What's so Special about Beethoven Anyways?

(Originally Posted 10/4/10)

Previously I posted here about why I like Beethoven and how I discovered him. But what makes him so special? Why do I love his music a few degrees more than say Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Stravinsky, etc...? Those guys are great as well, but the music of Beethoven has a certain timeless quality that appeals to me on a very human level. Despite the fact that his music is extremely complex (musicologists are still discovering new relationships in B's music), his work can affect me on a very visceral and immediate level. The other element is the sheer revolutionary impact of his ideas and his relentless courage to prevail against both contemporary criticism and his own failing health.

Stylistically, B's music straddles what I consider "classical" music and "modern" music. By modern music I mean music that a modern listener can immediately relate to, and not so much the more exclusionary music of Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, etc.. In the 1800's his music was bold and to some even crude, but not unlistenable or alien. Yet, over 200 years later his music is still heard everywhere from concert halls to fine dining establishments. Many of his overtures contain passages which would work perfectly in modern films.  Piano Concerto 1 (1797) and Piano Sonata 32 (1822) - from opposite ends of his career - both contain elements of swing jazz in their finales.  Yet his Piano Concerto 2 is immediately appealing to the Mozart fan, and Symphony 1 could fit right in with a chamber orchestra's Haydn program.

Some of his music is still beyond even today's conception of music.  His Diabelli Variations start out fairly innocently (the theme was written by Anton Diabelli) but it's not long before these 33 variations start sounding about 300 years ahead of its original theme.  Ernst Bloch called them "acoustical atrocities" and that they were never written for piano or any other instrument for that matter.  Nowadays they're not as shocking but they still stand outside of what I imagine most people would consider typical classical piano music.  Another common example cited is Beethoven's later string quartets.  These quartets (Opus 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, 135) all have a quality about them that sounds almost cosmic, and irrefutable.  At the same time they have a very improvisatory structural rhythm, Opus 131 has 7 movements, one of which lasts less than a minute,  the 2nd movement of Opus 132 is longer than some entire string quartets.  Two works which I have mentioned here before, the Grosse Fugue (Opus 133) and the Heiliger Dankgesang (movmt 2 of Opus 132 mentioned above) practically stretch music beyond a medium of expression and into a kind of mental coercion, one to cause anxiety, the other to produce healing. 

This leads into the revolutionary aspect of his composing.  Beethoven was fearless in writing what he felt was right, and nonchalantly tossed aside contemporary rules of proper composition whenever necessary.  His 3rd Symphony is often regarded as the breakthrough which ushered in the Romantic era.  It's first movement alone is longer than many whole symphonies of the day.  The 5th Symphony introduced reappearing themes between movements and is still the most recognizable musical theme of all time (besides Happy Birthday).  The 9th Symphony stretched the concept of what a symphony could contain by including a sprawling final movement with full mixed chorus and soloists.  His piano sonatas introduced the most unusual key modulations of the time, and when his compositional transgressions became the norm, he broke them again in the late sonatas using such odd time signatures as 9/16 followed by 12/32.  As far as the string quartet, again I use the Grosse Fugue as a model.  Igor Stravinsky said of it, "[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

Finally I have to agree with what Leonard Bernstein said about Beethoven's music -essentially that it has an inevitability about it, that it must be this way and no other, and you can be sure it checks out through and through.  

For me personally, it just feels right.  Beethoven's music comes into focus for me immediately no no other.  I can trust him.
As necessary as water.