Forward-Thinking and Transcendental Themes in the Nine Symphonies of Beethoven

It was the dawn of a new era; the world in a state of political upheaval. Rising out of this tumultuous chaos would be one of the most disruptive forces in music history. This force is none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. His personification and music have earned him a place among an assemblage of giants. Labeled as the “culminating” composer of the classical style Beethoven is affectionately described as “perpetually looking over his shoulders at his great predecessors” (Hopkins). Beethoven is credited for bridging the classical and romantic eras of music by easing the “perpetual tension between archaic sources and utopian possibilities” (Hopkins). Beethoven climbs out of the depths of classicism into romanticism “yearning for a felicitous condition unattainable in actuality but momentarily reachable in the sphere of his own music” (Berlioz). Perhaps his highest attainment was the influence he would bring to bear on the symphony as a genre, for the very concept was never the same again. The following elements are fused together to give us the symphonic world in which we know today: tradition and convention, internal structure, and instrumental effects.

Beethoven is affectionately described as “perpetually looking over his shoulders at his great predecessors” (Hopkins). Although his symphonies would open a gateway for a new world, Beethoven always had his foot firmly grounded in old tradition and would follow in the footsteps of his great archetypes. The earlier symphonies would introduce their tonalities in the beginning of the movement, as one would carefully set up the chess pieces for a game of chess. We can attribute this practice to Mozart exclusively, and Haydn consistently with the exception of his occasionally starting of a symphony in the tonic minor key. These rigid rules of tonality also are evident in the fact that most of the thematic material is based on notes of the common chord. Beethoven employed several motifs and rhythms highly influenced by Mozart, yet he is said to have ingeniously enlarged and imitated them. The traditional slow introduction of a symphony initiated by Haydn can be found in the second and fourth symphonies. Beethoven was also particularly fond of Haydn’s use of humor in his music. For example, “making an audience jump out of their seats after so long a passage during which they should need to strain their ears to hear anything at all” (Hopkins). Another splendidly comical effect inspired by Haydn was the use of old style classical antiphony, in which the conductor shifts his attention to either side of the platform due to the modern orchestral seating of the time, creating an aural and visual rhetorical gesture. There are many other composers who are considered forerunners of Beethoven, such as C.P.E. Bach who is said to have inspired some of the strange modulations and dramatic Sturm and Drang Effects utilized in Beethoven’s music. Beethoven’s early symphonies adhere strictly with tradition in the fact that they are presented as four independent movements with antiquity of form. Symphonies one, two, and four are described as extended forms which were already known, while the third is credited for being greater in breadth. Hector Berlioz so wisely states that “in a word this is not Beethoven, but we are shortly to discover him” (Berlioz, 31).

It is not far in the development of the form of the symphony that we see that Beethoven “gives free scope to his vast imagination, without electing to be either guided or supported by any outside thought” (Berlioz, 61). Ingenuity is the only word that can describe his innovations and contributions to themes, developments, melody, harmony, and rhythm. Upon extensively analyzing the nine symphonies Berlioz felt compelled to utter “it is impossible to describe the multitude of melodic and harmonic aspects in which Beethoven reproduces his theme” (Berlioz, 42). Beethoven utilized a multiplicity of themes in his symphonies as a unifying device. No longer was the symphony a series of four independent movements yet an organic whole, using themes as souvenirs held in affection and used throughout the work. There is even a phenomenon occurring in the Heroic Third Symphony, in which the theme undergoes being inverted and then transformed, evolving into a completely different theme. Beethoven is also credited for blurring the formal lines of demarcation concerning the transitions and developments in his music. Sometimes an atmospheric quality leading into the development “leading the listener into realms of deep mystery and bewilderment” (Hopkins). Other tactics utilized by Beethoven include dovetailing the emerging recapitulation out of the end of the development, and creating a development of the development with the use of the coda. Some developments are described as being hard to shape with “Beethoven throwing entries around the orchestra with all the skill of a master juggler” (Hopkins). Beethoven’s melodies are always described as being in the highest natural simplicity. Berlioz again captures this statement perfectly when he describes Beethoven “confiding” his melody to different instruments. The harmonic aspect in which Beethoven conveys his melody is revolutionary. Instances of harmonic activity that is forbidden by most theorists run rampant in Beethoven’s symphonies. Tonic and dominant harmonies can be found occurring simultaneously, which is an effect that would one day be exploited by Stravinsky. Absurd and crude modulations can be found, in which they are resolved by being pushed back by an onslaught of bass and timpani, like a cataclysmic train wreck. The use of a major turned minor chord would one day inspire Mahler. Cadences were interrupted, non-harmonic tones were unprepared and unresolved, and occasional rough and uncouth chords would appear. Sometimes the desired effect was ambiguity in which “the ear hesitates, uncertain as to the way in which this harmonic mystery is about to issue” (Berlioz, 66). Beethoven also accomplished the instilling of ambiguity with his innovations in rhythm. Disturbing syncopations were used to make the listener lose their bearings. Accentuation of weak beats would cause combinations of duple time to be thrown into combinations of triple time. Beethoven’s tactic for restoring stability was to use save fortissimo crunches to jolt the music back into line. This passionate and spontaneous style is both above and beyond anything which has ever been produced in instrumental music.

Orchestral effects in Beethoven’s symphonies are of the sublime and unheard of. The instruments of his day were ingeniously exploited. A string bass passage is executed with all force of the bow, the “uncouth weight of which shakes the very feet of the player’s desks and resembles somewhat the gambols of a delighted elephant” (Berlioz, 65). Music written for horns and trumpets in which they change crooks in the middle of a movement for music written much too high for them. Oboes and clarinets play with raised bells in “Mahlerian” style to produce as much force as they can muster. The kettledrum and timpani made way for the many startling effects Beethoven would produce by means of this instrument. In the ninth symphony, Beethoven creates an alliance between choral and instrumental forces. Utilizing two different timbres simultaneously, Beethoven can be credited with the first refinement of timbre and tone color. Several amazing effects occur in his symphonies; such as the orchestral solo in the ninth symphony which creates an imitation of a church organ, the imitation of three birds in the sixth symphony, or the orchestral gasps of the fifth symphony depicted as the “painful respiration of a dying man” (Berlioz, 62). Other orchestral effects include Beethoven’s exceptional dynamics. Daring wild fantasias occur with the use of the first instances of ‘fff’ and ‘ppp’ which was quite exceptional for 1805. Beethoven was also notorious for his ‘subito fortes’ and the newly notated ‘fsfp’, a dramatic crescendo resulting in a piano. Beethoven knew how to create the effect he desired in his music.

With the creation of Beethoven’s first symphony began the death of absolute music. The pathos behind the music conveyed something so personal it was hard to imitate. It produces upon the soul of the listener an impression. How did this “colossal giant towering over two centuries” occur? Wagner states that revolution is not the correct word to describe Beethoven’s work, yet reform. While examining the nine symphonies he marvels and “wonders at the entirely new world, almost in precisely the same form” (Wagner, 43). Berlioz exclaims the music “must be heard in order to form an idea of the truth and sublimity descriptive music can attain in the hands of a man like Beethoven” (Berlioz, 71). How did Beethoven bridge the Classical and Romantic eras? Although he realized the important of structure and control, he had a revolutionary element- “the free, impulsive, mysterious, demonic spirit, the underlying conception of music as a mode of self-expression that fascinated the Romantic generation” (Hanning, 372). This disruptive force which opened a gateway to a new world, did so with his blowing convention to the wind, innovative internal structure, and orchestral effects and the pathos they convey. Berlioz divinely exclaims “Whatever may be said, it is certain that Beethoven, when finishing his work, and when contemplating the majestic dimensions of the monument he had just erected, might very well have said to himself: Let Death come now, my task is accomplished” (Berlioz, 117)

Works Cited

Berlioz, Hector. A Critical Study of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies. Trans. Edwin Evans. New Temple

Hanning, Barbara Russano. Consise History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998.

Hopkins, Antony. The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, University of Washington Press, 1981.

Wagner, Richard. Beethoven. Trans. Edward Dannreuther. Ballantyne Press, 1880.

Works Consulted

Altman, Gail S. Beethoven: Man Of His Word. Anubian Press, 1996.

Del Mar, Norman. Conducting Beethoven Vol. I The Symphonies. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992.

Gmoser, Lulu Britz. Great Composers. Smithmark Publishers, 1997.

Solomon, Maynard. Beethoven. Schirmer Books, 1977.

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