A while ago, one of my friends had a class where the question “What makes Beethoven a great composer?” came up. I think I’ll go cover this in length here.
Beethoven lived in a time of revolution in the European subcontinent (sidenote: calling Europe a continent is absurd). His life of only 56 years saw (and was at times directly affected by) the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the build-up to further revolutions to come. He approved of many of the transitions in political thought at the time (he originally named his 3rd Symphony the ‘Bonaparte’, until angrily tearing apart and rewriting the title page upon news that Napoleon has declared himself emperor), and often benefited from them. But reflections of the changes of his times can be seen not only in his life but also in his music.
The musical context of the beginning of Beethoven’s compositional career was the heart of the Classical Period, where Vienna has shed the fanciful and byzantine musical tenets of the Baroque Period, to have the musical world reflect ideas brought about in the Age of Reason: the new standards for quality music were that their melodies were simple and their forms well-structured, for music to be sensible and not needlessly flowery, for music to reach to all people rather than concentrate on the upper classes. This was the time of Haydn and Mozart. But the simplicities and structure of the Classical Period, although reflecting changes Beethoven may approve of, come short of being able to reflect the extremes of emotion. The Classical Period could keep a well-beating heart happy, but was no land for the heart in heart-stretching times. The ideals of good music in this time fell miserably short of a just depiction of epic heroism and devastating tragedy.
Beethoven’s life itself was a story of heroism and tragedy. His life, as well as the path of his music, followed the miserable choice of fate that the one sense, hearing, most important to him as a composer would slowly but surely vaporize, and his astonishing heroic struggle as a composer facing these odds to not only remain relevant but also become ever the more magnificent. What history remembers as his greatest works tend to fall in times when his hearing was deeply in the shadow. And these greatest works were revolutionary, unlike that of any music before his time. And his music changed so much over the course of his life because he had to endure the tragedy of hearing loss, and his heart told him that the constraints of music in his environment were too much, a set of rules to pivot away from, and eventually shed in entirety.
Beethoven’s works rewrote the principles of good music, transitioning the Classical Period to the Romantic Period, a time to say that simplicity and sensibility should not restrain the full expression of emotion and experience in art. Beethoven paved the way for the further expansion of Romantic ideals in the work of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin (as much as he liked to distance his music from Beethoven’s), Liszt (his grandstudent, through Czerny), Dvořák, and many others. Many of the last works of Beethoven were way out of his world (sometimes literally unplayable in the instruments of that time), because through his style transitions he has looked that far ahead in the evolution of music, and was helping the world catch up. He was a man whose life caught the current of revolution and who channelled it into new musical frontiers in a way that he left music in a completely different, newly ascended place like no other has done.