By John P. Walsh
Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday is December 16. Throughout the 1790’s 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 Haydn, P.E. Bach and Mozart. These musicians’ resistance to Beethoven often extended to his audience which was mainly young people with a taste for the revolutionary sound.
The exact level of defiance in Beethoven’s “new” music later varied based on if it was heard when it was first written and performed (then often called “furious”) or after Beethoven’s career had ended twenty five years later (an object for “astounding confusion”). Beethoven’s work is famously divided into three epochs – his own twenties; his thirties to mid-forties; and his final decade as Beethoven died at 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 it changed the perception of his first “new” music after 1800. To what degree is it that Beethoven’s earlier music was a prolongation of the “old” music more than his first auditors perceived it?
A brilliant performance of some of that critically contentious early “new” music of Beethoven. It is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony in B Flat Major written in 1806 and performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Carlos Kleiber. (10:02 minutes).
SOURCES: Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, HarperCollins, 2010; Romain Rolland, Beethoven the Creator, Garden City Publishing, Garden City, NY, 1937.
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