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Beethoven's Compositional Method

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Ludwig van Beethoven
Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the most influential composers in the transition between the classical and romantic period. He composed in many different forms including nine symphonies, five piano concertos and a violin concerto. Beethoven's method of composition has long been a debate amongst scholars. His sketches of composition drafts and his written letters provide contrasting evidence about his process of composition. However, many scholars agree that composing was a slow, laborious process for him. It is clear that his deafness impacted his compositional style, as evinced in certain changes in compositional method from early to late in his career.

Process[edit | edit source]

Beethoven's process for composition changed over the course of his career. Many scholars divide his career into three main time periods; the early, middle and late period. During the early period (ended in 1802) the driving force behind his compositions was his desire to master the Viennese style of composition.[1] He was strongly inspired by Mozart and Haydn[2] during this period but he also wanted to create his own individual style and not merely emulate his predecessors.[1] Towards the end of the early period (1800–1802), Beethoven began to become more innovative and experimental with his works. These works are now viewed as the transition into his middle period.[1] During this period he composed very quickly producing many works in a short time-frame.[1] The middle period is sometimes referred to by scholars as the “heroic” period. The start of this period is marked by the Eroica Symphony.[1] This symphony includes Beethoven's trademark long development section. Building on the works of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven would place great emphasis on the developmental section as he believed it was “the heart” of a composition.[2] He was known for having long yet very structured developmental sections and this aspect of his style was evident during this period.[2] During this period his technique of the “germ motive” was also evident. The germ motive is when an entire movement is based around ideas introduced in the first few bars. Beethoven's compositional process would then be to compose a bar and base the entirety of the piece around the motif in the first bar. The pieces in the middle period (1803–1812) have a much darker feel than the pieces in the first period. During this time, Beethoven was suffering from depression.[3] It was also the start of his hearing loss.[3] Although this was a dark period of Beethoven's life, common themes of heroism and perseverance are evident in his works.[3] Towards the end of this period his proficiency in the classical language becomes apparent. The final period (1813–1827) consisted of Beethoven composing arguably unconventional pieces. This period is sometimes considered to be “transcendent.”[2] During the beginning of this period Beethoven's composition halted due to personal issues.[1] Towards the later years he continued composing with strong influences from Mozart and Haydn but also from Baroque composers such as Bach and Handel.[2] Towards the end of his life, he was composing efficiently again and produced some of his most famous pieces.[1]

Deafness[edit | edit source]

Beethoven's compositional method was hugely impacted by his gradual loss of hearing. Scholars cannot agree on when he began to experience this impaired hearing, but it is said to have started around 1796/1797 (during the end of the early period).[4] By the final period, he was completely deaf.[3] His levels of deafness approximately correlate to the different periods of his compositions. Some scholars argue that his varying levels of hearing had a major impact on his style of composition.[4] His deafness was first evident when he noticed he was unable to hear higher frequencies.[4] Some scholars argue this impacted his compositions in the middle period which tend to use less higher pitches.[5] When his hearing was only mildly impaired, he would use ear trumpets in order to compose at the piano. He would also use a wooden stick between his teeth to feel the vibrations when he played.[4] The higher frequencies are present in his later works again. By this time he was fully deaf and he would only be able to imagine the sound of the composition.[5] Leonard Bernstein criticised Beethoven's later works for their orchestration. He believed that some dynamic markings were causing the orchestra to sound off-balanced. This is arguably due to his deafness. His deafness also was a catalyst for his depression which arguably affected his compositions.

Evidence of compositional method[edit | edit source]

Sketches[edit | edit source]

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 sketch

Beethoven was known to make many drafts and corrections before finishing a composition. Unlike Mozart, who would often compose the entire piece before writing it down, Beethoven made many sketches with various edits at every stage. Beethoven's sketches give scholars an insight into his compositional process. According to biographers, Beethoven's compositional process was undergone in two distinct phases. First, he would sketch the main thematic ideas and motifs. Once he had these sketched, he would compose the piece through what was considered by scholars to be a laborious and painstaking process.[6]

Letters[edit | edit source]

Beethoven's letters also provide insight on his compositional process. Scholars analysed a letter written by Beethoven in 1802 addressed to a woman who had asked him to compose a sonata for her. She had requested a specific tonal plan and structure. He replied that he would compose a sonata in following with her general plan but that he would decide the tonal scheme. This suggests to scholars that Beethoven was able to compose to a request to a certain extent.[6] He also wrote in a letter from 1814 stating that he always composes with the whole piece in mind. He wrote a similar sentiment in another letter. He conveyed that he only transcribes his compositions once he has fully realised them in his head. This however contrasts with the compositional process suggested by his sketches. Scholars overcome this contradiction by reasoning that Beethoven's letters would be more biased than the sketches as they convey his own subjective perception of his compositional habits.[6]

See also[edit | edit source]

Others articles of the Topic Classical music : Carleton Elliott, Ulrich Tadday, Bedřich Smetana, Sylvain Fort, Oswald Sallaberger, Callum Watson (Musician), Carlos Ágreda
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References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 "Beethoven, Ludwig van". www.oxfordmusiconline.com. Grove Music. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000040026. Retrieved 2019-05-12.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "BEETHOVEN : Musical Style and Innovations". www.beethoven.ws. Retrieved 2019-05-12.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Beahrs, Virginia Oakley (1996). "A new look at periodicity in the creative life of Ludwig van Beethoven". The Midwest Quarterly. 37: 256+.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Stevens, Kenneth M. (1970-07-20). "Beethoven's Deafness". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 213 (3): 434. doi:10.1001/jama.1970.03170290030006. ISSN 0098-7484.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "So if Beethoven was completely deaf, how did he compose?". Classic FM. Retrieved 2019-05-12.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Buurman, Erica, author. Beethoven's compositional approach to multi-movement structures in his instrumental works. OCLC 883435877.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)

Category:Ludwig van Beethoven Category:Musical analysis

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