Sharing my learnings from the book, Beethoven by Laura Tunbridge
Beethoven by Laura Tunbridge
Ludwig van Beethoven: to some, simply the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Yet his life remains shrouded in myths.
In Beethoven, Oxford professor Laura Tunbridge cuts through the noise. With each chapter focusing on a period of his life, piece of music and revealing theme – from family to friends, from heroism to liberty – she provides a rich insight into the man and the music.
- This is Beethoven’s story, as told through nine key works that shed light on his day-to-day concerns and reveal the artist to be far different than the insular genius of popular imagination.
- The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. Beethoven was raised by his father, who was demanding and sometimes abusive. Johann wanted his son to be nothing less than a Mozart-like musical prodigy. The sad irony was that the relationship between father and son only grew more tense as Beethoven quickly surpassed the talents of his father. Nevertheless, due to the family’s proximity to the court in Bonn, young Ludwig gained notoriety among noblemen who would prove to be influential patrons and benefactors in his career.
- The first one is an early success: Septet, op. 20, completed in 1800, and performed that same year in Vienna’s most prestigious theater. It had taken Beethoven eight years to win over the right people. The concert took place on April 2, 1800. It included works from Mozart and Haydn, as a way of paying respect to his forebears, as well as an improvisational performance, his First Piano Concerto, op. 15, and the debut of both his First Symphony and Septet, op. 20. It also established Beethoven as a major talent.
- If you have a mental image of Beethoven, there’s a good chance he isn’t smiling in it. But judging from his letters and the accounts of those who knew him, Beethoven wasn’t always frowning. He was a social man and a figure of Vienna’s bustling coffeehouse scene. He was also capable of making jokes and teasing others, and he knew the value of friendship and maintaining connections.
- second composition is the Violin Sonata no. 9, op. 47, commonly referred to as the “Kreutzer,” and it shows just how collaborative Beethoven could be. Violin Sonata no. 9, op. 47, was dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, yet another violinist that Beethoven admired – hence its nickname. Ironically enough, Rodolphe Kreutzer wasn’t at all fond of the piece. He rejected the dedication and never played Beethoven’s sonata.
- By 1804, Beethoven was on his way to becoming infamous for composing challenging, convention-defying, complex music. One critic summed up the Kreutzer sonata as “whimsical, presumptuous, and ostentatious.” But this musical ambition and boldness weren’t always appreciated
- The beginning of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, commonly known as the “Eroica,” is a lesson in symphonic rule-breaking. It starts with two attention-grabbing bursts of the same chord. Then cellos quietly emerge, sketching out the chord of E flat major, only to suddenly be derailed into C sharp when the violins enter off-beat. Plus, the first movement is triple time rather than the usual duple time. All of this is in the first moments of a symphony that goes on to defy convention after musical convention. It was revolutionary stuff – inspired, no doubt, by the revolutionary times. When the symphony made its public debut on April 7, 1805, the response was reportedly mixed. One critic identified three responses: those who deemed it a masterpiece, those who thought its labored unusualness diminished its beauty, and those who felt it was overly long and complicated.
- the more ambitious Beethoven got, the more demanding the music was for the performer. It was his focus on symphonies and his own music that was peculiar. Symphonies didn’t sell. People expected to hear chamber music, dance pieces, or romantic piano performances – not orchestral music. Beethoven knew all this, but he was defiant. He wanted to challenge the audience, whether they liked it or not. He even ended the performance with a work called Choral Fantasy that had a little of everything – vocal soloing, orchestra, and solo piano. Today, we can clearly see that the experimental nature of Choral Fantasy was a stepping stone to the heights Beethoven would later achieve in his Ninth Symphony.
- Beethoven’s loss of hearing is often brought up to explain what many believe to be Beethoven’s reclusive and sullen demeanor. But even if Beethoven could no longer play the piano particularly well, which was the case by around 1814, it doesn’t mean hearing loss had turned the man completely inward. While Beethoven isn’t well known for his songs, he did compose and arrange many during his lifetime. One of these was “An die Geliebte.” Likely accompanied by a letter, this song was published in 1812 and reflects the love he had in his heart.
- In 1814, Beethoven debuted a work of pure patriotic fervor, a composition that many have dismissed as downright jingoistic. It’s titled “Wellingtons Sieg, oder Die Schlacht bei Vittoria.” Translated, that’s “Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle at Vittoria.” “Wellingtons Sieg” was published in eight various formats, including solo piano, string quartet, and orchestral parts. Some critics panned this new work, but its general popularity gave Beethoven some creative freedom to premier new symphonies and release a long-gestating opera known as Fidelio. Fidelio tells the story of a woman who disguises herself as a prison guard in an effort to rescue her imprisoned husband. Many consider Fidelio a turning point in Beethoven’s career. It not only marked the beginning of his so-called late period; after its publication, despite the accolades and the newfound peace in Europe, Beethoven’s personal life began deteriorating.
- In 1818, Beethoven’s fame spread further. London’s Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to visit, and though he didn’t take them up on the offer, he did receive a significant present – a new piano, from the esteemed London outfit Broadwood. The Broadwood’s arrival brought new possibilities to the piano sonatas Beethoven was working on. Due to the use of heavier wire and keys that featured a deeper dip, the instrument was louder and could reach lower notes than any of the Viennese keyboards he’d been using up to that point. It’s what made Piano Sonata no. 29, op. 106, commonly known as the “Hammerklavier,” possible. The one movement of the Hammerklavier that is perhaps most notable is the final fugue. Unsurprisingly, Beethoven pushed the boundaries of the fugue. He introduced a three-voice fugue, which bounces around in a variety of unexpected forms and extreme dynamics. In the end, it became another complex composition that can only be played by the most talented performers.
- If the Hammerklavier was a chance for Beethoven to play with the fugue form, his 1823 composition Missa solemnis, op. 123, would further test the fugue’s formal possibilities. Missa solemnis translates to “solemn Mass,” and the composition was intended to accompany a Mass service in honor of Archduke Rudolph, who was installed as the Bishop of Olmütz in 1820. In any event, Missa solemnis grew a little too grand. By the time it was completed, it had become so long and so complex that it no longer suited the occasion for which it had been composed. Yet it is still a Mass in that it frames the two parts of the service: the Proper and the Ordinary. These have multiple subparts, including the Kyrie, when God’s mercy is extolled, and the Gloria, which is when God’s omnipotence and splendor are praised.
- By 1826, Beethoven was, by most accounts, a disheveled and unhealthy man. Beethoven’s String Quartet, op. 130, has six movements. Each one, right from the start, seems to be playing with the idea of an ending; the opening bars aren’t so much kicking things off as they are drawing them to a close. It all leads up to a massive fugue that was, in its premier performance, deemed beyond comprehension. Beethoven was unconcerned with the initial response. According to Gerhard von Breuning, who told the composer that op. 130 “didn’t go over very well,” Beethoven responded, “It will please them some day.” It took decades, but, in the end, Beethoven’s prediction proved correct. Eventually, appreciation of his late quartets would grow beyond a few like-minded connoisseurs. Today, he is rightfully recognized as a musical visionary who was simply ahead of his time.
- On March 26, 1827, at the age of 56, Beethoven died after spending two days in a coma. Before he passed away, he reportedly said to his gathered friends, “Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est,” which means, “Applaud, friends, the comedy is over.”