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Beethoven: Classicism, Romanticism, Etc.

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Beethoven: Classicism, Romanticism, Etc.

I have seen multiple threads on subjects related to this, two of them very recent. This is just a few more of my thoughts on the matter.

There intermediary stage between Classicism and Romanticism is often-discussed (but also often ill-defined). Is the question even of great importance? Well, maybe it isn’t, but it certainly has been the subject of much debate and discussion from academics, composers, and laymen alike. From Berlioz to Schumann, Brahms to Wagner, Charles Rosen to Maynard Solomon to Leonard Bernstein, and so forth. I find the subject to be fascinating seeing how my favorite overall era of music is the Romantic era, so I enjoy reading about what was (were) the most important and principal creative catalysts for the 19th century’s greatest composers. I will examine text from composers and conductors, such as Bernstein and Schumann, as well as academics, musicians, and historians like Charles Rosen and Maynard Solomon.

It has become a “broad agreement” that Beethoven was the principal harbinger of the Romantic era. Maynard Solomon in his essay, “Beethoven: Beyond Classicism”, states with a caveat, “It is common knowledge that Beethoven was the founder of the romantic movement in music and that his works influenced most of the romantic composers and were the models against which nineteenth-century romanticism measured its achievements and failures”. Solomon then follows this up with seeds of doubt, Beethoven’s place as the bringer of romanticism has been brought under questioning, so to speak. This issue “has undergone several extreme pendulum swings over the course of time. The issue is by no means settled.” (Solomon). Another issue I will also cover is the conflation of two related but very different topics, “Beethoven being the bridge between the two eras” and “Was Beethoven a Romantic composer?”.

Beethoven was posthumously attributed this title of first Romanticist in music. The first writings of Beethoven in this “romantic light” were due to 19th century composers as well as literary figures, “it was through the writing of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Bettina Brentano von Arnim, Lamartine, Hugo, Berlioz, and Wagner that Beethoven came to be viewed as the originator of the romantic movement in music and as its most representative and influential composer” (Solomon).

“Beethoven Was No Romantic”

Let’s begin with some cases against Beethoven’s Romanticism (musically). Arnold Schmitz was one of the first people to try to overturn this image of Beethoven as a Romantic composer, he stated that he was the inheritor of twin traditions: The Enlightenment and the Viennese musical tradition. He worked with these traditions as his foundation. I am, for the most part, inclined to agree with that. Schmitz however caricatured Romanticism as “an irrational and morbid movement, one irrevocably hostile to form. By these yardsticks, Beethoven surely was no romantic” (Solomon). After all, Beethoven was an admirer and practitioner of the much loved Sonata form.
Charles Rosen in his influential book, The Classical Style, tackles the question of Beethoven and Romanticism. “Beethoven, indeed, here enlarged the limits of the classical style beyond all previous conceptions, but he never changed its essential structure or abandoned it, as did the composers who followed him. In the other fundamental aspects of his musical language, as well as in the key relations within a single movement, Beethoven may be said to have remained within the classical framework, even while using it in startlingly radical and original ways.” (Rosen). On the flip side, Rosen also calls Beethoven’s song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, a work that “which not only steps outside the classical aesthetic, but which also had a deep and genuine influence upon the music of the generation immediately after Beethoven’s death. In this cycle of songs, it is astonishing that Beethoven goes even beyond Schubert to the open and circular form of Schumann. The last phrase of the cycle is the only ending in Beethoven so inconclusive, so obviously implying a continuation. Since this last phrase is also the opening phrase of the cycle, the effect of open, unending form is only the more compelling… Beethoven’s set stands as the first example of what was the most original and perhaps the most important of Romantic forms.” (Rosen)

The Blending of Classicism and Modernism

During Beethoven’s time, he was “widely regarded as a radical modernist, whose modernism was seen sharply to distinguish him from the classical standards established” (Solomon). Why the seemingly contradictory marriage between Beethoven's adherence to classical form and his unquestioned revolutionary innovations and modernism? Well, because it's possible to take Rosen’s “cold” view of pure Classical form and blend it with Beethoven’s at-the-time radical modernism. For instance, the Op.26 Bagatelles and Diabelli Variations, “supreme embodiments of the romantic aphorism… are urgently forged into larger designs – a “Cycle of Bagatelles” and the Diabelli Variations, the most coherent variation cycle since Bach”. By the same token, The An die ferne Geliebte and its Romantic language and imagery still contains an “interlocking structure (and inseparability) of its component songs” pushed Beethoven towards “formal integration” (Solomon). Lastly, the Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131, the most radically structured of his works, but his will to form, to classicism, “enabled him to set boundaries upon the infinite, to portray disorder in the process of its metamorphosis into order”, in other words, the merging of Beethoven’s startingly radical and original ways with his “adherence” to classical form.

The Other Points of View

Of course, the points of Schmitz, Rosen and many others are well-taken and I am inclined to agree that Beethoven cannot be called a purely Romantic composer in the same way that Liszt, Schumann, or Mahler can. Of course not. However, as I stated earlier, this is issue is erroneously mixed up with Beethoven being the catalyst or bridge between the two eras. Yes, Beethoven fervently stuck with his loved Sonata form which he adopted from the greats before him, yet his most “startling original and radical innovations (to use Rosen’s very words) were done within the “confines” of the Sonata form (extra emphasis on the quotations on confines). It was Beethoven’s innovative and revolutionary spirit which inspired the 19th century to no end, the Ninth Symphony which with Wagner was obsessed with and endlessly inspired by, the Late String Quartets which fascinated Berlioz to Brahms to Schumann to Stravinsky to Bartok. Again, all these original works were within the Sonata form. This is why I think seeing through the lens of musical form alone is a mistake. This is to not even mention the Eroica Symphony, the Grosse Fuge (and other late quartets), the Hammerklavier Sonata (and other late piano sonatas), the Diabelli Variations (described by Rosen as an “investigation of the language of classical tonality”), the Op. 102 Cello Sonatas (“most singular and most strange” as they were described). Beethoven’s late works (and sometimes middle works) were often seen as the work of a mad deaf man, bizarre and thorny works, works filled with “oddities and bizarreries” (“Wunderlichkeiten und Bizarrerien”). It was this Beethoven, the merger of the modern and radical with that of the classical, that inspired nearly every major Romantic composer of the 19th century. In "Schumann's view, the Romantic movement to which he and other composers of
the 1830s subscribed had its very origins in Beethoven" ("Schumann's Monument to Beethoven", Nicolas Marston, "19th Century Music", Vol. 14, No. 3). It becomes clear how the Romantic era which abandoned classical form was inspired by such revolutionary music. It explains why the 19th century Romantics were obsessed with Beethoven and not, let's say Hummel, whose music was more in the Romantic vein than Beethoven's.

I end with the thoughts of someone whose words perhaps carry a bit of weight behind them, Leonard Bernstein. As always, I am in awe of Bernstein’s way of communicating so simply and effectively. His point is clear and you need no background in music to appreciate his thoughts.

Leonard Bernstein:
"Now again, the romantic composers didn't just hold a convention in Chicago and decide to go romantic: again it's a reflection of changes that happen in history, the way people live and think and feel and act. And it all began, strangely enough, with that greatest classicist of all, Beethoven. You see, he was two things at the same time: He was the last man of the classical period, and the first man of the romantic period, all at once. I guess you could say that he was a classicist who went too far; he was so full of feeling and emotion that he couldn't keep himself chained up in all those rules and regulations of the 18th century; and so he just broke his chains, and started a whole new kind of music. And that was the end of classical music.

Beethoven is the beginning of romantic music. Don't forget that he still comes out of the 18th century, even though he lived for about 25 years into the 19th century; but his rules, even though he breaks them, are still classical rules. He was still trying to perfect these rules; and in the best of his music he came as close to perfection as any human being ever has since the world began.
Complete Text from Bernstein

- DiesIraeVIX
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Updated Dec-04-2014 at 02:26 by DiesIraeCX

Classical Music , Musicians , Composers , Conductors