Full Name: Ludwig van Beethoven
Pronunciation: Bait-hove-en (but you knew that already)
Era: Late Classical/Early Romantic
Years active: 1770-1827
Number of compositions: 138 (plus a few smaller ones)
Number of symphonies: 9
Number of concertos: 6
Number of string quartets: 16
Style: Grand, elaborate and not afraid of expressing his emotions or of using complex musical structures. Beethoven is famous for moving music out of the Classical and into the Romantic era.
Classical? I thought all of this was classical music? Careful there, it is all “classical” music, but it isn’t all “Classical” — you see the capitalization? The problem is that “Classical” really refers to one very specific era of music (from about 1750-1800). This is the type of music that Mozart and Haydn composed. Unfortunately, exactly the same word is used to describe all of the other eras as a group. So people tend to use “Classical” with a capital C to refer to that precise era (because it’s a proper noun), whereas small “c” classical is all of the eras. Beethoven was the guy who advanced music so that it stopped being “Classical” and started being “Romantic” (which is the next — also confusingly named — era).
That almost makes sense. So what’s Romantic? Well it isn’t called that because it’s a soundtrack to bouquets of flowers and walks on the beach in the rain. It’s romantic in a less modern sense of the word, which we might nowadays call “soulful”. It was soulful because up until that point music had generally been pretty boring. There were a few exceptions of course, but the bulk of what most composers had been writing was quite literally background music for rich people’s parties. Essentially 18th century muzak. Then along comes Beethoven and decides — shock, horror — to write music which clearly expressed his passion, anger, and joyfulness. Everybody realized that this was way more awesome, and so began the Romantic era.
This music doesn’t sound so crazy emotional to me, it sounds like stereotypical classical music… Yeah that’s how I felt at first too. Especially if you are coming from modern rock and pop music, which is so explicitly emotional (anything from raging distorted guitars, to simpering jilted boyfriends tearing up their eyeliner) that it sees a psychiatrist once a week. Beethoven’s music definitely sounds old. It was only after listening to lots of other composers and then coming back to him that I started really hearing and understanding the power underneath. Of course, YMMV. Definitely don’t feel like you are supposed to think he is awesome straight away, just because he is so famous!
So what are some examples of his music? OK, lets try…
“Moonlight” Sonata, Movement 1
Isn’t that beautiful? You’ve likely heard this piece before in some vampire movie or another. It’s a perfect example of Beethoven’s soulfulness. Interesting note: It wasn’t Beethoven who gave it the “moonlight” subtitle, it was a sheet music publisher who added it in without permission.
Symphony No. 7, 4th Movement
This is soulful in exactly the opposite way to the Moonlight sonata. Instead of quiet melancholy, it’s all screaming and shouting up in your face with excitement. In fact, this symphony is sometimes called the “Dance” symphony because of all the strong rhythms.
A lot people hated/didn’t understand this piece when it was first performed (which mightily pissed Beethoven off, declaring them “Cattle! Asses!”). This isn’t soulful so much as windy and dissonant, which is more typical of 20th century pieces. People now generally consider this about 100 years ahead of its time. It’s one of my favorites.
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”, Movement 1
This little number is an expression of feeling elated by nature walking through the woods on a summers day. Yep, it’s that specific. It always makes me miss the English countryside when I hear it.
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Symphony No. 9, Movement 4 (including “Ode to Joy”)
One of the most famous pieces in Beethoven’s collection, although it takes a couple minutes to get to the really famous melody. It’s part of the ultra-famous 9th symphony.