He’s the one who alienates half the dinner guests at your party, gets roaring drunk, makes a pass at your wife, breaks your $1,000 vase, and leaves with the prettiest girl at his side. That would be Ludwig von Beethoven.
Beethoven did more than upset dinner guests at a party: he upset the world of eighteenth-century music: the music of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. Critic G. B. Shaw explains: “The music of the eighteenth century is all dance music . . . a symmetrical pattern of steps that are pleasant to listen to even when you are not dancing. . . .
“Now what Beethoven did, and what made some of his greatest contemporaries give him up as a madman with lucid intervals of clowning and bad taste, was that he used music altogether as a means of expressing moods, and completely threw over pattern designing as an end in itself. . . . It is true that he used the old patterns . . . but he imposed on them such an overwhelming charge of human energy and passion (that he) often made it impossible to notice that there was any pattern at all beneath the storm of emotion. . . .
“And there you have the whole secret of Beethoven. He could design patterns with the best of them; he could write music whose beauty will last you all your life; he could take the driest sticks of themes and work them up so interestingly that you find something new in them at the hundredth hearing: in short, you can say of him all that you can say of the greatest pattern composers (Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart); but his diagnostic, the thing that makes him stand out from all the others, is his disturbing quality, his power of unsettling us and imposing his giant moods on us.”
The symphony, the concerto, the piano sonata, the string quartet--they would never be the same after Beethoven put his stamp on them. Mozart’s influence didn’t outlive the eighteenth century; Beethoven’s influence extends to our day. Beethoven is the gold standard by which a composer’s work is inevitably compared. On any given night, Beethoven’s music can be heard in concert halls around the world. Every conductor with a recording contract, the first thing he records is Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies because they’re guaranteed to sell.
Like his contemporaries Alexander Hamilton and the poet Lord Byron, Beethoven was a romantic. They’re a breed apart, and seldom understood.
“The romantic,” writes historian Forrest McDonald, “embraces causes and fights for them with reckless bravery--which is easy for him to do, since he is unable to imagine that failure or defeat is possible. As a young man, he falls in love once, passionately, and for life, though he is capable of additional ‘affaires d’amour’ that imperil everything.
“He inspires admiration and loyalty in some, envy and hatred in others; he can be charming and witty but not genuinely humorous, for though life to him is always a joyful affirmation, it is never funny. Like the sentimentalists, the dreamer and the do-gooder, the romantic is ruled by his heart rather than his head. Unlike them, he is also tough-minded and realistic, and that creates within him a turbulence they never know: he drives himself to excel, requires discipline of himself far beyond that of other men, is concerned with honor, sometimes obsessively.”
If you could liken a composer to a car--in this case a German car--Bach would be a BMW, Mozart a Mercedes Benz (smooooth riding), and Beethoven would be a Porsche Speedster, with the top down--rude and exhilarating.