A Portrait of Beethoven

Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort. 
For only art and science raise men to the level of gods.

- Ludwig van Beethoven


reflecting on an icon


Beethoven is perhaps the most recognizable of all classical composers as well as one of the greatest.  Evidence of his wide popularity includes the frequency and variety of performances of his music, the displays of his name in concert halls around the world, and the fact that he is known even among people who have never attended a classical concert for his Fifth Symphony, “Moonlight” Sonata, and the “Ode to Joy” finale of his Ninth Symphony.


beethoven's pop culture relevance

Here are examples of the “Ode to Joy” signature tune performed by Beaker from the Muppets and a Barcelona flash mob, both of which are thoroughly delightful and which reflect his appeal to diverse audiences:

Beaker from The Muppets

Flash Mob in Barcelona

Even beethoven had skeptics

“a sort of odious meowing, and discords to shatter the least sensitive ear”

Although Beethoven is now immensely popular, he was not always universally admired.  There were doubters even as late as the end of the 19th century.  As quoted in the wonderful “Lexicon of Musical Invective,” assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky, the well-known art critic John Ruskin wrote in 1881 that “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”  Slonimsky cites other observers, such as Boston music critic Philip Hale in 1899 referring to the Finale of the Ninth Symphony: “But oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music”, A. Oulibicheff in 1843 describing the Fifth Symphony as “a sort of odious meowing, and discords to shatter the least sensitive ear”, and the British journal The Harmonicon in 1829 asserting that the Eroica Symphony “is infinitely too lengthy…If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.”  These commentators were not particularly prescient about the ultimate judgment of music history.

honoring a resonating EXISTENCE   

In contrast, the positive qualities of Beethoven’s reputation and presence were strongly felt by his successors.  It seemed as though everybody wanted to be the composer who inherited Beethoven’s mantle.  Brahms was famously reluctant to write his first symphony while “hearing the footsteps” of Beethoven behind him.  Brahms’ first symphony demonstrates how much he studied Beethoven’s Fifth, and in fact the theme to the final movement of this symphony contains a phrase:

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which (in a different key) is nearly identical to this phrase in the Ode to Joy theme:

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When taken to task by a critic, Brahms’ reply was that “any donkey can see that.”  In a similar fashion, Gustav Mahler began his First Symphony with a gesture almost identical to the start of Beethoven’s Ninth:  open chords in the strings punctuated with short fanfare-like interjections.

a life of overcoming  

Born in December 1770 in Bonn, Beethoven died in Vienna at age 56 in 1827.  His creative life was challenged by gradually worsening hearing problems (initially tinnitus, or ringing in the ears) leading eventually to a complete hearing loss.  In 1802, already half deaf and realizing his hearing would continue to degrade, he wrote a poignant letter to his brothers, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament since his doctor sent him to this town presumably to come to terms with his diagnosis.  In this letter he admitted that he had contemplated suicide but finally decided to continue with life through his art.  Earlier that year he composed the Second Symphony and the “Kreutzer” Violin Sonata, 1803 saw the “Waldstein” Piano Sonata and the Eroica Symphony, and he produced the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata and the first version of his opera Fidelio in 1804.  By 1816 he was totally deaf, yet still persevered, composing over the next few years many powerful, massive, heartfelt works such as the late Piano Sonatas Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”), 109, 110, and 111, the Diabelli variations for Piano, five String Quartets Op. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135, and the Ninth Symphony.  The musical world has benefited from Beethoven’s special ability to transcend his disability by “hearing” the music in his head.

beethoven's prodigious output

  • Vocal music including arias, the Missa Solemnis, and Fidelio
  • 5 Piano Concertos
  • A Violin Concerto
  • Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano
  • Misc. orchestral works including incidental Music & Overtures
  • and of course the 9 Symphonies
  • 32 Sonatas and the Diabelli Variations for Piano
  • 16 String Quartets
  • 10 Violin Sonatas
  • 5 Cello Sonatas
  • 11 Piano Trios
  • Other chamber music

His music output is often categorized into three periods, early, middle, and late, with the earliest works from the 1780’s and early 1790’s rarely if ever performed.  These groupings are somewhat arbitrary as there is no really clear demarcation, just a continual maturation of his style with his always pressing the boundaries as his musical ideas evolved. 

His first formally cataloged work, Opus 1 (around 1793) was a set of Piano Trios, and his first Piano Concerto, now called #2, Op. 19 was completed in 1795 (and revised in 1798).  The early symphonies, #1 and #2, 6 string quartets comprising Op. 18, and early piano sonatas acknowledge his predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart with quotes and stylistic touches, but still are recognizably Beethoven. 

The middle period was characterized by deeper explorations in form and expression, and includes

  • Symphonies #3 through #8
  • 3 string quartets comprising Op. 59 (known as Razumovsky after a patron), the "Harp" quartet Op. 74, so-called because of the prominent pizzicato (plucked strings), and Op. 95 quartet sometimes known as the "Serioso"
  • the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" Piano Sonatas

His late period included the massive piano sonatas and string quartets in addition to the Missa Solemnis and Symphony #9.

We are fortunate that many of his notebooks are still available.  In these useful documents we can view how the finished works took shape over months and even years from early germs of ideas through experiments and finally to the finished product.  Indeed, we can see how Beethoven had already started making sketches for what would become the Ninth Symphony even before the Eighth Symphony was completed 12 years earlier. 

his harmonious TRANSFORMATIONs

The Ninth Symphony is a new world altogether...

While it is instructive to consider how his style and musical language evolved over the years, looking at the difference between the first and last of each genre really brings home the qualitative leap.  Even the First Symphony was radical in its day, using an ambiguous key different from the main key of the symphony to begin the introduction and a blazing scherzo movement in place of a more traditional minuet; yet it also paid homage with a Mozartian tune in the second movement and a bubbling Haydnesque finale preceded by a very fits-and-starts joke in its introduction.  The Ninth Symphony is a new world altogether, with its giant scope, long lines in changing meters in the slow movement, a scherzo the length of many symphonies of the day, and of course the powerful statement of the finale provided by solo singers and chorus. 

Beethoven created new frontiers of scope and emotional power

The piano sonatas show very much the same look backwards in the early works and forward in the later ones.  His early string quartets from Op. 18 are also much in the mold of Haydn and Mozart, though we can hear how he is beginning the press against the boundaries of classical forms.  The late quartets demonstrate how Beethoven created new frontiers of scope and emotional power.  Quartet #13, Op. 130 is a six movement piece in which the last movement was originally the Grosse Fuge, though on insistence from his publisher he moved it to a stand-alone work and replaced it with a finale half its length.  Quartet #14, Op. 131 consists of seven movements played with an imperceptible pause; the middle movement has many shifting tempos and singly accounts for a third of the playing time of the entire Quartet.  In Quartet #15, Op. 132 the middle movement, entitled "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in Lydian mode), muses on his recovery from an illness.  The last movement of his final Quartet #16, Op. 135 poses an introductory question (the words are in the manuscript), “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?), answered by the allegro with “Es muss sein!” (It must be!), as he faced his rapidly failing health and imminent death.

showing appreciation for admiration

Famously a curmudgeon, he nonetheless had the grace in July, 1812, to write a thank you letter to a young girl, perhaps no older than 10, who admired him and sent him a wallet as a gift.  Here are some excerpts (as translated by Emily Anderson in “Selected Letters of Beethoven”), showing his kindness, modesty, and humanity:

My dear kind Emilie, my dear Friend!

Do not rob Handel, Haydn, and Mozart of their laurel wreaths.  They are entitled to theirs, but I am not yet entitled to one.


Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort.  For only art and science raise men to the level of gods. If, my dear Emilie, you should ever desire to have anything, do not hesitate to write to me. The true artist has no pride.  He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps be admiring him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.  I should probably prefer to visit you and your family than to visit many a rich person who betrays a poverty of mind.

Look upon me as your friend and the friend of your family.

                                                                                                Ludwig V. Beethoven


These sentiments are the best verbal expression of his legacy to the world of music.

- Robert Hoffman