1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beethoven, Ludwig van/Beethoven's Music

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BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN: Beethoven's Music. —

The division of Beethoven's work into three styles has become proverbial, and is based on obvious facts. The styles, however, are not rigidly separated, either in themselves or in chronology. Nor can the popular description of Beethoven's first manner as “Mozartesque” be accepted as doing justice to a style which differs more radically from Mozart's than Mozart's differs from Haydn's. The style of Beethoven's third period is no longer regarded as “showing an obscurity traceable to his deafness,” but we have, perhaps, only recently outgrown the belief that his later treatment of form is revolutionary. The peculiar interest and difficulty in tracing Beethoven's artistic development is that the changes in the materials and range of his art were as great as those in the form, so that he appears in the light of a pioneer, while the art with which he started was nevertheless already a perfectly mature and highly organized thing. And he is perhaps unique among artists in this, that his power of constructing perfect works of art never deserted him while he revolutionized his means of expression. No doubt this is in a measure true of all the greatest artists, but it is seldom obvious. In mature art vital differences in works of similar form are generally more likely to be overlooked than to force themselves on the critic's attention. And when they become so great as to make a new epoch it is generally at the cost of a period of experiment too heterogeneous and insecure for works of art to attain great permanent value. But in Beethoven's case, as we have said, the process of development is so smooth that it is impossible to separate the periods clearly, although the ground covered is, as regards emotional range, at least as great as that between Bach and Mozart. No artist has ever left more authoritative documentary evidence as to the steps of his development than Beethoven. In boyhood he seems to have acquired the habit of noting down all his musical ideas exactly as they first struck him. It is easy to see why in later years he referred to this as a “bad habit,” for it must often take longer to jot down a crude idea than to reject it; and by the time the habit was formed Beethoven's powers of self-criticism were unparalleled, and he must often have felt hampered by the habit of writing down what he knew to be too crude to be even an aid to memory. Such first intuitions, if not written down, would no doubt be forgotten; but the poetic mood, the Stimmung, they attempt to indicate, would remain until a better expression was forthcoming. Beethoven had acquired the habit of recording them, and thereby he has, perhaps, misled some critics into over-emphasizing the contrast between his “tentative” self-critical methods and the quasi-extempore outpourings of Mozart. This contrast is probably not very radical; indeed, we may doubt whether in every thoughtful mind any apparently sudden inspiration is not preceded by some anticipatory mood in which the idea was sought and its first faint indications tested and rejected so instantaneously as to leave no impression on the memory.

The number and triviality of Beethoven's preliminary sketches should not, then, be taken as evidence of a timid or vacillating spirit. But if we regard his sketches as his diary their significance becomes inestimable. They cover every period of Beethoven's career, and represent every stage of nearly all his important works, as well as of innumerable trifles, including ideas that did not survive to be worked out. And the type of self-criticism is the same from beginning to end. There is no tendency in the middle or last period, any more than in the first, to “subordinate form to expression,” nor do the sketches of the first period show any lack of attention to elements that seem more characteristic of the third. The difference between Beethoven's three styles appears first in its full proportions when we realize this complete continuity of his method and art. We have ventured to cast doubts upon the Mozartesque character of his early style, because that is chiefly a question of perspective. While he was handling a range of ideas not, in a modern view, glaringly different from Mozart's, he had no reason to use a glaringly different language. His contemporaries, however, found it more difficult to see the resemblance; and, though their criticism was often violently hostile, they saw with prejudice a daring originality which we may as well learn to appreciate with study. Beethoven himself in later years partly affected and partly felt a lack of sympathy with his own early style. But he had other things to do than to criticize it. Modern prejudice has not his excuse, and the neglect of Beethoven's early works is no less than the neglect of the key to the understanding of his later. It is also the neglect of a mass of mature art that already places Beethoven on the same plane as Mozart, and contains perhaps the only traces in all his work of a real struggle between the forces of progress and those of construction. We will therefore give special attention to this subject here.

The truth is that there are several styles in Beethoven's first period, in the centre of which, “proving all things,” is the true and mature Beethoven, however wider may be the scope of his later maturity. And he did not, as is often alleged, fail to show early promise. The pianoforte quartets he wrote at the age of fifteen are, no doubt, clumsy and childish in execution to a degree that contrasts remarkably with the works of Mozart's, Mendelssohn's or Schubert's boyhood; yet they contain material actually used in the sonatas, op. 2, No. 1, and op. 2, No. 3. And the passage in op. 2, No. 3, is that immediately after the first subject, where, as Beethoven then states it, it embodies one of his most epoch-making discoveries, namely, the art of organizing a long series of apparently free modulations by means of a systematic progression in the bass. In the childish quartet the principle is only dimly felt, but it is nevertheless there as a subconscious source of inspiration; and it afterwards gives inevitable dramatic truth to such passages as the climax of the development in the sonata, op. 57 (commonly called Appassionata), and throughout the chaos of the mysterious introduction to the C major string-quartet, op. 59, No. 3, prepares us for the world of loveliness that arises from it.

Although with Beethoven the desire to express new thoughts was thus invariably both stimulated and satisfied by the discovery of the necessary new means of expression, he felt deeply the danger of spoiling great ideas by inadequate execution; and his first work in a new form or medium is, even if as late as the Mass in C, op. 89, almost always unambitious. His teachers had found him sceptical of authority, and never convinced of the practical convenience of a rule until he had too successfully courted disaster. But he appreciated the experience, though he may have found it expensive, and traces of crudeness in such early works as he did not disown are as rare as plagiarisms. The first three pianoforte sonatas, op. 2, show the different elements in Beethoven's early style as clearly as possible. Sir Hubert Parry has aptly compared the opening of the sonata, op. 2, No. 1, with that of the finale of Mozart's G minor symphony, to show how much closer Beethoven's texture is. The slow movement well illustrates the rare cases in which Beethoven imitates Mozart to the detriment of his own proper richness of tone and thought, while the finale in its central episode brings a misapplied and somewhat diffuse structure in Mozart's style into direct conflict with themes as “Beethovenish” in their terseness as in their sombre passion. The second sonata is flawless in execution, and entirely beyond the range of Haydn and Mozart in harmonic and dramatic thought, except in the finale. And it is just in the adoption of the luxurious Mozartesque rondo form as the crown of this work that Beethoven shows his true independence. He adopts the form, not because it is Mozart's, but because it is right and because he can master it. The opening of the second subject in the first movement is a wonderful application of the harmonic principle already mentioned in connexion with the early piano quartets. In all music nothing equally dramatic can be found before the D minor sonata, op. 31, No. 2, which is rightly regarded as marking the beginning of Beethoven's second period. The slow movement, like those of op. 7 and a few other early works, shows a thrilling solemnity that immediately proves the identity of the pupil of Haydn with the creator of the 9th symphony. The little scherzo no less clearly foreshadows the new era in music by the fact that in so small and light a movement a modulation from A to G sharp minor can occur too naturally to excite surprise. If the later work of Beethoven were unknown there would be very little evidence that this sonata was by a young man, except, perhaps, in the remarkable abruptness of style in the first movement, an abruptness which is characteristic, not of immaturity, but of art in which problems are successfully solved for the first time. This abruptness is, however, in a few of Beethoven's early works carried appreciably too far. In the sonata in C minor, op. 10, No. 1, for example, the more vigorous parts of the first movement lose in breadth from it, while the finale is almost stunted.

But Beethoven was not content to express his individuality only in an abrupt epigrammatic style. From the outset breadth was also his aim, and while he occasionally attempted to attain a greater breadth than his resources would properly allow (as in the first movement of the sonata, op. 2, No. 3, and that of the violoncello sonata, op. 5, No. 1, in both of which cases a kind of extempore outburst in the coda conceals the collapse of his peroration), there are many early works in which he shows neither abruptness of style nor any tendency to confine himself within the limits of previous art. The C minor trio, op. 1, No. 3, is not more remarkable for the boldness of thought that made Haydn doubtful as to the advisability of publishing it, than for the perfect smoothness and spaciousness of its style. These qualities Beethoven at first naturally found easier to retain with less dramatic material, as in the other trios in the same opus, but the C minor trio does not stand alone. It represents, perhaps, the most numerous, as certainly the noblest, class of Beethoven's early works. Certainly the smallest class is that in which there is unmistakable imitation of Mozart, and it is significant that almost all examples of this class are works for wind instruments, where the technical limitations narrowly determine the style and discourage the composer from taking things seriously. Such works are the beautiful and popular septet, the quintet for pianoforte and wind instruments (modelled superficially, yet closely and with a kind of modest ambition, on Mozart's wonderful work for the same combination) and, on a somewhat higher level, the trio for pianoforte, clarinet and violoncello, op. 11.

It is futile to discuss the point at which Beethoven's second manner may be said to begin, but he has himself given us excellent evidence as to when and how his first manner (as far as that is a single thing) became impossible to him. Through quite a large number of works, beginning perhaps with the great string quintet, op. 29, new types of harmonic and emotional expression had been assimilated into a style at least intelligible from Mozart's point of view. Indeed, Beethoven's favourite way of enlarging his range of expression often seems to consist in allowing the Titanic force of his new inventions and the formal beauty of the old art to indicate by their contrast a new world grander and lovelier than either. Sometimes, as in the C major quintet, the new elements are too perfectly assimilated for the contrast to appear. The range of key and depth of thought is beyond that of Beethoven's first manner, but the smoothness is that of Mozart. In the three pianoforte sonatas, op. 31, the struggle of the transition is as manifest as its accomplishment is triumphant. The first movement of the first sonata (in G major) deals with widely separated keys on new principles. These are embodied in a style which for abruptness and jocular paradox is hardly surpassed by Beethoven's most nervous early works. The exceptionally ornate and dilatory slow movement reads almost like a protest; while the finale begins as if to show that humour should be beautiful, and ends by making fun of the beauty. The second sonata (in D minor) is the greatest work Beethoven had as yet written. Its first movement, already cited above in connexion with the dramatic sequences in op. 2, No. 2, is, like that of the Sonata Appassionata, a locus classicus for such powerful means of expression. And it is worth noting that the only sketch known of this movement is a sketch in which nothing but its sequential plan is indicated. In the third sonata Beethoven enjoys on a higher plane an experience he had often indulged in before, the attainment of smoothness and breadth by means of a delicately humorous calm which gives scope to the finer subtleties of his new thoughts.

Beethoven himself wrote to his publisher that these three sonatas represented a new phase in his style; but when we realize his artistic conscientiousness it is not surprising that they should be contemporary with larger works like the and symphony, which are far more characteristic of his first manner. His whole development is entirely ruled by his determination to let nothing pass until it has been completely mastered, and long before this his sketch-books show that he had many ambitious ideas for a 1st symphony, and that it was a deliberate process that made his ambitions dwindle into something that could be safely realized in the masterly little comedy with which he began his orchestral career. The easy breadth and power of the 2nd symphony represents an amply sufficient advance, and leaves his forces free to develop in less expensive forms those vast energies for which afterwards the orchestra and the string-quartet were to become the natural field.

In the “Waldstein” sonata, op. 53, we see Beethoven's second manner literally displacing his first; that is to say, we reach a state of things at which the two can no longer form an artistic contrast. The work, as we know it, is not only perfect, but has all the qualities of art in which the newest elements have long been familiar. The opening is on the same harmonic train of thought as that of the sonata, op. 31, No. 1, but there is no longer he slightest need for a paradoxical or jocular manner. On the contrary, the harmonies are held together by an orderly sequence in the bass, and the onrush is that of some calm diurnal energy of nature. The short introduction to the finale is harmonically and emotionally the most profound thing in the sonata, while the finale itself uses every new resource in the triumphant attainment of a leisure more splendid than any conceivable in the most spacious of Mozart's rondos. Yet it is well known that Beethoven originally intended the beautiful andante in F, afterwards published separately, to be the slow movement of this sonata. That andante is, like the finale, a spacious and gorgeous rondo, which probably Beethoven himself could not have written at an earlier period. The modulation to D flat in its principal theme, and that to G flat near the end, are its chief harmonic effects and stand out in beautiful relief within its limits. After the first movement of the Waldstein sonata they would be flat and colourless. The sketch-books show that Beethoven, when he first planned the sonata, was by no means inattentive to the balance of harmonic colour in the whole scheme, but that at first he did not realize how far that scheme was going to carry him. He originally thought of the slow movement as in E major, a remote key to which, however, he soon assigned the more intimate position of complementary key in the first movement. He then worked at the slow movement in F with such zest that he did not discover until the whole sonata was finished that he had raised the first and last movements to an altogether higher plane of thought, though the redundancy of the two rondos in juxtaposition and the unusual length of the sonata were so obvious that his friends ventured to point them out. Beethoven's revision of his earliest works is now known to have been extensive and drastic; but this is the first instance, and Fidelio and the quartet in B flat, op. 131, are the only other instances, of any later work needing important alteration after it was completely executed. From this point up to op. 101 we may study Beethoven's second manner entirely free from any survivals of his first, even as a legitimate contrast; though it is as impossible to fix a point before which his third manner cannot be traced as it is to ignore the premonitions of his second manner in his early works. The distinguishing features in Beethoven's second style are the result of a condition of art in which enormous new possibilities have become so well known that there is no need for stating them abruptly, paradoxically or emphatically, but also no need for working them out to remote conclusions. Hence these works have become for most people the best-known and best-loved type of classical music. In their perfect fusion of untranslatable dramatic emotion with every beauty of musical design and tone they have never been equalled, nor is it probable that any other art can show a wider range of thought embodied in a more perfect form. In music itself there is nothing else of so wide a range without grave artistic defects from which Beethoven is entirely free. Wagnerian opera aims at an ideal as truly artistic, and in so far of wider range than Beethoven's that it passes beyond the bounds of pure music altogether. Within those bounds Beethoven remained, and even the apparent exceptions (such as Fidelio and his two great examples of “programme music,” the Pastoral Symphony and the sonata, Les Adieux) only show how universal his conception of pure music is. Extraneous ideas had here struck him as magnificent material for instrumental music, and he never troubled to argue whether instrumental music is the better or worse for expressing extraneous ideas. To describe the works of Beethoven's second period here would be to describe a library of well-known classics, and we must refer the reader for further details to the articles on Sonata Forms, Contrapuntal Forms, Harmony and Instrumentation. It remains for us to attempt to indicate the essential features of his third style, and to conclude with a survey of his influence on the history of music.

Beethoven's third style arose imperceptibly from his second. His deafness had very little to do with it, for all his epoch-making discoveries in orchestral effect date from the time when he was already far too much inconvenienced to test them in a way which would satisfy any one who depended more upon his ear than upon his imagination. It is indeed highly probable that there are no important features in Beethoven's latest style that may not be paralleled by the tendencies of all great artists who have handled their material until it contains nothing that has not been long familiar with them. Such tendencies lead to an extreme simplicity of form, underlying an elaboration of detail which may at first seem bewildering until we realize that it is purely the working out to its logical conclusions of some idea as simple and natural as the form itself. The form, however, will be not merely simple, but individual. Different works will show such striking external differences of form that a criticism which applies merely a priori or historic standards will be tempted by the fallacy that there is less form in a number of such markedly different works than in a number of works that have one scheme in common. All this is eminently the case with Beethoven's last works. The extreme simplicity of the themes of the first two movements of the quartet in B flat, op. 131, and the tremendous complexity of the texture into which they are woven, at first impress us as something mysterious and intangible rather than astonishing. The boldness with which the slow introduction is blended in broad statement and counter-statement with the allegro, is directly impressive, as is also the entry of the second subject with its dark harmony and tone, but the work needs long familiarity before its vast mass of thought reveals itself to us in its true lucidity. Such works are “dark with excessive bright.” When we enter into them they are transparent as far as our vision extends, and their darkness is that of a depth that shines as we penetrate it. In all probability only a veil of familiarity prevents our finding the same kind of difficulty in Beethoven's earlier works. What is undoubtedly newest in the last works is the enormous development of those polyphonic elements which are always essential to the life of a composition, but which have very different functions and degrees of prominence in different forms and stages of the art. Polyphony inevitably draws attention to detail, and thus Beethoven in his middle period found its more obvious manifestations but little conducive to the breadth of designs which were not as yet sufficiently familiar to take any but the foremost place. Hence, among other interesting features of that second period, his marked preference for themes founded on rhythmic figures of one note, e.g. the famous “four taps” in the C minor symphony; an identical rhythm in a melodious theme of very different character in the G major concerto; a similar figure in the Sonata Appassionata; the first theme of the scherzo of the F major quartet, op. 59, No. 1, and the drum-beats in the violin concerto. Such rhythms give thematic life to an inner part without causing it to assume such melodic interest as might distract the attention from the flow of the surface. But in proportion as polyphony loses its danger so does the prominence of such rhythmic figures decrease, until in Beethoven's last works they are no more noticeable than other kinds of simplicity. The impression of crowded detail is naturally more prominent the smaller the means with which Beethoven works and the less outwardly dramatic his thought. Thus those most gigantic of all musical designs, the 9th symphony, and the Mass in D, are, but for the mechanical difficulties of the choral writing, almost like works of the second period as far as direct impressiveness is concerned; and in the same way the enormous pianoforte sonata, op. 106, is in its first three movements easier to follow than the extremely terse and subtle works on a smaller scale that preceded it (sonata in A major, 101, and the two sonatas for violoncello, op. 102).

His enormous development of polyphonic interest soon led Beethoven to employ the fugue, not only, as in previous works, by way of episodic contrast to passages and designs in which the form and not the texture is the main object of interest, but as the culminating expression of a condition or art in which the unity of form and texture is so perfect that the mind is free to concentrate itself on the texture alone. This union was not effected without a struggle, the traces of which present a close parallel to that abrupt emphasis which we noticed in some of Beethoven's early works. In his fugue-writing the notion that the chief interest lies in the texture is as yet so difficult to hold together with the perception that these fugues are based on a modern firmness and range of form, that the texture is forced upon the listener's attention by a continual series of ruthlessly logical bold strokes of harmony. From this and from the notorious violence of Beethoven's choral writing, and also from his well-known technical struggles in his years of pupilage, the easy inference has been drawn that Beethoven never was a great master of counterpoint, an inference that is absolutely irreconcilable with such plain facts as, to take but one early example, the brilliant piece of triple counterpoint in the andante of the string quartet in C minor, op. 18, No. 4, and the complete absence of anything like crudeness in his handling of harmonies, basses or inner parts at any period of his career. Beethoven may have mastered some things with difficulty, but he mastered nothing incompletely; and where he is not orthodox it is safest to conclude that orthodoxy is wrong. Had he lived for another ten years he would certainly have produced an immense amount of choral work, and with it many other great instrumental works in which this last remaining element of conflict between texture and form would have dwindled away. But while this would doubtless result in such work being easier to follow and might even have given us a version of the great fugue, op. 133 (discarded from the string-quartet, op. 131), that did not surpass the bounds of practical performance, it would yet be no sound criterion by which to stigmatize as an immaturity the roughness of the polyphonic works that we know. That roughness is, like the abrupt epigrammatic manner of some of his early works, the necessary condition in which such material realizes mature expression. Without it that material could receive but the academic handling of a dead language. And by it was created that permanent reconciliation of polyphony and form from which has arisen almost all that is true in “Romantic” music, all that is peculiar to the thematic technique of Wagnerian opera, and all the perfect smoothness of Brahms's polyphony.

The incalculable depth of thought and closeness of texture in Beethoven's later works are, of course, the embodiment of a no less incalculable emotional power. If we at times feel that the last quartets are more introspective than dramatic, that is only because Beethoven's dramatic sense is higher than we can realize. The subject is too large and too subtle for dogmatism to be profitable; and we cannot in Beethoven's case, as we can in Bach's, cite a complete series of illustrations of his musical ideas from his treatment in choral music of words which themselves interpret the intention of the composer. There is so little but the music itself by which one can express Beethoven's thought, that the utmost we can do here is to refer the reader, as before, to the articles on Sonata Forms, Harmony, Instrumentation, Opera and Music, where he will find further attempts to indicate in what sense pure music can be described as dramatic and expressive of emotion.

As our range of investigation widens, and thoroughness of analysis and study increases, so we shall surely find in ourselves an ever-deepening conviction that Beethoven, whether in range, depth and truth of thought, perfect sense of beauty, or absolute conscientiousness of execution, is the greatest musician, perhaps the greatest artist, that ever lived. There is no means of measuring Beethoven's influence upon subsequent music. Every composer of every school claims it. The immense changes he brought about in the range of music have their most obvious effect in the possibilities of emotional expression; and so any outbreak of vulgarity or sentimentality can with impunity claim descent from Beethoven, though its ancestry may be no higher than Meyerbeer. Again, we have already referred to that confusion of thought which regards a series of works markedly different in form as containing less form than any number of works cast in one mould. Hence the works of Beethoven's third period have been cited in defence of more than one “revolution,” attempted in a form which never existed in any true classic, for the purpose of setting up something the revolutionist has not yet succeeded in inventing. To measure Beethoven's influence is like measuring Shakespeare's. It is an influence either too vaguely universal to name or too profoundly artistic to analyse. Perhaps the truest account of it would be that which ignored its presence in the works of ill-balanced artists, or even in the works of those who profited merely by an increase of technical and harmonic resource which, though effected by Beethoven, would, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, almost certainly have to some extent arisen from sheer necessity of finding expression for the new experience of humanity, if Beethoven had never existed. Setting aside, then, all instances of mere domination, and of a permanently established new world of musical thought, and omitting Schubert and Weber as contemporaries, the one attracted and, the other partly repelled, we may, perhaps, take three later composers, Schumann, Wagner and Brahms, as the leading examples of the way in which Beethoven's influence is definitely traceable as a creative force. The depth and solemnity of Beethoven's melody and later polyphonic richness is a leading source of Schumann's inspiration, though Schumann's artistic schemes exclude any high degree of formal organization on a large scale. Beethoven's late polyphony is carried on by Brahms to the point at which perfect smoothness of style is once more possible, and there is no aspect of his form which Brahms neglects or fails to realize with that complete originality which has nothing to fear from its ancestry. Wagner does not handle the same art-forms; his task is different, but Beethoven was the inspiring source, not only of his purely musical sense, but also of his whole sense of dramatic contrast and fitness. When he had shaken off the influence of Meyerbeer, which has so often been confused with that of Beethoven, there remained to him, pre-eminently in his music and more imperfectly realized in his drama, a power of combining contrasted emotions such as is the privilege of only the very greatest dramatic artists. Bach and Beethoven are the sources of the polyphonic means of expression by which he attains this. Beethoven alone is the extraneous source of his knowledge that it was possible. And it is as certain as anything in the history of art that there will never be a time when Beethoven's work does not occupy the central place in a sound musical mind.