Why is Beethoven one of the most revered composers in the history of Western music? Professor Robert Greenberg answers: “Beethoven possessed a unique gift for communication. He radiated an absolute directness that makes his music totally accessible. The sheer emotional power of his music is readily understood. His revolutionary compositional ideas are easily appreciated.
“And his nine symphonies are among the greatest achievements of the human spirit.
“They were revolutionary on every level: harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, formal, dramatic, self-expressive, and emotional. Beethoven led the charge to a totally new era. He threw out the restraint of 18th-century classicism and ushered in romantic self-expression. His symphonic offspring were the first statesmen of this new, musical democracy.”
Beethoven’s artistic progress is historically measured in three periods:
- The Viennese period, 1792–1802. Symphonies nos. 1 and 2 are composed in this decade. In them, Beethoven innovates within the Classical style.
- The Heroic period, 1803–1815. Symphonies nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are composed during this time. With these symphonies, Beethoven makes revolutionary breaks away from the Classical style.
- The Late period, 1820–1826. This period is dominated by the most revolutionary and influential composition of Beethoven’s career: Symphony no. 9. Here Beethoven fuses all art forms into one monumental work and heralds a new era of unfettered musical expression.
Over the course of these 32 lectures on the history and analysis of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, we see how he revolutionized musical composition and created works of unique beauty, power, and depth.
Beethoven and the Heroic Style
The first four lectures introduce Beethoven the man and his musical development up to 1808. To put his achievements into perspective, we examine Beethoven’s early life, his physical and spiritual development, and the historical circumstances and prevailing musical style that influenced his development.
We study his seemingly unique approach to the piano, and his arrival and celebrity in music and piano-crazed Vienna, as well as his ill-fated lessons with Haydn.
We learn the basic tenets of the Classical style and how Beethoven stretched those rules in his first two symphonies. We start to understand Beethoven as a man of his time, a man shaped by his emotional demons and physical ailments.
The Viennese Period
Symphony no. 1: Beethoven as Classicist—Tradition and Innovation. These lectures examine how Beethoven pushes the envelope in his very first symphony.
Symphony no. 2: Beethoven at the Edge. It is 1802. After six years of progressive hearing loss, a distraught Beethoven pours out his agony and rage in a never-mailed letter. “As the leaves of autumn wither and fall,” he cries, “so has my own life become barren.” Yet even as he battles despair, he vows to his friend Franz Wegeler that he “will take fate by the throat” and “embrace the whole world.” He writes his brilliant, lighthearted Second Symphony.
Symphony no. 2 has an extraordinary expressive and compositional range that puts it at the outer edge of the Classical style, even as it approached Beethoven’s new heroic aesthetic, which was fully realized in Symphony no. 3 of 1803.
The Heroic Period
Symphony no. 3: The “New Path”—Heroism and Self-Expression. Symphony no. 3 (Eroica) marked Beethoven’s coming of age. He built the whole of his subsequent output on it. It is the key work in Beethoven’s musical revolution, a revolution precipitated by the crisis of his hearing problem.
Symphony no. 3 is a metaphor for the eternal struggle of the hero against adversity, a struggle with which Beethoven personally identified. In creating such a symphony, Beethoven provided for his adopted Viennese community a heroic, patriotic self-identity in which, in the face of increasing humiliation by the French, they could find emotional support.
Symphony no. 4: Consolidation of the New Aesthetic. In these four lectures, we track the chronology of Beethoven’s fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies and study the Fourth Symphony.
The framework of the Fourth Symphony is traditional, but it is filled with iconoclastic rhythms and harmonies that clearly mark it as a product of the composer’s post-Eroica period.
Though a masterwork of the first order, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony had the ill fortune to appear between the epochal Symphonies nos. 3 and 5. It was a bad break, but certainly not one that should doom this effervescent and joyful symphony to semi-obscurity.
Symphony no. 5: The Expressive Ideal Fully Formed. How did the iconoclastic Fifth Symphony crystallize Beethoven’s mature compositional innovations? He subjects form to context. He establishes motivic development as a fundamental of his art. He introduces the concept of drama into the formal layout of movements. He introduces the concept of primal, almost rock ‘n’ roll-like rhythm as a narrative element. And he decrees that music must, above all, be self-expression.
Symphony no. 6: The Symphony as Program. In this symphony, Beethoven elevates program music to a genre of substance.
While Beethoven warns us against too literal an interpretation of the sixth, Lectures 20–22 observe the progress of the symphony as it unfolds over a 24-hour (or so) period spent in the country. Along the way, we witness music that is metaphorical, metaphysical, meteorological, and downright descriptive as Beethoven paints both a physical environment and the emotions that environment inspires.
Symphony no. 7: The Symphony as Dance. In 1812, Beethoven broke off his affair with his “immortal beloved,” Antonie Brentano, with all the grief and despair that entailed. His hearing also underwent a precipitous decline.
Yet, and perhaps because of these personal disasters, he was able to write the exuberant, dance-inspired Seventh Symphony.
Moreover, in this period Beethoven’s fame and fortune were revived by the (unmerited) popularity of his battle symphony, Wellington’s Victory. This work was inspired by Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon in Spain and premiered at the same concert as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Symphony no. 8: Homage to Classicism. The Eighth Symphony is full of raucous humor and brilliant wit. It was born amid Beethoven’s ongoing grief for the loss of his beloved and the sudden return of his public fortune during the Beethoven revival of 1813–1814. The Eighth Symphony premiered in February 1814.
We see it as a loving look backwards to the Classical era by the composer who did more to destroy it than any other. Despite its classical pretensions, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 is a thoroughly “modern” work, exhibiting all sorts of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and formal twists, turns, and puns that mark it as Beethoven’s own.
The Late Period
Symphony no. 9: The Symphony as the World. In these lectures we learn about Beethoven’s fall from public favor in 1815, the loss of his most loyal patrons, his worsening hearing loss, his disastrous possessiveness toward his nephew Karl, his consequent emotional decline, and finally his rebirth with the composition of his late-period works.
We see how the Ninth Symphony obliterated time-honored distinctions in its conception as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a work that embraces all art forms, including literature, song, and drama.
We pay special attention to the dual nature of the symphony: the “contemporary” struggle against darkness as described by movements 1, 2, and 3, and the vision of a utopian “future” described in the fourth movement.
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