Beethoven

Full Name: Ludwig van Beethoven
Pronunciation: Bait-hove-en (but you knew that already)
Era: Late Classical/Early Romantic
Years active: 1770-1827

Number of compositions: 138 (plus a few smaller ones)
Number of symphonies: 9
Number of concertos: 6
Number of string quartets: 16

Style: Grand, elaborate and not afraid of expressing his emotions or of using complex musical structures. Beethoven is famous for moving music out of the Classical and into the Romantic era.

Classical? I thought all of this was classical music? Careful there, it is all classical music, but it isnt all Classical you see the capitalization? The problem is that Classical really refers to one very specific era of music (from about 1750-1800). This is the type of music that Mozart and Haydn composed. Unfortunately, exactly the same word is used to describe all of the other eras as a group. So people tend to use Classical with a capital C to refer to that precise era (because its a proper noun), whereas small c classical is all of the eras. Beethoven was the guy who advanced music so that it stopped being Classical and started being Romantic (which is the next also confusingly named era).

That almost makes sense. So whats Romantic? Well it isnt called that because its a soundtrack to bouquets of flowers and walks on the beach in the rain. Its romantic in a less modern sense of the word, which we might nowadays call soulful. It was soulful because up until that point music had generally been pretty boring. There were a few exceptions of course, but the bulk of what most composers had been writing was quite literally background music for rich peoples parties. Essentially 18th century muzak. Then along comes Beethoven and decides shock, horror to write music which clearly expressed his passion, anger, and joyfulness. Everybody realized that this was way more awesome, and so began the Romantic era.

This music doesnt sound so crazy emotional to me, it sounds like stereotypical classical music Yeah thats how I felt at first too. Especially if you are coming from modern rock and pop music, which is so explicitly emotional (anything from raging distorted guitars, to simpering jilted boyfriends tearing up their eyeliner) that it sees a psychiatrist once a week. Beethovens music definitely sounds old. It was only after listening to lots of other composers and then coming back to him that I started really hearing and understanding the power underneath. Of course, YMMV. Definitely dont feel like you are supposed to think he is awesome straight away, just because he is so famous!

So what are some examples of his music? OK, lets try

Moonlight Sonata, Movement 1

Isn’t that beautiful? You’ve likely heard this piece before in some vampire movie or another. Its a perfect example of Beethoven’s soulfulness. Interesting note: It wasn’t Beethoven who gave it the moonlight subtitle, it was a sheet music publisher who added it in without permission.

Try Alfred Brendel – Beethoven: “Moonlight”, “Pathétique”, “Appassionata” and “Les adieux” Sonatas

Symphony No. 7, 4th Movement

This is soulful in exactly the opposite way to the Moonlight sonata. Instead of quiet melancholy, its all screaming and shouting up in your face with excitement. In fact, this symphony is sometimes called the Dance symphony because of all the strong rhythms.

Try Ludwig van Beethoven, Philadelphia Orchestra & Riccardo Muti – Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies

Grosse Fugue

A lot people hated/didn’t understand this piece when it was first performed (which mightily pissed Beethoven off, declaring them Cattle! Asses!). This isnt soulful so much as windy and dissonant, which is more typical of 20th century pieces. People now generally consider this about 100 years ahead of its time. Its one of my favorite’s.

Try Juilliard String Quartet – Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 With Grosse Fugue, String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135 – String Quartet No. 13 in B-Flat Major, Op. 130 with Grosse Fuge: VI. Grosse Fugue (Op. 133) Overtura. Allegro – fuga

Symphony No. 6 Pastoral, Movement 1

This little number is an expression of feeling elated by nature walking through the woods on a summers day. Yep, its that specific. It always makes me miss the English countryside when I hear it.

Try Ludwig van Beethoven, Philadelphia Orchestra & Riccardo Muti – Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies

Ode to Joy, from Symphony No. 9

One of the most famous pieces in Beethoven’s collection, although it takes a couple minutes to get to the really famous melody. Its part of the ultra-famous 9th symphony.

Try London Symphony Orchestra, Jennifer Vyvyan, Rudolf Petrak, Donald Bell, Shirley Carter, Josef Krips & BBC Symphony Chorus – Beethoven: The Complete Symphony

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