Why You Must Listen to Beethoven (Part One)

So, lords and ladies, we have arrived at last to what I believe to be the high point of the history of music. This week we will delve into the composer Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Now don’t worry. I don’t honestly believe that because I say all sorts of great things about this dude you are going to convert to being Beethoven fanatics. In order to truly love something you can’t just be told it’s good, you have to discover for yourself what makes something amazing.

A composer worth listening to

Do yourself a favor and take some time to really listen to some of the music below. Listen to it once, not while you are at work with it playing in the background, not while you are trying to fall asleep at night. Once you have sat down and truly just listened with as much of your attention as you can give, decide for yourself whether or not you like it. But I wouldn’t stop there. I would listen to it again and try to hear parts of the music that you didn’t hear before. To be honest, a great piece of music can be listened to over and over again and you will still discover something new about it every time. Listen to different recordings of the same piece and decide which performance you prefer: maybe one recording’s faster tempo kept your interest, or maybe the quality of the acoustical space of a different recording just sounds better. There is a reason why this music is still being performed to this day when it was written 150 years ago.

Ok, so all of this listening just sounds like too much work, right? Maybe, but if there is one composer that is worth it, it’s good ol’ Ludwig.

Enough of the Beethoven ass kissing…

Let’s get to some music

Beethoven is considered a transitional composer in the fact that his early compositions were very much influenced by composers from the Classical Era, such as Haydn. In fact, Beethoven studied with Haydn for a time (apparently the two of them did NOT get along). I’m going to skip past most of that stuff, but even his early compositions have lots of individuality despite being more “traditional.” Instead, let’s just jump right into Beethoven’s Third Symphony. He still had the majority of his hearing at this point. A couple of things make this music stand out. Subtitled “Eroica” or (or “Heroic”), this work was originally dedicated  to Napoleon, a man Beethoven greatly admired. However, Beethoven became so pissed off at Napoleon for declaring himself emperor that he later dedicated the work to the triumphs of the common man instead.

The symphony broke new grounds in terms of emotional range and length. The first movement alone was comparable in length to complete symphonies of Mozart and Haydn. It is with this piece that Beethoven is said to have given birth to the “Romantic” era of music. This means that instead of music being refined and pristine, it was meant to invoke emotion and passion on a whole new level.

First Movement – Part 1:

First Movement – Part 2:

So what makes this so great?

Once again, I can’t really explain it to you, but I can give you a few things to listen for. First of all, Beethoven was not as much a great composer of melody as an incredible developer of melody. Listen to the opening line played by the cello section, and then listen to how he passes it around and changes it around the orchestra. Every recurrence of the theme says something new and profound. Also, sometimes it’s not the melody that is interesting, it’s what is going on underneath: does he add fast repeating notes in the violins, complex counter-melodies in the woodwinds? I could go on and on…I can’t tell you exactly why, but this is some of the best music ever written hands-down.

And it only gets better.

Beethoven has talent oozing out of his eyeballs and what happens? He begins to lose the most important tool any musician has — his hearing. It didn’t happen overnight (it was a gradual decline over the years), but needless to say the effect was devastating on the composer. Then again people will argue that this tragedy only enhanced Beethoven’s legacy. More on that later…

Beethoven likes to tickle the ivories

For now we will close out with a few selections from Beethoven’s better known piano sonatas, the main instrument Beethoven played.

The last two you will recognize. I included them because, well, they are indescribably powerful. If you really want to get to know the full range of Beethoven as a composer, just listen to a bunch of these sonatas on YouTube. The pianist is Daniel Barenboim, who is considered one of the leading authorities on Beethoven. The whole recital of all 32 sonatas is available online.

And here is some chamber music for good measure:

Next time we will take a look at some of Beethoven’s later symphonies and string quartets and examine why without Beethoven most music to this day would probably suck much more than it does.


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