Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770–1827
One of the most original artists that ever lived, Beethoven bridged the gap between the logical perfection of music from the Classical period to the emotional outpouring of the Romantic period. Almost single handedly he changed the face of music forever as his compositions progressed away from the established norms of the old guard and blazed a new musical path: one of emotional upheaval, heroism, and passion. Not only were these sweeping changes taking place in his music, but also in the political and social realm as well. Unlike his predecessors, Beethoven was not in the employ of a king or noble patron as court composer or Kapellmeister, but was an independent composer who earned his own living by publishing and performing music. The individuality and nonconformity of his personality is very evident in all of his music, and especially in his piano compositions.
All of the great classical composers were pianists or keyboardists: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff—the list is nearly endless. Even though they wrote music for orchestral instruments and voice also, the piano/keyboard was the foundation of their musical talents. Pretty good company, don't you think?
Beethoven is perhaps best known for his symphonies, but his piano music is close behind in popularity. The piano sonatas bring new demands to the instrument, and many of the pianos of his day were not up to the task. The huge variation between loud and soft passages in the music of Beethoven was often too much for the earlier pianos, resulting in broken strings and keys. It is interesting to note that the rise of the modern piano was due in large part to accommodate the piano music of Beethoven. As an international star, piano makers of the day would correspond with Beethoven seeking what favorable qualities to incorporate into the instruments. Famous manufacturers would make a gift of a piano to Beethoven in an early example of an artist's endorsement marketing plan. Everyone who could afford it wanted the piano brand that Beethoven played.
“Fur Elise” (For Elise) is one of Beethoven's most famous piano pieces. Play it with lots of emotion.
FIGURE 13-4: Excerpt from Beethoven's “Fur Elise”
Ironically, much of the music of Beethoven enjoyed by so many for generations was never heard by the composer himself. He began losing his hearing just before the age of thirty, and each year his hearing grew steadily worse until he was completely deaf when he wrote many of his greatest compositions. It is another testament to the genius and rugged individualism of Beethoven that he persevered through the adversity of losing his hearing, and kept composing brilliant music to his last days.
Beethoven not only influenced piano technology, but modern musical recording technology as well. When developing the standards for the audio compact disc, it was decided that recordings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would be the benchmark. The longest known recording was 74 minutes, and that became the Red Book standard CD playing time.