Scholar Groups – Composer Profiles, Part 5

Our final ‘B’ composer is one of the most famous composers of all time: Beethoven, chosen by Mr. Hughes for his scholar group.

Beethoven’s life and career has been immortalised and made into legend by devotees, scholars, and the media alike. Born in Bonn, Beethoven’s talent was apparent very early on and was cultivated by his father. He studied composition, the organ, the piano, and the violin, and was attempted to be promoted as a child prodigy like Mozart, which resulted in his first public performance aged seven. As a young man, he moved to Vienna, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Nowadays, Beethoven is famous for, among other things, being one of the first major composers to not be employed by a court or church, and to make money instead from selling his music direct to publishers and putting on concerts of his own music, and occasionally from the generosity of individual patrons. Famously temperamental, some of his endeavours proved more fruitful than others, as he had a bad habit of losing his temper with performers and dismissing problems in favour of retaining musical quality. His personal life was equally tempestuous, with several failed affairs and unrequited love. About the age of twenty-eight, he also started to notice a gradual loss of his hearing, and by his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven was completely deaf.

Traditionally, Beethoven’s music has been divided into three periods, showing a development of musical maturity and increasing tendency to challenge the boundaries of Classical music towards more Romantic tendencies. Although often named with Mozart as a “Classical” composer, Beethoven actually spans the two eras and is thus difficult to label. Prolific in almost every genre, he is best known for his symphonies, string quartets, concertos, and piano sonatas. In his final months, Beethoven was very ill, which led to his death aged just fifty-six. No consensus has been reached on the precise cause of death.

If you have never heard any of Beethoven’s music before (which is highly unlikely), his style is perhaps best described as full of stark contrasts that range from sweet to violent. His works are full of sudden dynamic changes, huge climaxes, emphatic repeated cadences, and tiny, highly developed motifs. The first four notes of the famous first movement of the Fifth Symphony become the main idea for the entire movement and symphony, for example. Raised up to be seen as a representative of all classical music, Beethoven’s influence on other composers has been strong, and his image can be daunting for new listeners, but follow these recommendations and you will discover a world of truly amazing music:

Symphony No. 7 – neither the most nor the least well-known of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, number 7 provides a middle ground between the historiographically important numbers 5 and 9, and rewards the listener with something quite different. The slow movement has also been used on countless soundtracks, including most recently The King’s Speech.

String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 – a firm favourite among chamber music devotees, this quartet is great fun to play and equally exciting to listen to. The first violin really gets to show off in this early quartet and the dramatic key of C minor suits Beethoven’s writing here very well indeed.

Piano Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata” – compared to the “Moonlight” and “Pathetique”, this may not be the most famous Beethoven piano sonata, but among enthusiasts it regularly ranks highly. Interestingly, it was Wagner’s favourite.

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