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Music / Ludwig van Beethoven

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"There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven."
The man himself.

German composer (c. 17 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) of Classical Music, generally considered one of the most talented and influential of all time.

Born in Bonn to a family of Flemish origin (that's why it's van Beethoven, not von, and he's not a nobleman; the Dutch "van" is no indication of nobility, although Beethoven was known to use the confusion to his social advantage), he moved to Vienna in the 1790s, at first attracting attention for his virtuoso piano performances. His earlier compositions were accomplished but derivative pieces (on the surface, at least) in the Classical Era style of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Then he started to go deaf, and everything changed. He began to compose dramatic, emotional works on a scale far larger than anything most musicians had worked on before. They eventually laid the foundation for the Romantic Era of music.

Beethoven wrote music in a wide variety of genres, including a single opera, Fidelio. He is most famous, however, for his symphonies. Symphony No. 5 in C minor is filled with spectacular moments, the whole first movement even being on the Voyager Golden Record. His epic and inspirational Symphony No. 9 in D minor, first performed in 1824 when Beethoven was almost completely deaf, has become one of the world's most famous musical works, eventually becoming the anthem of The European Union. Thanks to Pop-Cultural Osmosis, you probably know the "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement, even if you've never heard the rest of the symphony.

Throughout the 19th century, Beethoven's works were upheld among even the greatest composers as the impossibly-high standard one should always try to strive to match, even if one could never succeed in doing so. Franz Schubert went into a kind of compositional paralysis after he heard a Beethoven symphony, believing much of his own work was no longer worth pursuing when something that great was out there. Richard Wagner, whose ego was as large as Germany itself and someone who never hesitated to tell everyone how great he was, could only bring himself to proclaim that he was the successor to Beethoven, not Beethoven's equal or better.

Beethoven may have been an alien spy. Or possibly a Time Lord. Or maybe even you!

Tropes present in Beethoven's life and work include:

  • Affectionate Parody: Symphony No. 8 in F major is like a high-octane version of an early classical symphony, with exaggerations of the common tropes employed during that period. The first movement has excessive tremolos throughout. The third movement minuet is satirically pompous. The finale is so fast it is almost unplayable in its proper tempo. The slow movement mimics the metronome and even has a sudden fortissimo during the first minute, like in Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major (Surprise).
  • Avian Flute:
    • The slow movement of Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) ends with a passage that depicts several birds calling to each other. A flute is used to mimic the nightingale's song, while oboes and clarinets respectively imitate a quail and a cuckoo.
    • Occurs during the Credo in the Missa Solemnis, specifically at the moment of the Immaculate Conception. Representing the Holy Spirit with the flute goes back to the middle ages in the Catholic Mass.
  • Bathos: Symphony No. 4 in B♭ major is famous for its grim introduction, suggesting a dark, brooding work. Instead, the first movement proper has a jubilant tone and a quirky melody. The rest of the symphony remains mostly jovial throughout. This is a sense of humor and dramatic subversion similar to Haydn's practical jokes.
  • Beta Test: Various unpublished Beethoven pieces were first attempts at writing a musical genre or rendering a musical subject, some being retooled as later published works, giving precious insights into the composer's creative process and development. Perhaps the most famous example is the Choral Fantasy, which has the prototype of Ode to Joy. It also heralds the Symphony No. 9 in spirit by uniting the whole orchestra under a theme of universal brotherhood, although it went even further than the symphony by adding a solo piano to the orchestra with the choir.
    • The Choral Fantasy itself has a prototype, the song arrangement "Gegenliebe" (Returned Love).
    • An English dance theme would eventually become the last movement of the Eroica Symphony, first appearing as a contradance in E♭ major. The bass line that later complements the English theme might have derived from the retrograde inversion of the bass part finale of Daniel Steibelt's piano quintet. The English theme and bass line first unite in the Prometheus ballet finale, then in a large set of piano variations, and finally in the finale of the Eroica Symphony. Beethoven, working his way backwards in composing the Symphony, created the first movement main theme by inverting the finale bass line and harmonically fleshing it out with triads for the horn parts.
    • Beethoven first attempted a symphony with a stormy C minor first movement, using a Sturm-und-Drang Mannheim rocket as its theme, which was popular in the earlier 18th century.
    • A "Jena Symphony" in C major was once attributed to Beethoven, but now it is known that Friedrich Witt composed it instead.
    • An early attempt at a Violin Concerto also exists. It somewhat resembles the Violin Concerto in D major, but overall it is a more traditional work.
    • A Concerto No. 0 in E♭ major was reconstructed based on orchestral cues from the piano score.
    • Beethoven wrote a Macbeth overture, but he later transplanted the introduction into the "Ghost" Piano Trio.
    • Leonard Bernstein goes over Beethoven's drafts of the Symphony No. 5 in C minor in this lecture.
    • Beethoven first wrote an Andante Favori middle movement for the Waldstein Sonata. He performed it in front of friends and patrons, who recommended he write a new middle movement that better fit the overall structure of the Sonata. The Andante Favori wound up on the cutting room floor and was published seperately.
    • Beethoven considered a purely orchestral D minor finale for the Symphony No. 9 in D minor. He chose Ode to Joy instead, and the finale became the Allegro Appassionato movement of the String Quartet in A minor.
  • Bookends: The famous slow movement of Symphony No. 7 in A major begins and ends with an A minor chord from the woodwinds and horns.
  • Broken Pedestal:
    • The third symphony, which he dedicated to Napoleon because he thought that he represented all the good ideals of the French Revolution. When he got the news that Napoleon declared himself emperor, he scratched out the dedication so vigorously that he slashed a hole in the paper.
    • He was a HUGE fan of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and adapted many of his works to lieder and wrote incidental music for his play Egmont. When the two finally met in Bohemia in 1812, they initially got along, but disliked each other after a short period; Beethoven thought Goethe "delighted far too much in the court atmosphere"note  and was too willing to kowtow to the nobility, while Goethe found Beethoven too uncontrolled and disrespectful.
  • Deaf Composer: Trope Namerinvoked and at least an honorary Trope Codifier.
  • Easter Egg:
    • The second-movement trio of the Ninth Symphony has a subject alluding to the Ode to Joy theme, which eventually appears at the finale.
    • The "Hammerklavier" sonata has a brief phrase sounding like the Ode to Joy theme early in the development of the sonata's first movement. Blink and you'll miss it.
    • "Es Ist Vollbracht", the aria from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion on the death of Jesus, shows up several times as musical quotations, including the development section of the Cello Sonata No. 3 and the arioso leading to the fugue finale of the Piano Sonata No. 31.
    • The second theme group of the "Pathetique" sonata finale is a motif paired down from the first theme group. This motif then cycles through different keys and species counterpoint, which many composers would have found relevant as they would have studied Gradus Ad Parnassum and other counterpoint texts.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The overture "Wellington's Victory" calls for groups of muskets and cannons to exchange fire, depicting the battle rather literally.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: The opening theme of the Fifth Symphony ("da da da DUM") coincidentally matches the Morse Code for the letter "V", so it was popularly played by the Allies during World War II to signify "Victory."
  • For Happiness: The recitative of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, set to snippets of Schiller's Ode to Joy is about happiness being the right and desire of every human being.
  • Hero-Worshipper:
    • Beethoven created his Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major with the life of Napoléon Bonaparte in mind, viewing Napoleon as a rebel hero during The French Revolution. When the Frenchman went all A God Am I and declared himself emperor, Beethoven lost it - he seized the title page of his work and crossed out Napoleon's name so violently that the paper tore - and renamed the symphony "Eroica" instead of "Bonaparte". He re-dedicated it as "[A] Heroic Symphony, written to celebrate the memory of a great man", which might be read as Beethoven declaring that Bonaparte was Dead to him, but when Bonaparte actually died, Beethoven remarked "I wrote the music for this sad event seventeen years ago", referring to the second movement of the symphony - the Funeral March.
    • Mozart had a profound impact on Beethoven. In fact, in his earliest efforts to compose, Beethoven feared he was plagiarising Mozart by mistake; he once thought he borrowed from one of Mozart's symphonies and slightly altered the passage. Also, it is said that during his years as a prodigy, Beethoven came to Vienna in the hopes of studying under Mozart's tutelage. After Beethoven met his musical hero, Mozart asked Beethoven to play something for him. Beethoven began to play the opening of one of Mozart's concertos, but Mozart said that anyone could play that. He then asked Beethoven to play something of his own, giving him a theme to improvise on at the prodigy's request. When Beethoven finished performing for him, Mozart went to the next room and told his friendsnote : "Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about."
  • La Résistance: The Symphony No. 5 in C minor first movement was likely inspired by "nous jurons tous" from Cherubini's Hymn of the Pantheon, a choral work glorifying the martyrs of the French Revolution. "Nous jurons tous" even has the same "da da da DUM" rhythm. The Symphony No. 5 itself could be seen as such, with a French veteran even shouting, "The Emperor lives!" when hearing the last movement.
  • Let's See YOU Do Better!: Wellington's Victory is typically seen as absolutely horrible, especially by Beethoven's standards. His response to all the criticism was, "What I shit is better than anything you could think up!" He was probably right.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Numerous funeral marches are in Beethoven's music though they seem to be more about death as part of the human condition than the death of any specific person. The most famous include those the second movement of the Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, third movement of the Piano Sonata in A♭ major, and the funeral durge climaxing the first movement of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Also applies to Beethoven's own funeral, one of the largest and most attended funerals in Vienna at the time.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The Diabelli Variations are based on a waltz tune by Anton Diabelli that's generally agreed to be a pretty dull, conventional melody. Beethoven's variations, however, are astonishingly complex pieces of piano showmanship in a vast array of styles from serious to comical to elaborate counterpoint that rivals Johann Sebastian Bach.
  • No Poker Face:
    • Averted by Beethoven himself but played straight by later fans in their depictions of him. Contemporaries including friends, musicians, and visitors commented that he had an impassive face with piercing eyes. Visitors later in Beethoven's life and future generations of artists would depict Beethoven as a codifier of the wild genius Romantic trope.
    • A variation of this trope also applies to Beethoven's playing style, which heavily emphasized substance over style. Beethoven would keep his fingers flat and simply press down on the keyboard, and contemporaries would notice how little he seemed to move. An older observer noted how Beethoven gave each voice a clear unique sound like how Johann Sebastian Bach did. Fans and artists of future generations and codifiers of Romantic music like Franz Liszt would not follow Beethoven's example.
  • One-Woman Song: "Für Elise" is an instrumental piano piece well known by the name of the woman it's dedicated to. note 
  • Orchestral Bombing:
    • Much of his music, especially the symphonies, has a grand and heroic sound that works very well for this trope.
    • Wellington's Victory plays it quite literally with a battery of percussion instruments and other effects meant to simulate the sound of a battlefield. The score actually calls for live cannon and musket fire not unlike Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: A large set of arrangements of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folk songs leave some critics scratching their heads, but he took a lot of time and care over them (of course the generous commission didn't hurt, either). In fact, the trope might even be inverted considering that by the numbers, he wrote more folk song arrangements than any other genre.
    • A significant amount of early works lie outside the usual symphony, concerto, sonata, quartet genres: the Creatures of Prometheus ballet, various wind ensembles, dances, serenades, and variations on popular tunes of the day.
    • Our sense of musical genres may be skewed because only the most notable works survive in popular memory. An 18th-19th century composer probably devoted much of their time writing more commonplace music, with grand orchestral works being special ventures needing large amounts of time, effort, and preparation.
  • The Perfectionist: Beethoven's scores and sketches are famously filled with violently scrawled crossings-out and corrections in search of the exact right notes. Naturally, it paid off.
  • Properly Paranoid: Somewhat justified. Beethoven was secretive about his creative method and any music he had not published... in an age where copyright was not a thing yet and a place where literally thousands of musicians competed with each other. Beethoven never even directly taught his students how to compose, preferring they learn from him by example. This tendency lead to several fights with friends. Beethoven played for his pupil Ferdinand Reis the Andante Favori movement of the Waldstein Sonata, a slow movement that wound up on the cutting room floor but was later published separately. Reis played it for Beethoven's patron Prince Lichnowsky, who then later played it for Beethoven. Beethoven refused to ever play in front of Reis again, even when Reis was leaving for England to possibly never return to Vienna. A smaller example is when Beethoven was drafting music in Heilegenstadt with his apartment window open, and a woman would go out in the garden complex to hear him play. Once Beethoven saw her spying on him, he shut the windows, and she never heard him again.
  • Quality over Quantity: Unlike his sometime teacher, Haydn, who wrote more than a hundred symphonies, and the person who he wanted to study under, Mozart, who wrote a few dozen, Beethoven only wrote nine (nobody ever counts Wellington's Victory among the canonical ones). Then again, a typical Beethoven symphony is of much greater size and complexity than anything Mozart or Haydn did. Also due in part from Beethoven's patronage situation. He worked freelance, and organizing concerts was very difficult for composers not employed under a noble family like, for example, Haydn under the Esterházys.
  • Retronym: The Moonlight Sonata (No. 14 in in C♯ minor), was given that name in 1832, five years after Beethoven's death, by a music critic who compared the first movement specifically to the effect of the moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne, a location Beethoven is not documented as having visited personally. If anything, the ''Moonlight" first movement was inspired by funeral march music, specifically the number the Commandatore in Don Giovanni sings as he is dying.
  • Revised Ending:
    • The Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭ major went through many revisions before it was finally published in 1795. One revision was changing the finale of the Concerto. The original finale has all the seamless grace of a Mozart Rondo, and it was indeed inspired by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E♭ major, but Beethoven thought another finale worked better.
    • The String Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major originally ended with the Große Fuge, which was forward-looking centuries ahead but poorly received by a bewildered early 19th century audience. Mathias Artaria, Beethoven's publisher, thought it best to publish the Fugue separately and give the Quartet an alternate ending. Beethoven surprisingly agreed for all sorts of speculated reasons; maybe he needed the money, or he wanted to satisfy the critics or thought the Fugue best worked as its own piece. Either way, the new finale resembles the style of Joseph Haydn in its rustic, relatively cheerful character. And Beethoven may have had other reasons for changing the Große Fuge finale. This trope almost became a fact with the Symphony No. 9 itself. Beethoven considered replacing the "Ode to Joy" with a more conventional finale while making the Ode a separate work. Beethoven tried different finales throughout his career, exploring how best to balance and conclude a work. Perhaps Beethoven still had mixed feelings when the Große Fuge premiered, thinking the Fugue was too large and overshadowed the rest of the Quartet, and therefore he felt another finale was more appropriate.
    • As said above, Beethoven came close to replacing Ode to Joy of the Symphony No. 9 for a purely orchestral D minor finale. The finale later became the Allegro Appassionato movement of the String Quartet in A minor.
  • Romanticism: Regarded as a Trope Codifier by contemporaries and future generations, at least regardig his later compositions. Inverted by Beethoven himself as he actually went deeper into Baroque counterpoint and Classical structures during his Late Period, avoiding the program music, supernatural literary themes, nationalism, and smaller structures of Romantic music.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: Described in poignant detailinvoked in his "Heiligenstadt Testament". He reveals that as he progressively lost his hearing, he was nearly Driven to Suicide, but fortunately for everyone, he finally resolved to keep composing anyway.
  • Small Reference Pools: If a famous classical composer needs to make an appearance in some work, odds are pretty good it will be Beethoven, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a close second.
  • Spiritual Antithesis:
    • Beethoven was prone to compose pieces that starkly contrast each other. The most notable example includes the Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6. Both works are built from a similar rhythmic idea, but one is compact and potent with concentrated energy emphasized over orchestral color, while the other is expansive and lyrical with programmatic elements.
    • Another is the contrast between the Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 4. Both more obviously derive from the same rhythmic cell, but the Piano Concerto No. 4 is more emotionally nuanced and narratively meandering.
    • With pieces written in succession, an ambitious and emotionally heavy piece is often followed by a more lighthearted and humorous one. The jovial Symphony No. 4 is very different next to the epic Symphony No. 3 and imposing Symphony No. 5. The composer Robert Schumann aptly described the Symphony No. 4 as a slender maiden in between two giants.
    • The Symphony No. 8 is smaller in scale and focuses on witty parodies of several musical tropes from Beethoven's day, unlike the frenzied but immaculately choreographed Symphony No. 7 and monumental Symphony No. 9.
    • The Opus 1 Piano Sonatas vary greatly in their character. The Piano Sonata No. 1 is dark and impassioned, Beethoven wanting to make a strong first impression. The Piano Sonata No. 2 is warm, lyrical, and humorous. The Piano Sonata No. 3 is brilliant, extravagant, and virtuosic.
    • The Piano Sonata No. 13 and Piano Sonata No. 14 are both in the manner of fantasias, but the Piano Sonata No. 13 has a wide pallette of emotions while the Piano Sonata No. 14 is the brooding "Moonlight."
  • Standard Snippet:
    • There is recent recognition that the introduction to Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" falls under this category.
    • Symphony No. 5 (Da da da DUMMM!). During World War II, the first measure was an Allied Leitmotif, its four notes matching the Morse Code for "V" (for Victory). And the irony of using Germany's greatest composer against the Germans.
    • Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Moonlight). The first movement is probably best known to 8-bit-era gamers as "the Jet Set Willy theme". Resident Evil also featured the first movement of this piece.
    • The "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 is the official anthem of the European Union. Die Hard and A Clockwork Orange too.
    • "Für Elise", a short piece for solo piano (which wasn't published until after Beethoven died).
    • A motif from the Ruins of Athens finale eventually evolved into the Mexican hat dance.
  • Stock Unsolved Mysteries: The identity of the "Immortal Beloved", the subject of a passionate three-part love letter written in Beethoven's hand, remains the subject of ferocious debate among music historians. It has also inspired several works of fiction, perhaps most notably the 1994 Bio Pic Immortal Beloved, in which the recipient is Beethoven's sister-in-law, the mother of his nephew. Most experts today think either Antonie Brentano or Josephine Brunsvick was the most likely intended recipient.
  • Surpassed the Teacher: His teacher Joseph Haydn was one of the most celebrated composers of his day and is still very highly regarded. Nevertheless, Beethoven achieved a level of creative accomplishment and notoriety that outstripped him.
  • Toilet Humor: The quirky Symphony No. 2 in D major finale has (at the time) inside jokes of Beethoven's digestive problems.
  • Urban Legend: The story of Beethoven defacing the title page of the "Eroica" in a rage over Napoleon often gets exaggerated in the retelling. Contrary to some accounts, Beethoven did not rip the score in half, stomp on it, or throw it in the fire; he did, however, cross out Bonaparte's name so violently that the pen ripped through the page. (It can be seen here.)
  • Work Info Title: Many of his compositions have simple, straight-forward titles like "Symphony No. 9". Here's a complete list.


Op. 91 - Battle of Vitoria

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