Monthly Archives: May 2019

Main Periods

‘Beethoven’ music is generally divided into three main creative periods. The first, or early, period extends to about (1802), when the composer made reference to a “new manner” or “new way” in connection with his art. The second, or middle, period extends to about (1812), after the completion of his ‘Seventh’ and ‘Eighth’ symphonies. The third, or late, period emerged gradually; ‘Beethoven’ composed its pivotal work, the ‘Hammerklavier Sonata’, in (1818). ‘Beethoven’ late style is especially innovative, and his last five quartets, written between (1824) and (1826), can be regarded as marking the onset of a fourth creative period.

Although ‘Beethoven’ music of the early period is sometimes described as imitative of ‘Mozart’ and ‘Haydn’, much of it is startlingly original, especially the works for piano. His early piano sonatas often have a forceful, bold quality, which is set into relief by the searching inwardness of the slow movements. The ‘Sonata’ in C minor op. 13 (Pathétique, 1798), the most famous of these sonatas, transfers Haydn practice of employing slow introductions to his symphonies to the genre of the sonata. The title refers to a quality of pathos or suffering, which is felt especially in the brooding slow introduction and is twice recalled in later stages of the first movement. The main body of this swift, brilliant movement seems to convey willful resistance to the sense of suffering that dominates the slow introduction. At the threshold of his middle period Beethoven sought a variety of new approaches to musical form. In the ‘Sonata’ in C-sharp minor (Moonlight, 1801), he begins with a slow movement, while typical sonatas of that time began with a fast movement. The movement placid motif (repeated phrase) of broken chords is reinterpreted in the final movement as forceful figuration reaching across the entire keyboard. The sonatas of op. 31, from 1802, each open in an original fashion. The G major, op. 31 no. 1, begins with striking shifts in key, in contrast to the usual practice of remaining in the same key to “ground” the listener. The D minor, op. 31 no. 2 (Tempest), on the other hand, breaks up the opening theme into contrasting segments in different tempi, whereas customary practice called for stating the theme in its entirety at the beginning of a movement.

In the first movement of the ‘Eroica Symphony’, one of the major works from ‘Beethoven’ middle period, he again sought ways to expand upon the prevailing musical forms. At that time, composers usually organized movements in three major parts. First, the exposition introduces the musical themes of the piece. Next, the development takes these themes into other keys, often modifying or fragmenting them. Finally, the recapitulation restates the themes, grounded in the original key. Prefaced by two massive, emphatic chords, the opening theme of the ‘Eroica’ lingers on a mysterious dark moment of harmony—a gesture that is not reinterpreted until much later, at the outset of the recapitulation. After the rhythmic climax of the enormous development section—it is twice as long as the development section in any other symphony of the time—Beethoven reshapes classical norms by introducing extensive new material, which is resolved in a sort of recapitulation in the coda (concluding passage), which follows the movement’s recapitulation. The four movements of the Eroica bear the following expressive associations: struggle, death (a funeral march), rebirth (a scherzo, or rapid dancelike movement, that begins quietly), and glorification. In its narrative design, the ‘Eroica’ is connected to the ballet music of ‘Beethoven’ ‘Prometheus’, op. 43 (1801), from which he borrowed the theme for the symphony finale. This movement of the symphony expresses the exaltation of the ‘Greek’ mythological figure Prometheus in a series of variations on the ballet theme.

‘Beethoven’ had originally intended to dedicate the work to ‘French’ general ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’, whom he idolized, but he angrily withdrew the dedication after learning that ‘Napoleon’ had taken the title of emperor. Beethoven other instrumental works from the period of the ‘Eroica’ also tend to expand the formal framework that he inherited from ‘Haydn’ and ‘Mozart’. The ‘Piano Sonata’ in C major op. 53 (Waldstein) and the ‘Piano Sonata’ in F minor op. 57 (Appassionata), completed in (1804) and (1805) respectively, each employ bold contrasts in harmony, and they use a broadened formal plan, in which the meditative slow movements flow directly into the final movements. The symbolism of the keys used for these sonatas shares in the expressive world of Beethoven’s opera, entitled Leonore in its original version from (1805). The grim F-minor character of the Appassionata recalls the dungeon scenes in this key from the opera, whereas the jubilant close of the ‘Waldstein’ in C major recalls the stirring C-major conclusion of the opera to the words “Hail to the day! Hail to the hour!”. The celebrated Symphony No. 5 in C minor op. 67 from (1808) is the most thematically concentrated of ‘Beethoven’ works. Variants of the four-note motif that begins this symphony drive all four movements. The dramatic turning point in the symphony—where a sense of foreboding, struggle, or mystery yields to a triumphant breakthrough—comes at the transition to the final movement, where the music is reinforced by the entrance of the trombones.

‘Beethoven’ uses here a large-scale polarity between the darker sound of C minor and the brighter, more radiant effect of C major, which is held largely in reserve until the finale. The series of gigantic masterpieces of Beethoven’s third period include the technically demanding Hammerklavier Sonata, completed in (1818), about which he correctly predicted on account of its challenges that “it will be played fifty years hence,” and the ‘Diabelli Variations’. The latter work for piano transforms a trivial waltz by ‘Viennese’ publisher ‘Anton Diabelli’ into an astonishing, seemingly endless series of pieces, each with a unique character; some are humorous or even parodies. These and other late works incorporate fugues—melodies played in succession and interwoven—that reflect ‘Beethoven’ lifelong interest in the music of ‘J. S. Bach’ (known for his keyboard work Art of the Fugue). ‘Beethoven’ second mass, the ‘Missa Solemnis’ in D major op. 123 (1823), also poses formidable technical challenges, as do his fascinating and sometimes enigmatic last quartets and the Ninth ‘Symphony’, whose most readily accessible movement is the choral finale.