Beethoven wrestled fate through his music. Even early on, you can hear traces of this life-conflict of his. He aggressively displayed emotional intensity in his Piano Sonata in C minor, which is known as his “Pathetique Sonata”. After he learned of his advancing deafness, he decided to start over in his composing career by writing his Third or “Eroica” Symphony. Beethoven was taking quite a few chances by displaying this fiery emotion amidst the practice of self-control in the Classical period. When the audience heard the first four notes of his infinitely famous Fifth Symphony, they were sure he was insane. However, by the time he wrote his great Seventh Symphony, the audience had caught on – they wanted to hear it again. Beethoven saved his best for last, though. The Ninth Symphony was one of the very last manuscripts to be written by the great composer. During its performance, Beethoven had to be made aware of the applause from the audience by one of the soloists: as he was completely deaf. Beethoven also wrote one opera, called Fidelio. But his struggles with fate are best portrayed by far by his nine symphonies that shook the world.
Beethoven's lyrical melodic lines and powerful accents bring to mind the dramatic and hostile aspects of the struggle with fate, while his slow, somber themes inform us of the deep wounds fate inflicts. The rhythmic motifs illustrate this continual battle. One particular practice of Beethoven's that enables him to portray the underlying element of fate is his treatment of the bass line. Until Beethoven, composers in the Classical era wrote the bass line in the cello and doubled it an octave below with the stringed bass. Beethoven departed from this practice, and wrote independent parts for both instruments. Another rather different and somewhat odd characteristic of Beethoven is his treatment of sonata form. On some occasions – in his early piano sonatas, for example – Beethoven departed from the normal use of this form. He used what has been called “binary sonata form”. In binary sonata form, the boundary between the development section and the recapitulation section is somewhat uncertain. When listening to this in Beethoven's music, one might come away with more of a sense of turmoil created by this unclear boundary – A chaotic struggle between the will of the composer and that of fate.
The four notes sound. Instantly, fate has struck its blow: Beethoven was going deaf. He started sketching his Fifth Symphony as early as 1804, around the time he realized that fate had dealt him the blow. By July of 1809, he had finished it, and presented the score to the publisher E.T.A. Hoffman. Hoffman was a contributor to one of the most respected music journals in Germany at the time, and had nothing but praise for the work. The review he wrote was twice as long as his other reviews, and contained extravagant and pictorial language about Beethoven's work of early Romanticism – it was the largest piece of writing ever written on a work of Beethoven at the time.
Undoubtedly, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was one of his most important works: perhaps the most important of all. Beethoven's Fifth marked a major turning point in the composition of his symphonies. Perhaps with the exception of his third, Beethoven's symphonies had been mostly written in the style of musicians in the Classical Period before him. His techniques were moderated and somewhat under control. While composing his Symphony No.5, Beethoven seems to have uncontrollably unleashed his self-expression into his music. The self-expression Beethoven displays in this piece and his use of Classical techniques undoubtedly set the pace for the Romantic era to follow. This is more than likely the reason why Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is so important, and why it is remembered so well today.
The theme of fate seems so prominent in Beethoven's life, but it is much more prominent in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony than it is in his other works. One only has to hear the violent first four notes to understand that this piece is about the harsh blows inflicted by fate. The four note motif is so striking that is easily recognized around the world. Even if you happen to miss the opening statement, you can still hear the motif throughout the entire piece. During the exposition, the motif is often stated in other voices, even while other material is being played. At the beginning of the development section, we hear the opening theme stated in F minor. Then, the material breaks down into the development of the motif. Even though the development is chaotic, you can still hear the motif interspersed between the other developed material. The recapitulation is signaled by the chords in the woodwinds answered by the strings, followed by a loud repetition of the motif. Once you pass through the recapitulation, the loud statement of the motif signals a change from the end of the recapitulation to the beginning of the coda. The coda is a long one, and is almost a re-development section. This re-development returns to the main theme, once again, with a loud restatement of the motif. The piece ends with a violent series of chords alternating between dominant and tonic, creating a dramatic close to seal the end of a journey of fate.
An element of Beethoven's music that seems to jump out at you is his continual use of harshly loud accents (called a sforzando). The first of his symphonies where this can be clearly observed is in the opening two chords of the “Eroica” or Third Symphony. In addition to the harshly accented chords that leap out from the material, many of Beethoven's themes seem to naturally accent themselves, whether or not this is indicated in the music. This supports the partly mythical-seeming connotations of fate with Beethoven. Something that may not appear fate-oriented, however, is Beethoven's ability to weave lyrical melodic material into material that is contrastingly rough and aggressive. However, when Beethoven mixes this melodic material into his rough and accented music, as he does in the fourth movement of his Sixth Symphony, it becomes all the more fateful. But in his earlier works, there is more of a contrast between smooth and rough, and this is openly displayed in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony. During this period in time, Beethoven still used sudden dynamic contrast, but he also began to use crescendos and decrescendos effectively. Again, the smooth transition from loud to soft and soft to loud is more prominent in his later works. This period may be more of a transition from Classical to Romantic: and so Beethoven's Fifth is a pivotal point in this transition. Another characteristic of Beethoven that may play a factor in moving from Classical to Romantic may be his ability to move into polyphonic texture at any time. While he uses this texture sparingly at this point in time, the texture can appear anywhere and lead to any place in his music. The rough accents, contrastingly smooth and lyrical melodic material, contrasting and smooth changes in dynamics, polyphonic texture jumping from nowhere: these all add to the sense of fate perceived in Beethoven's music.
Due to Beethoven playing a major role in the transition from Classical to Romantic, he almost has more in common with composers of the Romantic period than he does with those of the Classical. However, Beethoven's roots were in the music of the Classical period, and therefore many trends of the time influenced his music. The importance of the symphony at the time must have left a large impression on him, as he went on to expand it considerably. Although he made vast expansions to it, Beethoven drew heavily on the sonata form that was in standard use at the time. Also, Beethoven's music was mostly homophonic in texture, as was a good deal of the music during the Classical period. However, Much of Beethoven's transition to Romanticism might be linked to his teacher, Haydn. Haydn influenced Beethoven in a large number of ways: Haydn used syncopation, abrupt contrasts in dynamics, unconventional modulations, and accented chords that surprised his audience – Beethoven used all of these techniques, and developed them further. Beethoven also appears to have drawn from the music of Mozart as well. In some of his works, Beethoven seems to have similar phrasing, and his use of the orchestra sounds as though it might be a development of Mozart's style of orchestration. Mozart, like Haydn, also frequently used syncopation. So, both of these musical giants seemed to have influenced Beethoven quite heavily. But, in his genius, Beethoven took both the styles of Haydn and Mozart to new heights that even they had not imagined. This shaped the music of Beethoven to become what we hear today.
Beethoven's determination to conquer fate has left us with some of the greatest music in history. Perhaps his music would not have taken the shape it took had Beethoven not been struck deaf. Perhaps what Beethoven called fate lead him to compose the very music of the struggle with fate that he did. In the end, Beethoven left us with astonishing music, and perhaps even a whole new era of music.
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Cassedy, Steven. Beethoven the Romantic: How E.T.A. Hoffman Got It Right. University of California, San Diego. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_ideas/v071/71.1.cassedy.html.
Sherrane, Robert. The Classical Period: Ludwig van Beethoven. ipl2. http://www.ipl.org/div/mushist/clas/beethoven.html.
Song, Moo Kyoung. The Evolution of Sonata-Form Design in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Early Piano Sonatas, WoO 47 to Opus 22. University of Texas at Austin: 71, 72, & 115.