Hearing Beethoven

When we talk about the major figures in Western Classical music, Mozart is seen as representing the unique genius of Classicism. His music is the easiest to approach.  J.S. Bach is on another level, such that it is almost difficult to think of him only as a composer. His art is filled with mystery, passion, profundity, and exaltation. He is thought of as the apex of the Baroque.

The influence of Beethoven, in comparison to other composers, in my thinking, eclipses the boundaries of music. When his music is known in context, we can begin to understand just how much it changed, not only music, but all of Western consciousness and Western Culture…


A number of years ago I saw a movie called ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, and I remember thinking that this film highlights what is best in American culture – the way we can be enriched by honoring and celebrating the diversity that is here.

I remember after watching that film that I wrote something about geisha and mathematicians (of all things – but bear with me here a moment).  It was about how, although they are as distant as can be from my own life, I am made somehow more by them. Their deep devotion to their way of life – the only way their existence is possible – affirms our own unique path, every one of us.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, Classicism had reached its full development.  It’s characteristics in music are harmony, proportion, beauty, symmetry, refinement and elegance.

These were elevated standards that were the norm, and that were expected of a composer.

Late Mozart, especially the late symphonies, broke the mould in many ways. These works were not only music for entertainment, but for music’s own sake – substantial compositions that deserved – demanded – to be heard, demanded that people stop what they were doing and listen.

The difference for a writer would be as if it had become possible to write a full novel – ideas could be developed like never before.

The status of the composer was lifted too by this. He was not only an entertainer, ‘the paid help’, but a creator, a person of high and noble standing.

In early Beethoven we can hear him adapting himself to the classical forms. This he does with considerable facility. Even early on though, we can hear some restlessness in his music – something wanting to break out. We can hear some things, harmonically, rhythmically and in terms of accent that tell us he’s never really fully at home, at ease in Classicism as it was.

With the Third Symphony, Beethoven is born. It is one of his ‘signature compositions’. After the first movement of the Third Symphony nothing would ever be the same again, for Beethoven, or for the world.

There is something liberating about Beethoven’s music, for all people.  It is inspiring as music,  but more than that, if it’s heard in context it is empowering on a whole other level.

If we are familiar with the boundaries that were set, and with what was accepted, encouraged, expected, and supported by patrons, then we can better appreciate Beethoven’s courage.

I think it happens often, like it did for me, that for a while I didn’t really ‘get’ Beethoven. It was only after listening to a lot of Classical era music, especially Mozart, that I felt like I started to ‘hear’ Beethoven.

It’s this way, mysteriously, with music, or perhaps with all of the arts.  If we come back to some era or style, or composer after a while, then there’s always the chance that we will hear them in some new way – that they will make sense to us.  I’ve likened it to gradually or suddenly making out the sounds of a language. There’s the unmistakable feeling of ‘Ohhhhh…. Now I get it…’

It seems like it was somehow inevitable that Beethoven’s character would come through, but like all breaker-of-forms, it took a power of inner conviction that empowers us all to be who we truly are.

Beethoven cannot be imitated, and that’s just the point. We are each unique, and this is boldly affirmed and encouraged listening to Beethoven’s music, his message to the world. There’s beauty in it, even when it’s raw, or harsh, ugly, jarring or dissonant.

He was such the individualist, saying at times, ‘this is how it goes’, not matter what the convention.  The language of Classical music up to his time was his starting point, and the starting point of his listeners, but he used this language and added something to it that was his own to bring something entirely new into the world. He’s thought of as the first Romantic composer, opening the way for the freedom of expression in the arts in the 19th century.

I’m sure it’s been said before, but it bears repeating here, that the manifestation of Beethoven as an individual has surely had its effect on this key component of Western culture.

For better and for worse, our culture emphasizes the unique person;  it elevates that, it honors that. We do have the strength to stand alone when we need to, more so, say,  than in cultures where harmony and unanimity are the most important traits. Beethoven’s gift to humankind, I feel, is that of the power and fearlessness to be ourselves.

The Sixth Symphony, the Triple Concerto, the Ninth Symphony, these are relatively easy to listen to, compared to much of Beethoven’s music. They are good introductions though, because they still have elements in them that characterize Beethoven’s music.

His ‘signature’ pieces include the Third Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Kreutzer Sonata. In these works, as in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Beethoven’s power fully reveals itself, and what he encourages in each of us can be known.