Romantic Giant


Born (baptized): December 17, 1770. Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria

In his own words...

"I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time... before writing them down... once I have grasped a theme. I shall not forget it even years later. I change many things, discard others, and try again and again until I am satisfied; then, in my head... [the work] rises, it grows, I hear and see the image n front of me from every angle... and only the labor of writing it down remains... I turn my ideas into tones that resound, roar, and rage until at last they stand before me in the form of notes."
German composer. Often considered a transitional figure from the Classical to the Romantic era.

Ludwig van Beethoven is often described by musicians as a "giant straddling two styles": the Classical and the Romantic. Indeed, it is a testimony to Beethoven's place in history that he is claimed for both periods. Whether Beethoven was a Classical or a Romantic composer, however, is beside the point. Instead, we might best view him as a new composer for a new age -- an age that is reflected in both musical as well as the nonmusical worlds.

Haydn and Mozart lived during a time of nascent ideals of liberty and two major revolutions. They also lived in a world of royal patronage, in which Haydn flourished but Mozart floundered. In contrast, Beethoven came of age as an artist when the consequences of revolutions had to be confronted and when the burden of patronage had already shifted to the less reliable mechanisms of the commercial sphere: publications and concerts proceeds, supplemented by sporadic noble patronage. It was a far more disorderly world for Beethoven, yet one full of exciting potential.

It is in this world of change that we find Beethoven one of the most enigmatic composers. By the middle of his life he was almost totally deaf, and had yet to produce his most profound works. In many ways cut off from the world, Beethoven was still committed to the idea of "brotherhood" as so powerfully expressed in his Ninth Symphony. These tensions and contradictions find a voice in many of his compositions. His symphonies starting with the Third (the "Eroica") are huge works, as are some of the late quartets. Yet at the same time, he could compress his works. These sometimes contradictory aspects are part of Beethoven's character and part of the times in which he lived. And they make Beethoven one of the most interesting of all the great composers.

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