Part Three: The Music
How are Beethoven's personality and philosophy expressed in his music? Before we look at that, an important point has to be made. The very fact that we can ask such a question about Beethoven is, historically speaking, hugely significant. The music of earlier composers can also be intensely expressive - think of Mozart's operas, Bach's religious works, Monteverdi's madrigals. But in those works we are not necessarily aware that it is Mozart, Bach or Monteverdi who is speaking to us directly about his own feelings. In Mozart's Don Giovanni what we hear first and foremost are the emotions of the characters depicted: Don Giovanni's desire, his servant Leporello's cowardice, his discarded lover Donna Elvira's rage and tenderness. But when we listen to Beethoven's opera Fidelio we are aware above all that it is Beethoven himself who is addressing us: telling us what he feels about the prisoner Florestan, his heroic wife Leonore and the villainous Don Pizarro. And ultimately we sense a message: about the wickedness of political repression and its degrading effect on its victims; but also about how the human spirit can survive, and how love can pierce prison walls.
Much the same could also be said about many of Beethoven's other major works, whether he uses a text - as in the Choral Ninth Symphony or the Missa Solemnis - or simply relies on musical instruments to convey his meanings, as in the symphonies and string quartets. Take the Fifth Symphony. In the grim struggle of the first movement, or the finale's massive determination of the bright major key to overcome minor-key darkness, we can sense Beethoven's personal determination to 'take fate by the throat'. But in the finale's emphatic, martial themes, and the grand fanfares that break into the reflective slow movement we can also hear something of his political vision. Humanity itself is on the march; by sheer force of will the human spirit can vanquish the forces that threaten to crush it.
It is not true to say that Beethoven created an entirely new musical language to express this emotions and ideas. Beethoven was also an inheritor of the 'classical' style of Mozart and Haydn, which in its ideal form'contained' the emotions expressed in strongly integrated and balanced musical structures - though in some of Mozart's great operas the boundary lines are clearly beginning to blur. But almost from the very start of his mature opus we find Beethoven straining at the leash - 'pushing the envelope' to see how far those forms might stretch without actually breaking. The Second Symphony, for instance, looks at first sight like a relatively well-behaved late classical symphony. The familiar forms are all in place. But the first movement's slow introduction is so grand and dramatic that after a while the listener begins to lose sight of its proper 'introductory' function - at times it feels more like a drama in its own right. And there are passages in the first movement and finale where the sheer power of the expression comes close to breaking the bonds of classical form - like Prometheus bursting his fetters in the Ancient Greek legend (an understandably popular story with the early romantics).
Then in the finale of his Eroica Symphony (No 3) Beethoven actually uses music associated with Prometheus (from his ballet The Creations of Prometheus) as the basis for a movement that seems part variations, part orthodox 'sonata form' and part explosive free fantasy. The message is easy to hear: like Prometheus who defied the gods and gave the gift of fire to humanity, Beethoven is freeing music from the 'old order' and raising it aloft as a torch of liberty - the composer places himself at the head of humanity's march for democracy.
But it is in sheer sound as much as in form that Beethoven stamps his personality and attitudes on music. The orchestra acquires new powers - sometimes even new instruments. The massive major-key onslaught of the Fifth Symphony's finale is enhanced by the use of instruments never before used in a symphony: three trombones (previously associated with religious music and supernatural effects in operas), piccolo and contrabassoon add weight and incisive force. But the familiar instruments too find new voice: violins strain higher than Mozart and Haydn would have taken them; cellos and double basses (usually treated as one bass unit in classical era music) separate or converge to create startling new sound effects - like the blurred rumbling thunder in the 'Storm' movement of the Pastoral Symphony (No 6); military cymbals, triangle and bass drum give vivid 'realistic' character to the march episode in the finale of the Choral Symphony, and the timpani (previously allied to the trumpets for fanfare writing) take on a life of their own - thundering out brilliant tattoo rhythms in the Scherzo of the Choral Symphony, or sustaining mysterious, hushed rumbles in the first movement of the Fourth.
Beethoven's own instrument, the piano, enters territory which astonished some of his contemporaries. He takes full advantage of the piano's growing range and sophistication of colour. Right and left hands may fly widely apart; there are huge leaps for the hands - as in the granite-like fortissimo that opens the Hammerklavier Sonata and in many parts of its epic fugal finale; unprecedented, fabulously delicate pianissimos anticipate Debussy and Ravel in the slow movement of the Fifth (Emperor ) Piano Concerto; hushed multiple trills evoke ethereal voices in the finale of the last Piano Sonata, op 111. The string quartet too is pushed to its limits - in the frenetically fast finale of the Third Razumowsky Quartet (op 59 no 3) - or even beyond its limits: the Grosse Fuge ('Great Fugue') finale of the op 130 Quartet was deemed unplayable by most ensembles until well into the twentieth century!
Even in something as prosaic-seeming as dynamics (loud or soft indications), Beethoven goes beyond anything seen before. While Haydn and Mozart were largely content to indicate forte (strong) or piano (soft), Beethoven habitually introduces fortissimo (very strong) or pianissimo (very soft), even going as far as marking the triumphant tuttis near the end of his Seventh Symphony fff - 'very, very strong'. The marking sforzando (sf ) - 'forced', 'strongly accented' - becomes a familiar part of Beethoven's expressive armoury, underlining the heart-stopping discords at the central climax of the Eroica Symphony's first movement, or ramming home soprano high notes the Ninth Symphony's choral finale. As the conductor Sir Simon Rattle put it: 'When you see all those sforzando notes you know that Beethoven is telling you to drive this bus over a cliff!'
And yet in none of this is Beethoven being merely sensationalist. Everything has its context - its larger meaning. In his orchestral, chamber and solo works, Beethoven invests instrumental music with a new power to 'tell stories'. We may not always be able to put words to those stories, yet we feel that we are being taken on some kind of spiritual journey. This is the hardest aspect of Beethoven's music to analyse, yet his sketches, letters, notebooks and 'Conversation Books' (in which he carried on conversations in writing after his deafness became complete), show time and time again that this is what he intended his music to communicate. Matters as seemingly abstract as development of themes, intensification of harmonies, counterpoint and orchestration all become elements in a musical drama that can express feelings and put across ideas with an intensity and directness that can surprise us even today. Small wonder that composers as different as Wagner, Shostakovich and James MacMillan - each with is own very personal 'message' to communicate - have found enduring inspiration in Beethoven. Without him, and his determination to achieve what many of his contemporaries thought impossible, music - and not just 'classical' music - in the 19th, 20th and even 21st centuries would probably have been very much the poorer.
© Stephen Johnson