Week One: Beethoven's Life and Musical Development
Beethoven: Three Part Hero
1. Imitative Period: Where Beethoven takes the baton of the classical style from Mozart adn Haydn , showcasing his abilities as a piano virtuoso and bursting at the seams with energy and vitality, playfulness and bravado.
2. Heroic Period: Where Beethoven throws off the shackles of convention to expand both the forces of expression (requiring bigger orchestras with an increased emphasis on lower strings, tympani, brass, woodwinds) and the depth of expression, insisting on more dynamic and emotional contrasts to express the inner currents of rage, grief, joy, hope, fear and terror coursing through his own being. These pieces strive towards a new unity between movements that often could be subtitled ( as in the name of Jan Swafford's most excellent biography), "Tragedy to Triumph". This period begins following the writing of the Heilingstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers where Beethoven vows to write a different kind of music in the face of his growing deafness and despair.
3. Transcendent Phase: Where Beethoven turns increasingly to sublime simplicity or a unification of seeming opposites, in an attempt to both integrate the polarities of experience and point to a celestial vision.
The elegance, playfulness, light hearted spirit of Piano Concerto No, 2 in Bb Major ( actually the first concerto written by Beethoven) mostly conforms to expectations of a Classical era concerto. The orchestra enters first while the piano demurely waits patiently to respond. The soloist enters sweetly, a little flirtatiously and then a game of courtship ensues. Compare and contrast that with the stormy virtuosity of Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, written at the onset of Beethoven's deafness when he vowed to set off in a new musical direction. Notice how the "individual" is no longer cooperative and compliant, but asserting their will in a struggle to the death at the end of the first movement of Concerto No 3. They roar into the picture with thunderous scales marked forte and pounding the theme in octaves that was heard in tip-toe fashion by the orchestra. Concerto No. 5 in Eb Major (the so called "Emperor") violates all norms and conventions. Here, the soloist interrupts the orchestra after just one chord to offer not a theme, but a cadenza: a wildly virtuosic passage that showcases their will.
Listen to Sir John Eliot Gardiner's rendition of Beethoven's 5th Symphony to hear a hair raising and thrilling interpretation that is as close to what Beethoven envisioned as I can imagine. The Orchestra Revolutionaire and Romantique uses historically informed interpretations, meticulously researched and performed on original instruments. But for a sheer jolt of joy, you must watch 3 year old Jonathan, whose tender age does not diminish his understanding of what is the essence of this piece: the triumph of courage and joy over darkness.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is a mirror of these lines by poet Khalil Gibran: The deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy it can contain. The second movement is a grief-stricken funeral march while the last brims over with unbridled Bachanalian frenzy. NOtice how the conclusion (the "final cadence" in classical music speak) goes on and on and one, asserting a sense of triumph, with the sense of heroically overcome darkness and fate.
The final piece we survey in our first class is the "Cavatina" movement from the String Quartet Op.130 in Bb Major, written during Beethoven's third, Transcendent Period. Composed after a near death experience and the attempted suicide of his adopted son and the utter failure of all his romantic relationships, it is the work of a deaf, defeated man in the depths of despair. And yet-- what beauty! What astonishing soulfulness! These late works of Beethoven have none of the egoic, Heroic qualities of the second period of his development but instead encapsulate what the poet T.S. Eliot called " a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything". They are often more about surrender than struggle, and as in the case of this piece, ache with naked vulnerability.