December 16, 2004

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)


Today is the anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany.

Beethoven is inarguably one of the giants of Western music and much of his work is indispensable to me. But beyond that, I frankly can't drum up the same level of enthusiasm for him that I can for, say, Bach, Mozart, Haydn or Brahms.

I think the cause for my reservation lies in the period. Beethoven came to the fore in the midst of the Romantic revolution, the period in Western art where raw emotion began to gain prominence relative to form and bold, dramatic gesture began to usurp intellectual nuance. Concurrently, the traditional notion of the artist as an "artisan," a craftsman whose skill happened to lie in music, wordsmithing, painting or the like, was replaced with the new notion of the "Artiste," the artist as hero (or, to put it in Shelley's words, "unacknowledged legislator of the world"). Both of these changes shifted the focus away from the actual work of art and more towards the act of creating it. Needless to say, this had the worst possible effect on some notable egos of the period.

I don't say that Beethoven was particularly flagrant in this regard (although he was supposed to have been something of a sh*t to those around him). But there is an element of what one might call proprietary emotional self-consciousness in his work that has always grated on me slightly. (My father often says that this is because I and people like me feel threatened by such displays of raw emotion. In fact, this isn't the case at all. Brahms is every bit as emotional as Beethoven, but whether because of his personality or because the Romantic movement had, by then, become thoroughly established, Brahms' music does not seem to carry the same chip on its shoulder as does Beethoven's.)

For all that, I still love much of the man's music. I frequently play the Opus 2 piano sonatas (early works dedicated to Haydn), and occassionally some of the later works, including the Pathetique (with much histrionic eye-rolling), the Moonlight (the 1st movement is a bunch of maudlin crap - the 2nd and particularly the 3rd movement are far better) and a later work known as the Tempest. (UPDATE: Oh, and the Bagatelles. How can I forget those? Perfect little pieces when you're waiting for the babysitter to show up.) I have also messed about with his piano concerti, although, frankly, I far prefer Mozart's. Among the symphonies, I've always felt the 5th deserved every bit of the accolades it's received, even if it has sunk under its warhorse status. My favorites, however, are probably the 7th and 8th. I also enjoy the first several movements of the 9th, particularly the molto vivace 2nd, but think the Chorale is vastly overrated.

So while I feel no inclination to lay a wreath at the foot of Beethoven's tomb, I am perfectly willing to hoist a drink in the Old Boy's name. Happy Birthday!

Posted by Robert at December 16, 2004 09:39 AM

I've always loved Beethoven, precisely because of it's emotional drama. Moonlight is my favorite, followed by his 9th Symphony.

When I was in college, the music department brought in a Russian concert pianist for a workshop. He played 3-4 pieces, but the one that moved me to tears was Moonlight - it was haunting and lovely. My uncultured friends had a few chuckles at my expense after - I had to drag them along for the recital in the first place.

Posted by: jen at December 16, 2004 10:02 AM

"Beethoven wasn't so great... he never had his picture on bubble-gum cards." - Dyke activist Lucy Van Pelt

Posted by: Preston Taylor Holmes at December 16, 2004 10:09 AM

Like golf clubs, you really only need the odd ones:

Symphonies 1,3,5,7 and 9. Unparalleled works in the history of Western music. Go with Karajan or Szell conducting, avoid Bernstein and any recent production.

And Egmont, baby, Egmont. Egmont rocks.

Posted by: The Colossus at December 16, 2004 10:18 AM

The Hammerklavier sonata and the last three last sonatas are just extraordinary - and if you're going to mention "Egmont" you should also mention the "Coriolanus" overture. The same goes for the 'late' string quartets.
What made Beethoven unique was not only that he was one of the several greatest composers of all time but he was also just about the first composer to decide that he was going to do things the way he wanted to, and never mind if his patrons thought otherwise.
So Happy Birthday to the illtempered slob of a genius and pass the Johann Sebastian Daniels.

Posted by: Ira at December 16, 2004 11:52 AM

The final movement of his 5th Symphony is pure orchestral magic. It may be the most exuberant movement of classical music ever written.

Posted by: Jimmie at December 16, 2004 01:00 PM

(Aha--The explanation for my sucky golf game: my overreliance on the 4- and 6-irons!) I am permanently hooked on Beethoven, but not for the bombast. I'm more and more drawn to his chamber work and don't go out of my way to catch his symphonies (No. 7 being *the* exception, my fav.). I listen to the piano sonatas daily--my favorite to hear is No. 24, my favorite to (attempt to) play lately is No. 15.

Posted by: Chan S. at December 16, 2004 09:57 PM

I don't believe in ONE GREATEST COMPOSER. Nonetheless, Beethoven is one of the "mighty five" of music history (the others are chronologically, HANDEL, J.S.BACH, MOZART and SCHUMANN.)

They possess to the greatest degree the "Four I's": Individuality, Inspiration, Integrity and Intensity!


Posted by: Jack at August 4, 2005 09:04 AM
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