Beethoven's musical style

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Ludwig van Beethoven is universally viewed as one of the most influential figures in the history of classical music. Since his lifetime, when he was "universally accepted as the greatest living composer", Beethoven's music has remained among the most performed, discussed and reviewed.[1] Scholarly journals are devoted to analysis of his life and work. He has been the subject of numerous biographies and monographs, and his music was the driving force behind the development of Schenkerian analysis. He is widely considered as among the most important composers, and along with Bach and Mozart, his music is the most frequently recorded.[2]

Beethoven's stylistic innovations bridge the Classical and Romantic periods. The works of his early period brought the Classical form to its highest expressive level, expanding in formal, structural, and harmonic terms the musical idiom developed by predecessors such as Mozart and Haydn. The works of his middle and late periods were even more forward-looking, appropriately being categorized in and contributing to the musical language and thinking of the Romantic era, directly inspiring other Romantic composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms.


Beethoven's musical output has traditionally been divided into three periods, a classification that dates to the first years after the composer's death in 1827 and was formalised with the publication of Wilhelm von Lenz's influential work Beethoven et ses trois styles (Beethoven and his Three Styles). Lenz proposed that Beethoven's creative output be marked by three periods of distinct stylistic personality and he identified specific compositions as milestones for each period. In Lenz's work, the first period opens with Beethoven's Trio set, Opus 1 and culminates with the performances in 1800 of his first symphony and Septet. The second period spans the period from the publication of his Moonlight Sonata to the Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 90 in 1814. The last period covers Beethoven's mature works to his death in 1827.

Although later scholars have called into question such a simplistic categorisation, the periodisation is still widely used. Extensive subsequent analytical consideration of Lenz's thesis has resulted in a slight revision of his original dates and broad consensus regarding Beethoven's three periods is as follows:

  • a formative period that extends to 1802
  • a middle period from 1803 to 1814
  • a mature period from 1814 to 1827

Generally, each period demonstrates characteristic stylistic evolutions in Beethoven's musical language and preoccupations as well as important developments in the composer's personal life.[3]

Early period[edit]

The compositions that Beethoven wrote in his formative period can be generally characterized by the composer's efforts to master the predominant classical language of the period. His works from this period can be subdivided into two, based on the composer's residence. First, various juvenalia, written when the adolescent Beethoven was in residence in Bonn and heavily indebted to the works of contemporaries, especially Mozart and his teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe. These early efforts can be seen in a set of three piano sonatas and piano quartets (WoO 36) that Beethoven wrote before 1792. The Quartets, for instance, are each specifically modelled after three Violin sonatas Mozart published in 1781 - K 296, 379 and 380 - and Beethoven would later draw upon this familiarity in the composition of several of his own Violin Sonatas.[4]

Second, a number of more substantial and original works written after Beethoven moved to Vienna and commenced studies with the famed Austrian composer and leading musical figure of the period, Joseph Haydn.

Bonn period[edit]

With the exception of an abortive attempt to move to Vienna in 1787, Beethoven lived in Bonn until 1792, where he worked in the court chapel of the Elector of Cologne. Some forty compositions from this period are extant, including ten early works written by the young adolescent Beethoven when he was being promoted as a child prodigy performer and published as a result of the efforts of his teacher. It has been suggested that Beethoven largely abandoned composition between 1785 and 1790, possibly as a result of negative critical reaction to his first published works.[5] A 1784 review in Johann Nikolaus Forkel's influential Musikalischer Almanack compared Beethoven's efforts to those of rank beginners.[5] Whatever the case, most of Beethoven's earliest works were written after he turned twenty, between 1790 and 1792. Some of this music was later published by Beethoven, or incorporated into later works. As such, they provide an important foundation for judging the later evolution of his style.

In general, Beethoven's earliest compositions show his struggles to master the prevailing classical style, both in structural and idiomatic terms. Several works, including two he later published, show the incipient signs of his later individual style: twelve Lieder, several of which he published in 1805 as Opus 52, his Wind Octet, later published as Opus 103, and several sets of Variations, including one (WoO 40) for violin and piano on Mozart's aria Se vuol ballare (later reworked in Vienna). Although these works largely conform to the formal conventions of the classical style, including a strict observance of form and, in the variations, the decorative filigree associated with the genre, they also show early signs of Beethoven's later tendency to more substantive treatment of thematic material.

In 1790, Beethoven was commissioned to write a funeral cantata (WoO 87) on the death of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Joseph II, the first of his extant compositions written in C minor. A number of concert arias also date to this period including "Prüfung des Küssens" (WoO 89) and "Mit Mädeln sich vertragen" (WoO 90).

Beethoven also produced numerous fragments of larger-scale works, including a symphonic movement (also written in C minor), a violin concerto, an oboe concerto, an early draft of his B-flat Piano concerto (both now vanished), and a concertante for piano, flute and bassoon. Scholars generally regard these early efforts as bland and uninspired and have concluded that his first efforts at writing in the classical sonata style (with the exception of his Wind Octet) were poorly conceived. Gustav Nottebohm, for example, wrote of Beethoven's Dressler Variations (WoO 63), "they show not a trace of contrapuntal independent part-writing. They are figural variations of the simplest kind".[6] Téodor de Wyzewa considered his early "Kurfürsten Sonatas" written in 1783 (WoO 47) as merely "correct imitations of Haydn.".[7] Considered as a whole, Beethoven's compositional efforts in Bonn demonstrate the importance of his move to Vienna in terms of the development of his musical style and the sophistication of his grasp of classical form and idiom.

Middle period[edit]


He also continued another trend—towards larger orchestras—that moved the centre of the sound downwards in the orchestra, to the violas and the lower register of the violins and cellos, giving his music a heavier and darker feel than Haydn or Mozart. Gustav Mahler modified the orchestration of some of Beethoven's music—most notably the 3rd and 9th symphonies—with the idea of more accurately expressing Beethoven's intent in an orchestra that had grown so much larger than the one Beethoven used: for example, doubling woodwind parts to compensate for the fact that a modern orchestra has so many more strings than Beethoven's orchestra did. Needless to say, these efforts remain controversial.

Above all, his works distinguish themselves from those of any prior composer through his creation of large, extended architectonic structures characterised by the extensive development of musical material, themes, and motifs, usually by means of "modulation", that is, a change in the feeling of the home key, through a variety of keys or harmonic regions. Although Haydn's later works often showed a greater fluidity between distant keys, Beethoven's innovation was the ability to rapidly establish a solidity in juxtaposing different keys and unexpected notes to join them. This expanded harmonic realm creates a sense of a vast musical and experiential space through which the music moves, and the development of musical material creates a sense of unfolding drama in this space.

Beethoven helped to further unify the different movements in multi-movement works with the invention of the 'germ motive'. The germ motive, or 'germinal motif', as it is sometimes called, is a motive that is used to create motives and themes throughout a whole work, without making it obvious that such a thing is being done. Thus, all the themes in a piece can be tied back to a single motive in the work. An early and famous example of this is his sonata 'Pathetique', where all of the subjects used in the first movement originate from a germinal idea derived from its opening bar. Similarly, the opening bars of his Eighth Symphony are used to derive motives to be used throughout the whole symphony. This device lends unity to a work or even a group of works (as some motives Beethoven used not only in one work, but in many works) without repeating material exactly or turning to canonic devices.

In his Fifth Symphony Beethoven used the four-note motif (drawn from a late Haydn symphony) throughout the whole movement in different juxtapositions, marking the first important occurrence of cyclic form and giving a sense of a totally internal conflict to the piece.[8]

In his book The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein, who, in his television documentary Bernstein on Beethoven admitted that he considered Beethoven the greatest composer who ever lived, nevertheless criticized his orchestration as sometimes being "downright bad", with "unimportant" orchestral parts being given too much prominence. Bernstein attributed this to Beethoven's ever-increasing deafness, which presumably rendered him incapable of judging how much louder than another a given instrument might be playing at certain moments.[9] He repeated some of this criticism in the 1982 miniseries Bernstein/ Beethoven, a PBS miniseries containing performances of all nine symphonies, several overtures, one of the string quartets, and the Missa Solemnis.[10] But at the same time Bernstein added that what makes Beethoven great is his perfect sense of form - his ability to realize what the next note always had to be.


  1. ^ Rosen, p. 329
  2. ^ "Most Popular Composers". ArkivMusic. Archived from the original on 25 May 2009. Retrieved 9 July 2009. 
  3. ^ Groves, §11 The 'three periods'
  4. ^ Drabkin, p. 88
  5. ^ a b Solomon, p. 169
  6. ^ Gustav Nottebohm, 'Beethovens Studien' (Leipzig & Winterthur), 1873, p. 10
  7. ^ Téodor de Wyzewa, 'Beethoven et Wagner' (Paris, 1914), p. 44
  8. ^
  9. ^ Bernstein, Leonard (1 December 2004). "The Joy of Music". ISBN 978-1-57467-104-9. 
  10. ^