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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)


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2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. Nearly every classical music record label under the sun has already released, or will be releasing, new recordings to celebrate the occasion -- everything from Beethoven's symphonies and string quartets, to his piano sonatas, vocal music, chamber music, concertos, and works of his that aren't recorded very often. It's actually a bit overwhelming if you regularly keep your eye on new releases -- uh, another set of LvB's piano concertos? Haven't even heard the previous three new releases yet. 

At any rate, 2020 being an important anniversary, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on Beethoven and some of my favorite recordings. Beethoven is one of a handful of composers (Bach being another great example) who innovated in and transformed every form of music he touched: symphonic music, chamber music, instrumental music (especially the piano sonatas), and so on, with the possible exception of opera and sacred vocal music (though LvB wrote important works in these forms as well). Want to hear the most canonical string quartets? Listen to Bartok, Shostakovich, and Beethoven. Want to hear the most canonical music for solo keyboard? Listen to Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Prokofiev, and Beethoven. Wanna hear the most canonical symphonies? ... You get the point.

My connection to Beethoven's music is personal, and not simply aesthetic. I started listening to LvB somewhere around the end of high school and the beginning of college, and so he was an important gateway into classical music. Then, in 2016, when my father died, I found myself listening to Beethoven's string quartets for the first time, beyond whatever cursory listening I did to a few of the quartets in previous years (up until relatively recently, I was never much into chamber music). I suppose one could say that listening to Beethoven's quartets while grieving is an odd thing to do, in that some of the quartets are disquieting and sometimes rough and dispiriting, but I found them to be very comforting, and there were many nights when I'd put on a pair of headphones, set the volume fairly low, and fall asleep while listening. For a while, it was the only way I could sleep. In the years since, I've really come to love his string quartets, especially nos. 7, 11, 12, 14, and 15. Three related recordings by the Takacs Quartet -- of the early quartets, the middles ones, and the late ones -- were my default choice; I knew them by reputation as being among the most accomplished of "modern" recordings. I've been listening to other performances lately, but I think theirs will remain my favorite.

Of course, I can't talk about Beethoven without mentioning the symphonies. Not only were they among my introduction to symphonic music, but the very first full symphony cycle on CD by any composer that I bought was Beethoven's nine, in a box set of the 1977 studio recordings by the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan. My local Tower Records had its own separate room for classical music, and I can remember excitedly rushing in to it on the day I decided to buy this set. And it was Beethoven's symphonies that originally got me interested in "performance practice" -- the way in which musicians and orchestras deliberately perform any given piece of music, with attention to everything from the original manuscripts and metronome markings, to the kinds of instruments they use (whether similar to the ones used in Beethoven's time, or the ones used by modern orchestras), to the choices conductors make with the sizes of their orchestras and where they places, say, the violins or the cellos. I'll admit there is a point at which differences in performance practice become too academic, but knowing about them to some degree can help with decisions about recordings, especially with Beethoven because there are, with the symphonies especially, many different approaches across many different recordings. Anyway, the LvB symphony sets I cherish these days include: 1962-63 cycle by the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan (more so than the 1977 cycle), a 1991 cycle by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (modern instruments but period-informed practice, such as little vibrato and faster tempos), an early 2000s cycle by the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado, recording live in Rome, and Daniel Barenboim's 2000 cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a big-boned, slow-tempo, traditional account that provides me with a different experience than the fleeter performances by Harnoncourt and Abbado. 

Considering the symphonies themselves, the 3rd has always been my favorite of the nine, with the 9th a close second. I'm very fond of the 7th and, when I'm in the right mood, the 5th. I almost never listen to his first two symphonies. With the 3rd, there's the famous story about how Beethoven originally dedicated it to Napoleon because he saw Napoleon as the champion of the liberal values of the French Revolution, but when Beethoven found out that Napoleon had declared himself emperor of Europe, he angrily dispensed with the dedication and simply called the work the "Eroica" symphony. Napoleon was a real jerk sometimes, honestly.

Among Beethoven's five piano concertos, all standards within the piano repertoire, I prefer the 5th the most, the 4th a very close second (fantastic opening to the first movement), followed by the 3rd, and I'm indifferent to the first two. I've listened to a lot of different recordings of these works over the years; one of my favorites of the 5th is Helene Grimaud's 2007 recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden and conductor Vladimir Jurowski. 

Well, I could go on, but I'm curious -- any Beethoven fans here? Any specific works of his that you particularly enjoy? 

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Thanks for this affecting post, Michael.  It's interesting how we choose the pieces of art to comfort us at difficult times (or they choose us); when I went through my divorce, sometimes Truffaut's 400 Blows was the only thing that would settle my mind to go to sleep, while Peter Gabriel's music helped me through the aftermath.

But back to Beethoven...he was also my main gateway drug to the world of classical music.  As a teen, I can remember classical music as family background noise (my dad is a Beethoven and Mozart devotee, and in his retirement he balances the books for a respected choral society), but when I dove into classical music earnestly in my late 20s-early 30s, Beethoven was the man.  Back when there was still Borders Books & Music, I can remember spending hours choosing the 3 CDs I'd allow myself each month on my limited budget.  Usually, there were one or two Beethovens in my haul.  And I'm pretty sure the first piece of classical music I paid to hear was Beethoven's 7th, by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

Nowadays, I honestly don't listen to Beethoven much, as composers from the late 19th C onwards command more of my interest.  I wish I could re-hear LvB's music again for the first time:  I remember being gobsmacked by the double basses' deranged playing at the end of the 7th Symphony's first movement, or hearing the chorus enter the 9th Symphony.  I should probably try that, to see if I can re-appreciate how, for instance, he could create an entire symphony out of a simple four note motif.

As for my own favorites, it would probably be 7 > 9 > 5 > 6 > 8 > 3 > 4.  The 3rd never succeeded in grabbing me, though I think the 8th is a lot of fun.  And the 3rd piano concerto likewise never wowed me, but the totality of the Emperor and that gorgeous 1st movement of the 4th are treasures to me.  And how about the Triple Concerto?  At the risk of seeming philistine, I probably listen to my Ax/Stern/Ma recording of it, more than any of the piano concerti.  Similarly, I know the Choral Fantasy was a mere dry run for the final movement of the 9th, but it was utter joy to hear a local orchestra play it a couple of years ago.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, something I forgot to mention in my original post: one of the reasons I've always been drawn to Beethoven's music is that I find it very emotionally resonant; that's true of all the classical music I like, but with Beethoven -- and this is difficult to express in words -- brought a certain kind of emotive quality to his music that I've never really found in other composers. Plus, there was just so much growth in his composing across the course of his life: late Beethoven, in his piano sonatas, string quartets, symphonies, and more, is very distinct from his early and middle phases. So all that makes for a very interesting listening experience. Also, while I'm also a fan of classical recordings/collecting, I'm probably the most avid with Beethoven. I remember when Harnoncourt's idiosyncratic take on the symphonies came out in the early 1990s; I told myself, I have to hear that, especially because I had really only been exposed to very traditional, large-scale renditions of the symphonies -- I don't necessarily have that kind of compulsion with other composers.

I think I've heard the Triple Concerto only once, years ago as an undergrad. I should revisit it, along with his Missa Solemnis and the Choral Fantasy that you mentioned, both of which I've also only heard once. Regarding the 7th symphony: if it didn't have its lovely, moving, and famous Allegretto, I don't think I'd be quite as drawn to it. I often queue that movement up just to listen to it by itself. (By the way, are you familiar with Jacques Demy's Lola? He used the 7th's Allegretto to great effect in that film.) Unfortunately, I've not heard Beethoven too often live -- off the top of my head, I can only recall hearing his violin concerto, performed by the LA Phil and violinist Viktoria Mullova. I don't recall ever attending a performance of any of his symphonies. Gotta correct that once the pandemic is far behind us. The LA Phil did a Beethoven symphony cycle a year or two ago, and I'm still kicking myself for missing it.

I don't know if this is available on, say, Spotify or a similar streaming service (if you happen to use one), but the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conductor Manfred Honeck put out a really thrilling and dynamic recording of the 5th symphony (coupled with the 7th) a few years ago, and it knocked my socks off -- especially the momentous closing chords of the symphony's final movements. I really did feel like I was hearing that part of the movement for the first time. It's worth checking out if you really want to see what it would be like to listen to this music again. This is most likely the recording of the 5th that I'd take to a desert island.

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11 hours ago, Michael S said:

Andrew, something I forgot to mention in my original post: one of the reasons I've always been drawn to Beethoven's music is that I find it very emotionally resonant; that's true of all the classical music I like, but with Beethoven -- and this is difficult to express in words -- brought a certain kind of emotive quality to his music that I've never really found in other composers.

I'd like to hear you expand on this.  Are you referring to the sense of struggle that is so tactile in Beethoven's works; or the range of emotion he so clearly expresses?

11 hours ago, Michael S said:

I remember when Harnoncourt's idiosyncratic take on the symphonies came out in the early 1990s; I told myself, I have to hear that, especially because I had really only been exposed to very traditional, large-scale renditions of the symphonies -- I don't necessarily have that kind of compulsion with other composers.

Beethoven's 7th is one of the few pieces of which I have two recordings - one is Harnoncourt's, which I adore as well.  And you're right; it's such a different, more rugged sound than what we're accustomed to hearing.

11 hours ago, Michael S said:

I think I've heard the Triple Concerto only once, years ago as an undergrad. I should revisit it, along with his Missa Solemnis and the Choral Fantasy that you mentioned, both of which I've also only heard once. Regarding the 7th symphony: if it didn't have its lovely, moving, and famous Allegretto, I don't think I'd be quite as drawn to it. I often queue that movement up just to listen to it by itself. (By the way, are you familiar with Jacques Demy's Lola?

And another plug for the Sticky Notes podcast; he did a recent episode on the Triple Concerto, which gave me permission to no longer apologize for loving it so much (and it was a hoot to hear how disastrous it can be, to bring together three soloists with massive egos).  It's been years since I've heard the Missa Solemnis, but it didn't rise to the top of the sacred music pile for me: Brahms' and Faure's Requiems still have pride of place there.

Alas, Demy is a lacuna in my film knowledge; I've not even seen his better-known musicals.  My own favorite use of Beethoven in a film would have to be the Dardennes' Kid with a Bike.

And alas again, I don't see where Honeck's Beethoven recordings are accessible for free.  Too bad they're not on YouTube...

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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4 hours ago, Andrew said:

I'd like to hear you expand on this.  Are you referring to the sense of struggle that is so tactile in Beethoven's works; or the range of emotion he so clearly expresses?

I'd say it's both: the sense of struggle and the range of emotion, and, to go with that, a sense of ambition and longing. For me, I find all of those qualities in, for example, the Egmont overture, the 9th symphony, piano sonata no. 15, string quartet no. 12, and so much more. His violin concerto too. Perhaps all this is why I generally prefer to hear Beethoven performed on modern instruments with modern-sized orchestras -- so that the sound, the dynamics, the feelings, etc. all resonate in a large way. Performances with much smaller forces and older instruments often sound thin to my ears and, as a result, don't provide the same kind of emotional experience. Even if one were to say that smaller forces and older instruments are what Beethoven worked with and what his music originally sounded like, I'd say that I just have "modern" ears (we all do, essentially) and my tastes for this music fall in line with that. I have exceptions, of course. I do like John Eliot Gardiner's historically-informed recordings of the symphonies, and, to use a different composer as an example, I do like hearing Bach's cello suites on baroque cellos from time to time, but, as a general rule, bigger, louder Beethoven is more my thing.

I'll check out that Sticky Notes podcast on the Triple Concerto; sounds very interesting. I've seen Kid with a Bike, and loved it, but don't remember the Beethoven in it; I've been meaning to revisit the film, so I'll keep my ears out for the music. :) 

I'm not entirely surprised you couldn't find Honeck's Beethoven for free; there are some classical music labels that still haven't turned to streaming. I use Napster.com but Hyperion, a great label, just won't stream their music there. (By the way, Faure's Requiem is wonderful.)

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I've always loved Beethoven. The only Beethoven I've heard live is the Eroica, also played by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, which is probably one of the reasons it's my favorite of his symphonies. FWIW, my ranking of the symphonies would probably go: 3, 9, 6, 7, 5, 8, 2, 4, 1, although it's really hard for me to rank 5-8.

I'm embarrassed to admit I've never really listened to the string quartets outside of class assignments, so I should probably rectify that.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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45 minutes ago, Evan C said:

I've always loved Beethoven. The only Beethoven I've heard live is the Eroica, also played by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, which is probably one of the reasons it's my favorite of his symphonies. FWIW, my ranking of the symphonies would probably go: 3, 9, 6, 7, 5, 8, 2, 4, 1, although it's really hard for me to rank 5-8.

Evan, what a treat to have heard the 3rd live. The 6th is great too, although my personal attachment to it has come and gone over the years. Same with the 4th. I once loved it, but over time I've not sustained that, and so I'd likely rank it third to last, with 2 and 1 being my least favorite of the nine. I'd be curious to hear your reaction to the string quartets if you have a chance to listen to them at some point.

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  • 1 month later...

So, this conversation inspired me:  I sprang for the complete collection of Harnoncourt's orchestral recordings, and I'm 350 pages into Swafford's bio of LvB - listening to his orchestral pieces sequentially as they come up in the biography.  This has been a fun way to (almost) make his pieces new, to read Swafford's commentary on LvB's excessive use of tutti in Symphony 1, hear the Mozartian elements of Symphony 2, and pick out where Beethoven stole from his earlier Creatures of Prometheus ballet for the finale of the Eroica.  Fun stuff!  And if I ever knew it, I'd forgotten that the infamous Salieri was one of Beethoven's teachers.  It's amazing to think that Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven's careers overlapped however briefly in Vienna.

It was also enlightening to listen to the Sticky Notes podcast on the Pastoral Symphony and hear how early audiences (including Berlioz) were TERRIFIED by the storm section.  A good reminder that what's been domesticated over two centuries was at one time radical and frightening.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Very cool, Andrew. Swafford's biography is great. Excellent analysis of the music itself, and also, as you point out, rich context as well. One might say that there really was a point in Vienna's music history when it was a great time to be alive. Just like Salieri says in the film Amadeus: "Vienna, city of musicians!"

I hope you enjoy the Harnoncout recordings. I've always loved his recording of the third symphony in particular. I suspect that Harnoncourt has his detractors as much as he has his fans because he's unique, but I always find him thoughtful. 

Could you imagine what it must have been like to hear some of this music for the very first time? Probably not unlike the premiere of Rite of Spring or something else that shattered prevailing norms. Or attending the premiere of a Bruckner symphony. When will this thing end?!

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9 hours ago, Michael S said:

Could you imagine what it must have been like to hear some of this music for the very first time? Probably not unlike the premiere of Rite of Spring or something else that shattered prevailing norms. Or attending the premiere of a Bruckner symphony. When will this thing end?!

Heh, I felt that way at the only Bruckner symphony I've heard live...

But to your actual question, it is interesting to read about first audiences' and critics' reactions to works that we now consider canonical.  Having just finished the section in Swafford's book on Beethoven's 3rd, turnaround was actually surprisingly quick, only about 5-7 years from bewilderment to recognition of its path-forging greatness.  I haven't gotten to this section yet, but IIRC, his 5th and 6th Symphonies and 4th Piano Concerto all premiered at the same concert - if I had a music time machine, that evening would be at or near the top of my list for destinations.  

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, I think that's correct: symphonies 5 and 6 and the piano concerto all in one concert. I doubt any orchestras perform programs of that length today -- everyone in the audience would leave early (or not show up in the first place), no matter how good the music might be. Across the arts, including music of course, it is interesting to think about evolutions in critical reception. Van Gogh, if I remember correctly, died penniless, with much of his work unappreciated. Some movie critics (Pauline Kael being one of them) reacted to L'Avventura and other modernist films and didn't really afford them the reflection they required. On the other hand, there are works of art that are revered when they're produced, only to decline in critical reception across the years. But, still, to be alive when some of the world's greatest composers were premiering and conducting their own compositions -- to be there, indeed!

I can't recall if Swafford gets into this or not, but Beethoven wrote 17 key modulations in the first movement of the Eroica symphony. The movement still seems seamless regardless, but that's one reason why it was a real step forward for symphonic writing in the early 19th century. Perhaps also a reason why initial reactions weren't entirely embracing.

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22 hours ago, Michael S said:

I can't recall if Swafford gets into this or not, but Beethoven wrote 17 key modulations in the first movement of the Eroica symphony. The movement still seems seamless regardless, but that's one reason why it was a real step forward for symphonic writing in the early 19th century. Perhaps also a reason why initial reactions weren't entirely embracing.

Yes to all of the above...Swafford goes into the most detail by far on the Eroica.  (Thus far, anyway: I suspect the 7th and 9th will get similar treatment.)

On a peripheral note, I'm loving all of the Harnoncourt recordings I've listened to so far...except for the Violin Concerto.  What were Harnoncourt and Kremer thinking, in adding a piano part to the cadenzas (cadenzi?)?  They took me wholly out of the piece - I wondered if it was a glitch in the CD at first - and feel unfaithful to its spirit.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, I'm pleased that you're enjoying the Harnoncourt recordings! I've not heard the Kremer/Harnoncourt performance of the Violin Concerto (my set of the symphonies is the original one, with the symphonies only), but that sounds dreadful. I couldn't imagine it working well even if Beethoven himself wrote some version with a piano part. Even the best composers make bad decisions sometimes (so do conductors, orchestras, soloists, et. al.).

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 10/15/2020 at 7:03 PM, Michael S said:

Andrew, I'm pleased that you're enjoying the Harnoncourt recordings! I've not heard the Kremer/Harnoncourt performance of the Violin Concerto (my set of the symphonies is the original one, with the symphonies only), but that sounds dreadful. I couldn't imagine it working well even if Beethoven himself wrote some version with a piano part. Even the best composers make bad decisions sometimes (so do conductors, orchestras, soloists, et. al.).

Happy to report that was the only dud in the entire boxed set of 12 (I think) CDs.  It's been a delight making my way through LvB's oeuvre (and a great counterbalance to stressing inordinately over US politics).  Even listening again to Beethoven's 9th with Swafford's book for context made it a novel experience - for the first time as well, I listened to the final movement with the vocal score in front of me, thanks to German Wikipedia.  I guess it's just the times we're living in, but Beethoven's kiss for all the world, and hearing the use of 'Turkish' music to symbolize universal brotherhood, moved me to tears.  (I responded as strongly to the film version of David Byrne's American Utopia, with its similar themes.)

I will admit, though, for someone who can't read musical notation, that Swafford's book was a slog at times.  I don't regret soldiering on, but his Brahms biography was far more compelling.  I think, too, Brahms was a more interesting and complex personality; the repeated lifelong themes of narcissistic injury, ruptures in relationships, and paranoia in LvB's life grow redundant after a while.  It was interesting to learn that it's now presumed that Beethoven died from alcoholic cirrhosis; in medical circles, it's an entertaining parlor game to try and discern the causes of his deafness - at this point, I doubt we'll ever know with reasonable certainty.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, I can only read music notation in a slow, slightly confused way -- not with any kind of proficiency, as I could when I was in college taking music theory classes. Plus, once I was out of college, I never kept it up, so that particular skill just dwindled. If I were to try to read a classical score now, I would need some external references (key charts, scales, etc.). So when I was reading Swafford's biography, I did the best I could with the music, but a lot of it I glossed over and just relied on his descriptions/analysis.

I find Beethoven's life to be inherently interesting but agree that all that Sturm und Drang, as the Romantics would call it, could be a bit much. He must have been very difficult to live with.

I've always been moved by the vocal and choral music in the 9th, even after what is now a few decades of hearing the 9th over and over again. His call for joy and unity has a timelessness to it, and of course the music to which he set the text just makes it all that more uplifting. It's like, well, I could listen to a presidential debate or two some talking heads insult each other on a talk show, or I could listen to Beethoven. Pretty easy choice in 2020. :)

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16 hours ago, Michael S said:

Andrew, I can only read music notation in a slow, slightly confused way -- not with any kind of proficiency, as I could when I was in college taking music theory classes. Plus, once I was out of college, I never kept it up, so that particular skill just dwindled. If I were to try to read a classical score now, I would need some external references (key charts, scales, etc.).

I'm jealous even of that level of proficiency!  My wife and I are talking of buying a piano once we make our hoped-for move in the first half of 2021:  she played as a child and misses it, whereas I would just love the chance to try my hands at it, hoping to gain some pleasure from simple music-making but also to achieve some pragmatic understanding of chord and key relations.  We'll see...

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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A piano is a great idea -- probably the best instrument on which to learn music theory. I've never owned one, but back during my college days I'd use the pianos the music department had to figure out the various things I had learned in class about keys, chords, melodies, meter, etc.

I recently thought about getting a digital piano but probably will wait until I've got some more cash on hand, as well as more space (definitely no room for a real piano, but even a digital one would be a tough fit). One of these days ...

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