Breaking the Mold - Beethoven's (r)evolution

Until Beethoven, the symphony had been a form of entertainment. Haydn had composed most of his 104 symphonies for the enjoyment of his aristocratic employer; Mozart had composed many of his 41 symphonies specifically to cater to the changeable tastes of the Viennese public (think of 19th century Vienna like modern-day Hollywood – lots of wealth, being seen on the scene, and a desire for the latest and newest diversion.)

Then along comes Beethoven. After a couple of preliminary experiments in the genre with the first two symphonies, he just busts the whole thing wide open with his Third Symphony, the so-called Eroica (meaning ‘heroic’.) Compared with the opening of any previous symphony, the brawny and heftily muscular two chords of the introduction leave us thunder-struck (Beethoven was going to outdo himself yet again with the opening of the famous Fifth Symphony.) The Eroica doesn’t allow the listener to blithely chat to their friends, as would have been done at a concert until this point (orchestral concerts used to be like seeing live jazz, the music was given periodic attention when it was particularly interesting.) The Eroica grabs you by the lapels and says, ‘Listen up!’

If you have listened to a bunch of Haydn and Mozart (who lived before Beethoven), the Eroica sounds very fresh and new. The main tune is hardly a tune at all (and certainly not easily singable like a good Mozart melody.) It is asymmetrical, non-repeating, and doesn’t complete itself. It keeps going off on tangents and getting derailed. There are loose fragments of tune floating all about the place, a bit disconnected, and then a series of jarringly offbeat chord stabs. And just when we think we’re (finally) going to get the main theme delivered properly, it dissolves and dissipates, moving on without gratifying. What’s going on?!

This is the point.

It is not as if Beethoven didn’t know how to pen a memorable tune (Ode to Joyis pretty good.) He was starting to use music metaphorically. The melody is asymmetric and non-closing because life is asymmetric and non-closing. The music is in a constant state of flux, going down different paths, growing, changing, developing. The focus has shifted from beauty and distracting charm, from a decorous refrain presented whole and complete, to the process required to arrive at that point. Composers had always toiled and labored to make their music seem effortless and almost pre-ordained; but now Beethoven is consciously importing that sense of effort and struggle and striving into the music itself. This is Art, no longer merely a pleasant diversion. This represents a massive evolutionary step, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Beethoven moves music from being to becoming. From existing to striving. From state to process. (You may wish to read that bit again, it’s quite dense…)

This scratches the surface of how profoundly Beethoven influenced music, and why a century of composers who followed felt his looming shadow cast over them. Beethoven started a decisive movement from pleasant distraction to philosophy in sound. 

Kirsten Hicks