By John P. Walsh
Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday is December 16. Throughout the 1790s Beethoven composed in the drawing-room tradition but around his 30th birthday in 1800 he was already telling friends he was determined to “open a new path” for music. Resistance to the young, gruff composer and his new music’s coarse vibrancy—a “music of man” expressing every aspect of human living including its suffering, its excitement, and, above all, its engagement with the world—frequently came from the quarters of style galant musicians who were used to playing the cool and shiny music of C. P. E. Bach (1714-1788), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the last of whom was still living when Beethoven was working his musical revolution. These musicians’ resistance to Beethoven often extended to his audience who were mainly young people with a taste for a revolutionary sound.
What was the exact level of defiance in Beethoven’s “new” music? The answer has varied based on the time period in which it was first heard. If it was heard when it was first written and performed it was characterized as “furious.” If heard after Beethoven’s career had ended twenty five years later his early new music became an object for “astounding confusion.”
Beethoven’s work is famously divided into three epochs: his own twenties (before around 1800); his thirties to mid-forties (the so-called Middle Period of around 1805 to 1818 or so); and his final decade. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1727) lived to be only fifty-six years old. Profound changes in his art and personal life in his late forties and fifties led to the creation of his—and by inheritance the world’s—greatest music but such mature works changed the perception of his first “new” music after 1800. To what degree is Beethoven’s earlier music a prolongation of the “old” music more than his mostly young auditors first perceived it?
Here is a great performance of a part of Beethoven’s critically contentious early “new” music. It is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony in B Flat Major written in 1806 performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Carlos Kleiber. (10:02 minutes).
Romain Rolland, Beethoven the Creator, Garden City Publishing, Garden City, NY, 1937.
Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, HarperCollins, 2010.