Beethoven, Ludwig van
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Coriolanus Overture, Op. 62 (1807)
- Composer: Beethoven, Ludwig van
- Conductor: Bernardi, Mario
- Performance Date: 1970-01-06
- Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Dec 16, 1770 - Mar 26, 1827
Few composers in the history of music could convey drama in tone the way Beethoven could. Here is an excellent example, as he depicts both the inner and outward struggle of a man trapped in a lose-lose situation. Learn more
Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770;
died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
German classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven is often considered one of the bridge composers, and the evolution of the classical music period into the romantic era can be seen in his many compositions. Living and working primarily in Vienna, Austria during his life Beethoven is often considered one of the greatest composers in history, producing work even after a devastating hearing loss. His catalogue of musical work has inspired and intimidated composers that came after him.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany on December 16, 1770, although his birthday is often celebrated on December 17, the day of his baptism. Like many composers before him, his first music teacher was his father, himself a court musician in Bonn, and without success attempted to show him off as a child prodigy, much as Mozart's father had. Beethoven's childhood was difficult, and his father, an abusive alcoholic, beat him often when he did not perform up to his standards. Still, others soon recognized his great musical abilities, and in 1787 while in Vienna he got the opportunity to play for Mozart. He was given a job and music lessons by Christian Gottlob Neefe and sponsorship by the German court to play and study music. His career was halted slightly when he was 17, and his mother died, forcing him to care for two younger brothers.
In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna, intending to train with Joseph Haydn. Unfortunately, Haydn did not appreciate Beethoven's unconventional musical ideas and playing style and stopped lessons. Despite this minor set-back, Beethoven quickly became known in Vienna for being a piano genius as well as a composer, though the composing came much more slowly. In the 1790's, Beethoven decided upon the career of a freelance musician, rejecting the idea of working for a church or a court, and supported himself through public performances, sales of his compositions and grants and stipends from noblemen willing to support his work and talent.
Typically Beethoven's musical life is separated into three periods: Early; Middle; and Late. In his Early period, his compositions and playing style reflected the greats of classical music, including his former teacher Haydn and Mozart, while he simultaneously experimented with new stylistic avenues and finding his own voice. It was during this time that he composed his first and second symphonies, along with the first six string quartets, two piano concertos and twenty piano sonatas, including two of his most famous, "Pathetique" and "Moonlight."
Beethoven's Middle period started after he lost his hearing and is recognized as being the period during which his most dramatic and large-scale music works were composed. It was during this time that Beethoven composed many famous works, including symphonies numbers three through eight, the last three piano concertos, the triple concerto and his only violin concerto. He also composed five string quartets, seven more piano sonatas and his only opera, Fidelio.
Beethoven's Late period started in 1816 and continued until his death. Compositions during this time are typically categorized as being Beethoven's most intellectual, intense and personal works. They also are the most experimental in his library. For example, his Ninth Symphony was the first symphony to add a choral part to the final movement.
Beethoven's most well-known works include his Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 5 , a Violin concerto, the "Pathétique," "Moonlight," and "Appassionata" piano sonatas and the "Für Elise". "Ode to Joy," the recognizable final choral movement of the Ninth Symphony is the National Anthem of the European Union and was played by Leonard Bernstein during the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events commemorate the universal nature of Beethoven's music works. Because of the breadth of Beethoven's artistic experimentation and his success at creating works that could be understood and enjoyed by the entire world, many have called Beethoven, not only the greatest composer in history, but one of the greatest minds in history.
Beethoven's personal life was very difficult, and when he began to lose his hearing at age 28 he thought seriously about suicide. He was not easy to get along with, and often fought with relatives and friends, a trait that potentially was the reason he never married. Because of his freelance lifestyle, he often was in financial distress. Many note the influence of Beethoven's troubled life in his music; his compositions have themes that center around great struggle that is resolved with victory.
Perhaps Beethoven's greatest contribution to music was his transformation of the sonata form, although rivaling that was his re-envisioning of the symphony into a freer and more expressive form. Often in poor health, he died on March 26, 1827, legend has it during a wild thunderstorm, angry. His last piece of music was a string quintet in C Major, unfinished.
Concert Program Notes
Ludwig van Beethoven: Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Unlike Beethoven’s Overtures to Egmont, Prometheus, The Ruins of Athens or King Stephen, which are merely the first of a long series of musical numbers written to accompany a staged play, the Overture to Coriolan stands alone as an independent work. Although written ostensibly to open a performance of the play by his friend, the Viennese poet and playwright Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811), the more pressing reason was probably that the composer happened to need a new overture to open his own concerts, and indeed, the first performance of the Overture took place at a private concert at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz in March of 1807.
Collin’s play had opened in 1802, and had been relatively successful, at least for a while. The incidental music used was drawn from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, arranged by Abbé Stadler. Mozart’s brother-in-law Joseph Lange was much lauded for his portrayal of the title role. Coriolan closed after three years, but for a revival of a single performance in 1807, Beethoven provided the overture that seems to reflect his own character as keenly as it does that of the Roman general from whom it takes its name.
The Coriolan of Collin’s play derives from Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus, and ultimately from Plutarch’s account, all works Beethoven himself knew well. Coriolanus, born Gaius Marcius, acquired his popular name through an act of extraordinary bravery, by leading the Romans to victory over their traditional enemy, the Volscians, and capturing the city of Corioli. For this he received the honorary name Coriolanus. Nevertheless, back in Rome, he became embroiled in political issues and found himself exiled. To avenge this terrible injustice, Coriolanus, in bitterness and fury, switched his allegiance to the Volscians and led them against Rome. They laid siege to the city, with Coriolanus rejecting all ambassadors and emissaries until the Romans sent his wife, mother and young son. Coriolanus finally relented, but this so angered the Volscians that they murdered him. (In Collin, this becomes suicide.) Obviously a story like this probes the trials and tribulations of a human soul, makes heroic attempts to resolve weighty issues, and involves the conflict of noble ideals (in this case, pride and love) - all themes close to Beethoven's heart. In addition, Beethoven surely felt an affinity with Coriolanus’ qualities of individualism, daring, stubbornness and loneliness.
The conflict raging in the hero's soul is depicted in the contrast between the two principal themes of Beethoven’s Overture. Fourteen introductory bars set the mood by hurling forth stern unisons in the strings and defiant, slashing gestures from the full orchestra. The first main theme, in C minor, is full of restless, nervous energy, a theme of dark menace and angry expostulations. This eventually gives way to a soaring, lyrical idea in E-flat major that suggests to many listeners the desperate pleading of Coriolan’s mother and wife. Although Beethoven probably had no specific program in mind, the striking use of silences, the abrupt contrasts of agitation and lyricism, the rhythmic restlessness and inner turmoil of the music all coalesce in a magnificent character portrait.
The Overture is in basic sonata form, though with a strange twist. The home tonality of C minor gives way to E-flat major for the contrasting second theme, a standard enough procedure. But the recapitulation arrives not in C minor but in a foreign key (F minor), an extremely rare occurrence. (Can Beethoven have been thinking of Mozart’s “easy” Piano Sonata in C, K. 545, where a parallel event occurs in F major?) The flowing second theme returns momentarily in C major, then reverts to minor.
In the coda, which uses as its material the ideas of the fourteen-bar introduction, the real tragedy of Coriolanus receives graphic musical representation - there is no exit from his dilemma; he can select only from several wrong choices of action. “One can think of no other example in musical literature,” writes Klaus G. Roy, “where at the close the disintegration and collapse of a personality is more keenly captured; the main theme literally ‘comes apart at the seams,’ and all is lost.” Coriolanus’ overbearing pride has been his downfall; the former hero has been reduced to an object of scorn. The tragedy has run its course.Robert Markow
This Year in History: 1807
History, Politics and Social Affairs
- The slave trade is abolished in the British Empire, although slavery continues in the colonies.
- David Thompson crosses the Rockies and builds a trading post at the headwaters of Columbia River.
- Napoleonic Wars continue. Napoleon attacks Russia in February. By August, the Peace of Tilsit is signed between France, Prussia and Russia. Napoleon and Russian Emperor Alexander I ally themselves against the British.
- The U.S. Congress passes an act to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States ... from any foreign kingdom, place, or country” (to take effect January 1, 1808).
Nature, Science and Technology
- The first railway passenger service begins in England.
- London's Pall Mall is the first street lit by gaslight.
- Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat sets off from Albany on its return trip to New York, arriving some 30 hours later.
- Englishmen William and John Cockerill bring the Industrial Revolution to continental Europe around 1807 by developing machine shops in Liège, Belgium, transforming the country’s coal, iron and textile industries much as had been done in Britain.
The Arts, Literature and Entertainment
- George Heriot's Travels Through the Canadas appears.
- M.Smith opens an art school in Halifax.
- The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, famous for The Children's Hour and Evangeline, is born in Portland, Maine.