Ludwig van Beethoven

Choral Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, op. 80

            The signal crisis of Beethoven’s life, in 1802, was the deep depression wrought by the stark reality of his increasing deafness.   In his famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” from that year he articulated his resolve to live, work, and overcome this crushing development.  There ensued the remarkable production of his artistic maturity—but it did not ease his lifelong quest for financial security.  In a city where Mozart had almost starved to death only a decade before, Beethoven cobbled together a livelihood comprised of constant wheeling and dealing with music publishers in several countries, the occasional subvention from the wealthy to whom compositions were dedicated, and personal performance fees.  None of these were certain, and the constant need to attend to  from his eff

Coriolan Overture, op. 62

        Beethoven wrote almost a dozen overtures, the most famous, of course, being the four that are connected with his only opera, Fidelio. Some are awful, like Wellington’s Victory, and others are of the stellar quality that the composer’s name evokes. Coriolanus was a play about the tragic Roman general, who was torn between his plan to revolt and the entreaties of his mother and wife to abandon his scheme. Beethoven was familiar with the story through both the works of Shakespeare and Plutarch, but Beethoven’s overture was written for the play of a minor literary contemporary, Heinrich von Collin.

Overture to Egmont, op. 84

          Beethoven wrote almost a dozen overtures, the most famous, of course, being the four that are connected with his only opera, Fidelio. Some are awful, like Wellington’s Victory, and others are of the stellar quality that the composer’s name evokes. Without doubt, in the forefront of the latter group is the Egmont overture from 1809-10. It is a commonplace of the history of the arts that some artists create with a deep reflection of their times and circumstances (to the delight of aficionati who prize personality), while other artists are able to pursue their art in an Olympian detachment from personal circumstances. Beethoven unquestionably could work in the latter fashion, and the Overture to Egmont fits the bill.

Overture to Fidelio, op. 72

        While today, opera—for any number of reasons—is not heard as frequently as the symphony orchestra, before the twentieth century it dominated the musical scene. Only gradually did permanent instrumental ensembles evolve that focused upon symphonies and the like. Composers made their reputations, or not, as composers of opera, and that’s what the nobility (who paid the bills) largely wanted to hear. And they wanted to hear the latest ones—not last year’s. Mozart’s greatest works were his operas, Haydn certainly composed them, and Beethoven arrived in Vienna as a young composer shortly after Mozart’s death. Money, reputation, and professional respect lay in that direction, so it was only natural that Beethoven aspired to write one. Alas!

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37

        It is Mozart, of course, to whom we owe the creation of the mature, symphonic piano concerto. Beethoven wrote five works in this genre; the first two were composed in the 1790s and they owe much to the example of Mozart. The third, in C minor, begun around 1800, was completed in 1803, about the time of his second symphony, and it is a far darker and impassioned work than the previous concertos. It is a remarkable early document of the personality of the composer that later came to be so familiar, and stands in clear contrast to the more or less sunny C major concerto that immediately preceded it.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, op. 58

        It is Mozart, of course, to whom we owe the creation of the mature, symphonic piano concerto. Beethoven wrote five works in this genre; the first two were completed in the 1790s and owe much to the example of Mozart. The third, in C minor, was completed in 1803, around the time of his second symphony, and it is a far darker and impassioned work than the previous ones. By the time of the fourth concerto, finished in 1806, Beethoven had undergone remarkable growth as a composer. He had resolutely fought his way out of the deep suicidal depression occasioned by his increasing deafness.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb Major, op. 73 ("Emperor")

            It is Mozart, of course, to whom we owe the creation of the mature, symphonic piano concerto.  Following in his stead, Beethoven wrote five works in this genre; the first two were composed in the 1790s and owe much to the example of Mozart.  The third, in C minor, was completed in 1803, around the time of his second symphony, and it is a far darker and impassioned work than the previous ones.  By the time of the fourth concerto, finished in 1806, Beethoven had undergone remarkable growth as a composer.  He had resolutely fought his way out of the deep suicidal depression occasioned by his increasing deafness.  The monumental Eroica (third symphony), his opera, Fidelio, and the Rasumovsky string quartets had been created, and revealed the musical po

Romance No. 2 in F Major, op. 50

        By the late 1790s Beethoven had been in Vienna about six years, and was enjoying a growing reputation both as a virtuoso pianist and as a composer. While he had written some piano concertos for his own use, he had confined his compositional activities to more modest works. A dozen piano sonatas and chamber music constituted the bulk, including the famous Pathétique sonata. He also was hard at work on his first string quartets, the op. 18 set. The monumental symphonies and concertos lay ahead. But in keeping with his growing interest in writing for larger ensembles, and observing the growing interest in instrumental romances, Beethoven wrote two of them for violin and orchestra.

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, op. 21

        When Beethoven began work on his first symphony he had been a resident of Vienna for seven years, and was enjoying a growing reputation as a composer. He had already composed the first ten sonatas for piano, including the Pathétique. Other important completed works were the first two piano concertos and some of the op. 18 string quartets. His instrumental ensemble works included the wind Octet in Eb and the Septet in Eb for winds and strings, but no symphonies. Haydn had returned in triumph from London in 1795 from his second trip to that city, flush with the success of his second set of six symphonies of the “London” symphonies. Collectively these twelve symphonies by Haydn constitute the last word in defining classical style in the genre (Mozart had died four years earlier).

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 36

        The years 1801-02 marked the nadir of Beethoven’s emotional life, as he grappled with the reality of his increasing and permanent deafness. His despair was total, and the prospect of suicide is clearly implied in the documentary evidence. Tumultuous and bitter family feuding entered into this cruel time, but the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” records his final triumph over the depression and his resolve to live and compose. That he did, and soon received a prized engagement to compose an opera, and an important concert of his compositions followed shortly thereafter, as well. This historic concert featured his oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the First Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto (with the composer at the piano), and the Second Symphony.

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