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Music History 101.3 Beethoven

Now we’ve come to that place in music history where one figure turns the corner for everyone. In past eras the musical styles have shifted gradually with the help of more than one innovative composer. With Beethoven we have one man making it happen in the course of 20+ years! Not only that, he was popular (as a composer, not a person!) and renowned in his day.

As we listen I’ll give a brief synopsis of each period of his life (1770-1827), starting with…

Early (1792-1800)
When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792 he was happy just to fit in and make a name for himself. The style of his early works paid homage to Mozart and Haydn. He was also a sought after performer and improvisor. He wrote 12 piano sonatas and 2 piano concertos during this time. However, when first the signs of hearing loss appeared in 1798 things began to change. Soon he could no longer rely on public performance to make a living. 

1798 – Beethoven’s 5 early string trios were a launching pad to taking on the string quartet genre which, as we know, Haydn and Mozart had brought to such a high level. Here is the finale from Opus 9#1. https://youtu.be/e6H3z4Kz_qU

1801 – Now we’re ready for string quartets. Opus 18 is a set of 6 quartets commissioned and composed overa two year period. Here is the 3rd movement from #3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bouW1heLAKA

Middle (1800-1815)

Around 1802 Beethoven made a decision to do things differently. He committed himself to writing for the agesand not succumbing to his loss of hearing. He abandoned aspects of the Classical form and expanded his interest beyond the piano. Works became more expressive and heroic. Thus we have the Eroica Symphony,the opera Fidelio, and the Emperor Concerto during this period. Around 1810 however his output started to decline as his physical and mental states worsened. 

1801 – Overture to Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s only full length ballet which premiered at the Burgtheater. Another innovative beginning with 5 punctuated unresolved chords (finally resolving on the sixth one), followed by a lushly beautiful adagio, then a flurry of activity — perhaps Prometheus fleeing from heaven?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPEBXsSbIBs

1802 – He wrote Bagatelles (calling them trifles) for the piano throughout his career and would publish them as sets when he thought the time was appropriate. Here from the first set, opus 33. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K9ydCP-V9M

1803-1805 – from Fidelio, his only opera which he revised 3 times, the final version in 1815.This vocal quartet is the most beautiful number in the opera (I think). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZXm8390bBc

1806 – Opus 59#1, one of 3 quartets commissioned by Count Rasumovsky, patron of the arts andRussian ambassador in Vienna. Here is the finale, marked “Theme russe.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT3QwAvT05Y

1807 – Four of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies (1,2,4,7) have slow introductions. The 4th symphony, chronologically, gets caught between the powerful Eroica and the great 5th, but in no way is a lesser work. Here is the 1st movement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qzx_FO3vDI

1807 – Because the Op 61 violin concerto was initially unsuccessful, Muzio Clementi asked Beethoven to rewrite it for piano. The maestro did so and inserted a lengthy cadenza, with tympani(!), toward the end of the 1st movement. Start @19:17 for cadenza.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa4jhXi73ns&t=1507s

1808 – Opus 70#2 Trio, from the same year which produced the Choral Fantasy, and the year in which Symphonies 5 & 6 were premiered. Not all Beethoven’s ‘slow’ movements were slow, as we hear in this Allegretto. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7kyoy7blqY

1812 – He wrote the Opus 96 sonata for violinist Pierre Rode and patron pianist Archduke Rudolph with an ear toward each’s playing style. Thus it is warm, expansive, more technically accessible — a contrast from the virtuosic ‘Kreutzer’ sonata written 10 years earlier. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnYU3xcKE5s

Late (1815-1827)
By this time the master is almost completely deaf and throwing any caution to the winds. Compositional form is free, some works are long and continuous without break (Op 131 quartet), expression is even more intense and personal. There were fewer works but they took longer to compose, and almost all were masterpieces. Thus the 3 late piano sonatas, Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and the 5 late string quartets.

One of these works(Grand Fugue, finale to Op 130 quartet) was so out there that the publisher asked Beethoven to replace it with something accessible. To this day the Grand Fugue remains “an absolutely contemporary piece that will remain contemporary forever.” – Igor Stravinsky

1816 – An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), Beethoven’s only song cycle with text by Alois Jeitteles. Interestingly,
this poet/journalist/doctor served on the front lines during the cholera epidemics in Boreno in 1831 and 1836. Start @ 6:58 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOk7EWYbyqk

1821 – Opus 110 piano sonata–in this final movement we hear all the traits of the late period: introspection alternating with intensity, and no particular form (2 separate fugues notwithstanding!). In this touching performance we hear composer and performer in their twilight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0Rj3w869bg

1822 – Opus 111 piano sonata, his last. Just 2 long substantial movements, the 2nd here played on Beethoven’s last owned piano. The maker (Graf) put extra strings in the upper register so Beethoven might have a chance of hearing himself. Still, not much ring… I think the master would have approved of the 9 foot grand! We know he was ahead of his time by a century. So start at 4:15 for the jazz element and listen for 4 minutes, or more! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEW2xirKxRs

1825 – Cavatina from Opus 130 string quartet. Here is the Guarneri Quartet performance which has been in outer space for 42 years on a 12 inch gold plated copper disc (The Golden Disc) inside the Voyager space probe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0coxfltcWY

1823 – Missa Solemnis, twin sister to the Ninth Symphony. The latter was instantly successful, the Mass not so much. But Beethoven considered it his best work. This from a 1967 radio broadcast in Cleveland…a powerful collaboration of two superb maestros! Start in the middle of the Gloria at 19:50 (and go to end of mvt. – GLO-RI-AH!)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfPIRKFPy_8

That’s it for this week. Hope you enjoyed! A recommendation: check out ‘Beethoven’s Hair’ by Russell Martin, a fascinating tale!
Next week: After Beethoven — the early Romantic era.
Thanks to Carol for tech help with Youtube!

As always, stay safe -Moby Pearson

This is one in a series of online guided listening programs that replaced our in-person “Musical Salons” hosted by Moby Pearson. This one was created on 4/21/2020.

Explore the list of online Salons.

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