“…a short, stout man with a very red face, small, piercing eyes, and bushy eyebrows, dressed in a very long overcoat which reached nearly to his ankles…notwithstanding the high color of his cheeks and his general untidiness, there was in those small piercing eyes an expression which no painter could render. It was a feeling of sublimity and melancholy combined…The wonderful impression made on me was heightened every time I met him. When I first saw him at Baden, his white hair flowing over his mighty shoulders, with that wonderful look — sometimes contracting his eyebrows when anything afflicted him, sometimes bursting into a forced laughter, indescribably painful to his listeners — I was touched as if “King Lear” or one of the old Gaelic bards stood before me.”
– Sir Julius Benedict.
Beethoven’s Innovations to Music
The “old Gaelic Bard” that Sir Julius is describing is Ludwig van Beethoven,born on this date, December 16, 1770 in the city of Bonn in what is now the Federal Republic of Germany. On first seeing him in 1823, Benedict was no doubt expecting someone or something else. And that is what listeners and performers of Beethoven’s sublime music have been getting ever since. From his magnificent chamber works, to his monumental orchestral music Beethoven has been surprising and intriguing the music world ever since he burst upon it at the end of what is known as the “Classical” period. In his First Symphony, for example, often seen as a tribute to his one-time teacher Franz Joseph Haydn, Beethoven started out on the dominant chord resolving to the tonic. Then in the standard Minuet movement he takes the listener on a raucous romp in three, complete with accents on the SECOND beat! In the Third Symphony, he replaces the standard Adagio with a very somber “Marcia Funebre”. In the Fifth Symphony, he links each movement with some variation of the famous short-short-short-long opening motif. In the Ninth Symphony Beethoven writes a final movement complete with a monumental chorus, yet what does he interrupt all of this for? A little Turkish Band!
Beethoven’s Place in Musical History
The man’s inventiveness, his determination to produce music which from the very first continuously stretched the envelope of established musical forms and practices, was endless. In spite of deafness which had overtaken him completely well before he had written the third of his nine symphonies, he almost single-handedly pulled the music of the western world into the romantic era. Professor Donald J. Grout says of Beethoven:
“Historically, Beethoven’s work is built on the achievements of Classical period. Through external circumstances, and the force of his own genius he transformed this heritage and became the source of much that was characteristic of the Romantic period. But he himself is neither Classic nor Romantic; he is Beethoven, and his figure towers like a colossus astride the two centuries.”
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“A History of Western Music” by Donald J. Grout, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 1960, 1973.