Tuesday, April 2, 2013



He was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. There is some dispute as his birth was registered on the 16th or 17th of December. Some histories list his date of birth as early as the 15th. As that is my birthday, I prefer to think that is his as well. He started playing piano early in life; again, that is disputed as well. Ludwig's father, a stern and unloving man wanted his only son to be another Mozart (thank God that was NOT the case, one Mozart is one too many, in my not at all humble opinion,) and so, he may have been 4 years old, or 6 years old.

I don't remember when I first heard him. Probably at 6 months, according to my father. Ludwig and Glenn Miller.

Beethoven was a gifted pianist and violist, although not the most disciplined when it came to practice. He was a much more gifted composer and pushed the envelope when it came to experimenting and developing thematic material and working with extreme and sudden changes in dynamic contrasts. Rather than follow traditional rules that had always been followed assiduously for close to two centuries, beginning with Scarlatti and culminating in Mozart. The Art of the Fugue had been explored by Bach; Haydn had written brilliantly, establishing symphonic form that would remain into the 20th century. Paganini not only raised the bar on virtuosi playing on all non-fretted string instruments, he introduced us to the “Tema and Variations;” a main theme and variations on that theme. This template has been repeated into the 20th century as well, with Rachmaninoff and Edward Elgar.

Beethoven changed the musical world profoundly. He not only did away with the “terraced” method of dynamics; pianissimo. piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, forte, fortissimo. He juxtaposed pianissimo-fortissimo to great effect in his symphonic works and also experimented with melodies that were less predictable. His greatest works besides his symphonies are his string quartets.

Still, his greatest achievement is his 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica” in E♭Major. In one symphony, we bridge the Classical era in music and go directly to the Romantic era. On listening to, and/or playing this, you can pinpoint it to the 3rd movement. The symphony was originally to be dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, during the “Heroic” period of the early 1800s, but then, the Napster took a stroll with his armies through Europe and Ludwig got pissed. The 3rd movement starts out at a funereal pace and is, indeed dirge-like. But then, Ludwig, being Ludwig, lets his inner rage loose about 2/3 of the way through and cuts loose and he's royally pissed.

In roughly 1/3 of a movement, we go from a huge fortissimo, turmoil and sturm-und-drang in the lower strings and brass, to a syncopated, almost jazzy pianissimo in the first violins and woodwinds, and then back to the dirge, a sort-of dismissal, at least to my ear, finishes the movement as it started, in C minor, after the E♭Major diversion. A sort of rim-shot to the “Emperor” I always thought, as in the days of the Romans, when they held their Triumphal marches. Beethoven was fairly literate and he didn't care for the fact that his Hero did, after all have feet of clay. 

This is me, pouting. I like my Heroes to have Hero Feet

The 4th movement of the "Eroica" (or "Erotica" as one gleeful colleague pointed out to me in a horribly botched program one evening; "Marc Wallac" on Viola!) is a riotous movement, E♭Major all the way; a true challenge for the violas. The symphonic literature has at last begun to explore the full-bodied sound and for the next 150 years, we will see astonishing growth and wonderful prowess, from this greatest of instruments, a 104-piece modern symphonic orchestra.

The Romantic era was about really pushing the envelope of symphonic music. Finally, the damn violas got something to do besides play whole notes. This being not a music appreciation class, but being a moment in time and having spent a lifetime, seriously, a whole lifetime, in music, that is the time when music changed. Everything written after that was profoundly different. Composers understood that although rules were there and there was a reason to build off solid foundations established centuries earlier and built carefully upon over time, it was really time to move forward. From Beethoven's 3rd to his 9th Symphony, there is only a span of 19 years. The 3rd was premiered in 1805, the 9th finished in 1824, and premiered to rave reviews. Of course, by this time, Ludwig was stone deaf and could not hear a note that was played by the orchestra, or sung by the chorus and soloists. Being a musician, however, I can speak from experience; he heard every thing that was in the score.

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