December 16 is the birthday of Classical-Romantic German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Throughout the 1790’s young Beethoven composed in the drawing-room tradition. In 1800, around his 30th birthday, he was already telling friends that 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” that expressed every aspect of human living including its excitements, suffering, and, over all, its intrinsic engagement with and to the world—frequently came from style galant musicians who were used to playing the shiny, cool classical 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 older musicians’ resistance to Beethoven often extended equally to his audience who were mainly young people with a taste for a revolutionary sound.
What was the precise level of defiance in Beethoven’s “new” music? The answer is varied based on the point in time in which it was first heard.
If one heard Beethoven’s music when it was first written and performed it was characterized as “furious.”
If the same music was heard at the end of Beethoven’s career twenty five years later his early new music had become an object for nuance, “astounding confusion,” a steady bridge between the classical and romantic worlds.
Beethoven’s work is famously divided into three epochs: his own twenties (before 1800); his thirties to mid-forties (the so-called Middle Period of around 1805 to 1818); and the final decade (to his death at 56 years old in 1827).
Profound changes in society and culture directly affected his art which along with his personal life in his late forties and fifties led to the creation of his—and by inheritance the world’s—greatest music. Such mature musical works changed the perception of his first “new” music in and soon after 1800. The critical question is to what degree is Beethoven’s earlier music a more tempered revolution from the past than his mostly young auditors first recognized?
The performance of a part of Beethoven’s critically contentious early “new” music is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony in B Flat Major written in 1806. It is performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Carlos Kleiber. (10:02 minutes).
Beethoven as a young man, c. 1800. 19th century painting after an engraving by Carl Traugott Riedel (1769–c.1832).
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.