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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Beethoven: The Innovator

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) was one of the most innovative figures in the music history. I recently finished taking a class on Beethoven at Stanford taught by a brilliant music scholar, Stephen Hinton. The class was a fascinating journey into Beethoven's nine symphonies and into his life. 

Beethoven played a key role in evolution of symphonies from classical period (1760 - 1820) to Romantic period (1820 - 1918). Following are a few key innovations he was responsible for: 

1. Movements: A classical period symphony has three or four movements. They are usually in the sequence of Fast -> Medium -> Dance -> Fast tempo. The three-movement classical period symphonies follow Fast -> Medium -> Fast tempo. Beethoven experimented with and popularized the following in the Romantic period: 

i) Changing the order of movements. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is an example 
ii) Expand the number of movements. Beethoven's Sixth Symphony is an example 
iii) Merge movements together. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is an example. 

Beethoven created new movement sequences and gave the composer more freedom. 

2. Symphony length: In the classical period most symphonies were around 30-minute long. There was a big uproar in the music world when Beethoven performed his Third Symphony which is 50-minute long. People thought that it was too long. And, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is 64.5-minute long [there are variations of this score which are longer]. In the romantic period most symphonies were 45-60-minute long. 

Beethoven changed the idea of how long a symphony should be. 

3. Relationship of movements: I was surprised to learn that up to the classical period, the symphony was not performed as one piece of music. Symphonies were performed more like a variety show. After every movement there was another act like singing or juggling or some other form of entertainment. There was almost no relationship between different movements. Each movement was considered a separate "state of the soul". Beethoven led the change in romantic period when he started performing the entire symphony as piece of music and separation of movements became uncommon. Furthermore, there was a narrative across movements in Beethoven later symphonies. 

Beethoven changed the relationship between movements of a symphony. 

4. Meaning of symphony: In the classical period, the meaning of a symphony was not specified. The prevailing idea at the time was "leave it to the listener" so it won't fetter response. Symphonies did not have titles in the classical period. I think it would have been tough to assign meaning to a piece of music that is not performed as one piece and was interrupted by juggling etc. Beethoven often gave his symphonies descriptive titles and there was a "story" associated with symphonies in the romantic era. For example, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is titled Ode to Joy and Fifth Symphony is titled Fate and Third Symphony is titled Eroica. 

Beethoven gave meaning to symphony. 

5. Size of orchestra: In classical period, the orchestra size was ~40. Led by Beethoven, in romantic period, it grew to ~80-100. 

Beethoven doubled the orchestra size allowing the composer for more creative expression. 

6. Kinds of instruments: Main instruments during the classical period were gut strings, natural horns, classical woodwinds, and limited percussion. Beethoven introduced modern versions of the old instruments. For example, horns with valves. And, he introduced voices. Beethoven Ninth Symphony was the first popular symphony to include human voice. Hence, popularizing the music genre Choral Symphony. [Hector Berlioz was the first to use vocals in a symphony. Any French person would point it out to you] 

Beethoven introduced new musical instruments to the symphony. 

7. Silence during performance: Prior to Beethoven it was common for people to talk during the performance of a symphony. Maybe because it was more of variety show. Beethoven required the audience to be silent and get immersed in the music and he raised the profile of the conductor. Before Beethoven it was not uncommon for the symphonies to be performed without a conductor. 

Beethoven changed the audience experience during the performance of a symphony. 

There were other technical innovations Beethoven was responsible for related to measure numbers, music sections like codas which I did not understand enough to describe. I think I need to take Music 101 again. 

There are more interesting things about Beethoven and his symphonies. See: 

Beethoven started going deaf at the ago of 26, by the time he composed his Fifth Symphony he was partially deaf and when he composed his Ninth Symphony he was completely deaf. Critics say that he was composing music by visualizing it and hence it is difficult to perform the Ninth Symphony in the original measure numbers and tempos. That is why you see the Ninth Symphony performance can vary from 65 minutes to 79 minutes. 

When the development of audio CD was being led by Sony and Philips, the Sony executive, Norio Ohga, determined that a single CD should be able to play London Philharmonic Orchestra's recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its entirety. Hence, the length of the first audio CDs was ~74 minutes. 

Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall

It is a Japanse tradition to play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony during New Year Eve celebrations. 

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the European Union's anthem

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony opened the London Olympics

I think the classical music world was under the spell of Beethoven until Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was performed on May 29th, 1913 at Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris.