Updated: May 4
Beethoven As Experienced Through Works From Across His Life: The Middle Period (1801 to 1814)
In this three part series, we are learning about Ludwig can Beethoven's life and music to celebrate his 250th birthday. Visit https://www.perennialmusicandarts.com/post/happy-250th-ludwig-part-1 for part 1. Visit https://www.perennialmusicandarts.com/post/happy-250th-ludwig-part-3 for part 3.
By the age of 30 in 1800, Beethoven had established his reputation as a renowned composer. During his Middle Period about 1800 to 1814, he composed some of his most famous works including the Third Symphony "Eroica," the Fifth Symphony, the three movement Violin Concerto in D, his only opera "Fidelio," Piano Sonatas Nos. 16 – 27, String Quartets No. 7 – 9, his last Piano Concerto, "Emperor," and the Piano Trio in B flat.
Descent into Deafness
During this very productive period, Beethoven began to realize his encroaching deafness. The struggle this caused him to grow as a composer, breaking further from the conventions of Classicism and creating bold, personal compositions. The pieces became longer and more harmonically complex as well. He also became interested in ideas of individual glory, the rights of the common man, and the heroic man. These two aspects have lead some musicologists to refer to his Middle Period, his "Heroic Period" as well.
For a few years, :Ludwig continued to play concertos, performing with other prominent musicians of the time including his friend Afro-European violinist virtuoso George Bridgetower (1779 –1860). Bridgetower was born to a Polish mother and a West Indian father. Beethoven originally dedicated his Violin Sonata known as a "Kreutzer Sonata" to Bridgetower. However, over a disagreement involving a lady and an off-color remark made while the two men were drinking, Beethoven retracted the dedication, instead dedicating the work to French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer (Nov. 5, 1766 – Jan. 6, 1831).
In 1802, Beethoven revealed to those closest to him that he was loosing his hearing. He first began to notice hearing loss in 1798, but by 1802, the hardship was so much that he became depressed, even suicidal. He wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament" a document intended to be read by his two brothers. It includes:
O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the cause of my seeming so. From childhood my heart and mind was disposed to the gentle feeling of good will. I was ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, made worse by ignorant doctors, yearly betrayed in the hope of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a permanent malady whose cure will take years or even prove impossible.
Beethoven became increasingly reclusive as to prevent other from realizing his malady. His days as a virtuoso were numbered. Although his deafest become total until 1819, he began making use of conversation books in which friends wrote down questions while he replied orally. His ability to play piano degenerated as he could hear less and less. He did continue to appear in public occasionally, but he focused most of his creative energy towards composition. During this period, he spend the months from May to October in the small villages near Vienna, talking long walks in the countryside, and recording his musical inspirations in sketchbooks.
In the first few years of the 1800s, Beethoven was a fierce admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte (Aug. 15, 1769 – May 5, 1821). Beethoven began his Third Symphony or "Erocia"(Italian for "Heroic") with the intent of dedicating the work to Napoleon. Beethoven's student, Ferdinand Ries (bap. Nov. 28 1784 – Jan. 13, 1838), wrote the idea was the composer’s own. Ludwig was not commissioned to write a work in Napoleon's honor. Ries explained, Beethoven held Napoleon in "the highest esteem" and "compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome." As soon the score was completed, in early 1804, he wrote the Italian words "Sinfonia intitolata Bonaparte" (in English: "Symphony entitled Bonaparte") on its cover.
However, not long after putting the final touches to the "Bonaparte Symphony," Ries came to Beethoven with news that, on May 18, 1804, Napoleon had declared himself to be the Emperor of France. Beethoven became furious. Filled with rage, the composer yelled,
So he is no more than a common mortal! Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man [and] indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men [and] become a tyrant!
Beethoven grabbed his pen, marched over to the score, and violently scribble out the title—so violently in fact that it tore the manuscript. When the work was published in 1806, the cover read: Sinfonia Eroica ... composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo ("Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.") This story was corroborated by others who knew Beethoven, including his personal secretary and biographer, Anton Schindler (June 13, 1795 – Jan. 16, 1864).
Some scholars have speculated that Beethoven was referring to his own heroic struggles with his past, his worsening deafness, and his tumultuous personality. Notice how in Mähler's portrait of Beethoven from 1804/05, Beethoven is posed with a lyre with a raised hand similar to a pose that may be used for a brave general on horseback riding into battle. Beethoven is the "hero" in the painting similar to Napoleon in Antoine-Jean's painting above.
Listen to Eroica and follow along with the score. French composer and master orchestrator, Hector Berlioz (Dec. 11, 1803 – March 8, 1869) described the symphony as "The subject here is not battles or triumphal marches, as many, misled by the abbreviated title, might expect, but rather deep and serious thoughts, melancholy memories, ceremonies of imposing grandeur and sadness, in short a funeral oration for a hero." He also cited it as the ultimate example of orchestral writing for horn and oboe. As you listen, listen to how the piece recalls the compositional structure of the Classical period but merges it with the emotional dynamics of the Romantic.
"Eroica" Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 55, composed composed 1802 – 1804, debuted 1805, published 1806)
Around the same time as Ludwig was composing the Eroica, he was composing some of his most famous piano sonatas. These include No. 17 "The Tempest, No. 21 "The Waldstein," and No 23. "Appassionata." In the Early Period, we learned about Beethoven's first patron, Count Waldstein. Waldstein, once wealthy, bankrupted himself trying to raise an army against the French and Napoleon who was marching across Europe. Upon hearing this news, Beethoven dedicated his Sonata No. 21 in C major for him.
The Waldstein is noted for being the most technically difficult piano sonata at the time. Sometimes the works is referred to as the "L'Aurora" or "The Dawn"in Italian as the rising opening chords are reminiscient of the dawn. Beethoven made the choice to only include two movements in this sonata, removing the second movement "Andante" and publishing it as a stand-alone piece. Instead of a second movement, the sonata contains a long introduction to the third movement.
Listen to the Waldstein and follow along with the score. Notice then advanced use of harmony and tonality that Beethoven uses in this work. The chromaticism of it anticipated music from the late-19th and 20th centuries, and in fact, still feels contemporary today.
"The Waldstein" Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 (1804)
At the age of 40 in 1810, Beethoven possibly proposed to—and was turned down—19 year old musician Therese Malfatti (Jan. 1, 1792 – April 27, 1851). She is the most likely "Elise" of his most famous bagatelle, Charlie Brown's friend Schroeder's staple, Für Elise, WoO 59. Her cousin, Johann Malfatti (June 12, 1775 – Sept. 12, 1859) was Beethoven's physician and friend until a falling out due to Beethoven's mistrust of others.
Listen to the deceptively simply Für Elise in the video below and follow along with the score. How does this piece compare of other works of Beethoven's "Heroic Period?"
Für Elise (1810)
Final Public Performance
During this time, Beethoven composed his "Archduke Trio," Piano Trio No. 7 in B flat major, Op 97. He dedicated it to his benefactor, student, and friend, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (Aug. 21, 1858 – Jan. 30, 1889). It was Beethoven's finale piano trio and is his best-known and one of his best-known chamber works.
Composed for piano, violin, and cello, at the debut Beethoven performed the piano part himself, and it was his last two public performances in Spring 1814. His deafness had become severe and impair his ability to play the piano. He was not able to control his dynamics, playing too hold or too soft. Violinst and composer Louis Spohr (April 5, 1784 – Oct. 22, 1859) described the performance:
“On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate. It is a great misfortune for anyone to be deaf, but how can a musician endure it without giving way to despair? From now on Beethoven’s continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me"
Listen to the Archduke Trio and follow along with the score in the video. The piece has four movements, similar to a symphony. Notice how the melodic material moves between the piano and the strings, and how Beethoven, though in a dark emotional place added joy into the piece.
"Archduke" Piano Trio in B flat (composed 1810/11, debuted 1814)
Closing Questions for the Middle Period
How do you think Beethoven's deafness shaped his compositions? Do you think he felt able to take more or less risks due to his deafness?
How do you think Beethoven's relationships with other musicians and patrons influenced his work?
What heroic musical elements do you notice throughout Beethoven's middle works?
In our next post, we will continue to explore Beethoven's life and how it influenced his music as we celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!
ClassicFM: George Bridgetower (1779 - 1860) and Beethoven: a troubled relationship. https://www.classicfm.com/composers/beethoven/guides/key-people-beethovens-music-and-life-george-bridge/ (Accessed 18 Dec. 2020)