Evolution of Beethoven’s Work

Early Period

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21

Cleveland Orchestra | George Szell | Sony Essential Classics 1962

This four movement symphony published in 1801 opens with an Adagio which features some call and answer chords between the strings and wind/brass.  It sounds like a Classical piece from the outset – elegant and balanced, with motifs based on scale passages.  Easily singable melodies are passed around between the sections of the orchestra in a very Classically appealing way and it sets an uplifting mood.  The rest of the symphony continues in a similar vein, and seems considerably more pedestrian than the twentieth century symphonies I have listened to for Part 2 – there are longer sections where the music remains in the same key, texture or motif, as well as more repetition.  The symphony itself is also fairly short, lasting only about 26 minutes.

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 18

Alban Berg Quartet | String Quartets Nos. 1-3 | EMI Classics 1999

The first Allegro con brio movement seems to juxtapose some very Classically sounding phrases in a major key with more aggressive, minor sections that sound more typically Beethoven.  It features an accompaniment of repeated detached quaver chords played by the middle parts while the violin sings a melody over the top and the cello plays a bass line, although the melody is sometimes passed around the parts as well.  The beginning of the second slow movement is predominantly quiet, but with crescendos played through the sustained note in the melody part which give the music a very expressive quality.  There’s then a more impassioned section deserving of the movement’s Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato title with sudden changes from forte to piano.  The final movement again sounds often very Classical in style.

Middle Period

Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, Op. 55

London Philharmonic Orchestra | Vladimir Jurowski | LPO 2017

This is Beethoven’s well known ‘Eroica’ symphony, first performed in 1805 and originally dedicated to Napoleon.  With its loud, bold chords, this symphony definitely feels like it’s starting to move away from Classical traditions, and at just over 50 minutes long it’s a significantly larger work than his first symphony.  It’s exciting and dramatic music, with more of a sense of leading to somewhere.  In the Adagio assai second movement (a funeral march), I found the deep, rumbling double bass line very effective and ominous sounding.

Fidelio, Op. 72: Overture

London Philharmonic Orchestra | Vladimir Jurowski | LPO 2017

This is the overture to Beethoven’s only opera, also premiered in 1805.  The main theme based on a rising arpeggiated pattern is well known and the bold statement reminds me of the Eroica.

Kreutzer Sonata in A Major, Op. 47

Maxim Vengerov & Alexander Markovich | Teldec Classics 1992

The first movement opens with a conversation between the violin and piano.  It doesn’t remain long in A major, soon changing to a minor key.  Melodies are built on rising scale patterns and arpeggios, the double stopped passages on the violin sound raw and less refined than Classical music, and the piano part contains lots of octaves in both hands. One particularly noticeable feature is Beethoven’s use of the augmented fourth resolving to the perfect fifth, as well as the leading tone resolving to the tonic.  The second movement is a theme and variations – in the theme the melody is doubled between the piano and the violin.  Some of the variations are quite playful and others more serious, and there’s something like an Alberti bass in the piano part of one variation which sounds very Mozart-like.

Late Period

Symphony No. 9, Op. 125

Wiener Philharmoniker | Sir Simon Rattle | Warner Classics – EMI Records 2003

Beethoven’s final completed symphony was premiered in Vienna in 1824, by which time, astonishingly, the composer was completely deaf.  What immediately occurs to me listening to the start of this famous symphony is that the textures and orchestration are quite different to previous works – for example we hear the entire orchestra playing the same melody in unison.  The symphony also employs tremolo strings and timpani, and of course is famous for including a chorus in the final movement which gives a real sense of drama and must have been quite awe inspiring when it was first heard.  The Adagio third movement is surprisingly serene and gentle, with lyrical melodies, quiet sustained notes and pizzicato accompaniments.  In the final movement we hear the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ theme first played very quietly in unison on the cellos and basses, before being developed into a jubilant melody played by the wind and brass.  I find the climax, when this theme is also sung by the chorus, to be extremely emotional music – something about the simplicity of the melody and the insistence of the repeated notes makes me think of defiance, and overcoming hardship.

String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131

The Jasper String Quartet | Sono Luminus 2014

This is the last of Beethoven’s string quartets, completed in 1826.  The first movement is an incredibly beautiful slow fugue, with harmonies that sound very unusual and colourful, changing key frequently.  Beethoven is also much freer with his structure by this point – the quartet has seven movements, varying between under a minute and around seven  minutes in length.  His reference to the first movement’s fugue in the final movement was also very unusual for the time – something which I find quite satisfying to listen to as it gives a sense of completion.


One thought on “Evolution of Beethoven’s Work

  1. Pingback: Classical Forms – Emma Arandjelović

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