Ludwig van Beethoven is famous for being one of the greatest composers that ever lived and probably equally famous for going deaf. He slowly, torturously, went deaf over a period of 16-18 years in a process that increasingly alienated him from the people and world around him. His likeness is immortalized in marble busts and painting, and his approach to self-expression and the “artist as hero” influenced the whole next generation of musicians and composers. In music, the figure of Beethoven is unavoidable. His symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets are all foundations of the repertoire still played today.
Ludwig, however, would have made a horrible roommate. He was a lifelong bachelor and a huge slob. If he ever left a security deposit on any of the apartments he lived in, he surely never got one back. He never threw out a piece of paper, and carried boxes and boxes of writing from living place to living place. He was a disagreeable, cantankerous, self-absorbed and increasingly paranoid cuss who thought most everyone was trying to cheat him of something. He had a horrible temper, worse digestion, and both could clear a room very quickly.
All of that emotional turmoil, drama, struggle and eventual attitude of heroic victory is exactly one of the revolutionary things that Beethoven added to his music. Viennese classical music at the time Beethoven moved to Vienna was a very stylized body of music, influenced by the “style galant”. In this approach, music was very proper, refined and emotionally restrained. There were pleasant melodies, clear melody-and-accompaniment textures, balanced phrases and clearly articulated forms the audience could follow. A composer could be inventive within the style, original with his themes but always a high degree of elegance. Listen to the first two minutes of the Mozart Piano Sonata number 13 in B flat major (K 333) to hear what I mean.
This was music written for a specific purpose and audience, many times an evening of entertainment for the guests of some minor nobility in their home. It was very pleasant music.
Ludwig had little use for the “style galant”. He also had a few wealthy patrons in Vienna which supported his temperamental genius and allowed him the freedom to blaze his own trails. He mastered the classical forms that he inherited, but almost immediately expanded them, modified them, bent them and broke them to his own purpose. His purpose was always self-expression. His expressive intents and needs always were more important in his music than rules set forth by any particular style. Listen to the first minute or two of his Piano Sonata number 5 in c minor, Opus 10/ no. 1.
Here Beethoven gives us loud, thick chords followed by short rising fleeting motives and a quiet response ALL IN THE FIRST SIX SECONDS. He is not handing us a tuneful melody on a silver musical platter. He is giving us drama, strong emotion and a stormy passion that is too dramatic for the purposes that Mozart wrote his sonata for. Beethoven doesn’t care what other people think, he only cares about what he wants to express. This element in his music only grows in later compositions. Click on any of the following links to get a taste of what I mean.
After playing Beethoven for 200 years (and having Motley Crue on the radio for over 30 years), it is not always obvious how shocking some of Beethoven’s music was at the time it was written. Comparing it to the Mozart example, however, we can hear some of the strong emotion and self-expression that Ludwig was bringing to the musical table.
I sometimes wonder if I could go back in time with a buyers-club size bottle of anti-depressants and antacids and delivered them to Ludwig, if his music would have been totally different. Though I think I’m glad I can’t, because his music rocks just the way it is.