This is the first of a series of essays on composers whose music is essential to The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s repertoire. Learn more about the legendary composer’s life and career, as illustrated by selections from our Listening Library.
By Patrick Castillo
Dear Beethoven. You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. The Genius of Mozart is mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She has found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.
These were the prophetic words of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein to Ludwig van Beethoven in 1792, the year after Mozart’s death, as Beethoven departed his native Bonn for the musical capital of the Western world. But even with such lofty expectations, Waldstein, one of Beethoven’s most important patrons, could not have foreseen how prescient his words of farewell would be. Beethoven would indeed inherit the mantle of Haydn and Mozart, then extend the tradition of Viennese Classicism into the nineteenth century, creating music of such imposing power that generations of composers since have not ceased to feel its weight. After Beethoven’s Opus 131 Quartet, Schubert wondered, “what is left for us to write?” Indeed, the entire Romantic era felt paralyzed by the echo of Beethoven’s voice. Brahms famously delayed attempting his First Symphony, explaining when pressed, “You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the footsteps of a giant like Beethoven.” For Igor Stravinsky, Beethoven’s Große Fuge remained, in the twentieth century, “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”
To receive Mozart’s spirit was indeed the twenty-two-year-old Beethoven’s hope. In his childhood, he had idolized Mozart, to whose own youthful prodigious accomplishments Beethoven’s father, Johann, and teacher, Christian Gottlieb Neefe, aspired on their young charge’s behalf. Neefe published the following proclamation of his student’s gifts in 1783:
Louis van Beethoven… a boy of 11 years [sic] and of most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and I need say no more than that the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperirte Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe put into his hands. … The youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.
To be sure, Beethoven was not the miraculous wunderkind that Mozart was. The impulse to lie about his age suggests that Neefe realized this. Nevertheless, the young Beethoven was a musician of sufficiently impressive talent to achieve considerable prominence in Bonn, where he played viola in the town’s two orchestras and, as a teenager, began composing.
The opportunity to visit Vienna came in 1787, on which occasion Beethoven almost certainly met Mozart and possibly took lessons with him. But he returned to Bonn after only two weeks to be with his suddenly ailing mother. Her death from tuberculosis marked an early trauma for Beethoven: his closeness to her had offered solace from a difficult relationship with his stern, alcoholic, and possibly abusive father. Two years later, in the face of Johann van Beethoven’s worsening decline from alcoholism, eighteen-year-old Ludwig legally petitioned for half of his father’s salary and became the family’s primary breadwinner. (He was the eldest of three surviving children; his brothers Caspar Anton Carl and Nikolaus Johann would play significant roles into Beethoven’s adulthood.) With historical perspective, we cannot help but see this bold assertion of independence as indicative of a fearlessness of spirit that would define Beethoven in his maturity.
In 1792, with his first choice of teacher (Mozart) no longer available to him, Beethoven traveled to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn, the acknowledged father of the Classical style. He would remain in Vienna for the rest of his life.
The Early Period
It has become customary to divide Beethoven’s life and creativity into “three periods.” Though certainly an oversimplification, this schema nevertheless offers a useful lens through which to view and understand the totality of his work. The early period, encompassing his work in Bonn and during his first decade in Vienna, shows Beethoven under the spell of Haydn and Mozart, creating music according to the style and taste defined by theirs. Meanwhile, he quickly established himself among Vienna’s musical elite, as Mozart had done before him, as both pianist and composer. His take-no-prisoners energy at the keyboard became the stuff of legend. Simply put, Vienna had never before heard a pianist like Beethoven. Contemporary accounts noted the “tremendous power, character, unheard-of bravura and facility” of Beethoven’s playing. Images have endured of the ferocious virtuoso requiring an assistant to pull broken strings out of the instrument as he played.
Beethoven and Haydn
Despite Haydn’s influence, master and pupil maintained an uneasy dynamic. The mild-mannered “Papa” Haydn and the young firebrand Beethoven were, one can easily guess, temperamentally incompatible. And as Beethoven emerged as a major compositional voice, their relationship took on an unspoken spirit of competition. As Beethoven prepared his first published works, the Three Piano Trios, op. 1, Haydn advised that he withhold the Trio in c minor (no. 3), feeling it would not suit Viennese tastes; when that Trio proved the most popular of the set, Beethoven suspected Haydn of jealousy and professional sabotage. Six years later, when Haydn congratulated Beethoven on the success of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, the younger composer punningly remarked that it was no Creation, referring to Haydn’s great oratorio (Die Schöpfung); Haydn, too proud to appreciate the joke, replied, “Indeed, it is no Creation, and I doubt that it ever will be!”
Haydn’s markings on Beethoven’s lessons—counterpoint exercises and the like—reveal that Haydn may not have taken the most painstaking care in Beethoven’s training: whether from simple negligence or a more sinister impulse to hamper the progress of a rising musician whom he saw as a threat can be debated. Most likely, Haydn recognized a spark of genius so brilliant that it seemed trifling to bother with simple voice-leading errors. In any event, Beethoven’s apprenticeship to Haydn was brief. It is telling that, in his earliest publications, he forewent the custom of appending “pupil of Haydn” to his name.
Rise to Prominence
In 1796, Beethoven embarked on his first major concert tour, a professional rite of passage simultaneous with a series of important publications, primarily of solo and chamber music: the Two Cello Sonatas, op. 5; the Piano Sonata in E-flat, op. 7; the Three String Trios, op. 9; and the Three Piano Sonatas, op. 10. Only with these and other works under his belt did he finally try his hand at the string quartet. The Six Quartets, op. 18, composed between 1798 and 1800, would mark another important coming of age: these, his triumphant first essays in a genre so closely associated with Haydn and Mozart, inaugurated the cycle of sixteen quartets that remains the bedrock of the quartet literature today.
In April 1800, Beethoven presented his first Akademie (self-produced concerts, as Mozart had likewise staged, designed to introduce new works and generate income), offering a Mozart symphony, selections from Haydn’s Creation, and the premieres of his own Opus 20 Septet, First Piano Concerto, and First Symphony.
This event should have been the satisfying culmination of the successful run that closed Beethoven’s twenties, were it not marred by crisis: the realization that he was losing his hearing.
“Your Beethoven is leading a very unhappy life,” wrote the composer to his friend and confidant Karl Friedrich Amenda, “and is at variance with Nature and his Creator.”
This period in Beethoven’s life gives lie to any presumed correlation between biography and creativity. In 1802, Beethoven completed his Second Symphony. “Everything in this symphony is noble, energetic, and proud,” Hector Berlioz would later write. “Everything in this symphony smiles, and even the martial surges of the first allegro are free from any hint of violence; they only speak of the youthful ardour of a noble heart which has preserved intact the most beautiful illusions of life. The author still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion… What abandonment in his joy, what wit, what exuberance! … To hear this is like witnessing the enchanted sport of Oberon’s graceful spirits.”
Nothing in this music betrays the sentiments confessed in the poignant document known as the Heiligenstadt Testament: a letter written between October 6 and 10 of that year, addressed to his brothers but never sent, and found among Beethoven’s effects after his death.
But what humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce? And thus I spared this miserable life … So be it then! I joyfully hasten to meet Death. If he comes before I have had the opportunity of developing all my artistic powers, then, notwithstanding my cruel fate, he will come too early for me, and I should wish for him at a more distant period; but even then I shall be content, for his advent will release me from a state of endless suffering. Come when he may, I shall meet him with courage.
Beethoven’s struggle with and response to this crisis would hereafter define his creative identity. Seemingly on the brink of suicide, he found strength in his art, soon proclaiming, “I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Over the next decade, Beethoven would produce music of unprecedented magnitude. At variance with his Creator, Beethoven’s response was epic and defiant.
The “Heroic” Period
Beethoven declared in 1803 to one Wenzel Krumpholz: “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.” In the same year, he received an appointment at the Theater an der Wien, which included another Akademie, to be presented on April 5. The premiere of his oratorio Christus am Oelberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) marked Beethoven’s debut as a composer of dramatic and vocal music; the program also featured the First and Second Symphonies, and Third Piano Concerto, a riveting work, rife with Sturm und Drang, in Beethoven’s signature key of c minor.
The Eroica Symphony
But the major project of 1803 was the Third Symphony, a work that broke new ground for the symphonic form and, it is not hyperbolic to say, for the whole of Western music. The mighty Third was originally entitled the Bonaparte Symphony, reflecting Beethoven’s admiration for Napoleon as the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution. (Thus we have a lens into Beethoven’s political and philosophical leanings, more explicitly manifested two decades later in the Ninth Symphony, with its utopian vision of universal brotherhood in the climactic “Ode to Joy.”)
But when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, an outraged Beethoven exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” One of Western music’s most famous artifacts is the title page to the autograph manuscript of the Third Symphony: Beethoven scratched out the dedication—“intitolata Bonaparte”—with such fury that he tore a whole through the paper. Upon its publication in 1806, the work appeared as Sinfonia Eroica, “…composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” (heroic symphony…composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).
The Eroica unofficially launched Beethoven’s middle, “heroic” period. Its breadth and ambition are echoed in the works surrounding it in other mediums: the Waldstein and Appassionata Piano Sonatas, the Razumovsky Quartets (“Oh, they are not for you,” Beethoven said to the violinist Felix Radicati, who found the Razumovskys incomprehensible, “but for a later age!”), Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio. A brief downturn in Beethoven’s creativity (1804–05)—owing, presumably, to multiple distractions: Fidelio’s lukewarm reception, Beethoven’s ill-fated courtship of his piano student Josephine Deym, and of course his worsening deafness—was followed by a period of intense productivity. In 1806, Beethoven completed, in addition to the aforementioned Appassionata and Razumovskys, his Fourth Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, and Violin Concerto; in 1807, the Third Cello Sonata, the iconic Fifth Symphony, and the Mass in C; 1808: the Two Piano Trios, op. 70, and the Pastoral Symphony.
Despite his furious creativity, Beethoven was mired in difficult financial straits (recalling Mozart, whose final years were spent, his fame notwithstanding, in poverty). An Akademie concert at the Theater an der Wien in December 1808 offered the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Vienna Premiere of the Fourth Piano Concerto, selections from the Mass, and the scene and aria Ah, perfido!, composed twelve years prior; also on the program was the Choral Fantasy, which went poorly, tempering the concert’s ultimate success.
Beethoven entertained the possibility of leaving Vienna and seeking greater security elsewhere, but the city’s culturati had no intention of losing such a great artist. Three of Vienna’s most prominent arts patrons, sufficiently enlightened to realize the civic value of the arts, jointly agreed to provide Beethoven with an annual stipend—not a salaried post, but an annuity merely to remain in Vienna. This prefiguration of the coveted MacArthur “genius” grants in our own time surpassed even Mozart’s professional rewards. The three benefactors were the Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph—the latter one of Beethoven’s most significant patrons and closest friends, his sometime piano student, and the dedicatee of numerous works, including the Archduke Trio, Les Adieux Sonata, and the last of Beethoven’s five piano concerti, the Emperor, among others.
The year 1812 was marked by further personal and emotional crises. The first was a vicious rift between Beethoven and his brother Johann, then living in Linz, over the latter’s relations with an unmarried woman, of which Ludwig vigorously disapproved. He went so far as to apply for a police order to evict the woman from Linz, but Johann precluded her removal by marrying her. Beethoven’s puritanical attitude (not common at that time in Vienna) likely stemmed from his own lifelong romantic frustrations. The second crisis of 1812 was one of these. After his previous heartbreak over Josephine Deym, among numerous others, came perhaps the most severe of all: that over the famous “Immortal Beloved” (unsterbliche Geliebte), the unnamed addressee of another letter found unsent after Beethoven’s death.
While still in bed my thoughts turn towards you my Immortal Beloved, now and then happy, then sad again, waiting whether fate might answer us – I can only live either wholly with you or not at all, yes I have resolved to stray about in the distance, until I can fly into your arms, and send my soul embraced by you into the realm of the Spirits – yes, unfortunately it must be – you will compose yourself all the more since you know my faithfulness to you, never can another own my heart, never – never – O God why do I have to separate from someone whom I love so much, and yet my life in V[ienna] as it is now is a miserable life – Your love makes me at once most happy and most unhappy – at my age, I need a steady, quiet life – can it be so in our connection?
Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon has concluded, to the satisfaction of most, that the Immortal Beloved was one Antonie Brentano: a married, and thus unattainable, woman, who appears indeed to have reciprocated Beethoven’s affections. But the fantasy of “a steady, quiet” domestic life with Frau Brentano soon came to a decisive end, finally resigning Beethoven to the solitude of his lifelong bachelorhood.
Depressed, Beethoven entered into the most fallow period of his career. Ironically, his popular acclaim had never been greater. His music, and even his concertizing, remained in high demand. The spring of 1814, however, saw an unhappy milestone: Beethoven, by now nearly stone deaf, was at the piano for two performances of his Archduke Trio. The concerts went disastrously. “In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled,” wrote Ludwig Spohr, “and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted.” Beethoven would never perform in public again.
Beethoven’s brother Caspar Carl died in 1815; per his will, Beethoven was appointed co-guardian of his nephew, Karl, with his sister-in-law, Johanna. Beethoven, rightly or not, felt his brother’s widow unfit to raise a child and applied for, and won, sole custody. Beethoven’s fitness to raise his nephew—clearly a fulfillment of a long-frustrated wish in itself—may also be questioned; indeed, the difficulties between the two weighed heavily on the composer’s final years, culminating in Karl’s unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1826.
One may be tempted to see in Beethoven’s continued withdrawal from society and general misanthropy some pathway to the music of his late period—works so visionary that they would continue to confound listeners more than a century hence—as though his intensifying inwardness were a kind of vision quest, distilling his musical ideas into their purest and most sublime form. Even the commentator who eschews such correlation between biography and creative output must acknowledge the extreme personal circumstances surrounding such extremely powerful music. The piano music of Beethoven’s late period includes the colossal Hammerklavier Sonata,a touchstone of keyboard virtuosity; and Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the Sonata no. 32 in c minor, op. 111 (dedicated to Archduke Rudolph and, in another edition, to Antonie Brentano), a searing expression of pathos and transcendence. The late period also produced the Missa solemnis, which Beethoven considered his greatest work, and the Ninth Symphony, which much the rest of humanity considers his greatest work. It is arguably his signature creation: a symphony that, like the Eroica two decades before, wholly reimagined what the form could be, and the work chosen by Leonard Bernstein in 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of music history’s most touching images is that of the deaf Beethoven, unable to hear the thunderous applause at the premiere of the Ninth, having to be prodded by the contralto Caroline Unger to turn around for a bow. (The Ninth Symphony became the origin of a macabre superstition, akin to thespians’ fear of “Macbeth,” that a ninth symphony was fated to be a composer’s last. Mahler attempted to cheat death by naming what was essentially his ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde, as he worked simultaneously on his proper Symphony no. 9; his Tenth, naturally, was left unfinished.)
Beethoven’s final three years were concentrated on the string quartet, a medium in which he had not composed since 1810. The five late quartets complete a cycle of sixteen as integral to the genre as the nine symphonies, five piano concerti, and thirty-two piano sonatas. Each of the late quartets—Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135—represents such a towering achievement that, among chamber music aficionados, its opus number serves as a clearly understood shorthand. One might refer to the warmth and nuance of 130, the humor of 135, or having heard an especially incisive performance of 131; the composer’s name, and even the word “opus,” may be dispensed with.
At the time of Beethoven’s death, enigmatic a public figure though he had become, he was likewise universally recognized as Western music’s greatest composer. 10,000 Viennese attended his funeral. Composers would spend the following century coming to terms with what Beethoven had accomplished. The next composer to approach Beethoven’s public stature was Brahms—he who heard Beethoven’s footsteps behind him—and in whose own public appraisal Beethoven was the constant standard. The violinist Joseph Hellmesberger exclaimed, “This is the heir of Beethoven!” upon reading Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet; Brahms’s First Symphony was given double-edged acclaim as “The Tenth”; and the conductor Hans von Bülow would bestow the ultimate praise on Brahms by coining the cliché of the “Three Bs,” placing his friend Johannes in the company of Bach and Beethoven.
Opposite Brahms, viewed in his lifetime as a traditionalist, were the composers known as the New German School: Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Wagner. These composers championed a progressive aesthetic, counter to Brahms’s conservatism (Liszt felt the symphony passé, insisting that “new wine demands new bottles”)—but on Beethoven they could agree. Beethoven’s piano sonatas were the preferred vehicle for Liszt’s keyboard wizardry (after his own compositions). Berlioz’s assessment of the Second Symphony referenced earlier comes from his extensive commentary on the complete cycle of nine. Wagner heard in Beethoven’s Opus 131 “the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music.”
The phenomenon that was Beethoven’s music throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries endures today: he remains Western music’s most universally beloved composer; his music continues to fascinate, challenge, and inspire just as it did in his own lifetime.
Beethoven was not easy company. We are spared, generations later, the task of reconciling his difficult personality with his glorious art. Goethe observed in 1812: “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable but surely does not make it any the more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude. He is easily excused, on the other hand, and much to be pitied, as his hearing is leaving him, which perhaps mars the musical part of his nature less than the social.”
So, a rancid personality—and yet: music of such insight and empathy. One finds it impossible to hear the Violin Concerto, the Opus 111 Sonata, the Ninth Symphony without being overcome by the comforting feeling that Beethoven understands.
Beethoven’s contribution to the popular perception of artistic genius, for better or worse, must also be recognized as part of his legacy. To be sure, his work consciously aspired to profundity in a way that the music of his predecessors had not. Which is not to say that Bach did not create profound music, which, of course, he did: but Bach approached his craft according to a Lutheran sense of vocation—no more noble in his fulfillment of it than the cobbler, hunched over his work each day. Haydn, with a similar sense of duty, churned out symphonies—inspired creations—but with industrial efficiency while in the employ of the Esterhazy court. At the end of his career, he had completed 104 symphonies to Beethoven’s nine. But none of Haydn’s 104, brilliant though they are, was conceived with the audacity and ambition that characterize Beethoven’s symphonies. The notion of the artistic genius—preferably a tortured artistic genius—answering, not to magistrate nor even to God, but only to his muse begins with Beethoven. (“What do I care about your damned fiddle,” he asked of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of the day’s leading violinists, when Schuppanzigh complained of a difficult passage, “when the Spirit seizes me!”)
Accompanying the nobility of his artistic goals was Beethoven’s pride as an artist and public figure. Haydn was expected to ask Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy twice each day whether His Excellency wished to have an orchestra concert that evening; Beethoven reversed the power structure between artist and audience/patron, refusing to perform on command or as background music. The act of making music, for Beethoven, was sacred; in his ability to do so with such supreme skill, he felt he was the prince—never mind who held the title in society. “He was very haughty,” remembered one Frau von Bernhard; “I myself saw the mother of Princess Lichnowsky, Countess Thun, go down on her knees to him as he lolled on the sofa, begging him to play something. But Beethoven did not.” One cannot envision Haydn on that sofa.
On the mythology of his persona, but more so on the tremendous strength of the music he left, Beethoven has captured the popular imagination more than any other composer in the Western canon. His terrifying Fifth Symphony has become universal shorthand for the cruelty of Fate, its ominous four-note motif heard at baseball stadiums across America whenever a visiting pitcher walks the bases loaded. Beethoven is the kingpin whom Chuck Berry and the Beatles implored to “roll over” to make room for rock and roll. But for the startling accuracy and overwhelming resonance with which it gives voice to the whole of the human condition—our deepest anxieties and distress, our most exhilarating triumphs, and our most intrepid hopes—Beethoven’s music remains absolutely essential, as unlikely to roll over as was the man behind it.
Brooklyn-based composer and writer Patrick Castillo is the SPCO’s former Senior Director of Artistic Planning.