first to acknowledge, with his deeply equivocal behavior toward the finale”. (304). [The original final movement , subsequently produced as a separate piece under Opus 133, The Great Fugue, was replaced by a substitute Finale, written between September and November 1826. See Kerman, 269-302; and 322, where he allows either finale as appropriate for any performance]. “ In all this, it seems to me indicated that Beethoven was working toward some new idea of order or coherence in the cyclic composition, an order markedly different from the traditional psychological sequence that he had developed in his earlier music. This new order is not easy to comprehend, because on the evidence of the Quartet in B flat major [Op.130], the idea was not entirely realized. In the few works that were now left for him to compose, he did not pursue the new conception but reverted to more traditional ideas of order.” (322). “The Quartet in B flat major is a truly radical conception, the truly radical work of the third period.” (324). Kerman argues that a complete overview of this quartet is possible only when the substitute Finale is examined within the context of the next two quartets which Beethoven would compose (325), so I will follow him on this point. Simpson summarizes his thoughts as follows: “Alas, there is no space to speak of the prodigal variety and profundity of Op. 130, with whichever finale we choose; with the Grosse Fugue it is one of the greatest and most overwhelmingly impressive of Beethoven’s compositions.” (274).
The modern listener has the option which finale will be listened to, since virtually all modern recordings include both finales to choose from. So it remains for the reader to listen to this masterpiece again and again and be carried along by Beethoven’s extraordinary creation.
Grosse Fugue for String Quartet in B flat, Opus 133, 1825.
Kerman devotes a whole chapter to this finale for Opus 130, but I will not enter into the technical debates over fugue and Beethoven. Kerman, like Simpson, does consider Opus 130 to be Beethoven’s “greatest quartet” (300), and argues that the fugue must be seen within the context of a Finale to the quartet: “The problem was to integrate fugue as a form into the larger structure of the cyclic work, and to integrate fugue as a style or principle into Beethoven’s wider stylistic world.” (301). In short, “fugue was a technical preoccupation in the third period, but Beethoven’s deepest study, then as always, was the totality, the integrity of the individual work of art.” (302). Cooper suggests that the Grosse Fugue “is unique…What grips the listener is the dramatic experience of forcing – for there is frequently a sense of violence in this mastery – two themes which have, by nature, nothing in common, to breed and reproduce a race of giants, episodes or variations that have no parallel in musical history.” (388).
Obviously, there will be times when a listener will choose to hear the Grosse Fugue independently from Op. 130, and Beethoven himself would seem to have approved this. He also transcribed it for two pianists, which I will refer to now.
Grosse Fugue for Piano Four Hands, Opus 134, 1826:
This piece was originally intended by the publisher as an aid to understanding the Grosse Fugue finale to Opus 130. Cooper notes: “The work is scarcely any easier to grasp in its piano-duet version, and still makes formidable demands on player and listener alike.” (M Cooper, “Beethoven: Miscellaneous Piano and Organ Works“, The Complete Beethoven Edition, DGG, Vol. 6, p. 44). Beethoven wrote this piece himself. It is an interesting piece, but not to be listened to prior to enjoyment of Opus 130 with the Grosse Fugue Finale.
Quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131, July, 1826.
Kerman states that “the uniqueness of this quartet lies exactly in the mutual dependence of its contrasted parts, or as some will prefer to put it, in their organic interrelation. Freedom, normality, and the solution of conflict may surely be bound up with this. The Quartet…is the most deeply integrated of all Beethoven’s compositions.” (326). Beethoven also establishes “an express rhythmic continuity through all movements of the work…there must be no break of attention, no catching of breath, no coughs or tuning or uncrossing of legs.” (326). Kerman refers frequently to Tovey’s famous essay on Beethoven’s Art Forms, as well as to Wagner’s essay on Beethoven, both of whom were enthralled by it, as is Kerman. Cooper adds: “Original and novel the C sharp minor quartet most certainly is, in every detail as well as in general conception.” (391).
It is significant that Beethoven wrote this and the next quartet on his own volition, without any commission for them. Thus, regardless of the various interpretations offered by so many, these works do need to be listened to attentively. For me, this quartet has always been my favourite, as it may have been of Beethoven.
Quartet in F major, Opus 135, October, 1826.
This was to be Beethoven’s final quartet, to be followed only by the alternative finale to Op. 130 which was completed by November, of that year. Beethoven would die in March of 1827, aged 56. His final years are painful to behold, as Kerman notes: “In music – in the string quartets in these last years – Beethoven ordered what he was so pitifully unable to order in any other aspect of his existence. Outside of his art, the disarray of his life was practically total.” (350). He actually composed this final quartet immediately after his nephew Karl’s attempted suicide. This final quartet is not always received as enthusiastically as the other four Late Quartets. Kerman argues “the evocation of Haydn in this work…paints a nostalgic picture of the collegial world of the string quartet in the Classical era. It was a world of lively socializing, of quartet parties, of young friends like the violinists Schuppanzigh and Amenda – a world before deafness, a world before Metternich. As Beethoven’s last completed composition, the F major Quartet conveys a measure of poignancy, as well as delight.” (Complete Beethoven Edition, Vol. 13, p. 14). Simpson, on the other hand, argues: “It has the light touch of infinite wisdom and charity; smaller than the others, in scope as well as dimensions, it is nevertheless something only the vastly experienced Beethoven could have written…Beethoven, as always, is in favour of life and at this late stage is not prepared to argue any more.” (The Beethoven Companion, pp. 276-7). So there are wide swings of opinion of be considered, inevitably bound up with the debate over the Finale for Opus 130 as a suitable replacement for the Grosse Fugue, since it tends to follow the “Haydnesque” mood of Opus 135. (Kerman sums the issue up succinctly: “The Fugue runs the danger of trivializing the experience of the other movements, but the new Finale runs the danger of seeming trivial in itself. This nimble and certainly not inconsiderable conclusion glosses over, but scarcely resolves, the problematic sequence of the earlier movements.” (374). [See Cooper for concurrence with Kerman. (389)].
The piece remains a masterpiece, and one to be listened to. Beethoven did not know that this was to be his last completed composition, and we have no idea where his creative talent would have led him musically in the various projects he was contemplating. But this will suffice for the Late Quartets. It is time now to sum up my experience of Beethoven.
Beethoven: Concluding Remarks:
There remains a great deal of controversy about Beethoven, as noted in my introductory remarks. For commentators like Solomon, Cooper, Lockwood, Tovey and Simpson (to name only a few), Beethoven is one of the great, if not the greatest, of musical composers. The controversy over what “music means” is quite another story, and I do not intend to enter into this debate. (See L. Botstein, “The Search for Meaning in Beethoven”, in Beethoven and His World, pp. 332-362, edited by S Turnham and M Sternberg, Princeton, 2000; and D. Dennis, “Beethoven at Large”, in The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, edited by G. Stanley, Cambridge U p, 2000, pp. 292- 304. Both of those articles give an good overview of the various issues involved in interpretation of Beethoven’s music). I already quoted Taruskin in the Introduction to this walkthrough.
Cooper argues that Beethoven “is probably still unconsciously accepted…as the fundamental type of composer, vaguely identified with inarticulate longings for freedom and for something outside and above the daily round of material cares and preoccupations, with some element of nobility and fearlessness.” (Cooper, Beethoven, p. 4). The “romantic” notion that somehow the listener can share in Beethoven’s “vision” in some intuitive way is still strongly defended, although JWN Sullivan’s, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, written in 1927 and still in print, despite its continued popularity, exaggerates the case. It is surely too much to argue that the listener can somehow intuit what Beethoven was actually feeling or thinking when composing his music (see Taruskin). On the other hand, this music does move many people. I particularly like Simpson’s argument: “Beethoven’s quartets may not be summed up. They represent most of the main stages in his development, though not all; the piano sonatas show a more continuous process, but the quartets reach further into his last period.….There is nothing else like them in the whole of music, except in Beethoven’s own work, and they reveal, like the sonatas and the symphonies, that of all composers he possessed the widest, deepest, most active and most realistically hopeful genius. It is a platitude to say that his range of expression is Shakespearian; so it is, but he has a commitment to humanity that Shakespeare does not reveal. There has been no greater artist, and it is to be doubted whether any can match him.” (The Beethoven Companion, p. 277-8).
Personally, Beethoven’s music does move me profoundly, and has been an infinite source of inspiration to me throughout my life. It does not really matter to me that others have used this music for other purposes (see the excellent overview in A. Conini, The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking, New York, 1987, particularly her reference to Wagner’s highly influencial 1870 article on Beethoven). Nor does the Romantic fascination with the image of Beethoven make much difference to me; nor does the obvious ambivalence of music (as portrayed in Burgess’ “The Clockwork Orange.”). Let me listen first, is my constant response. And this would be my recommendation to everyone. Take any one of the pieces of music in this brief survey I have just now concluded and listen to it, and see if it does not affect you deeply in some positive way. If this music does not affect you positively, then pass on.
This is not to gloss over the various issues which have been raised by Beethoven himself, and by his many commentators, such as his revolutionary stance, his love of liberty, his inability to find a woman to love and marry, his deafness, his wild eccentricities, his financial challenges, his deplorable treatment of his his nephew and his sister-in-law. Yet throughout all of his tribulations and triumphs, he continues to create extraordinary music; he remains steadfast in his commitment to his art; and it is this indomitable spirit which has been “heard” in his music in so many different guises ranging from the deeply troubled and explosive to the profoundly serene.
For the modern listener, it is impossible not to be influenced by much of the myth of Beethoven, yet his music still stands to be heard in its immediacy. In this personal walkthrough of Beethoven’s music and life, I have tried to avoid interpretation of the music which would read into it some kind of “meaning”. Equally, while ever a great admirer of Beethoven’s indomitable spirit, I have not ignored his very serious shortcomings, in particular his treatment of his nephew and sister-in-law, and his overall eccentricities, which led most of his contemporaries to view him as, admittedly, a great composer, but nevertheless quite mad. This exploration, like all of the others prompted by Cantokentigerni, could, and will, continue to be reflected upon. What is now required, is the listening to this music with an appreciative ear.
So, welcome to the treasury of Beethoven.