Classical music: Beethoven

One can hardly appraise Western classical music as a whole without spending some time on Beethoven. Although certain elements of his personal style are not to my taste, and there are consequently relatively few works which appeal to me on a deep level, his command of form is sufficient in itself to generate interest. There is no question that Beethoven changed the course of art music as few people have done.

In fact, leaving the previous paragraph stand from an earlier writing session, I find myself returning to Beethoven yet again. Checking my own notes, and some other publication history, I find myself with an urge to discuss Beethoven again after an interval of seven years, and indeed, this is the fourth general discussion, each with an interval of seven years. This uncanny pattern was certainly not planned, and this is the first I've noticed it. In any case, I thought it would make for an interesting introduction, and really underscores the way Beethoven's music has had a hold on me, even if that hold has never been day to day, and frequently not year to year. Considering that there are a variety of Beethoven specialists writing on these subjects, perhaps in great detail, it remains to be seen whether I'm offering anything of value here. Perhaps not. In any case, I'm going to go ahead and give my current thoughts.

In some ways, this is a terrible time to rewrite this page. I've generally oriented my discussions around recording selections, and in my opinion, Beethoven's discography is in rather a state of flux at the moment. On one hand, this is clearly an exaggeration, as his works have always been steadily performed & with the advent of the technology, recorded. However, a new generation seems to be establishing itself, tackling these works in somewhat different ways, and of course with high quality sound. Whereas sound quality might be "only" sound, compared to the intellectual resources behind a great interpretation, these works are also incredibly well known. I already know my favorites, and needn't put on a CD at all; if a recording doesn't have great sound, there is really no reason to hear it then. There is also something to be said for new interpretations from the intellectual angle as well. After all, the "classics" are already known & assimilated, at least to a good degree, and including by these very performers. One could argue that it's the ubiquity of recordings that facilitated such an assimilation.

Besides the fact that I have no ambition to be a Beethoven specialist, let alone to survey even most of the huge volume of recordings devoted to his music, my ambivalence regarding a page such as this runs deeper: Although I surely recognize the huge influence Beethoven's music has had, the fact is, I don't enjoy most of it. There are a handful of works I truly admire, which I'll discuss in more detail below. Beyond that, not only the different purposes & circumstances of his output have had an effect, but of course public recognition itself: In many ways, we have too much Beethoven. I don't know how it would even be possible to enjoy parts of his Symphonies, other than abstract admiration. They exist more in the realm of spectacle than of music, through no fault of their composer's.

To return to the opening, it would be very difficult to overstate Beethoven's historical influence. He was a primary architect of the Romantic style — if not the main architect. He followed that by creating modern music, with a sequence of works to be discussed. His Late Quartets were never confronted in any real sense for nearly a century. The latter statement might be occasion for neglect or even fading to obscurity, as similar circumstances surely have been for others, yet Beethoven stayed front & center in the public eye regardless. Eventually ideas from his last works had their musical response in the twentieth century; that's really the issue, dialog & response, versus writing into the ether, so to speak. An individual does not necessarily have that choice. Not coincidentally, the political & intellectual changes to the world during Beethoven's lifetime were extreme: The bourgeois revolutions, the hegemony of Enlightenment philosophy, and with them, Western Europe's domination of the entire world. He was well aware of these events, although one might suggest, not all of their consequences. Through this, Beethoven manages to project a deep humanity. Even when he's being pompous or irritable, he is very human, something he doesn't hide from the listener, even amidst his most genius moments — those are his most genius moments.

That said, I'm going to move to a recent recording I can recommend:

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variationen
Paul Lewis
Harmonia Mundi 902071

Beethoven's piano music, particularly his set of Sonatas, is his most personal, and the medium in which he worked out so many of his ideas. For quite some time, I have loved the sequence of the last three Piano Sonatas, Op. 109 & Op. 110 & Op. 111 — not least because the music seems to come to a poetic halt, forever. Together they form a sort of super-sonata, and respond well to being heard in sequence. (I do not have a specific recommendation of a recording for these works at present.) One could say they set the stage for his last set of works, but Beethoven did not give up writing solo piano music.

Much has been written of the Diabelli Variations — it's not uncommon to see them described as the greatest piano piece ever. They transform a rather crude theme into something well beyond itself. That there's no cyclical quality to the variations suggests a biography, and certainly one with various twists and turns. If Beethoven's solo piano music is his most personal output, that probably goes double for the last group of variations.

After the Op. 109/110/111 Sonata Triptych, and the Diabelli Variations, the other pieces that continue to speak to me most strongly, and perhaps most enigmatically, are the Late Quartets, specifically Op. 130/133 & Op. 131 & Op. 135. This is a repertory that seems to be particularly in interpretive flux, with younger quartets tackling these works. Therefore, I am holding off on any particular recording recommendation. In any case, in the first two of these (the Bb & C# minor quartets), Beethoven breaks off from any reified sense of classical form, embraces a much broader range of dissonance, and then reconstructs more of a classic quartet format around his newly forged sense of harmony in the last (the F). That's one kind of description for these works, in any case, and they continue to stand as monuments.

One thing about Beethoven's late music, after his deafness, is that it takes on a kind of neutrality regarding the specific instruments and their sonority. Beethoven couldn't hear them, of course, and so the precise details of the piano or string instruments become largely irrelevant to the music. He's famously known to have remarked not to care what sort of stress this music put on a violin, for instance. This aspect is significant in that the modern instruments do more justice, arguably, to this music. They have the greater range & power, and the more neutral sonority, one that can be regarded as something of an abstraction from their ancestors. The same is not true, however, of Beethoven's Middle Period music. Although I will not offer any hard & fast boundary on the matter, it's clear that e.g. some of his most famous Piano Sonatas make significant use of the idiosyncrasies of piano sonority of the time. Similar comments apply to some of his orchestral music, etc.

While this might entirely be a personal preference, among Beethoven's middle period works — and his "public" works of any period — I have long admired the third and fourth Piano Concertos. Here we find an allegory for the individual in public life during an era of intense change... an individual often defiant, but sometimes tentative. This is the public Beethoven at his best, and it's almost impossible not to view these works as an argument between himself and the world, the third most bluntly, and the fourth starting to be shrouded in myth. These are the works that really "announce" Beethoven for me. A recording:

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4
Mitsuko Uchida / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Kurt Sanderling
Philips 446 082

I do not have a strong recommendation for performance here. I know these pieces by memory, so I am not sure what the point of a recording is exactly, but nonetheless, I've enjoyed the above. Pace the previous discussion, I believe they are quite amenable to period instrument performance, and I was immediately captivated by the Lubin/Hogwood interpretation when it first appeared, but for some reason, it seems performers are not taking up that interpretive strand and refining that style. Perhaps that effort is still to come.

To wrap up, I will list the complete sets I use for reference for Beethoven's most significant larger outputs:

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas
Alfred Brendel
Philips 446 909 (10 CDs)
Beethoven: 9 Symphonies
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Teldec 46452 (5 CDs)

There are actually various earlier Piano Sonatas that I enjoy, perhaps least famously, Op. 54. These, as noted, would benefit from more attention from period piano specialists, and I know there has been some that I'm not in a position to address in any comprehensive way. In any case, I continue to enjoy Brendel's version. The Piano Sonatas are clearly the backbone of Beethoven's output, one he only broke away from with his very late output, but one which frames most of his career.

One cannot say the same for Beethoven's String Quartet output. There are the early works, not of much interest in my opinion, the Late Quartets which are basically a new style of music, and then only a tiny handful of works in the middle. These are generally not favorites, although I've enjoyed them at times. Subsequent to rewriting this page in 2012, a series of late quartet recordings that I really enjoy was completed:

Beethoven: The Late String Quartets
Brentano String Quartet
Op. 127 & 131: Aeon 1110
Op. 135 & 132: Aeon 1223
Op. 130 & 133: Aeon 1438

Prior to this, I had not been terribly satisfied with any of the late quartet sets I had heard, although it's entirely possible that I simply missed one that would have made me happy. These continue to be potent & original works.

As for the Symphonies, I believe I'll refrain from any further comment, although I'm retaining the entry for reference.

Back to Classical music page.

Todd M. McComb
New version: 26 November 2012
Updated: 9 May 2016