Ludwig Van Beethoven
( Originally Published 1905 )
Formalism of Haydn and Mozart.—It has been seen that the forms of harmonic music, growing out of numerous and sometimes crude experiments, were brought to a high state of perfection through the genius of Haydn and Mozart; and that they left a definite structure, nicely balanced, capable of expressing definite thoughts in a unified form, and at the same time of allowing free rein to the composer's fancy. Of their instrumental works, the definition of the musician-philosopher J. J. Rousseau (d. 1778), that "music is the art of combining sounds in a manner agree-able to the ear," gave a fitting characterization; for while a tinge of melancholy is occasionally perceptible, and there are passages of some dramatic intensity, nevertheless such elements are introduced mainly to give a pleasing contrast from the even flow of polished and idealized sound.
Their Gift to Beethoven.—In other words, neither Haydn nor Mozart ever sacrifices his sense of artistic finish to the expression of the heights and depths of human emotion. Putting the seal of genius upon instrumental forms, they transmitted these forms to another more colossal mind, which should make use of them, to be sure, but should absolutely subordinate them to the expression of the burning thoughts and passions of a great individuality; a mind which, like that of Shakespeare, was able to look fearlessly upon universal truths, and to bring these to the light, in this instance through the medium of tone. While their predecessors, by unwearying attempts, made possible this determination of a capable art form, so Haydn and Mozart, in their turn, paved the way for the fuller expression which Beethoven gave to music, and which would otherwise not have been possible, since the vehicle for his thoughts would have been wanting. Thus the opportunity had arrived for broadening the definition which Rousseau gave, and announcing the fact that music is the art of the expression of every emotion, whether pleasurable or painful, through the medium of highly organized sound.
Beethoven's Early Life.—Ludwig van Beethoven, the last and greatest of this triumvirate of sonata writers, was a native of Bonn-on-the-Rhine, where he was born December 16, 1770. His parents were lowly people, his father a tenor singer in the Elector of Cologne's chapel, and his mother a cook; and, moreover, Beethoven's early life was an unhappy one, through his father's irascible disposition and tendency toward dissipation. Beethoven, of an acutely sensitive nature, inherited his father's quick temper and annoyances at trifles, so that all through his troubled life he was constantly in a state of irritation against something or someone. Like Mozart, he showed early and unmistakable signs of a musical susceptibility; unlike him, how-ever, the unfolding of his genius was ultimately slow, since he attained to his greatest powers much later in life than his phenomenal predecessor. His early instruction was be-gun with his father; but soon he was placed in the care of several local musicians: Pfeiffer, music director and oboist; Van der Eeden, the court organist; and especially the successor to the latter, Neefe (1748-1798), a man of reputation as organist and composer for the pianoforte As a result, Beethoven played the violin well at eight, ;Ind at twelve had mastered the works of Handel and the "Well-Tempered Clavichord" of J. S. Each. This intimate study of the best works of the old polyphonic school was of great advantage later in solidifying his gifts as a musician.
First Compositions.—In 1782, were published first attempts at composition—a set of variations, and three sonatas ; and these, together with his remarkable extempore playing, began to attract the attention of persons of influence. He was appointed organist at Bonn, and at six-teen was sent by the Elector Max Franz, brother of the Emperor Joseph II, to Vienna, where he received praise from Mozart, who predicted a brilliant future for him.
The Breuning Family.—In 1787, his mother died ; and this loss, together with his father's intemperate habits, made his home extremely unpleasant. Fortunately for Beethoven, however, the enthusiasm for music which was rife in Germany at this time among people of culture and position was the cause of attracting to his side many true friends, who, appreciating his sterling qualities, were able to pardon his rough exterior and manners. Thus he was received as teacher and friend into the home of the cultivated von Breuning family, under whose refining influence he came into touch with the masterpieces of English and German literature. Here he first met his staunch friend, Count Waldstein ; and here he had leisure for long walks amid the rural retreats which he heartily loved, and for meditation upon those musical ideas which he was accustomed to jot down in rough sketches, and which should later be translated into his immortal creations.
In Vienna. — Haydn, passing through Bonn, warmly praised a cantata of Beethoven's ; and the Elector, moved by such marks of approbation, sent him again to Vienna, in 1792, for serious study. Here he was instructed by Haydn till the latter's departure for England, in 1794, when he went to Albrechtsberger, the celebrated contrapuntist, and others ; but these exponents of an earlier school looked somewhat askance at the bold innovations which Beethoven introduced into recognized principles, and failed to understand the irrepressible genius which prompted them. Nothing daunted, he launched zealously into composition, supported by a growing circle of admirers to which the Elector's patronage had introduced him; and soon became a favorite at the private soirées of the nobility, where, on account of his eccentric manners, he was known as an "original," but where his wonderful extemporizing was received with ecstasy.
Successes as a Pianist.—Beethoven's first public performance in Vienna occurred in 1795, when he performed his pianoforte concerto in C major at a concert. During a journey soon after, he played before King Friedrich Wilhelm II, at Berlin, who distinguished him with marks of favor, and to whom Beethoven dedicated two sonatas writ-ten for pianoforte with 'cello. Here also he met the conductor, Friedrich Himmel (1765-1814), a pianist and composer of high rank. We hear next of his trial of pianistic skill with Steibelt, a popular virtuoso, in which Beethoven won an overwhelming victory. With Wolfl, another distinguished rival, his relations were those of mutual esteem, and the two masters delighted to extemporize dashing capriccios on two pianofortes.
First Period.—The thirteen years, from 1790 to 1803, are usually considered to embrace his first period of activity as a composer, comprising his works to opus 50. His opus 1, three trios for piano, violin and 'cello, appeared in 1795, and soon after three piano sonatas, opus 2, dedicated to Haydn, were published. Among the other noteworthy works of this period were his first two symphonies, in C and D, three piano concertos, the piano sonatas including opus 27, the Kreutzer sonata for piano and violin, and his famous Septet for strings and wind instruments. In general, these compositions follow closely the lines laid down by Haydn and Mozart, although there is, notably in the piano sonatas, a gradual tendency toward freedom of expression, and the assertion of individuality.
Troubles now began to gather about him. About 1800 his hearing became defective, and the malady grew steadily from bad to worse, so that by 1816 he was obliged to use an ear-trumpet, and by 1822 he was stone-deaf. To add to his discomforts, his brothers Karl and Johann treated him shamefully, and a son of the former, to whom he was left guardian at the father's death, and upon whom he lavished a father's care, turned out a scapegrace, repaving his affection with the basest ingratitude. Weighed down by these misfortunes, Beethoven became irritable and morbid, distrusting his most faithful friends, and constantly Imagining plots against himself. His utter ignorance of worldly matters, too, brought him into financial troubles, and involved his domestic affairs in a state of continual confusion.
Second Period.—Yet, as if to prove man's ability to rise superior to every affliction, during this very time he was writing compositions which, for joyous freshness and spiritual elevation, have been scarcely, if ever, equalled. During his second period, extending to 1815, and including his compositions to about opus 90, he adopted a freedom of expression entirely untrammelled by formal limitations, enlarging and vivifying the Sonata Form, and varying it to suit his changing moods. The joy of living, with its intensity of passion and depths of emotion, is reflected in these works, which assert a character strong in its struggle against adverse fate, confidently looking toward the goal of ultimate good.
Compositions of this Period.—His most popular symphonies were written during this period, which embraces those from the third to the eighth, inclusive. The "Eroica," number three, was originally written in homage to Napoleon, whom Beethoven honored as the guide of the French nation toward that assertion of independence and individuality which he dearly loved ; but when the news arrived that Napoleon was declared Dictator, in 1804, he tore up the dedicatory page in a fit of anger. Another of his greatest compositions was his opera of "Fidelio," upon which Beethoven spent an amazing amount of time and pains, whose overture he rewrote twice. Produced in Vienna, in 18o5, soon after the occupation of the city by the French, it was received coldly; and only after several revisions did it score a success at all in keeping with its grand and inspiring conception. • Several orchestral overtures; his violin concerto; an oratorio; a mass in C; some of his best chamber music, including the celebrated Rasumovsky string quartets ; and his piano concertos in G and E-flat, were other fruits of about this time. Of fourteen piano sonatas, we find several which have continued in unbroken popularity, notably the two in opus 27, the "Pastorale," opus 28, the "Waldstein," opus 53, and the "Appassionata."
Latter Years of His Life.—The latter part of Beethoven's life, after 1815, was spent in Vienna, in a state of despondency from his troubles which his general recognition as the foremost musician of his day could scarcely alleviate. His many friends placed him, by their efforts, in comfortable pecuniary circumstances ; yet he constantly imagined himself struggling with poverty. Sensitive to his affliction, he made himself exceedingly inaccessible, and passed his days in unceasing labor upon those works which eclipsed, in profundity and individuality, all of his former compositions, and which were an index to the conflicting struggles in his mind. Stone-deaf, he yet revelled in a spiritual world of tone, hearing his greatest compositions only in the realms of his imagination. An attack of pneumonia in 1826 left effects which proved lasting, and which caused his death on March 26, 1827. In his last illness he was surrounded by his circle of unfailing friends, among whom the modest Schubert was admitted; and a proof of his hold upon his countrymen is shown in the fact that 20,000 persons are said to have attended his funeral.
Last Great Works.—The greatest fruit of these later years was his last symphony, the Ninth, or "Choral," in which, for the first time, he introduced voices as an aid to the instrumental climax. The free vent which he gave to his radical tendencies in this symphony, its unheard-of boldness of harmonic progressions, and its defiance of all conventional rules, aroused a storm of protest from his critics which was only lulled after succeeding generations had placed the stamp of unmistakable approval upon the work, and had recognized it as a monument of genius. Near to this in importance stands his "Solemn Mass" in D, a work imbued with all the religious fervor of his declining years.
Sonatas of Third Period.—Other notable achievements, in the line of chamber music, mark this period; and the last five piano sonatas, extending from opus 101 to opus III, exhibit the same undaunted freedom that is found in the Ninth symphony. Enormous in their demands upon the pianist, they are food for none but virtuosi; but analyzed, they show a compendium of all known musical resources, from the choral fugue to the most daring flights of harmonic expression.
Beethoven's Dual Personality. — Beethoven furnishes an example of a personality whose dual nature is remarkably apparent. Often unkempt, and rude in his outward bearing, he seemed at times absolutely oblivious to his surroundings and to chafe at his bodily limitations; yet his apparent rudeness toward his friends was as often humbly atoned for by his confession of his haste in judging them. His independence of spirit could brook no submission to authority other than his own conscience; and that con-science prompted him to stand firm in support of the genuine, the pure and the ideal ; firm, thus, in its abhorrence of artificiality and deceit. In his ignorance of worldly wiles he was on a par with a little child; finding his true sphere when buried in the lofty problems of his art, giving to the world the fruits of his innermost spirit, which were ever animated by nobility and truth of expression.
Beethoven Stood Alone.—Detesting the fetters of teaching work, he left few pupils. Among these Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) enjoyed an intlmate association with him, and afterwards became prominent as piano virtuoso and composer. With the great men of his day he affiliated but little. Goethe (1749-1832) he met but once, on one of his journeys; but the meeting had no further results. Like other great minds, his original ideas had to make their way amid a shower of abuse from more conventional contemporaries, who lauded as his equal or superior others whose works have long since passed into oblivion ; but, fortunate in finding staunch defenders, he made steady progress against his enemies, until his position in the music world became unique and unassailable.