Ludwig van Beethoven

Biography

Born: 1770, Germany   Died: 1827, Austria   Period: Classical, Romantic
The events of Beethoven's life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will. Born in the small German city of Bonn on or around December 16, 1770, he received his early training from his father and other local musicians. As a teenager, he earned some money as an assistant to his teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, then was Read more granted half of his father's salary as court musician from the Electorate of Cologne in order to care for his two younger brothers as his father gave in to alcoholism. Beethoven played viola in various orchestras, becoming friends with other players such as Antoine Reicha, Nikolaus Simrock, and Franz Ries, and began taking on composition commissions. As a member of the court chapel orchestra, he was able to travel some and meet members of the nobility, one of whom, Count Ferdinand Waldstein, would become a great friend and patron to him. Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 to study with Haydn; despite the prickliness of their relationship, Haydn's concise humor helped form Beethoven's style. His subsequent teachers in composition were Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri. In 1794, he began his career in earnest as a pianist and composer, taking advantage whenever he could of the patronage of others. Around 1800, Beethoven began to notice his gradually encroaching deafness. His growing despondency only intensified his antisocial tendencies. However, the Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," of 1803 began a sustained period of groundbreaking creative triumph. In later years, Beethoven was plagued by personal difficulties, including a series of failed romances and a nasty custody battle over a nephew, Karl. Yet after a long period of comparative compositional inactivity lasting from about 1811 to 1817, his creative imagination triumphed once again over his troubles. Beethoven's late works, especially the last five of his 16 string quartets and the last four of his 32 piano sonatas, have an ecstatic quality in which many have found a mystical significance. Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.
Beethoven's epochal career is often divided into early, middle, and late periods, represented, respectively, by works based on Classic-period models, by revolutionary pieces that expanded the vocabulary of music, and by compositions written in a unique, highly personal musical language incorporating elements of contrapuntal and variation writing while approaching large-scale forms with complete freedom. Though certainly subject to debate, these divisions point to the immense depth and multifariousness of Beethoven's creative personality. Beethoven profoundly transformed every genre he touched, and the music of the nineteenth century seems to grow from his compositions as if from a chrysalis. A formidable pianist, he moved the piano sonata from the drawing room to the concert hall with such ambitious and virtuosic middle-period works as the "Waldstein" (No. 21) and "Appassionata" (No. 23) sonatas. His song cycle An die ferne Geliebte of 1816 set the pattern for similar cycles by all the Romantic song composers, from Schubert to Wolf. The Romantic tradition of descriptive or "program" music began with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony No. 6. Even in the second half of the nineteenth century, Beethoven still directly inspired both conservatives (such as Brahms, who, like Beethoven, fundamentally stayed within the confines of Classical form) and radicals (such as Wagner, who viewed the Ninth Symphony as a harbinger of his own vision of a total art work, integrating vocal and instrumental music with the other arts). In many ways revolutionary, Beethoven's music remains universally appealing because of its characteristic humanism and dramatic power. Read less
Glenn Gould Plays Beethoven
Release Date: 03/25/2014   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 7685272   Number of Discs: 6
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Rudolf Serkin Plays Beethoven
Release Date: 11/06/2012   Label: Sony (Nax615)  
Catalog: 988302   Number of Discs: 11
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The Beethoven Journey - Piano Concerto No. 5
Release Date: 09/16/2014   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 305886   Number of Discs: 1
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Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 / Freire, Chailly
Release Date: 09/30/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002153402   Number of Discs: 1
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Beethoven: Symphonies No 1-9, Overtures... / Bernstein
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Catalog: 7683912   Number of Discs: 6
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Work: Piano Concerto no 4

 

About This Work
Beethoven's famously copious notebooks confirm that he only composed after an indeterminate period of inspiration, followed by a period of experimentation, followed by a period of gestation: in other words, an evolutionary process. While we know in Read more most cases when works were premiered and published, we don't know when exactly he conceived them, or what chain of change preceded their first public performance. We remain in the dark, for example, on what days of which months -- or for that matter in what year -- he concentrated on the Fourth Piano Concerto to the exclusion of all else.

Not that we need to know. It suffices to recognize its revolutionary (as well as evolutionary) nature, beginning with the very first chord. No concerto before, by Beethoven or anyone else, began as the G major does, with the solo instrument playing unaccompanied -- not only that but playing both dolce and softly! The miracle, however, is that Beethoven introduces the main theme and rhythm of the entire first movement within five sweet, soft, solo measures ending on a D major (dominant) chord, which the orchestra answers in B major before modulating to the tonic G. There is none of Beethoven's characteristic vehemence, not even at a crescendo to forte with sforzando punctuation in measures 20-22, although he composed the Fourth Concerto and Appassionata Sonata concurrently, all the while the Fifth Symphony was incubating in his other-consciousness.

Fascinatingly, principal themes in the opening movements of the Fourth Concerto and Fifth Symphony share a rhythmic motto: three short notes of equal value followed by a longer fourth note. (In the concerto, all of these are the same note; in the symphony, the last one is a third lower.) Noteworthy, too, was the premiere of both works on the same Vienna program -- that storied four-hour marathon of December 22, 1808, in the unheated Theater an der Wien, which also introduced the Pastoral Symphony and "Chorale" Fantasie with an orchestra that refused to rehearse with the composer present. Apropos of the G major Concerto: while a traditional double-exposition follows its trailblazing start, Beethoven's instrumental textures, tonal weight, subtleties of harmony, and especially the illusion he creates of improvisation were seven-league strides.

The slow movement is even more revolutionary, despite the brevity of only 72 measures and its indebtedness to the middle, Romanza movement of Mozart's D minor Concerto (K. 466), which Beethoven played publicly with outstanding success. However, in his own concerto, the juxtaposition of implacable strings playing both forte and staccato, and the piano's conciliatory legato response with the "soft" pedal down throughout, was unprecedented. Such palpable confrontation was not the norm in concertos. Neither was the orchestra's eventual capitulation, followed without pause by a rondo-finale marked vivace, whose presto coda is as scintillant as any music Beethoven ever wrote.

Even so, solo pianists and their audiences were slower to take up the Fourth than Beethoven's other concertos. But Mendelssohn -- a general who savored caviar -- loved it best, and played it at his last London concert, in 1846: a program that also featured his own music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Scottish Symphony.

-- Roger Dettmer, All Music Guide Read less

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