Since its inception, rock music has always been extremely effective at conveying emotion, and there was one artist at the forefront of this expressive form- Beethoven……….Long before audiences were captivated by the wild wails of Little Richard or the percussive swing of Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Beethoven was railing against the accepted conventions of his time.
Steadfast in his artistic quest, Beethoven refused to acquiesce to the whims of nobles and princes upon whom his livelihood was dependent. Reaching deep within himself and allowing his own pain, emotions, and experiences to inform his art, he was at, or at least very near, the helm of a long tradition of personal, musical expression. This creative torch has since been carried by innovators such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Lou Reed. Similarly, the honest simplicity of much of the composer’s work blazed a trail for musicians like Tony Iommi, Malcolm Young, and Ritchie Blackmore, who further developed the art of making grandiose, compelling musical statements with minimal harmonic variation. Beethoven’s approach to his work, and indeed to life itself, was uncompromising, unrelenting, and forthright.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December of 1770, into a musical family which included Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, Ludwig’s grandfather and one of the most well-respected musical minds in the city of Bonn, where Beethoven was born. Ludwig’s father Johann van Beethoven was a musician in his own right, eventually attaining the status of Kapellmeister himself in 1761 after serving at the court of Prince-Archbishop-Elector of Cologne Clemens August of Bavaria. Though primarily a vocalist, Johann also played and taught various string instruments including the violin, harpsichord, zither, and clavichord.
Ludwig’s talent was apparent from an early age, and his father undertook the responsibility of administering his musical training. Johann would prove to be a ruthless, unforgiving instructor, however. There exist several accounts of Johann’s callous treatment of his prodigious son, many of which indicate the use of excessive physicality to force practice upon the young musician. Neighbors tell of a young boy perched upon a foot stool, tears welling in his eyes as he was struck upon any perceived error in his musical execution. Johann was a notoriously heavy drinker, which severely complicated an already capricious family dynamic. Also of no assistance was Johann’s fascination with another successful young composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Only fourteen years Ludwig’s senior, Mozart had been mentored and promoted as a child prodigy by his own father, Leopold. Mozart quickly developed a reputation for his precocious musical ability, and began his career composing full pieces at only five years old and performing for royalty at just 6. Young Mozart’s abilities were such that it was not long before his performances became the primary means of income for his family. Johann was well aware of this, and upon realizing the extent of his own son’s abilities, made it his life’s mission to exploit the boy’s musicianship for his own personal gain. The imposing shadow of Mozart would hang over Beethoven like an albatross for the rest of his life.
Beethoven began performing publicly at the age of 7, though his father ensured that his age was advertised to be 6, likely in an attempt to encourage comparisons to Mozart. This was a tactic utilized frequently by Johann, and would lead to much confusion in determining Beethoven’s true age. The composer himself, it is said, harbored uncertainty of own age for most of his life. Beethoven composed a number of pieces during his childhood, including a set of piano sonatas. Just as many modern performers dream of leaving home for New York City or Los Angeles in search of fortune and fame, Beethoven likewise dreamed of departing for Vienna. The Austrian city, Beethoven believed, could provide the proper audience to solidify him as a master of his craft. Vienna was also the site of Mozart’s first public performance, and happened to be the locale of the composer’s residence at the time. It was Beethoven’s wish to gain an audience with the renowned musician, and to study under him if at all possible.
This meeting of minds, remarkable as it may have been, unfortunately never came to pass, at least not in any substantial capacity. There are conflicting accounts of whether the two masterminds ever did actually meet, but there is no account of Beethoven ever actually studying under Mozart. Beethoven did finally get his trip to Vienna when he was sixteen years old. Though the long awaited visit was to be abandoned before it had even truly begun, as Beethoven was forced to return home to tend to his family once his mother became ill. When he finally was able to return to Vienna at the age of 22, Mozart had since passed away the previous year.
Beethoven was the oldest surviving child of his family, and as such, took on a significant load of domestic and financial responsibility from a young age. This was of course exacerbated by his father’s predilection for alcohol, which intensified upon the passing of Beethoven’s mother. Upon the passing of his mother, Ludwig essentially assumed full responsibility for the family’s well-being. Johann’s capacity and motivation to provide had all but completely bottomed out, and years of heavy indulgence had so damaged his voice that he became unable to earn income as a singer. Johann would join his wife in death five years later, leaving the last of a litany of emotional scars which Ludwig van Beethoven would carry with him for the remainder of his life, and which would inform the moody, dramatic quality of his music, as well as the erratic, temperamental nature of his own personal life. With his parents gone, and his younger brothers of age to fend for themselves, Beethoven embarked upon a solemn, solitary journey through life.
Upon his father’s passing, Beethoven would once again strike out to Vienna, this time to study under Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, who had, for all intents and purposes, assumed the mantle of greatest living composer upon Mozart’s passing. Like Bach before him, Beethoven began to foster a reputation as a virtuosic performer, particularly in the field of improvisation, but not necessarily as a composer. His prior assumptions had proven correct, as it was in Vienna Beethoven found his audience. At the age of 25, he published what were (inaccurately) described as his first published compositions, “Piano Trios, Op.1.” The opus was highly successful both critically and financially, and established Beethoven as one of the most acclaimed composers of the day.
Beethoven became prolific, finding seemingly endless musical avenues by which to express the deep-seated, ever-present anguish of his upbringing which plagued him throughout his adult life. During this time, musical composition was viewed by many, if not simply as a means of entertainment, as a means of channeling something greater. Bach, who would come to be recognized as the father of classical music, drew nearly all his inspiration from the church.
Bach spent most of his professional life playing in churches, and his work as an expression, was intended as a devotion to God. Mozart, while also influenced by religion and by the social structure of the church, almost seemed to extract the music he played from somewhere else altogether, as if it were being pulled from thin air and translated effortlessly through the ivories. Be it a result of his upbringing or simply part of who he was as a musician, Beethoven’s work often translated as deeply personal. There was a humanity present within the changes of his pieces that appealed, and continue to appeal, to the uncertainty we each carry with us as participants in the grand experiment known as the human experience.
“Simplicity” is a word that one may encounter a number of times in seeking to understand the work of Beethoven. To those with less than a cursory understanding of the man’s life, or of the greater canon of Western music in general, this notion is bound to raise further questions. In particular, those familiar with common musical structures of the last half-century and little else will find little in the way of simplicity in the winding, contrasting movements of 1804’s “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major,” or the immense grandiosity of 1824’s “Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125.” Indeed, if it is complexity which one seeks, there are discoveries to be made in the works of Beethoven. In 1818, Beethoven composed “Piano Sonata No. 29 in B♭ major, Op. 106,” otherwise known as “Hammerklavier.” Since its publication, the sonata has been regarded as the most technically demanding piece of Beethoven’s catalogue, and one of his finest works.
By comparison to relative contemporaries such as Mozart and Hummel, however, moments such as “Minuet in G major, WoO 10, No.2” and “Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59, Bia 515)” could be interpreted as utterly intelligible. The latter piece – more commonly known as “Für Elise” – has become one of Beethoven’s most enduring compositions, perhaps owing to its relative simplicity and deeply emotional harmonic presentation. But the simplicity in question isn’t necessarily referring to harmonic crudeness, or an unrefined character. In fact, Beethoven’s compositional style could often be quite sophisticated.
Simplicity as it pertains to the man’s music is more an acknowledgement of the space utilized throughout his works. Much of Mozart’s output was characterized by extremely busy passages with wild harmonic variations that somehow never seemed to stray from the central tonal idea. Beethoven was an early adopter of the “less is more” ideology that would become pervasive in rock music. Red Hot Chili Peppers founding member and notoriously flamboyant bassist, Michael “Flea” Balzary,” commented on the role of space in the band’s evolving sound in a 1996 discussion with Bass Player Magazine. (1)
“When you play less, it’s more exciting – there’s more room for everything. If I do play something busy, it stands out, instead of being a constant onslaught of notes. Space is good,” he said.
In consideration of space as a musical tool, there has been perhaps no better implementation of the concept than in the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.” The opening motif of the symphony contains what have come to be known as “the most famous four notes in music,” along with several other variations on the epithet. The motif has become ubiquitous in Western culture throughout the centuries since its 1808 composition, and is frequently referenced on television and radio. Many consider the motif to have been the origin of what we now know as the “riff” in popular music.
The archetype of minimal notes interspersed with silence to convey a feeling, the Symphony No. 5, first movement motif – or the “fate motif” as it has come to be known – was the precursor to many of the great riffs that would come to define rock music. Riffs in this compositional vein include Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Beethoven was a transitional figure in the Western music tradition, acting as a bridge between the Classical period and the Romantic period. Consolidating much of sparseness and skeletal, musical structures utilized during the early Baroque period with the sophistication of Bach’s work in the late Baroque period, as well as Mozart’s revolutionary contributions during the Classical period, Beethoven ushered in a musical renaissance rooted in artistic expression, which retained the integrity and virtuosity of the formal compositional standards which, by this time, had already developed deep cultural roots.
Beethoven’s attitude and general demeanor have also drawn parallels over the years to the rock innovators he preceded. By all accounts, brooding, irritable, and unwaveringly obstinate, he cared about little else but his music. Social convention was of no importance to the composer, who allowed his home to descend into a state of squalor not unlike that of Tom Waits’ long-time residence at Los Angeles’ Tropicana Inn Motel in the 1970s. Beethoven famously refused to yield to those in positions of high honor and consideration, and was very skeptical of those in positions of power. In keeping with this spirit, Beethoven’s works eschewed the tradition of being written and performed for courts and nobles, and was some of the first major work to be composed with the general public in mind.
By this token, Beethoven was a key figure in the eventual development of the concept album. His symphonies were generally constructed to convey larger, more abstract ideas, which were to be interpreted by the public upon presentation of the respective pieces. Never one to bite his tongue to avoid rocking the boat, Beethoven adorned much of his work with heavy political significance. Perhaps the most substantial example, not only of Beethoven’s proclivity to herald his own worldview to anyone willing to listen, but also of his intrepidity in expressing his political views, is “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major.”
“Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major,” also known as “Eroica,” was originally dedicated to Napoléon Bonaparte, a figure Beethoven viewed as representative of an anti-establishment idealism and democratic opposition to the monarchy which had emerged during the French Revolution. In 1804, Napoléon would declare himself Emperor of the French. Upon learning of this development, Beethoven reportedly flew into a rampage, destroying the work, which was originally to be titled “Bonaparte.” Ferdinand Ries, the composer’s secretary during this time, recalls the events:
“I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!.’ Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor,” Ries remembered.(2)
Beethoven’s incorporation of topical events and politics into his art preceded what eventually would become standard practice in popular music. Acts such as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, N.W.A, and Rage Against the Machine all revolutionized the idea of political music, but the expression itself dates back to Beethoven, and possibly even further. In modern music, the idea of the protest song itself, much like that of the concept album, owes a debt of gratitude to the German pianist who was always prepared to put his money where his mouth was.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s influence on the world of popular music as a whole is immeasurable. One could make a case for most recurring themes and elements in musical expression being an interpretation or reinterpretation of an idea that Beethoven had long ago. The most enduring characteristic of Beethoven’s work is found not in its technical complexities or abundant sophistication in keeping steadfast with tradition, but in its unabashed championing of the ugly truth. Beethoven’s was not music created to impress; Rather, it was an observation: an observation of humanity as a whole, of the man himself, and indeed, of the world around him.
Post, D. (2021, October 24). And A happy birthday (#244) to glorious LVB. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/12/16/and-a-happy-birthday-244-to-glorious-lvb/.