Why we love Beethoven
Heroic symphonies, elegant string quartets, and a plethora of piano works – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Get to know the genius that is Ludwig Van Beethoven, the man who changed the landscape of classical music forever.
Composing nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, two hefty Mass settings, a selection of chamber works and an opera to boot is no mean feat for any musician. Especially when you consider he was almost completely deaf by the age of 32.
Born in Bonn in December 1770, the young Beethoven certainly had some pretty impressive musical footsteps to follow – his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn clocked up a whopping 147 symphonies between them. It’s fair to say Beethoven trumped every symphony that had ever been written, and he managed it with a mere nine of them.
So what's the secret? Just as modern musical celebrities attempt to go against what’s gone before, Beethoven's greatness stems from his ability to push the boundaries. Before he took the reins, a symphony was a light-hearted introduction to a concert. By the time he died in 1827, his nine symphonies had taken life, the universe, and everything in between, and attempted to represent them in a musical picture. Each one has its own character, from his heroic Symphony No. 3 to the pastoral Sixth Symphony. He even captures the universal spirit of the brotherhood of mankind with the first major example of a choral finale in his Symphony No. 9. Phew.
But it’s not just his grand orchestral works that set Beethoven apart. After being plagued with debt, illness, and family responsibilities, Beethoven dealt with his fair share of inner turmoil. His deafness almost drove him to consider suicide in 1802, but he came out the other side even more determined, and with deep personal religious faith. No wonder so much of his music shows his sensitive side – just listen to the ‘Pathétique’ sonata, or some of his late string quartets.
Even his religious works are far from simple. His Missa Solemnis is an emotional roller coaster, exploring fear, doubt, and the threat of war. Yes, God plays a pretty key role, but the music is a bit more controversial than a straightforward outpouring of praise – he manages to sum up key human emotions and set them to music.
So what is it that makes Beethoven great? His maverick musical genius is certainly enough to inspire composers and musicians, but his music speaks louder than that. It’s the raw human spirit he’s managed to bottle and capture in his pieces that’s inspired everyone and everything from Brahms and Mahler, to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and films about a St. Bernard dog – in short, Beethoven’s music embodies a bit of everything for everyone.