On this, Ludwig van Beethoven’s 245th birthday, it seems only fair to spend a few minutes thinking back to one of the most influential figures in the history of music, ever. To say that everyone knows Beethoven would be correct but misleading; no doubt, at some point everyone has heard one or another of Beethoven’s pieces of music, most commonly, the four-note motif which forms the backbone to his Fifth Symphony. When Ian Anderson of legendary folk-rock band Jethro Tull was looking for a ‘hook’ for the vastly overplayed ‘Aqualung,’ it was with Beethoven’s motif in mind that he wrote his own: “da-duh-duh-da-daaah-duh.” But even for those of us who listen regularly to misleadingly named “classical” music, Beethoven’s significance can be elusive: at least, until we sit down and put him and his work into context. Once a listener does that, the reason why his work is revered becomes clear.
The New Grove Beethoven, derived from the entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, is a concise guide to the life and work of Beethoven. Written as part of the dictionary, it doesn’t have the depth of a biography, but at the same time, it avoids some of the common sins of the biographer. Rather than the author’s opinions of events in Beethoven’s life, we are given the details of his life without a lot of gloss, and we are provided with illustrations of his work, divided into periods which most seem to suit his output. A further section details some personal characteristics, then his influences, and the book ends with a list of Beethoven’s works: not merely the symphonies, but chamber pieces, vocal settings, and many others.
Beethoven stands astride the divide which musicologists have identified, between the measured loveliness of the Classical era, of music which built on the richness of the Baroque to give prolific composers like Mozart and Haydn their formal canvasses, and the Romantic era, which began with Beethoven and, it could be argued, ended with the bombastic overreach of Wagner. Musical chronology is actually very simple to understand in this context. It is, more or less, a progression. But in Beethoven’s case, it is a progression with interludes and reversions, with twistings and turnings.
It isn’t simply that Beethoven wrote music which has become imbedded in our collective psyches, although he certainly did that. The triumphal strains of the Third Symphony heralded the exuberance of the Fifth, and the lavish landscapes of the Sixth, the “Pastoral.” By the time he reached his ninth and final symphony, the majestic “Choral,” in 1824, he was nearing the end of his life. Yet the Ninth does not sound like the work of a man robbed of one of the greatest tools of a composer – his hearing. He had been losing that sense for more than twenty years, by this point, yet Beethoven was still driven to write works of towering genius, almost until the end of his life.
So give Beethoven a listen, and give The New Grove Beethoven a reading. Kerman and Tyson give an excellent introduction to their subject, and it is hard to imagine a more useful slim volume on the subject. Together, they will give you a greater understanding not only of where the music of the 19th century came from, but why, to this day, Beethoven is considered its most towering exponent.
Reviewed 16 December 2015.
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