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  • by Mary Barton

More Than Music: Beethoven

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

Sometimes the most beautiful thing in the sky is a storm. Dark, purple clouds threatening immense power; blinding flashes of light electrifying the heavy canvas; the rumbling discourse as the wind holds its breath till the right moment … then boom! The anticipation is as awesome to behold as the release!

It’s like this in music too.

But perhaps one has to experience a storm in order to extract its beauty and authenticate it in art. Ludwig van Beethoven’s life certainly had lots of clouds. Thunder. Lightening. Any of you who have grown up in an alcoholic or abusive home, like Beethoven did, could probably relate. Everything’s fine one moment, then boom, an explosion. It was sunny; now there’s a storm. Where did it come from? How did it amass so quickly?

And yet from the stormy darkness of Beethoven’s childhood came a love for the moody, minor key signatures, those dark and lovely rivers of expression, particularly C minor, which would be the tonal setting for some of his greatest works. From beatings and confinement to the cellar when he didn’t measure up to the cruel standards of his father, who was trying to forcibly cram his young son into a Mozart-like, child-prodigy mould, came the boldness to venture to places musically no one before had dared go. From the despair of looming deafness shrouding his mid-twenties came determination and the greatest outpouring of his genius.

Born 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven would become a force to be reckoned with that not even deafness could stop, as expressed in his Symphony No. 5, a tidal wave of innovation springing from a 4-note motive. He laboured meticulously over his pieces, according to his sketchbooks, perhaps more so than Mozart, whose compositions seemed to write themselves, but Beethoven’s genius is equally transparent and his mammoth contributions to music straddle the Classical and Romantic eras.

Motivic themes would become his trademark. His characteristic explosive accents and extreme dynamic changes seemingly mirror the minefield of growing up in an alcoholic home but transform the chaos into beauty and purpose. He seemed to thrive on blazing new trails, reshaping the genres of his day such as the sonata, concerto, string quartet and the symphony.

He replaced the graceful Menuet and Trio in the Sonata Cycle with the more dramatic and potentially moody Scherzo and Trio, used cyclical structure, as seen in the movement-jumping motive of the fifth symphony, experimented with programmatic elements in his sixth, and vocal components in his ninth, considered to be the greatest symphony ever written. The famous melody, Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s ninth symphony would later become the musical setting for Henry van Dyke’s 1911 poem, The Hymn of Joy, more commonly known as, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, transforming the original and, at times, disappointingly pagan lyrics of Ode to Joy, and becoming one of the most beloved Christian hymns in history.

Through the high-pitched sounds of the piccolo, tempered with the addition of the trombone and contrabassoon, he stretched the tonal palette of the symphonic genre, and as a phenomenal pianist famous for his improvisation skills, explored all the improvements being made during his day to his beloved instrument.

Though Beethoven’s life was on the shorter side, just 56 years, it thundered with creativity and determination. From the sturm and drang (storm and stress) of his growing years, a tempestuous beauty would be extracted in the latter, unleashing a deluge of musical offerings that still erupt upon audiences to this day.

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