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Awesome Music / Ludwig van Beethoven

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Ludwig van Beethoven is regularly named as one of the greatest composers of all time, and often as the greatest. The reasons why are numerous:

  • The fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.9 in D minor is one of many Standard Snippets popular throughout fiction, but it is one that truly conveys majesty. Not only through fiction, after all, it is the anthem of The European Union. It speaks volumes that this song managed to be chosen as the EU anthem even after having been used as a patriotic song by the Nazis. It's that good.note 
    • It has been said of the 9th Symphony that Beethoven, in his final symphonic work, showed a desire to reach beyond the music itself and draw upon something divine. To cap this off, on the night of the Symphony's premiere, the performance received five standing ovations. What's so special about this? The Emperor of Austria received three when attending performances and it was custom for no one to outdo this. Yes, that's right, Beethoven became greater than an Emperor for his music. (And the first three movements are awesome as well - so much so that Beethoven quotes each of them briefly at the beginning of the finale.) Of particular note is the performance led by Leonard Bernstein in East Berlin just after the opening of the Berlin Wall. Performed by members of the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, L'Orchestre de Paris, and the Kirov Orchestra, there was one slight change to the lyrics, replacing the word Freuden (Joy) with Freiheit (Freedom). (Beethoven, for all this Mad Artist tendencies, would almost certainly have cried with Freude had he been there.)
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    • Ode to Joy is already mind-blowingly awesome - but it becomes even more so when sung by a chorus of ten thousand. Yes, it actually happened.
  • Several of Beethoven's other symphonies are regarded as timeless classics of the form:
    • Beethoven's personal favourite of his symphonies was No.3 in E-flat major, the Eroica, which, along with the Emperor piano concerto, created an association between the key of E-flat major and musical heroism that lasted for over a century after Beethoven died. With its stirring first movement, solemn funeral march of a slow movement, lightning fast scherzo third movement, and expansive set of variations in the finale, it's not hard to see why he was proud of it.note 
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    • Symphony No.5 in C minor has perhaps the most recognisable opening to any classical piece ever made, and the first movement is full of other seemingly minor but then-revolutionary touches, such as a surprise oboe cadenza at the beginning of the recapitulation and an extended coda on new material. The other three movements continue Beethoven's experiments with form; although the third movement leading straight into the fourth and the quote of the main theme from the third movement in the middle of the finale may seem like small details, at the time no major symphony had used either device.note 
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    • Symphony No.6 in F major, the Pastoral, reflects Beethoven's love of the countryside of central Europe, and is one of his most beautiful and serene works (apart from the boisterous third movement scherzo and the savage fourth movement). The last three movements - depicting a merry gathering of country folk for food, drink, and song that is interrupted by a violent thunderstorm, which gradually subsides and inspires a song of thanksgiving - are played without breaks, making it the second major symphony (after No.5) to use this device - and both symphonies premiered in the same concert in 1808 (albeit in reverse numerical order).note  So popular was the symphony that, as with No.3, it almost single-handedly created an association between the key of F major and pastoral music.
    • Symphony No.7 in A major brims with energy and vivacity from start to finish, so much so that Richard Wagner called it the apotheosis of the dance. Each of the symphony's four movements is noted for its composition highlights, some with dotted rhythms and extreme changes in dynamics (reaching fortississimo in the last movement's coda), giving the whole a ferocious, frantic and very active atmosphere. The second movement stands out remarkably, providing the very definition of "allegretto" with an insistent theme that sticks with the listener long afterward. In fact, it proved so popular that it was encored in the symphony's premiere, and sometimes performed on its own.
    • And while the remaining symphonies - No.1 in C major, No.2 in D major, No.4 in B-flat major, and No.8 in F major - may not enjoy the same popularity as the other five, they are all awesome in their own way. Highlights include the surprise I-IV cadence that opens No.1, the abrupt musical somersault that opens and recurs throughout the finale of No.2, the charming slow movement of No.4, and the coda that takes up almost half of the finale of No.8.
  • Beethoven was also a master of works for soloist and orchestra:
    • The piece known as Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 in C major was actually the second to be composed, and though it owes a debt of influence to some of Mozart's later concerti, there are stamps of originality all over it as well, from the rousing opening movement to the dignified Largo and the buoyant finale.
    • Beethoven's actual first piano concerto was published as Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major, and while it is even more overtly influenced by Haydn and Mozart, it is still packed with catchy melodies and chances for the soloist to show off a bit.
    • Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor was inspired by Mozart's Piano Concerto No.24 in the same key, and lays the foundation for the sort of tragedy-to-triumph journey found in his Symphony No.5, also in C minor. The opening measures of the finale, which smooth over the transition from the E major of the slow movement to the C minor of the (first part of the) finale, are a particularly bold move.
    • Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 in G major has one of the most hauntingly beautiful slow movements ever, and frames it with a sweeping opening movement (which makes the then-audacious move of opening with a passage for unaccompanied piano) and a rambunctious finale.
    • The most famous of Beethoven's piano concerti, and with good reason, is No.5 in E-flat major (Emperor), which goes from a vast first movement (like No.4 before it, this concerto introduces the piano almost immediately after a single chord from the orchestra) to an absolutely gorgeous slow movement which leads - without break - straight into a brilliant finale.
    • The technically demanding yet melodically memorable Violin Concerto in D major is one of the highlights of the violinist's repertoire, packed with ingenious moments from the four soft timpani beats that open the first movement to the victorious final measures of the third movement.
    • And why stop at one featured soloist? Beethoven gave moments in the spotlight to solo piano, violin, and cello in his Triple Concerto in C major, which ranks as one of the great concerti for multiple soloists, and finds Beethoven starting to get more adventurous with form and harmonic development; it was his first composition for soloist and orchestra to go straight from the slow movement to the finale without stopping (a gesture he repeated in the violin concerto and the Emperor concerto).
  • Beethoven's symphonies are often coupled in boxed sets with his concert overtures, some of which were written as part of incidental music for plays and others of which were rotated in and out of the opening spot in his opera Fidelio, but all of which stand very well on their own.
    • The ballet The Creatures of Prometheus opens with an overture that begins with the same I-IV cadence as Beethoven's Symphony No.1, letting us know that when composing a ballet, as in any other musical form, Beethoven was not afraid to push boundaries of melody and harmony. The five minutes that follow are pure delight.
    • The stark overture to Heinrich Joseph von Collin's tragedy Coriolannote  sets the tone aptly for the serious drama that follows, with a marvellous interplay between a grim theme in C minor representing Coriolan and a more tender E-flat major theme representing his mother and her pleas that he abandon his plans to march his army against Rome; though the music shows Coriolan giving in to his mother's pleas, it is too late to turn back his army, and the minor mode prevails as the hero commits suicide.
    • The composer's only opera was originally called Leonore, and its overture went through three different versions. Though much changed between each version (especially the first and second), each version is as rousing and captivating as the overture to a comic opera should be. When Beethoven revised the opera yet again and re-titled it after its main character's male alter ego, Fidelio, he wrote a completely new overture that dispenses with the slow introduction of the three Leonore overtures and charges in at full speed - for a few measures, anyway, then it slows dramatically - for one of the master's most exhilarating theatrical works.
    • Of Beethoven's incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Egmont, the most frequently performed movement is the overture - just so magnificently gorgeous and evocative, moving from minor key gloom to major key triumph just in time for the coda. It was especially powerfully used during the memorial for the Israeli athletes who were killed at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. This overture is also a Standard Snippet in Hungary in late October because during the revolution of 1956 (23 October - 4 November) this was one of the few pieces of music that the radio the revolutionaries used had and they broadcast it very often. It helps that the mood of the music befits a failed revolution too.
    • The incidental music to August von Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens includes several gems, such as an overture that moves from a solemn introduction to a joyful main section, a duet that is both sad and beautiful and features a harmonic-minor key, and a buoyant Turkish March that has become one of Beethoven's most familiar melodies and has been arranged for many combinations of instruments. When the play and incidental music were heavily revised as The Consecration of the House over a decade later, a new overture was composed that shows how much Beethoven could do with a single theme and still not run out of ideas.
  • Beethoven's thirty-two sonatas for piano include many timeless masterpieces in a genre he helped to re-define. Just to name a few:
    • The composer hit the ground running with his first three piano sonatas, dedicated to his teacher, Joseph Haydn (despite their creative differences). Highlights include the take-no-prisoners fury of the finale of No.1 in F minor, the string quartet-inspired texture (with imitated pizzicato cello) of the slow movement of No.2 in A major, and the ambitious opening movement, complete with a climactic "solo cadenza", of No.3 in C major.
    • No.8 in C minor (Pathetique)note  is the piece with which Beethoven first found a truly original voice as a composer, and has been indelibly carved on the public consciousness since it was first performed in 1798. It is packed with compositional approaches that may seem mundane now but were highly novel at the time, such as the stormy first movement returning to the slow introduction at the beginning of the development and the coda. The awesome continues through the Standard Snippet-led slow movement and agitated rondo finale (the main theme of which recalls a theme from the first movement).
    • No.13 in E-flat major may not be as famous as the sonata it was published alongside (the Moonlight), but it is a fine early example of Beethoven's experiments with form; though there are nominally four movements, they are played without break to create the sense of a Baroque fantasia in one movement (hence the subtitle "Quasi una fantasia"). The easy-going opening rondo (interrupted by a boisterous Allegro passage in C major) is followed by a troubled scherzo and a placid Adagio that breaks off halfway through to lead into the jubilant finale... only to re-appear just before the coda to tie the whole thing together.
    • No.14 in C-sharp minor (Moonlight) stands as one of his greatest achievements for piano, from its immediately recognisable slow opening movement to the almost non-stop storm of virtuosity in the finale. Though not quite as experimental with form as No.13, it shares with that sonata the trait of making the finale, not the opening movement, the main focal point of the work, an idea Beethoven used more frequently in later compositions (Symphony No.9 being the most famous example).
    • No.17 in D minor (Tempest) frames a beautiful slow movement with a spiky sonata allegro punctuated at key moments by a Largo arpeggio figure and a restless finale in which the two hands wind and tumble around each other in expertly written counterpoint.
    • No.21 in C major (Waldstein) is packed with virtuosic flourishes (especially in the finale) and memorable melodies. (And its awesomeness was actually deliberately dialled back slightly by Beethoven when he decided to set the original second movement aside as a separate piece, the Andante favori in F major.note )
    • No.23 in F minor (Appassionata) has perhaps single-handedly created an association between the key of F minor and dark, deeply passionate music, with an opening movement that is among the most highly emotional works Beethoven composed. It is followed by a dignified theme and variations that leads straight into a finale of such relentless energy (in which it is the recapitulation, not the exposition, that is intended to be repeated) that even the audience will be exhausted by the end.
    • No.26 in E-flat major (Les adieux)note  is a compact yet effective three-movement story of Beethoven's sorrow at the departure of his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, and his joy at his return, starting with a sonata allegro dominated by the descending three-note motif from its slow introduction, and continuing through a solemn slow movement and an ebullient finale, the latter two played without a break.
    • No.28 in A major may live in the shadow of the Hammerklavier, but it is still four movements of awesome, including a heavily contrapuntal sonata allegro that shies away from resolving into its home key for as long as possible, a boisterous march-like scherzo, and a slow movement that looks back to the very opening of the piece just before diving immediately into an even more elaborately contrapuntal finale that marks the beginning of Beethoven's exploration of fugues and fugato passages in his piano sonatas.
    • No.29 in B-flat major (Hammerklavier) is both the longest and the most technically difficult piece Beethoven ever wrote for piano. A real rollercoaster for both performer and listener, it features an expansive opening sonata allegro, a brilliant scherzo, a mammoth F-sharp minor Adagionote , and a concluding epic three-voice fugue that uses almost every fugal device in the book, including multiple countersubjects, augmentation, inversion, retrograde, stretto, and more.
    • His last three sonatas are the awesome icing on an already awesome cake, all defying the structural conventions of piano sonatas at the time while being packed with beautiful melodies and labyrinthine counterpoint. No.30 in E major follows an alternately fast and slow sonata allegro with a furious Prestissimo and a delightful theme and variations more than twice as long as the first two movements combined. No.31 in A-flat major opens with a conventional sonata allegro and an angry scherzo, and follows with a finale longer than the first two movements combined which alternates a slow arioso with a masterful fugue. No.32 in C minor is in just two movements, a tense sonata allegro and a longer, lyrical set of variations on a charming Arietta.
  • In 1819, composer and publisher Anton Diabelli invited composers from all over Austria to write a variation on a Ländler-like waltz from his own pen, which he planned to publish under the title Vaterländischer Künstlerverein. Fifty composers contributed individual variations to the collection, including Carl Czerny, Franz Schubert, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, Archduke Rudolf of Austria, Franz Xaver Mozart (younger son of Wolfgang), and a 12-year-old Hungarian named Franz Liszt. But Beethoven thought he could do better, and the result was the Diabelli Variations, widely regarded as one of the greatest sets of variations ever composed (and published as Part I of the full collection in 1823, with the other composers all being thrown together in Part II a year later). Over the course of 33 variations and an hour of music, the superficially simple theme is broken down into individual components to use as the springboard for a cornucopia of marvels, ranging from exhilarating virtuosity to solemn dignity to comical exaggeration to melancholy and back around again, every variation completely unique.
  • Though perhaps not as beloved as his piano sonatas, Beethoven's ten violin sonatas likewise include several landmark works of the form:
    • No.5 in F major (Spring) was Beethoven's first violin sonata in four movements (although the third movement scherzo is just over one minute long even with repeats), and its gentle, pastoral atmosphere looks ahead to his Sixth Symphony (with which it shares its home key). The first two movements are packed end to end with charming melodies, while the last two movements end the sonata on a more energetic note.
    • No.9 in A major (Kreutzer)note  frames a vast yet delightful theme and variations with a first movement in which an affable major key introduction gives way to a stormy, minor key sonata allegro, and a vivacious finale in which the piano and violin race alongside each other to the triumphant final measures.
  • Beethoven's first-rate contributions to chamber music started early with the six-movement Septet in E-flat major, a piece in the tradition of the Divertimenti of Haydn and Mozart that, as was so often true with Beethoven, pushed back the boundaries of what the form could do. Highlights include a charming, clarinet solo-led slow movement, a lyrical set of variations, and a horn-led scherzo. Schubert liked the work so much, he took inspiration from it for his own Octet in F major (scored for the same combination of instruments plus an extra violin).
  • Beethoven's last five string quartets are perhaps the supreme achievements of his final years. They show that his genius and his zeal for experimenting with form remained undimmed to the very end of his life; only two follow the "traditional" four-movement structure codifed by Haydn and Mozart (and used by Beethoven in his first eleven quartets), and even they do not quite go as expected.
    • Though No.12 in E-flat major follows the traditional "sonata allegro-slow-scherzo-finale" outline, the first movement is repeatedly interrupted by the tempo and melody from its slow introduction, while the theme and variations in the slow movement show what a master Beethoven was at taking a simple melody and pushing it to its limits through variation.
    • No.13 in B-flat major has an extra scherzo and an extra slow movement for a total of six. All six movements are outstanding, though at the premiere, the most enthusiastically received were the slyly humorous fourth movement Tedesca (in the coda, the main theme is scrambled so that the second four measures are played in reverse order, followed by the first four in the correct order) and the heart-rendingly beautiful fifth movement Cavatina (which was sent into space as the concluding track on the Voyager Golden Record). Which annoyed Beethoven, who was proudest of the titanic concluding Große fuge, perhaps his greatest contrapuntal masterpiece; the eight-note motif played in the introduction to the fugue proper ingeniously lays the groundwork for everything that follows.note 
    • Beethoven's love of opera is on full display in the seven-movements-in-one structure (imitative of operatic act finales) of No.14 in C-sharp minor - a solemn fugue, a short and dancelike sonata allegro, a brief recitative, an expansive theme and variations, a frenzied scherzo, another transitory recitative, and a finale that ties up the whole quartet in a neat package make for one of his masterpieces.
    • No.15 in A minor brackets its slow movement with a minuet and a march for a total of five movements. The slow movement in question, the almost impossibly serene Heiliger Dankgesang ("Holy song of thanksgiving"), is one of the most gorgeous pieces Beethoven ever composed.
    • The last quartet, No.16 in F major, was the last large-scale piece Beethoven composed, and while it is in the traditional four movements, the finale, subtitled "Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß" ("The difficult decision") and dominated by contrasting "Muß es sein? — Es muß sein" ("Must it be? — It must be") motifs, shows the master still experimenting with structure and yet still writing melodically memorable music.


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