The evolution of Beethoven’s writing style
October 12 2020, by Lox Tyrrell
Beethoven, universally regarded as one of the most influential composers, composed in my opinion some of the greatest pieces in musical history. Beethoven’s music can be divided into three main periods; early, middle and late.
In his early period, his works were often imitative of Mozart, his childhood idol. For example, his early sonata no.1 in E flat major is typical of the classical Galant style, featuring a rather playful melody followed by an Alberti bass in the left hand at times. However, hints of Beethoven’s more adventurous style to come can be seen with sudden changes in dynamics, going from soft to loud in one section while changing to an octave texture, a very typical feature of Beethoven’s middle and late period. Growing up, Beethoven was continually abused by his father and was almost beaten to death on one occasion. Upon discovering he had musical talent, his father would force him to play until the early hours of the morning, beating him if he made any mistakes. This had an effect on him throughout his life and can be heard through his turbulent music featuring many sudden changes in dynamics, reflecting his bipolar personality.
Beethoven continued composing in a style reflective of the classical era, until around 1798 when he was about (28 years old) and his hearing started to deteriorate. Then everything changed.
As he grew deaf, the humiliation of not being able to hear consumed him. In 1802, he wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brother to be read after his suicide.
“What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing” he writes,
“it was only my art that held me back from suicide.” From this moment on, his music took a completely different direction.
In 1803, Beethoven composed his 3rd symphony the Eroica, marking the start of his middle period. The first movement starts with two thunder-like chords with quadruple stops (4 notes at the same time) in both the first and second violins, creating a vigorous timbre that ripples throughout the listener’s ear. Although hailed now as a complete masterpiece, audiences during that time thought it was quite strange due to the fact music like this had never been written before. Perhaps it was the opening melody they found strange, starting off with an E flat major triad played by the cello. A strange harmonic twist is then revealed when the melody ventures off the diatonic scale down to a C#, creating a striking diminished 7th chord. Beethoven then proceeds to use this harmonic twist as a pivot point in the recapitulation, allowing him to create strange variations that modulate to different keys – truly a work of genius. This was just the start of his middle period, which lasted until around 1817. After which Beethoven entered his “late” period and wrote some of his most profound music completely deaf.
Although Beethoven wrote plenty of profound masterpieces in his late periods like his 9th symphony and his missa Solemnis. However, one example I’d like to elaborate on is his Grosse fugue. Written to be the finale of his 13th string quartet in B flat major, the Grosse Fugue (great fugue) is a work of monumental scale, complexity and harmonic exploration. Just listening to the opening, composers like Shostakovich are immediately brought to mind through the use of tonal ambiguity and extreme chromaticism that precurses the tone row. The strange nature of the piece, characterized by it’s highly syncopated and disjunct melodic lines, confused audiences in Beethoven’s time. In fact, some even despised it, with composer and violinist Louis Spohr calling the fugue and his late quartets “an indecipherable, uncorrected horror.” Despite its harsh critics, the Grosse Fugue remains in my opinion, is one of Beethoven’s greatest works, if not the greatest. It’s true value only began to be appreciated at the start of the 20th century, an example of how truly far ahead of his time Beethoven was.
To conclude, Beethoven’s transition to a deaf man greatly affected his music and the course of western classical music. I often wonder whether or not Beethoven would’ve reached the musical heights he did had he not gone deaf. Although many view his deafness as a curse, limiting his production, I view it as a blessing. Going deaf forced him to take a new path and strengthen his inner ear, allowing him to compose works of incredible technique and originality. Perhaps if he had not lost his hearing, he would’ve composed works solely within the classical period throughout his life, trying to live up to Mozart and Haydn, the classical era masters. I guess we’ll never know, I’m just glad he persevered through his deafness.
Lox Tyrrell, U6