One of the greatest musicians in the history of mankind, and certainly among the greatest composers of the Western European tradition, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), was baptized 250 years ago on December 17, 1770. It is fitting on such a momentous anniversary to offer readers a brief overview of his life and work, highlighting several pieces and concluding with a few thoughts on his Catholicism.
With Beethoven, we enter into a new phase of music history. He lives up to the conventional romantic picture of the tempestuous artist who lives only for his art, cares nothing for social conventions, and throws himself behind revolutionary ideas. He is the archetypal “absent-minded inspired genius.” Although he relied almost entirely on aristocratic patronage, he dictated his own terms. (When he and Goethe were out walking one day, they approached a group of noblemen. Goethe politely stepped aside and bowed, as would have been expected, but Beethoven walked right through the group.) Rich people begged him to stay in Vienna and paid him well, albeit irregularly. Countless stories about Beethoven show us a rich and paradoxical personality—by turns whimsical, careless, misanthropic, noisy, arrogant, provocative, yet profoundly compassionate, contemplative, and poetic. No wonder people have always been fascinated by the man himself no less than by his astonishing music.
His intense and conflicted personal life is the source of much of his music, and in it we hear, more than with any earlier composer, an “autobiographical portrait.” When we listen to Haydn or even to Mozart, we don’t get nearly as much a sense of peering into their intimate secrets or private struggles. At the same time, Beethoven aligns his music with philosophical-religious ideals and political movements. He is the first modern composer who attempts to give utterance to a universal vision, and sees himself as speaking on behalf of humanity. Thus, when we hear some pieces (e.g., the Fifth Symphony), we think: “This is Beethoven in anguish over his deafness,” while when we hear others (e.g., the Ninth Symphony), we think: “This is about the brotherhood of mankind in an age of Enlightenment.” No wonder every time an oppressive regime falls or some humanitarian crisis is averted, it will not take long before the strains of Beethoven’s Ninth are heard in the public square.
Although sympathetic to political revolution, Beethoven was a humanist and a moralist with high ideals. He objected to most opera libretti as frivolous and hedonistic, and in his only opera, Fidelio, chose to depict the love and suffering of a husband and wife who remain faithful to each other through thick and thin.
While fundamentally a composer in the classical style brought to perfection by Haydn and Mozart, he pushes boldly against the forms and limits of the classical period, becoming increasingly free and experimental in organization and structure, harmonic invention, and instrumental technique. In his late works, one finds movements that are only two minutes long, or movements that stretch on for twenty; he will call for extremely loud or extremely soft passages; he will use the highest and lowest registers of the piano, strings, or human voices. Such demands are never arbitrary or gratuitous; they are made for the purpose of communicating some vision or some strong experience.
His work is conventionally divided into three periods: a formative period that extends to 1802, a middle period from 1803 to 1814, and a mature period from 1814 to 1827. Thus people will speak of “early Beethoven,” “middle Beethoven,” and “late Beethoven.”
Works for Piano
For decades, Beethoven was best known as a pianist, and it is with his piano sonatas that we should start. They will give us a vivid sense of what made him fascinating and controversial to his contemporaries.
Listeners will note the overwhelming seriousness and pathos of his slow movements and the explosive virtuosity of his fast movements, with lightning shifts in mood or texture (we see this in Mozart, too, but Beethoven, as well as Schubert, carry it to a new level); notable as well as the use of jarring and jittery rhythms—insistent repetitions, syncopations, crashing chords, things we might call “attention getters.” More broadly, we hear a heightened contrast between movements: one movement will be a tender, caressing lullaby, the next an emotional volcanic eruption. Making use of the expanding possibilities of the nearly perfected pianoforte of his day, Beethoven fully exploits the instrument’s lyrical expressiveness as well as its percussive (“hammering”) power.[i]
Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are the very pinnacle of their form and occupy a special place in the vast repertoire for the piano, which has had more music written for it than any other instrument. The music critic Hans von Bülow jokingly (if somewhat irreverently) referred to Bach’s forty-eight Preludes and Fugues as the “Old Testament” and Beethoven’s thirty-two Sonatas as the “New Testament” of piano literature. Here are three tastes:
Sonata n. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique” (performed by Daniel Barenboim)
Sonata n. 14 in C# minor, “Moonlight,” Op. 27, n. 2 (performed by Valentina Lisitsa)
Sonata n. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata,” Op. 57 (performed by Valentina Lisitsa)
(No one should skip the final movement of this last, which can be directly accessed here.)
When we turn to the combination of piano and orchestra, few composers can equal and none can rival Beethoven’s five piano concertos, which are probably performed in concert more than any others of their genre. Go and check them out.
Here, I would like to point to a less well-known piece, the Choral Fantasy, for piano, orchestra, soloists, and chorus, Op. 80 (1808),[ii] which was a sort of initial run of ideas that would see fruition in the Ninth Symphony. Note the improvisatory passages. Even if you’re not good at reading scores, this one is easy to follow because it looks on paper somewhat the way it sounds to the ear.
While Haydn composed 106 symphonies and Mozart composed about 50 (the number is debated by scholars due to fuzziness over sources for his earliest works), Beethoven completed “only” 9—but what mighty works they are! Of particular note are the third, fifth, seventh, and ninth.
Why was Beethoven’s Third Symphony, nicknamed the “Eroica,” so controversial in its day? To us it sound like nothing more than wonderful classical music. Well, our ears have “stretched.” Those who enjoy listening to the more complex music of the classical tradition have a wider tolerance for dissonance, lengthy development, and so forth, than the people of Beethoven’s day, who found his work allzuviel (over the top). We must recall that 1802 was a year of crisis for Beethoven: he realized that the impaired hearing he had noticed for some time was incurable and sure to worsen. That autumn, at a village outside Vienna, he wrote the Heilgenstadt Testament addressed to his two brothers Carl and Johann, in which he admits he had contemplated suicide but believed he was called to offer great art to the human race. This gave him the will to live.
The “Eroica” symphony and many other triumphant works emerged from this period. I’ve cued up this BBC Proms performance directed by Daniel Barenboim to where the symphony starts, but the BBC commentary before it is well worth listening to.
Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, Op. 55 (1804)
Though famous for a lot of music, probably the most instantly recognizable melody our composer ever wrote is the “motto of fate” with which the Fifth Symphony begins—a pattern that has, unfortunately, become a cliché. If we persevere in listening, however, we will grasp the grand architecture, the amazing compactness and focus, and the purity of mood of this opening movement, and the way the entire symphony unfolds from it and against it. Symphony no. 5 is a “cyclic” or “cyclical” work—the motif in the first movement reappears, melodically or often just rhythmically, in all the other movements. Beethoven also briefly reprises the Scherzo in the Finale.
Here’s a marvelous performance directed by Christian Thieleman, followed by my notes on each movement:
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Movement 1, in C minor and Eb major. Listen to the way Beethoven harnesses the potential of this forceful rhythmic and melodic figure: a masterful melodic manipulation of such a simple, elemental motif. The theme itself was borrowed from a late Haydn symphony. The Cambridge Music Guide tells us:
In discussing the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, it is never possible to talk so specifically, or with such certainty, about the emotions that the music is intended to evoke. Here there can be no doubt. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins with a threat, explicit in the music’s insistent rhythm and tone; it ends with a triumph, darkness defeated by light. It is a typical product of Beethoven’s heroic phase, and we can scarcely fail to see the work as representing, in Beethoven’s mind, his own conquering of the forces of adversity by which he felt he was beset.
Movement 2, in Ab major. The rhythm of the main theme corresponds to that of the fate motif.
Movement 3, C minor, with a Trio in C Major. A “scherzo”: playful (emphasized by pizzicato strings); fugal passages; connected directly with the last movement, an innovative segue at the time.
Movement 4, C major, with additional instruments; a perfect counterpart to the opening.
The Seventh Symphony is delightful in every way, with the finale, in particular, a sort of delirious romp. It was called “drunken” at the time. Here it is, played by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan:
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811–1812), movement 4
In the interests of time, I will not comment on the Ninth Symphony, but merely commend it to the avid listener for his leisure time (here’s a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti—a video that has been watched 25 million times—and there are lots of other recordings of the same symphony, too!).
Haydn was the father of the string quartet genre, to which he, as well as Mozart, contributed dozens of masterpieces. Yet Beethoven, who wrote 16 quartets, took up this genre and pushed it farther in every direction; as a symphonic thinker, he often makes the quartet sound grander than one would think possible from only four soloists. The videography for string quartets really brings out the constant alternation and collaboration of the musicians, so much like a conversation in musical terms. It never ceases to amaze me how cleverly Beethoven makes the first movement grow out of such simple melodic motifs.
String Quartet n. 1 in F major, Op. 18, n. 1 (performed by the Alban Berg Quartet)
String Quartet n. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, n. 2 (performed by the Belcea Quartet—one of my favorites):
In his Late Period, Beethoven wrote five quartets, between the years 1822 and 1826. The quartet that is usually regarded as the first from this period is number 12, opus 127, in E-flat Major, dedicated to Prince Nicolaus von Galitzin, composed in 1823–1824.
String Quarter n. 12 in Eb major, Op. 127
In the quartets, Beethoven’s slow movements are often like lullabies, very tender; they can be surprisingly simple, delicate, childlike. He spins out very long melodies, creating a kind of “suspension of time.” The score is frequently marked ppp. We encounter passages like church hymns, sometimes written in Gregorian chant modes. This is music for people who are not in a hurry—for contemplatives and lovers. As such it perfectly complements the sometimes tense, busy, and thorny fast movements. I sometimes think that we moderns are too “busy” just to listen and surrender ourselves to something beautiful. We are impatient and think we have something better or more important to do. But do we, really?
Here is the slow movement of Quartet no. 15, op. 132, which Beethoven titled: “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” [Sacred Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode].
String Quarter n. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, third movement
In the very last quartets he wrote, Beethoven seemed to be breaking and stretching the boundaries of music, of form, structure, melody, harmony, even the physical capacity of the instruments.
I have written elsewhere about Beethoven’s faith as a Christian and as a Catholic (see “Was Beethoven a Believer? The Case of the Missa Solemnis”). It is a complicated subject, like everything else in the composer’s life, but we can confidently set aside two extremes: one, that Beethoven was a devout and practicing Catholic; the other, that he was a “freethinking” agnostic with no time for religion. In his diary he recorded sentiments of faith, pleadings for peace, and a consciousness of God-given duty. He seems to have read widely, if eclectically and desultorily: he refers to Indian, Egyptian, and Oriental religious ideas, alongside Christian ones. He was impressed with what he called “true church music,” referring to Palestrina and his contemporaries, and composed a sacred opera on the Agony of Christ in Gethsemane and two orchestral Masses, one of which is the vast and elaborate Missa Solemnis. Alec Robertson writes:
If the Missa Solemnis in a sense transcends the Catholic liturgy, it is nevertheless fundamentally Catholic and liturgical; its regular performance in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, shows that it is so recognized by ecclesiastical authority…. [T]he Missa Solemnis is above all a personal and searching confession of faith, a wrestling as of a Jacob for the angel’s blessing as well as a triumphant hymn to the power and might of a loving God.[iii]
Here is a performance of the Missa Solemnis performed by the Wiener Singverein and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, filed at the beautiful location of the monastery of Eberbach in Germany.
The greatest German poet of all time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote in a letter to his wife dated July 19, 1812: “I have never before seen a more comprehensive, energetic or intense artist. I understand very well how strange he must appear to the outside world.” Yet here we are, 250 years later, still performing and listening to his music, and still marveling at the visions of this imaginative genius.
[i] As was the case with Bach, Handel, Mozart, and so many other composers, Beethoven’s native realm was the keyboard—although by his time, this no longer meant the pipe organ or the harpsichord but the “fortepiano,” precursor of the modern pianoforte or “concert grand piano.” Beethoven was famous for being discontented with whatever piano was available; he always thought them too weak, too delicate; he wanted an instrument of power. The wonderful thing about the modern piano is the way that tones can resonate and blend inside of the frame, projecting a world of sound that can be, depending on the music, intimate or symphonic, percussive or singing.
[ii] Incidentally, I’ve often envied eighteenth and nineteenth-century concertgoers, who got to hear much longer concerts than we ever do. In Beethoven’s day, this Fantasy was presented at the same concert that saw the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies and the Fourth Piano Concerto!
[iii] Quoted in Benjamin Ivyr, “How Catholic Was Beethoven?”
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eighteen books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020), The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Emmaus, 2021), and Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question (Arouca, 2021). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.