musical style

Beethoven's musical style and innovations

Ludwig van Beethoven is viewed as a pivotal figure in the history of European classical music, and an important figure both in the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history. This article covers some of Beethoven's contributions to musical style.

Beethoven and music architecture

Above all, his works distinguish themselves from those of any prior composer through his creation of large, extended architectonic structures characterized by the extensive development of musical material, themes, and motifs, usually by means of modulations, or key changes. Although Haydn's later works often showed a greater fluidity between distant keys, Beethoven's innovation was the ability to rapidly establish a solidity in juxtaposing different keys and unexpected notes to join them. This expanded harmonic realm creates a sense of a vast musical and experiential space through which the music moves, and the development of musical material creates a sense of unfolding drama in this space.

In this way Beethoven's music parallels the simultaneous development of the novel in literature, a literary form focused on the life drama and development of one or more individuals through complex life circumstances, and of contemporaneous German idealism's philosophical notion of self, mind, or spirit that unfolds through a complex process of contradictions and tensions between the subjective and objective until a resolution or synthesis occurs in which all of these contradictions and developmental phases have been resolved or encompassed in a higher unity.

Development sections

Beethoven continued to expand the "development" section of works, extending a trend in the works of Haydn and Mozart, who had dramatically expanded both the length and substance of instrumental music. As Beethoven's major immediate predecessors and influences, he looked to their harmonic and formal models for his own works. However, while both Mozart and Haydn placed the great weight of a musical movement in the statement of ideas called the exposition, for Beethoven the development section of a sonata form became the heart of the work. Beethoven was able to do this by making the development section not merely longer, but also more structured. The very long development section of the Eroica Symphony, for example, is divided into four roughly equal sections. The first movement alone of this symphony is as long as an entire typical Italian-style Mozart symphony from the 1770s.


Although Beethoven wrote many beautiful and lyrical melodies, another radical innovation of his music, compared especially to that of Mozart and Haydn, is his extensive use of forceful, marked, and even stark rhythmic patterns throughout his compositions and, in particular, in his themes and motifs, some of which are primarily rhythmic rather than melodic. Some of his most famous themes, such as those of the first movements of the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, are primarily non-melodic rhythmic figures consisting of notes of a single chord, and the themes of the last movements of the Third and Seventh symphonies could more accurately be described as rhythms rather than as melodies. This use of rhythm was particularly well suited to the primacy of development in Beethoven's music.

Size of the orchestra

He also continued another trend—towards larger orchestras—that went on until the first decade of the 20th century, and moved the center of the sound downwards in the orchestra, to the violas and the lower register of the violins and cellos, giving his music a heavier and darker feel than Haydn or Mozart. Gustav Mahler modified the orchestration of some of Beethoven's music—most notably the 3rd and 9th symphonies—with the idea of more accurately expressing Beethoven's intent in an orchestra that had grown so much larger than the one Beethoven used: for example, doubling woodwind parts to compensate for the fact that a modern orchestra has so many more strings than Beethoven's orchestra did. Needless to say, these efforts remain controversial.

Beethoven and Romanticism

Beethoven's place as a transitional figure between the neo-classical period in the arts, called the "classical" period in music, and the Romantic period was a conscious intention of the many 19th century writers and composers, who pointed to his work as the radical departure from the past. As a result, a great deal of literature, including writing by ETA Hoffman, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, placed his work at the pinnacle of what they were trying to achieve in music.

Because of his central importance, methods of conducting and playing, as well as music theory, were centered around his most important works, particularly his symphonies, concerti, string quartets, piano trios and sonatas for piano or piano and other instrument. Beginning from his pupil Carl Czerny and moving forward, basic terms such as tonality, sonata form and Allegro were defined or redefined in reference to his musical practice.

As importantly Beethoven's life was seen as the model for the "heroic artist", who cast his personal experiences, perceptions and biography into works, which would then be experienced by the audience members who would be transported to the emotional state of the artist, and thus participate in a "sublime" experience. That Beethoven had great difficulties in his life was joined to the sense of struggle and difficulty in his music, and used as the basis for an entire mythology of the role of the artist in society, and the difficulties of artistic creation. A biography by Anton Schindler was in accordance with this sense of Beethoven as Romantic, constantly putting direct emotional symbols into his work, such as saying "Thus Fate Knocks at the Door!" for the opening of the C Minor Symphony, number 5. Beethoven as icon can be seen in the efforts to erect a monument to him, led by Franz Liszt, and in the arguments over whether Johannes Brahms or Richard Wagner better represented the tradition of music that Beethoven was thought to have created.

With the 20th century a reaction against this "cult of the Romantic artist" began to be seen. In a sense it was a continuation of the Romantic cult in a different form: a new generation of artists wanted to claim Beethoven as their own, and place him in the context as the pinnacle figure of musical enlightenment and rationality. The emphasis on harmonic practice led to arguments that Beethoven was not "really" a romantic because of his general rejection of chromaticism in melodies, and his structural practices in preparing modulations. By the 1950's it was common to deny that Beethoven was a Romantic at all.

In the late 20th century, the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction, in some measure because of a revival of interest in Romanticism, and in part because of a change in the status of musical technique. With the falling out of favor of the idea that music was about "progress", the need to see Beethoven in technical terms diminished. The differences between his work and Mozart's became accentuated, in part because of the rise of neo-classical styles of playing or historically informed performance. Beethoven came to many to be seen in relation to contemporaries such as Goethe and Jacques-Louis David - having both neo-classical and Romantic elements to their work.

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