Beethoven - Prophet of Modernity

Presiding presence over his year’s festival: Beethoven - Prophet of Modernity

It’s almost a golden rule that the new in art must always be shocking at first, but we often forget that what now sounds traditional and easy – such as a Beethoven symphony – was once the seed of confusion. In fact, surveying Beethoven’s life and work, forces you to call into question everything about contemporary music that you believe to be unique to our own time.

By Rob Young

Modern composers have many conflicting expectations hanging over them. Since the early 20th century the public has been led to expect difficulty, atonality, abrasiveness from modern music. Critics patrol the frontiers for breakthroughs and ruptures with tradition. At the same time the postwar years have opened up a more user friendly side of contemporary music, largely based around minimalism and a return to a rhythmic tonality, coupled with popular demands for music and the arts generally to be more ‘accessible’ than ever before.

It’s almost a golden rule that the new in art must always be shocking at first, but we often forget that what now sounds traditional and easy – such as a Beethoven symphony – was once the seed of confusion. In fact, surveying Beethoven’s life and work, forces you to call into question everything about contemporary music that you believe to be unique to our own time.

After the revolutions in the arts over the 20th century we have grown accustomed to thinking of composers and artists as individual creators, each with a distinctive and identifiable style. It was not always the case. For centuries until the Romantic era, the composer’s role was mostly as a servant of the church or aristocratic patrons. The idea of a musician standing on his own two feet, supporting himself by dedication to his own craft, on his own terms, was practically unknown. Around the Romantic period, one man changed all that. Ludwig van Beethoven was a product of this time - the Napoleonic era. Both Beethoven and Napoleon, as well as countless other poets, painters, authors and artists, rose in status based upon their own talents, not on the accidents of their birth. This was the free society Beethoven believed in and which informed much of his work.

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (1805), now known as Eroica (‘Heroic’) but named Bonaparte by its composer, was premiered in 1805. It was first described by critics as formless, rambling, a wild fantasia of disconnected ideas. In retrospect it can be heard for what it is: a piece of music illustrating a sense of self-becoming, with themes moulding themselves and building towards a sense of completion. Evoking the spirit of the arch-Republican Napoleon, Beethoven simultaneously evoked his own development as an artist. It is nowadays viewed as one of the most perfect examples of symphonic form.

Likewise the 9th Symphony, which is being performed during the Ultima festival this year by the Oslo Philharmonic. One of the many contradictions within Beethoven the man, was that even as he made himself awkward and unpopular with many individuals, he often strove to express the idea of universal brotherhood and peace through his art. The Ninth was the culmination of a lifetime of working out how to set the words of Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude, a verse which connected Beethoven to the revolutionary enthusiasm of his youth in the 1770s. The man, who could not bear to write the name of anyone he had argued with in his correspondence, here created a hymn to universal consciousness, which has later been adopted as an anthem for democracy and the collective spirit of mankind. Nearly two centuries later, the towering figure of 20th century German music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, would bring a similar sense of cosmic oneness to his own masterworks such as Telemusik (1966), Hymnen (1967) and Sternklang (1971), which is also being performed during Ultima. After the second world war, pop music took up the task of creating instantly memorable musical phrases while contemporary composition roamed into more esoteric regions. Beethoven’s stirring choral last movement is one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music - a popular ‘hook’ well before such ideas became commonplace.

Today’s modern composer needs to be aware of much more than just the music – maintaining a living as a self-sufficient freelancer requires administration skills, funding applications, and self-promotion via social media. In Beethoven’s time composers’ income usually came from aristocratic patrons or the church in the case of religious music. There was no system of royalties so new pieces were sold to commissioners and publishers on a single-fee basis. Beethoven was one of the first to take control of his own finances, writing frequent letters to publishers to extract the maximum sales value for his works, and enlisting his brother Carl as his agent. He also took a keen interest in the critical reception of his music, enraged by critics’ ignorance and promoting himself to editors of music publications of the time.

Beethoven’s ambitions to go where no one had gone before forced a massive degree of commitment, even suffering, for his performers. ‘Difficulty is good’ was one of his mottoes, and it’s clear from the 45 minute exertion of the Hammerklavier sonata, or the repetitive octave leaps of his Grosse Fuge for string quartet, that he was determined to physically and mentally challenge interpreters of his music. Similar compaints are often heard by orchestral players when faced with a complex score by Xenakis or Ligeti. Forbidding maps through dangerous, uncharted territory such as these have their roots in Beethoven’s prodigious architectural constructions.

The Hammerklavier sonata is a fine example of a Beethoven work which pushed a genre - in this case the piano sonata - to an unheard level. Typically for his late period, he wanted each work to question the structure of each genre – sonatas, string quartets, the Mass, and the symphony. Not so much a development of ideas as a controlled explosion of energy, works like this or the Appassionata sonata (op. 57) landed on their shape as a direct result of Beethoven’s own determined struggle against the fate that left him deaf, in pain and incapable of finding a lifelong partner.

Much of Beethoven’s innovative energy was spent on forging a language of emotion through musical form in a way that had never been done before. Unusually for the time, a single one of his pieces could switch between antithetical emotions, and often change tone dramatically from movement to movement or even from phrase to phrase. This unprecedented mingling of characters and voices led to more complex overarching narratives than had been heard before, while avoiding literal, programmatic music. But despite the difficulty and the uncompromising stance, Beethoven could invent musical themes or catchphrases that have become among the most universally popular and memorable across the globe. The delicate melancholia of the Moonlight sonata. The hammer-blow intro to the Fifth Symphony. The choral ecstasy of the Ninth: a humble melody of transcendence and hope, which anyone can learn and sing.

Innovation and progress in music is unavoidably linked with the development of new technology. In the 21st century contemporary composers are celebrated for adopting digital and interactive tech. In Beethoven’s time his own instrument, the piano, was cutting-edge machinery in a process of transformation. His huge body of piano music grabs the instrument by the throat and shakes out new expressive languages from its expanded keyboard. The Waldstein sonata (op. 53), premiered in 1803, was developed on his new French Érard piano, which unlike the typical Viennese instrument had four pedals and an extended dynamic range. This allowed much more finely graded shifts in volume from soft to loud, and pedalling effects led to ethereal, drifting effects that had never been available to a composer before. The middle movement of the third piano concerto features phrases that float like butterflies or wisps of cloud across an orchestral landscape that’s treated as a blank slate across which to project introspective feelings.  

It would be too easy to call Beethoven ‘the first modern composer’. He remained committed to 18th century forms even as he increasingly tried to break their conventions, and he was for many years writing under the giant shadows of Mozart and Haydn. But that pull towards and away from tradition is still a characteristic of music today; symphonies, chamber music and instrumental sonatas are still composed for the repertoire; the issue of the individual in relation to society is still a dominating factor in all our lives; and the question of shaping a music to suggest alternative, utopian, unifying sentiments is needed in today’s divided, divisive times more than ever.