Beethoven’s works are viewed as musical milestones by composers, performers, and listeners alike. In the early 19th century, his nine symphonies touched off a “symphonic crisis” (Carl Dahlhaus), the pressure from which would still be felt by the likes of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. Hans von Bülow referred to Beethoven’s 32 sonatas as the “New Testament” of piano literature. And Beethoven’s sometimes quite dissonant “late works”, especially his late string quartets, can pose a challenge even to 21st-century ears.
The new, unexpected, and eccentric nature of Beethoven’s works guaranteed their success even during the composer’s lifetime—as the reviews that were published back then most impressively show: among the most-used descriptors are words like “incomprehensible” and “bizarre”—all the way through from his early compositions to his late ones. In Vienna, Beethoven’s image was that of a “young upstart”, and the opinion leaders of local high society (among them many aristocrats) loved and valued this about him. What a contrast to his present-day image as a classicist who brought forth masterpieces of a model character!
Music historians have been fond of portraying Beethoven as foremost among composers, a genius living in Vienna who plumbed his inner depths and could live without permanent (church or court) employment by marketing his own works. One can indeed view things that way. But this view does reproduce an image beholden to that genius-aesthetic of the 19th century that eventually came to be taken for granted—which, at best, represents only part of the complex reality of Beethoven’s life. In the following, therefore, I’d like to modify this image using three examples from the findings of recent Beethoven research:
I. The court musician (formerly: freelance composer)
Beethoven, grandson of a court Kapellmeister and son of a musician employed by the court chapel of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne at his seat in Bonn, received a comprehensive musical education. As early as age eleven, he regularly played the organ in court chapel performances of sacred music, and he was soon thereafter playing in operas as a violist and performing as a pianist and improvisor in the chamber music and concerts that took place at court. (The fact that this phase of his life has hardly ever received serious attention from music historians is a striking phenomenon of Beethoven reception.) Beethoven’s courtly and musical socialisation provided a basis for his later career: at this music loving court, he got to know the international repertoire of that time while making music day in, day out and at a world-class level with other outstanding court musicians (including Anton Reicha and the Romberg brothers), in the process learning the desired functions and conditions involved in professional music-making music as well as the associated expectations. And as we know today, he would have found the offer of a position as Hofkapellmeister attractive even at a very advanced age
II. The convivial networker (formerly: solitary genius)
Various personalities at the court in Bonn had taken pains to ensure that Beethoven would be afforded access to the leading aristocratic circles upon his arrival in Vienna, his new place of education. And Beethoven himself likewise put forth great effort toward satisfying the associated expectations—even spending part of his limited funds on wigs and fashionable clothing. He first made a name for himself in Vienna as a pianist and improviser, living at the residence of Prince and Princess Lichnowsky and participating in the weekly concerts there. He established himself as a composer only gradually, making his first high-profile appearance as such in 1795 with the three piano trios of his Opus 1. In many respects, Beethoven’s compositions reflect his integration with Vienna’s high society of that day: many of his works are tailor-made to specific situations or persons, as the dedications of their first printed editions frequently indicate.
III. Works of an immense expressive range (formerly: heroic, heroic, heroic!)
Beethoven was a complex personality with numerous interests and contacts. And the conversation notebooks that he used during his final decade on account of his deafness afford a glimpse into the diversity of topics ranging from politics, music, theatre, society, faith and the church, and education and philosophy that Beethoven discussed with his contemporaries. When one experiences him as a broadly interested, humorous, sometimes brusque but often quite empathetic human being, one can also better understand the broad range of emotions that his music is capable of expressing: Beethoven’s music is a medium of communication, and by no means—as is so often claimed—simply an autobiographical mirror on his inner being. Seeing as Beethoven reception (in terms of both his music and his biography) has for so long focused on the aspect of the “heroic”, to which our present-day society can no longer quite so easily relate, it just might be time to reopen ourselves—both when we play and when we listen —to the sheer breadth of feelings and ideas that Beethoven’s music conveys. Particularly today, this vast expressive spectrum (which can occasionally seem almost disruptive in small spaces) can be truly gripping and has never had less of a need to hide behind the nimbus of the “classical”. And in this regard, I’m particularly fascinated by passages that seem to embody the deeply personal, timeless, lost, otherworldly, or utopian: to my mind, this “quiet” Beethoven has seen far too little exploration as of yet.
For the present jubilee year of 2020, my hope is that we’ll take the numerous Beethoven-focussed activities as an opportunity not just to carry forward Beethoven’s oeuvre as part of the classical canon, but also to once again give ourselves over to those idiosyncratic aspects of his music that were once viewed as “bizarre”. Doing so takes courage. It’s about daring to rediscover, learn, and perform seldom-played works in appropriate contexts while taking the listeners along with us on these journeys of discovery. And about approaching all-too-familiar works with a fresh spirit. For if we muster up the courage to do these things, Beethoven’s music will allow us to access previously undiscovered worlds of expression again and again.