Warning: This article contains dangerous quantities of amazing music. Trying to condense it would be like using a single track to define the entire career of a prolific band. So please, don’t attempt to tackle everything here in one go, because your ears will melt. This is an introduction, but hopefully it’s also comprehensive enough to merit more than one visit. I’ve made a convenient playlist of all the pieces mentioned, which you can find here on YouTube or here on Spotify for more comfortable browsing. And with that out of the way, let’s start...
I don’t know where to begin. I don’t have the time. I don’t know how to listen to it. There’s too much of it. It’s all too long. It’s so elitist. It’s not really my thing. I’m too busy listening to The Fall. The dog ate my sheet music.
Believe me, whatever excuses you have for not listening to classical music, I’ve already heard them, and frankly, I’m not impressed. Can anyone who sincerely loves music really afford to claim that it magically began when Robert Johnson came back from the crossroads? Or to ignore the centuries of musical achievement that came before the last one? Why do people happily listen to Steve Reich and Philip Glass simply because they’re told to, but dismiss Mozart and Bach before they’ve heard a single note? Why do people think they can denigrate serious art?
Well, maybe it’s simply because the prospect of classical music seems a little intimidating, as I was trying to be in that last paragraph. Then again, maybe people’s preconceptions prevent them from enjoying it. Or perhaps everyone feels that they ought to know more about it, but what stands in the way is that first excuse – not knowing where to start. Fortunately, that’s where I come in. In this feature I’m going to attempt to justify and illuminate a millennium of music, from Gregorian chant to atonal horror, which has come to be known collectively as “classical”, by introducing one great composer at a time, exploring their work, explaining unfamiliar concepts and providing you with a starting point for your own aural investigations. Classical music has never been as readily available as it is today, via youtube and spotify (as well as other, more dubious sources), and as a consequence, the idea that this is music purely for an elite is beginning to be dispelled. Everyone can easily compare a hundred different versions of the same piece, and everyone can be a connoisseur. People are starting to see that music is a continuum, and that different styles have far more which connects them than divides them. Convenient as they are for critics, categories are useless, because one style blurs into another. Even the word “classical” is a complete misnomer. Because of this, I want to stress the continuities in music, the similarities between different eras and the way classical music is still influential today and is used in all kinds of contexts.
But don’t worry, I’m not going to take some patronising, down-with-the-kids, it’s-still-relevant-to-today’s-youth approach to this music. It is utterly different from the vast majority of music written and listened to today, and that’s precisely why it’s so enjoyable. Yet the issues underlying it are exactly the same - What is the style? Do I enjoy it? What does it make me feel? What do I invest in it? How can I defend it? Personally, I’ll listen to pretty much any organised sound, regardless of when it was made, so I have no intention of claiming that classical music is “better” than any other genre. While it might be more sophisticated from a technical point of view, and is capable of evoking profound emotions and ideas, it would be ridiculous to compare it to music today, or to insist that it is somehow objectively superior. It’s just different, and that’s all there is to it.
Classical music requires a certain amount of relativism – you can’t judge a three hour opera by the same criteria as a three minute pop song just because they both involve singing – it just doesn’t work like that. Instead, you have to be prepared to extend your musical value system, and embrace new ideas, because, after all, isn’t that what all great art, old or new, is supposed to make us do? If you want, you can even free yourself altogether from the tyranny of modern musical genres, their slavish followers and taste-making websites. Classical music’s greatest selling point is that everyone involved is already dead. There are no obscure bootlegs and leaked EPs, no new releases or bands to keep up with, no inane tweets to read, no need to pretend to like things. The whole classical repertoire is decided, and just waiting for you to delve in – all you have to do is listen. So, after all that, where do we begin? Well, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place to start than with the archetypal tortured Romantic, the original artist-hero - Ludwig van Beethoven:
You know, Ludwig Van. From A Clockwork Orange. Not ringing any bells? Well then, child of the 1990s, perhaps you know him from your old VHS copy of Fantasia? Either way, these films show just how evocative Beethoven’s music is, and how influential and ubiquitous it has become. Beethoven is, for my money, the greatest composer, and one of the greatest musicians, who ever lived. His music manages to be visceral and exhilarating, but also stunningly beautiful, startlingly direct but also nuanced and complex. It is hard to imagine music which speaks more directly, or more powerfully, to basic human emotions than his. Some elements of the classical audience seem to regard music as little more than an aid to relaxation, and listen only to soothingly insipid tunes as a result, but this is not what Beethoven provides. Limiting any form of music to such a narrow scope would be a terrible act of cultural vandalism, particularly in the case of Beethoven, who expressed in music everything from crushing anxiety to unadulterated euphoria. He truly lives up to the kind of hyperbole that is usually lavished on less interesting people.
In a musical career of around thirty years, which spanned tumultuous periods of revolution, the rise and fall of dictators, and the conflict between liberal and conservative factions in a repressive post-war environment (Now, where have I heard this before?), Beethoven wrote over 150 major works for almost every genre of music which then existed, and revolutionised several of them in the process. How many musicians could make such a claim today, when dogmatic musical subcultures divide along strict tribal lines? The implicit narrative of much of his work - that of the suffering and eventual triumph over adversity, be it personal or political - is something that almost everyone can understand, regardless of petty quibbles about taste. It is also worth bearing in mind that Beethoven achieved all this, for the most part, through instrumental music alone, without the benefit of words to carry meaning – there’s a reason no one says “Here’s three chords, now write a symphony” - unless they’re Philip Glass, of course, but that’s another story. Not to mention the fact that he was, for much of his life, profoundly deaf, an affliction which was both socially embarrassing and professionally frustrating for him, and added to his other ailments, which included intestinal problems, alcoholism, and possibly bipolar disorder. Beethoven was a formidable personality, temperamental and irritable, who could hate you one day and love you the next. He also had contempt for authority, but relied heavily on aristocratic patrons for stable income. In his old age, the combination of his deafness and a certain amount of misanthropy meant that Beethoven withdrew deeper into a private and increasingly intricate musical world, creating works of unparalleled subtlety and depth.
While Beethoven’s life is interesting in its own right, and is peppered with amusing anecdotes, we shouldn’t draw upon it too much when interpreting his work, which should instead be considered on its own merits. It’s very easy to show parallels between the life and work of any artist, but this tends to overlook the fact that creativity is often an escape from the world as much as an expression of it. Besides, the personal interpretations of modern listeners are often just as interesting, and arguably just as important, as Beethoven’s own intentions, which are rarely explicit anyway. What we should keep in mind, however, is the artistic context. Romanticism was a new and vague movement in the arts which emerged during Beethoven’s lifetime, placing new emphasis on emotional expression, stressing the role of the heroic individual, and striving for the sublime rather than the merely beautiful. Beethoven would later be regarded as one of the first and greatest exponents of Romanticism in music - the emotional qualities of his work are often overwhelming, affecting you like nothing else can.
With all this in mind, it’s worth talking a little about the composer’s musical style, hopefully without lapsing into tedious musicological jargon. What is perhaps most striking about Beethoven’s music is the sheer volume – he increased the size of the orchestra, made greater use of what producers today might call “the low end” with, and combined the perfectionism and melodic ease of Mozart with the insistent motifs, rollicking ‘galante’ style and contrasts of volume used by Haydn. His work was always meticulously constructed and structurally brilliant, as if he always knew which note came next, and where to take the listener. Beethoven’s music could be violent and frenzied or brooding and reflective, pleasing and virtuosic or dense and opaque. Doing justice to his style in words is a near impossible feat – as the man himself is reputed to have remarked: “I would rather write a thousand notes than a single letter of the alphabet”. Which is fair enough, considering how messy his manuscripts were:
Beethoven’s best-known works are his nine symphonies. Through them, Beethoven utterly transformed the genre, taking what had been a somewhat restrained classical model, and recasting it as a truly gargantuan device for personal and collective expression. Beethoven for the most part put drama ahead of beauty, and breathtaking thematic development before the polish and ornament of earlier composers. As a result, his works have an unmatched energy and drama, yet avoid tipping over into bombast and unnecessary showmanship.
In case you were wondering, a symphony is simply an extended piece of orchestral music, which is usually divided into four separate sections called movements. The symphony as a form evolved during the 18th century, combining the features of orchestral suites, which were essentially collections of dances, and overtures, which previously had been used as openings to operas. Haydn is credited as the first composer to write true symphonies, and would later go on to teach Beethoven. The symphonies also neatly illustrate the evolution of Beethoven’ style, and have conventionally been divided into three distinct but interrelated periods. The first and second symphonies are of the Early period, and as such are regarded as a kind of musical apprenticeship in which he drew heavily from his predecessors, with only occasional idiosyncratic touches. From the third symphony until the eighth, we encounter Beethoven’s so-called Heroic period, which contains some of his most recognisable work, while the ninth symphony is a classic example of his Late style, in which he looked much further back into musical history to the example set by Bach and Handel, attempting to recreate their dense contrapuntal style in a new Romantic context. You can tell roughly which period any Beethoven composition falls into by looking at which Opus it is – the word simply means “work” in Latin, and most of Beethoven’s important pieces have an Opus number, telling you the order of composition and providing a handy index all the way from the Op. 1 piano trios from the start of his career up to the Op. 135 string quartet composed shortly before his death. The structure of each symphony basically follows the same pattern – fast movement, slow movement, scherzo (Italian for “joke”, often a fast-paced lighter movement), and a final fast movement. There is a bewildering array of other musical terminology that you can read about, but you really don’t need any special technical knowledge to appreciate Beethoven’s achievements.
With all of that out of the way, we can finally get to what really matters – the music. Here are just a few of the many highlights from the formidable symphonies, although to get the full effect you really have to listen to them in their entirety. They pull off the incredible trick of having both clarity and depth, so that the first listen can be as rewarding as the hundredth. Let’s start with the one you already know, the 5th, which begins with the famous motif which Beethoven’s secretary later likened to “Fate knocking on the door”. Despite the fact that it’s been slightly overexposed, it still seems fresh today. This video is also great because it shows the music through graphic notation, so you can literally see all the instrumentation without having to know a thing about reading music. The first movement is a great example of Beethoven’s obsessive focus on a single, repetitive musical idea.
Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – 1st Movement, Allegro con brio:
Then in the final movement, the doom and gloom is lifted to reveal a triumphant ending, in a classic instance of Beethoven giving musical form to victory over adversity.
Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – 4th Movement, Allegro presto:
The 3rd symphony, also known as the “Eroica”, was inspired by, and initially dedicated to, Napoleon. However, once Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, Beethoven scratched out the dedication from the title page of his manuscript, writing instead that it was for “the memory of a great man”. The music is clearly intended to evoke aspects of a heroic struggle, but the extent to which Napoleon’s exploits informed the symphony is open to debate. The second movement, which takes the form of a funeral march, certainly represents the death of something – a hero in battle? an old musical style? Napoleon’s ideals? the old aristocratic order? It could be any of these. The first movement, however, is a little less ambiguous. It dispenses with the tradition of a slow introduction, starting with a bang, a great cannon volley, and then proceeds to conquer vast swathes of new musical territory, sprawling on for more than twice as long as any symphony before it and raising the bar for ambition and scope in this genre.
Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” in E Flat Major, Op. 55 – 1st Movement, Allegro con brio:
The 6th symphony, The Pastoral, is probably Beethoven’s most consciously beautiful orchestral work, and is another highly original piece, because it was the first significant programmatic symphony. By programmatic, I mean that it attempted very deliberately to evoke sounds from the real world rather than being concerned with purely musical ideas. The word simply derives from the fact that composers would often include notes in the concert’s programme to tell the audience what their intentions were. As the name suggests, the Pastoral Symphony is an evocation of a rejuvenating visit to Heiligenstadt in the Austrian countryside, complete with the sounds of birdsong, a bubbling brook, a peasant dance, a thunderstorm, and finally a shepherd’s song. It’s very easy to take these sounds at face value, but it’s interesting to note that Heiligenstadt was also a place where Beethoven had suffered a serious mental breakdown some time before. Perhaps the storm is not so much in the sky as in Beethoven’s own mind. The first movement is one of the first classical pieces I ever heard as a child, and I still love it today:
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in F Major, Op. 68 – 1st Movement, “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country”:
The 7th symphony is a fantastic exercise in rhythm which Wagner would later christen “The Apotheosis of the Dance”. Every section of the work is governed by a strict and constant pulse which unifies the whole. The second movement, one of Beethoven’s most famous pieces (you may have heard it in The King’s Speech), is also one of his masterstrokes in terms of structure – what seems at first to be a simple, repetitive motif gradually builds in tension and drama before a sudden release - Sigur Ros, eat your heart out. There’s a great story that Beethoven once went for a walk around Vienna, only to find himself getting lost - he was dressed so shabbily that the police arrested him, thinking he was a tramp. On telling the police that he was Beethoven, their reply was “Yeah, they all say that”. The point being that this movement gives me the image of Beethoven pacing furiously around the streets, waiting for his muse to strike:
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 – 2nd Movement, Allegretto*:
The finale is an explosion of manic energy which always sounds to me like Beethoven had just one too many cups of coffee, and then realised he was late for an important meeting:
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 – 4th Movement, Allegro con brio
A recent review conducted by the long-running Radio Four programme Desert Island Discs of its decades of archives revealed that, of the eight most popular choices ever made, all were classical pieces, and half were by a single composer. Mozart, although the most popular composer overall, was curiously absent from this particular leaderboard. Bach, too, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was Beethoven who had pipped both of his illustrious forebears to the musical post. And the most popular choice of all? Which work, like more recent efforts The Godfather, Citizen Kane, OK Computer or Like a Rolling Stone, has become burdened with the title “greatest ever”? This honour fell upon Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This towering orchestral monolith, over an hour in length, stands as Beethoven’s most enduring and powerful statement - of belief in the human spirit and its relationship to the divine, visceral joy, universal brotherhood, and redemption. It was the final flowering of a set of beliefs he had carried all his life, even when facing suicidal despair. If you’ve never heard this piece before, just set an hour aside, turn your speakers all the way up, and conduct along at home, because this is one of the greatest human achievements of all time. The first movement begins with a mysterious, single repeated note in the string section. Then, as other instruments gradually come in, Beethoven is, almost like James Brown, constructing the form of the piece while we listen. Once the main theme emerges, the drama really begins.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 – 1st Movement, Allegro ma non troppo
The second movement, like the first, builds layer upon layer, creating a dense, interwoven effect, mimicking the forms of the Baroque, and is majestic and mischievous at the same time. After all that action, the third movement provides some light relief.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 – 2nd Movement, Scherzo, molto vivace
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 – 3rd Movement, Adagio molto e cantabile
And just when you thought you were safe, the final movement arrives, complete with choir. Or does it? This is one of the most extraordinarily long and complex sections of any symphony ever written. It begins with a thunderous introduction, before a strange new tune appears, seeming more like speech than music. This is followed by a series of miniature musical reminders of the three previous movements, but they keep being interrupted by the new tune. This is followed by yet another new melody at around 2:45. Seems familiar, doesn’t it? It’s the beginning of the ridiculously famous “Ode to Joy” section, in which Beethoven sets a well-known poem of the same name to music. But where are the words? Why aren’t the choir singing along? It just keeps getting louder and richer, with more and more instruments, up until 6:25, when suddenly that rumbling introduction returns, and then that weird voice-like tune comes back again. Wait, that is a voice! I knew this had to have words! But what on earth is he saying? This isn’t in the poem! That’s because this section is what is known as a recitative, when a singer performs in an imitation of the rhythms of ordinary speech. The words in this part were written by Beethoven himself, and the singer finally makes sense of the whole strange prelude to this movement. What he sings, in German, is: “Oh friends, not with these sounds, rather, let us raise our voices in more pleasing and joyful tones!”. In other words – the orchestra alone is not enough, no matter how hard it tries, it cannot speak, so the choir must join them to express the meaning in words.
Then the Ode to Joy begins in earnest, with calls of “Freude!” between the choir and soloist, followed by the poem itself, which alternates between powerful parts for the whole choir and beautiful (and notoriously difficult) parts for the four soloists. I really recommend looking up the lyrics, because then you get the full sense of what Beethoven is really getting at. Once he’s explored all the possibilities of the apparently simple tune, suddenly things change at around the 9:50 mark, with a low pulsing bassoon, followed by a new marching-band style version of the “Joy” theme, before the full chorus again at 13:25. But, a minute later, there’s yet another change. What emerges is the second main theme of the movement, which is nowhere near as famous as the first, but is just as important to the message of the piece. The movement up to this point stresses the human aspect of the poem, but the new theme concentrates on the divine, and is an intimate exploration of Beethoven’s relationship with his God. This theme continues all the way up to 18:05, when the most dramatic change occurs. Once again recalling his Baroque predecessors, Beethoven combines both of his immense themes into a vast fugue – two independent musical and philosophical ideas, interwoven with phenomenal skill. This is why you can’t listen to the first part of the Ode to Joy in isolation as part of some list of “classical greatest hits”, because to do so defeats the whole concept of the movement – the human and the divine meeting in art. Beethoven is making a profoundly serious point, not just churning out tunes. Finally, at 22:40, the glorious ending erupts in a blaze of orchestral fury. If you remain unmoved by this piece, you have no soul.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 – 4th Movement, Presto, Allegro assai:
Aside from the symphonies, there are also a number of freestanding orchestral overtures by Beethoven, mostly written as curtain-raisers for plays, which often try to capture elements of the plot in musical form. Chief amongst these works are the Egmont and Coriolan Overtures:
Egmont Overture, Op. 84
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
The Symphonies, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Beethoven wasn’t as prolific as some composers, but in addition to the nine symphonies, he also wrote seven concertos. Concertos are a lot like symphonies, as they use a full orchestra, but they also include an instrumental soloist, who plays in tandem with the rest of the orchestra. Personally, I enjoy Stephen Fry’s likening of a concerto to the relationship between an individual and society.
The part written for the soloist is usually extremely challenging, requiring a very high degree of technical skill, intended as showpieces of dazzling virtuosity and expressive range. They also frequently include a section called a cadenza, in which the soloist is free to improvise. Beethoven wrote five concertos (or concerti, it makes no difference, except to pedants) for piano, which range from refined Mozartean classicism to full-blown, explosive Romanticism, and one for violin. They span a relatively short period in Beethoven’s oeuvre, and show the composer beginning to find his own inimitable voice. Again, practically all of these works are essential, and should be heard in their entirety, but I’ve picked out some highlights. First up is the expansive and perennially popular 5th piano concerto, nicknamed the “Emperor”. This is a performance of the whole piece, because it’s just too good to miss anything out. The first movement begins with an explosion of energy before settling into its main material at 1:45. This is followed by the sumptuous and beautiful slow movement from 21:10 onwards. Then at the 30 minute mark, watch as the second movement glides effortlessly into the third, with yet another of Beethoven’s slowly emerging motifs.
Piano Concerto No.5 “Emperor” in E flat Major, Op.73 – Complete:
Here are the breathless finales from the third and fourth piano concertos:
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op.37 – 3rd Movement, Rondo allegro
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 – 3rd Movement, Rondo vivace http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTr1WkEOrvo
And finally the stormy ending to the violin concerto:
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 – 3rd Movement, Rondo allegro
Beethoven’s other outstanding works with orchestra include the deeply underrated opera Fidelio, which deals with the theme of political liberty, the Choral Fantasy, which was a kind of first draft for the 9th symphony, and his deeply felt Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass). Brilliant as they all are, it’s probably best to save them until you know Beethoven a little better.
Now that we’ve finally got all the dramatic orchestral stuff out of the way, we can move on to the composer’s main instrument, the piano, where he would spend hours at a time improvising, sketching and conjuring new ideas out of thin air. I think you’d struggle to find anyone who doesn’t know this little throwaway piece, which still frustrates piano students the world over:
But away from playful one-offs like this, Beethoven’s greatest achievements lie in the piano sonatas. Sonatas are works for either one or two instruments, usually in three movements, with the basic structure fast/slow/fast. Beethoven wrote 32 in all, and managed to kill off the genre in the process – no one after his death (with the exception of Schubert ) dared to contribute much to what he had achieved in this monumental body of work. Supposedly more people have walked on the moon than recorded the complete set. The new level of technical skill, formal invention, intellectual and psychological depth that he brought to the piano set him apart from earlier composers. At the end of the last piano sonata, there’s a section which is so idiosyncratic that it almost sounds like jazz – some have even nicknamed it the “boogie-woogie variation”. It’s difficult to pick out the best parts from such a huge and diverse range of material, as there is value in almost every one of them, but as a rule of thumb, the sonatas with nicknames tend to be the best, or at least the most accessible. Here are a few of the best known movements, as well as some of my personal favourites. Again, there’s one you probably already know - the hypnotic, and readily recognisable start to the “Moonlight” sonata, followed by the slightly less well known, but explosive, finale –
Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight” in C# minor, Op.27 – 1st Movement, Adagio sostenuto:
Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight” in C# minor, Op. 27 – 3rd Movement, Presto agitato:
Piano Sonata No. 29 “Hammerklavier” in Bb major, Op. 106 – 1st Movement, Allegro : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ5DnR7GZrI
Piano Sonata No. 21 “Waldstein” in C major, Op. 53 – 1st Movement, Allegro con brio:
Piano Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata” in F Minor, Op. 57 – 3rd Movement, Allegro:
Piano Sonata No.8 “Pathétique” in C Minor, Op. 13 – 2nd Movement, Andante Cantabile:
Piano Sonata No. 17 “Tempest” in D Minor, Op. 31 – 3rd Movement, Allegretto:
Piano Sonata No. 13 “Quasi una Fantasia” in Eb Major, Op. 27 – 2nd Movement, Allegro molto e vivace:
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 – 3rd Movement, Presto
Since Beethoven spent so much time at the piano, there are a fair number of other odds and ends written for that instrument, aside from Für Elise, such as the Bagatelles, and other pieces which almost sound like they should accompany Charlie Chaplin:
Bagatelles, Op. 126, No. 4 in D Major:
Rondo a Capriccio “The Rage Over a Lost Penny”, Op. 129:
Beethoven also wrote a large number of “Theme and Variations” pieces for piano. These works pretty much do what they say on the tin – you start with a simple tune, and then vary it. The truly outstanding works in this form are the 33 Diabelli Variations. The story goes that Anton Diabelli, a prominent music publisher in Vienna, wanted to assemble a huge set of 50 variations on a patriotic waltz he had written, with each variation coming from a different composer - the whole thing was essentially a marketing gimmick. Beethoven, for whatever reason, decided that he wasn’t going to follow Diabelli’s instructions, and wrote a completely independent set of variations, which went far beyond the simplicity of the original theme. Why 33? Well, maybe the answer is pretty prosaic - he just reached number 32, and then had another brilliant idea that he couldn’t bear to waste. Also likely, however, is that he was consciously competing with Bach, whose own 32 Goldberg Variations written eighty years before, had marked a watershed in variation form. We’ll probably never know for sure, but what we can say with certainty is that these variations rewrite the rules of thematic development, taking tiny fragments of the main theme, expanding them into intricate studies, mutating them to the point where they are barely recognisable. The whole set takes almost an hour to listen to in its entirety, so here’s a link to the complete piece on youtube which breaks all the sections down in the description, for easy navigation. Start out with the original theme, and then try out a couple of the faster variations (6, 7, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 28) before attempting the slower, more profound ones.
Beethoven was infamous for his messiness, often pouring water over his hands and straight on to the floor (much to the consternation of his neighbours downstairs), leaving papers, half-eaten meals and glasses everywhere, and yes, having an unemptied chamber pot under his piano. But the word “chamber” has another connotation in the classical world – chamber music. As the name suggests, chamber music is any piece played by a group of players small enough to fit into an ordinary room, rather than a concert hall, and usually ranges from duos and trios all the way up to octets and nonets. It was frequently written for groups of friends to play together, as it required a special rapport between instrumentalists to be performed well. If you find orchestral music a bit too over-the-top, then chamber music is the perfect antidote. Yet again, Beethoven massively expanded the possibilities of the genre, and towards the end of his life stretched them almost to breaking point with near-unplayable pieces. A good place to begin is with one of the most accessible and enduringly popular of Beethoven’s works, the “Archduke” Piano Trio, for piano, violin and cello. It’s a lot kinder on the ear than almost any other work he wrote. Beethoven also excelled at writing haunting pieces in this form, most notably in the slow movement from the aptly named “Ghost” Trio.
Piano Trio No. 7 “Archduke” in Bb Major, Opus. 97 – 1st Movement, Allegro moderato:
Piano Trio No. 5 “Ghost” in D Major, Opus. 70 – 2nd Movement – Largo assai ed espressivo:
Aside from these, there are also several exceptional sonatas for violin, the most famous of which are the cheerful “Spring” and the virtuosic “Kreutzer”. Beethoven expend as much energy the cello, but the third sonata is outstanding nonetheless.
Violin Sonata No. 5 “Spring” in F Major, Op. 24 – 1st Movement, Allegro:
Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer” in A Major, Op. 47 – 3rd Movement, Presto:
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69 – 2nd Movement, Scherzo, allegro molto:
If, like me, you enjoy the warm and vaguely ridiculous sounds of woodwind instruments and horns, then I recommend listening to another of Beethoven’s underrated pieces, the Octet:
Octet in E Flat Major, Op. 102 – 1st Movement, Allegro
The best, however, is saved for last. The string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) was another form invented by Haydn, but it was Beethoven who, as in so many other areas, brought it to maturity. The composer wrote sixteen quartets altogether, but I want to focus on just a few of them. Here’s an intriguing sample from the Opus 18 quartets, written when Beethoven was starting to cement his reputation in Vienna. The last movement of the last quartet in the series has been taken by some as evidence of Beethoven’s possible bipolar disorder. Titled “La Malinconia”, it veers wildly between slow, foreboding passages which are the aural equivalent of depression, and excitable, dance-like moments which give musical form to the symptoms of mania. Listen for the change at 3:15.
String Quartet No. 6 in Bb Major, Op. 18 – 4th Movement – La Malinconia, Allegretto: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX9aVqSRF0s
Next come the “Razumovsky” quartets, so called because they were commissioned by the Russian ambassador to Austria, who insisted on the inclusion of Russian themes and melodies in each of the three pieces. Beethoven, who had a strong interest in folk music, and worked on arrangements of folksongs in many different European languages, had no difficulty in rising to the challenge. Again, I’m not going to go into great depth about these works, so here’s another sample, which involves some pretty frantic shredding.
String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59 No.3 – 4th Movement, Allegro molto:
This was followed by a fallow period of several years during which Beethoven completed very few significant pieces, and instead dedicated himself to gathering new strength and researching the music of the Baroque era. Eventually Beethoven started writing again with a new compositional method, where he would focus intensely on one piece at a time, honing it until it was perfect. After his triumphant return with late works like the Hammerklavier piano sonata and the 9th symphony, he decided to devote himself entirely to the string quartet. The five works he produced proved to be his latst, and show him at the height of his powers, because unlike tedious ageing rockers today, Beethoven kept getting better as he got older. He abandoned the conventions of his forebears, opting instead for all kinds of abrupt musical outbursts. The Late Quartets have proved to be some of his most influential works, inspiring everyone from Beethoven’s contemporary, Schubert, to great 20th century composers like Shostakovich and Bartok.
In other words, you need this music in your life. All three hours of it.
Perhaps the best, but also the most insanely complicated movement of all is the “Great Fugue”. This piece was so bizarre and convoluted that at the time almost everyone who heard it, hated it. The Great Fugue was poorly received when it was first performed, and one of the musicians went to see Beethoven at a local pub after the premiere to tell him. The composer, characteristically, did not respond well. Stylistically, Beethoven took the idea of the baroque fugue, with all its complex layering, and took it several steps further, throwing every possible technique into a whirlwind of sound. It begins with a screeching, almost ugly theme, which is then endlessly reworked and passed between the instruments. This isn’t an easy piece, and it takes a few listens to get the hang of it, but to help you out, here’s another of Stephen Malinowski’s fantastic visual scores, so you can see what’s going on while you listen:
Große Fuge, Op. 133
Another particularly striking movement from the late quartets is the “Heiliger Dankgesang” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) which Beethoven wrote after recovering from a life-threatening illness. It is another of his quasi-religious pieces, and another structural masterstroke. To see what I mean, listen to the long, sublime chord progression which carries on and on for the first three minutes. This is followed by one of the most exquisite and surprising transitions, not just in Beethoven’s music, but in any music. In his manuscript, Beethoven marked the section “gaining strength”, suggesting the healing powers of music.
String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 - 3rd Movement, “Heiliger Dankgesang”:
And here’s a smattering of my favourite movements from the rest of the Late Quartets. They largely defy description, but it’s worth pointing out that the last movement of No. 13 feels like a musical middle-finger to the audience – as if he were saying “Oh, you couldn’t handle the Great Fugue? Well have this Haydn imitation, maybe that’ll be easier for your puny ears to cope with”. Also, the last movement of No. 16 is titled “The Difficult Decision”, and if you listen to the rhythm you can hear the instruments saying “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) and being loudly answered with “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Is Beethoven questioning his own stylistic decisions? Or making some existential comment about the absurdity of the human condition? And more importantly, who cares? Just listen.
String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135 – 2nd Movement, Vivace
String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131 – 5th Movement, Presto
String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131 – 7th Movement, Allegro
String Quartet No. 13 in Bb Major, Op. 130 – 6th Movement, Allegro
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat Major, Op. 127 – 1st Movement, Maestoso, allegro
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 – 4th Movement – “The Difficult Decision”
Exhausted? You should be. Here’s something silly to end with:
Turkish March from “The Ruins of Athens”, Op. 113
Beethoven died in 1827, but his influence was pervasive for generations of future composers, who would interpret his works in hugely divergent ways. With occasional exception, almost all of his work is worth listening to – I’ve personally narrowed it down to about three solid days of material - and even after a couple of years of obsessive listening, I still only feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. If you’re looking for a new musical world to explore, try searching out this old one first.
Based on an original article written for One Thirty BPM.