Updated: Mar 25
Beethoven As Experienced Through Works From Across His Life: The Late Period (1815 to 1827)
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 and https://www.perennialmusicandarts.com/post/happy-250th-ludwig-part-2 for part 2.
As Beethoven left the world of public performance and slipped into a private musical life, his works became smaller with more solo piano and string quartet works and less symphonic works and no more concertos. During this period, he hearing loss had advanced so much that to Beethoven sound was both muffled and drowned out by tinnitus that he became increasingly adventurous and fascinated by philosophical implications of music.
He also became even less interested in Classical form and function. He wrote,"Form is a function more of space and design than of tonality. The dominant is no longer ex officio the agent of tonal opposition." Meaning that tension and release in music was moving beyond the tonic to dominant relationship that was the core of Classical music. He was envoking the music of the late-nineteenth century and beyond.
At this time, Beethoven also became more interested in incorporating elements of the polyphonic music of the Baroque. He looked to G. F. Handel's works as well as the keyboard works of J.S. Bach that he had studied under court organist Neefe for inspiration. During this period he composed the the Legendary Ninth Symphony, his last Piano Sonatas Nos. 28 – 32, the late String Quartets Nos. 11 – 16, the byzantine Grosse Fuge for string quartet, the extensive Missa Solemnis, and the masterful Diabelli Variations for piano.
His Greatest Work
Beethoven continued to compose under the patronage of Rudolph, Archduke of Austria, as well as teach the Archduke piano and composition. In 1819 the Archduke was appointed a cardinal and then appointed Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc) in Moravia (located in modern-day Czech Republic). To congratulate him, Beethoven offered to compose a mass for the occasion, the Missa Solemnis. Beethoven was so dedicated to the composition that he set aside his Ninth Symphony and the Diabelli Variations to focus all of his attention on the mass which he called his greatest work.
During this time, personal issues continued to plague Beethoven, including the bitter battle for custody of his nephew, Karl van Beethoven (Sept. 4, 1806 – April 13, 1858), with Karl's mother, Johanna Reiß van Beethoven (1786 – 1869), Ludwig's brother Kasper's widow. Due to the on-going family troubles, Beethoven was not able to complete the mass in time for Rudolph's installation on March 9, 1820.
Once the date had passed, Beethoven continued to refine the work while composing other projects as well including the monumental Ninth Symphony. Another one of Beethoven's noble patrons, who was also a composer, Prince Nikolai Borisovich Galitzin (1794 – 1866), arranged the first performance of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg, Russia on April 7, 1824. About a month later on May 7, 1824, the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei debuted in Vienna, where they were conducted by the composer.
While Beethoven was nominally Catholic, he was not a church-goer and had a distaste of organized religion. However, he did, in fact, read and study religion and philosophy extensively, including Eastern thought. He kept three saying written on paper under glass on his composition table that were said to come from ancient Egypt, They were:
I am that which is. I am all that is, that was and that will be. No mortal man has lifted my veil. He is solely found himself in all things owe their being to him alone.
Beethoven endeavored to include his philosophy and spirituality into his compositions. The Missa Solemnis was no different. He incorporated long ascending and descending lines into the Mass to represent a conversation between Earth and Heaven; he used fugal counterpoint to express the interwoven complexity and immense beauty of the Universe; he chose texts from the traditional Mass and setting them to "awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners" in his own words. The Missa Solemnis expressed Beethoven's most dearest held beliefs in the wonder of creation and the universal brotherhood of humankind. (His last symphony, Symphony No. 9 in D major Op. 125, also encapsulates this theme of brotherhood. We will learn more about the "Big Nine" in another post.)
Beethoven began composing the Missa by translating the entire Mass Ordinary text from Latin into German. Then he made small adjustments to the text to allow for greater musical development and added annotations with his understanding of the text. Beethoven felt his personal interpretation of the text as the composer should be held above previous conventional interpretations and devised music to support his ideas about the text. He sketched the Missa in his small notebooks and looked to the beauty of the countryside around him for inspiration. Due to the personal nature of the Missa, its length, and the numbers of musicians needed to perform it, there was some concern at the time as to whether or not the piece could function in a church setting.
Listen to the Missa Solemnis in the video below and follow along with the score. Notice the scale of the piece. Listen and watch for the imitative sections and the huge unisons and full chords. Pay attention to how the work feels triumphant with all of the sections except the Credo in the middle set in the key of D major. The Credo is set in B flat major, a third higher than D major. This choice elevates the Credo and places it in a place of music honor.
Missa Solemnis (composed 1819 to 1823, debuted April 7, 1824, Published 1827)
A Return to Chamber Music
While the sheer magnitude of the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony was immense with both works involving large orchestras and full choirs, in his late works Beethoven also returned to chamber music. While the music may have been composed for smaller ensembles, such as string quartets and solo piano, he continued to be expansive and innovative through other ways, especially through complex fugal sections and by creating elaborate variations on simple ideas.
From The Cobbler's Patch
In early 1819 the music publisher and amateur composer Anton Diabelli (September 5, 1781 – April 7, 1858) composed a short waltz and invited Vienna’s leading composers, including Franz Schubert (Jan. 31, 1797 – Nov. 19. 1828), Carl Czerny (Feb. 21 1791 – July 15, 1857), Archduke Rudolph, and even an eight-year-old Franz Liszt (Oct. 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) to compose one variation on it. Diabelli intended on publishing them together as a set, similar to a compilation album or playlist where various famous popular musicians submit a track. Beethoven did not think highly of Diabelli's collaborative ideas, responding to his request for a four-handed piano sonata, "My dear Sir! why would you want another sonata from me?! You have a whole army of composers who can do it far better than I, give everyone a measure, what wonderful work isn’t then to be expected? Long live your Austrian Association, who knows how to treat this – cobbler’s patch masterfully.” (A cobbler's patch, or Schusterfleck in German, is a derogatory name for a sequential passage (see sequence (1)) in which each repetition is one scale degree higher than the last.) At first, Beethoven was reluctant to accept the invitation. However, Beethoven who is and was known for his temper, decided to compose not one single variation but to prove his mastery...for a price...compose 33 variations on the theme.
Beethoven did indeed prove his mastery composing one of the two greatest sets of keyboard variations composed, along with J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. While most of the variations stay in the home key of C major, he was able to create distinct variations each with thieir own personality. Variation I turns the waltz into a march; while Variation II is based on exchanging eighth notes between the two hands. Variation VII introduces triplets. Variation IX is built on a motif taken from the waltz’s upbeat and takes the theme from C major to c minor. Variation XII makes use of legato eight notes. While Variation XIII is punctuated by dottted rhythms and rests. In Variation XXII, Beethoven added a quote from Leporello’s aria “Notte e giorno faticar” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Variation XXIV is an elegant fugue. He completes the set with a ornamented Largo, molto espressivo, similar to the introduction sections of his last sonatas, followed by a double fugue in E flat major, and finally a capricious Minuet. All in all, Beethoven created a masterwork of approximately an hour in length out of a little less than a minute of "cobbler's patch."
Listen to the Diabelli Variations and follow along with the score. Note how may different he alters, manipulates, references, and recalls the original theme. Then I encourage you to go back to his first published work, Nine Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63, that we explored in Part 1 and compare the two sets of variations.
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 (1819 – 1823)
The Final String Quartets
Beethoven's final string quartets were composed during the last years of his life (1824 to 1826). Prince Nicholas Galitzin commissioned him to compose one, two, or three quartets. Beethoven, of course, was not satisfied with the minimum and composed five, five multi-movement quartets (No. 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16) and a stand-alone movement quartet, the "Grosse Fuge" which grew out of No. 13.
While one of Beethoven's teachers "Papa" Haydn had been considered the master creator of the string quartet and Mozart the innovator. Beethoven took the string quartet into the future. So far in fact that his contemporary audiences did not understand some of his compositions. In fact, until the 20th century some scholars and listeners thought Beethoven must have been driven mad by his deafness to compose these difficult, complicated, and unusual works. (However, his fellow composers, such as Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann) did not share the sentiment.)
Beethoven's Late Quartets are like 20th century music that Beethoven channeled through time in the early 19th. Stravinsky wrote that the Grosse Fuge "was absolutely contemporary and would stay contemporary forever." Listen to the Grosse Fuge and follow along with the score. Notice the complex rhythms, chromatic melodies and contrapuntal harmonies. Skip ahead in the recording a few times and listen to thirty seconds or so and ask yourself "If I heard this and I didn't know who wrote it or when it was written, would I guess Beethoven in the 19th century?" I'm guessing the answer is "no." I know I wouldn't!
Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (1825)
Beethoven's the complete work was his String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135. Only the new finale for Op. 130 that replaced the Grosse Fuge was written after. He composed also some sketches for an incomplete C major quartet as well. Quartet No. 16 is a subtler work than the other Late Quartets in its brevity and in its more traditional approach. It only lasts about 20 to 25 minutes, while the other Late Quartets run about 40 to 45.
On the manuscript of the final movement of the Final Quartet Beethoven included what is called "The Great Question." Under the slow introductory chords Beethoven wrote: "Muß es sein?" (English: Must it be?) Then he answers the question with the faster main theme of the movement, "Es muß sein!" (English: It must be!) The whole movement is ends with "Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß" (English: The Difficult Decision).
Some music scholars have found this significant as this is Beethoven's last completed work, theorizing that he was contemplating his own mortality. Others has thought he was referencing banal financial questions around either being paid or paying someone. We will never know what Beethoven was thinking, but consider the questions while you listen to the Quartet No. 16 and follow along with the score in the video below.
String Quartet No. 16 (October 1826, published posthumously in 1827)
Ludwig van Beethoven died at home in his Vienna apartment on March 26, 1827 at the age of 56, following a prolonged illness. Although it has been quote that his final words were, "Applaud, friends, the comedy is over." The witnesses say he said, "Pity, pity—too late!", as the dying composer was told of a gift of twelve bottles of wine that had been sent by his publisher. There has been some debate as to what his illness was, but signs of liver damage were found in his autopsy. He may have had heavy metal poisoning, hepatitis, or have been suffering from cirrhosis due to years of alcohol abuse.He may have also had diabetes. IT has also been proposed that his doctor accidentally killed him by giving him an overdose of a lead-based treatment.
Beethoven was not alone at his death by was in the company of friends and family, including his sister-in-law, possibly by his secretary Karl Holz, and his friend and fellow composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was also at Schubert's side at his untimely death. Beethoven was mourned by Vienna with anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 onlookers lining the streets for his funeral procession. The theaters were closed and many notable artists including Schubert and Czerny attended. Although he may not have said it himself, Beethoven left this world with his friends—and all of Vienna—giving the maestro one last standing ovation.
Closing Questions for the Late Period
How do you think Beethoven's family turmoil?
How do you think Beethoven's health impacted his ability to compose?
Knowing what you know about Beethoven what do you think he meant by
It's important to note that we've barely scratched the surface on Beethoven's life and music. He was a complicated man who composed deeply personal, yet universally meaningful music. There's so much more to learn about the man and his work, from his controlling relationship with his nephew Karl, to his allusive "Immortal Beloved," to his early career as a improvising pianist, and much more. We will no doubt explore Beethoven further in the future. Subscribe to get the latest posts and stay up-to-date with Perennial Music and Arts.
Beethoven Association of Krakow. Diabelli Variations Op. 120. http://beethoven.org.pl/encyklopedia/en/beethoven-ludwig-van-wariacje-na-temat-walca-diabellego-op-120/ (Accessed 23 December 2020)
Burham, Scott. Pre-Concert Talk Transcript: Grosse Fuge for String Quartet. https://cso.org/uploadedFiles/1_Tickets_and_Events/Program_Notes/ProgramNotes_Beethoven_Festival_Grosse_Fuge.pdf (Accessed 23 December 2020)
Drabkin, William. Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
MacDonald, Hugh. LAPhilharmonic: Missa Solemnis. https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/2348/missa-solemnis (Accessed 19 December 2020)
Martin, Robert and Robert Winter. The Beethoven Quartet Companion. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994.
'Missa Solemnis,' a Divine Bit of Beethoven. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/5202103 (Accessed 21 December 2020)
Müllemann, Norbert. Beethoven’s “Diabelli” variations in a new guise. G. Henle Verlag. https://www.henle.de/blog/en/2020/04/06/beethovens-diabelli-variations-in-a-new-guise/ (Accessed 23 December 2020)
Saving, Martin. Must it be? Must what be? The Beethoven Project. https://thebeethovenproject.com/must-it-be-must-what-be/ (Accessed 23 December 2020)
Suchet, John. Beethoven's String Quartets: John Suchet's guide to the music. https://www.classicfm.com/composers/beethoven/guides/beethovens-music-string-quartets/ (Accessed 21 December 2020)
What Did Beethoven's Deafness Sound Like? https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/special-features/what-did-beethovens-deafness-sound-like/12317228 (Accessed 23 December 2020)
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.