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Beethoven: A Brief History

Musicologists often point out that Beethoven’s music was transitional—that is, it pointed the way from the high-Classical style of Mozart and Haydn toward the Romanticism of Mendelssohn and Chopin. In other words, Beethoven was at once the last of the Classicists and the first of the Romantics, yet somehow neither. However, he lived during a time of transition.

Enlightenment philosophers and writers were changing the way the world thought, and aristocracies were crumbling (witness the American and French revolutions), giving way to democracies and republics. The role of musicians in European society was likewise in transition, and it was the collapse of the aristocracy that affected Beethoven’s lifestyle most directly. Until Beethoven’s time, composers and performers found success through patronage: An appointment as court Kapellmeister meant a secure income, as well as a freedom from business concerns that allowed creative juices to flow unfettered. Joseph Haydn, Austria’s “national composer” (and, for a brief time, Beethoven’s teacher), wrote many of his masterpieces while serving as a court composer for the Hungarian Esterházy family; he enjoyed the added luxury of having an orchestra at his disposal. For most of his life, Beethoven longed to obtain such a position. By the time he came of age around 1800, political change and economic pressures were squeezing the means of the noble classes, and the circumstances enjoyed by composers such as Haydn gradually disappeared after the turn of the 19th century.

All of this is not to say that Beethoven was entirely on his own; he had many friends among the nobility, and he was eventually able to secure an annuity that relieved much of his financial difficulty. But he was also forced to become a businessman to a much greater degree than his predecessors—peddling works to publishers, negotiating contracts, selling his works to noblemen in exchange for dedications and exclusive performing rights, and presenting concerts that featured his compositions. The first performances of his Fourth and Fifth symphonies, for example, clearly illustrate the dual nature of Beethoven’s existence as a composer: a favorite of wealthy patrons, yet also a freelance artist responsible for making his own way. The Fourth Symphony was first heard in March 1807 during a private concert of Beethoven’s music at the Vienna palace of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, a wealthy patron to whom Beethoven dedicated many works. Lobkowitz must have possessed a wonderful attention span in addition to his fortune, for the program also featured Beethoven’s first three symphonies, a piano concerto, an overture, and arias from the opera Fidelio. The Fifth Symphony was unveiled at a public concert—called an Akademie—that was presented by Beethoven himself at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 1808.

All-Beethoven Concerts Began with Beethoven Himself

Picture yourself at the very first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Vienna on December 22, 1808. The works on the program are all by Beethoven—and all unfamiliar to Viennese ears. It’s 6:30 PM, and you take your seat in the large, new Theater an der Wien as the concert begins. The Fifth Symphony, ceding its numerical position, allows its younger sibling—the pleasant, bucolic Sixth Symphony—to open the program.

Next, a soprano sings a concert aria (“Ah! Perfido”), followed by two movements from the Mass in C Major (the Sanctus and Gloria), and the composer himself performing as soloist in his Fourth Piano Concerto. Altogether, that’s approximately two hours of music, and all before intermission! Finally, sometime after 9 PM, tired and cold (there is no central heating; remember, this is 1808 and it’s wintertime), you hear the new Fifth Symphony. But wait: That’s not all! Beethoven—a genius composer but perhaps not a great judge of concert programming—felt the evening would need a big, happy finish, so he tacked on his brand-new Choral Fantasy for orchestra, chorus, and solo piano, with himself at the keyboard. A disaster: The piece derails midway through. The composer had barely finished writing the work in time for the concert, and it didn’t receive enough rehearsal time. Beethoven waves his hands from the keyboard and the orchestra stops, embarrassed. Somehow, the musicians find the correct place in the music, begin again, and finish the piece. The concert is over, and you stumble outside and drag yourself home. It’s 10:30 PM. That was a marathon performance, even by 19th-century Viennese standards!

Though the conditions for the unveiling of a great work were hardly ideal, the Fifth Symphony was soon recognized for the masterpiece of musical drama and cohesion that it is. Even those that decided they didn’t like the Fifth at first acknowledged its awesome power. After hearing the symphony at a concert in Paris, French composer Jean-François Le Sueur walked out declaring he was so affected “that when I came out of the box and tried to put on my hat, I could not find my own head!” Once he regained his composure, he stated that “such music ought not to be written.”

All-Beethoven Concerts at Carnegie Hall

The first all-Beethoven concert at Carnegie Hall—given by the New York Philharmonic and conductor Anton Seidl on December 13, 1895—celebrated the 125th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra presented a Beethoven cycle in spring 1908 that included all nine symphonies. In one of the most historically significant offerings of Beethoven’s music at Carnegie Hall, famed Austrian composer Gustav Mahler led the New York Philharmonic in a series of five all-Beethoven concerts during the 1909–1910 season—Mahler’s first as music director of the philharmonic. At the time, Mahler was more recognized as a conductor than as a composer; in performance, he strove to “recreate” Beethoven’s music, seeking a clarity that would illuminate Beethoven’s original intentions. Perhaps driven by his own instincts as a composer, Mahler often retouched Beethoven’s symphonies—adding extra instruments to certain passages, for example—a practice that drew a fair amount of criticism. In the following decades, legendary conductors who included Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, and George Szell presented important all-Beethoven concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Beethoven 101

How much do you know about Beethoven? Brush up on your knowledge with these five interesting facts.

Where and when was Beethoven born?

Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770. The actual date of his birth cannot be confirmed.

Is it true that Beethoven was deaf?

Before Beethoven turned 30, he had already experienced buzzing and ringing in his ears. As his deafness increased, he maintained detailed “conversation books” for acquaintances to scribble comments in, to which he responded aloud. By 1816, Beethoven had completely lost his hearing (the cause is still unknown); nevertheless, he composed some of his most famous and profound works in the decade that followed.

How many pieces did Beethoven compose?

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, an opera, and choral music, as well as many other works for soloists and orchestra, solo instruments, and chamber ensembles.

Who were Beethoven’s teachers?

While Beethoven studied with many teachers, one of his most notable mentors was Joseph Haydn. They had a somewhat rocky relationship—due, in part, to Haydn’s busy schedule and Beethoven’s stubbornness. Though Haydn sarcastically referred to the younger composer as the “grand mogul” (or “big shot”), Beethoven nevertheless dedicated his Op. 2 piano sonatas to his teacher.

Was Beethoven ever married?

Beethoven was notoriously unlucky in love. He never married, though he did fall in love several times (often with aristocratic women). In 1812, Beethoven wrote a long love letter addressed to woman he called his “Immortal Beloved”; her identity is still debated.

Hear the Music for Yourself

Listen to Beethoven works performed by Carnegie Hall artists. Available on Apple Music and Spotify

Beethoven portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820; photo courtesy Beethoven-Haus Bonn.

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