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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

Was Beethoven really responsible for all of this? Only in the sense that things were said and done in his name that, were it not for him, would have been said and done in the name of others, and perhaps differently. He became the protagonist and the beneficiary of an attitude that had been growing for almost half a century by the time he began making a name for himself, and that ultimately reflected changing social and economic conditions over which he had no more control than any other musician. His music was clearly affected by it; if it had not existed he would have composed very differently (in all likelihood more like Mozart). But by the force of his career and his accomplishments, and by the commanding mythology that grew up around his name, he mightily affected it in turn; without him it might not have achieved the authority his powerful example conferred upon it. In the “Beethoven watershed” we have one of the clearest examples of symbiosis between a powerful agent and the intellectual milieu in which he thrived.

Kampf und Sieg

fig. 12-4 The house in Bonn where Beethoven was born.

In some important respects Beethoven shaped his time (and ours) in ways he could never have intended. He was born, on 16 December 1770, into a transplanted Flemish family of court musicians, like the Bachs but far less prestigious. His grandfather and namesake, Louis van Beethoven (1712–73), after occupying positions in several Belgian cities, accepted a singer’s post at the minor Electoral court of Bonn, a smallish city on the Rhine (later the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany or “West Germany”), where he changed his name to Ludwig and in 1761 acceded to the Kapellmeistership, a position to which his son Johann, the composer’s father, did not measure up.

The younger Ludwig was originally groomed for a career in the family mold. By the age of twelve, after establishing a local reputation as a piano prodigy, he was appointed assistant to the Electoral court organist. At eighteen, he took over some of his father’s duties as singer and instrumentalist. His first important compositions date from 1790, when he was nineteen: a cantata on the death of his employer’s elder brother, the emperor Joseph II, followed by another (this one actually commissioned) celebrating the coronation of Leopold II, Joseph’s successor. This sort of piece was standard Kapellmeisterly fare.

Although neither cantata seems to have been performed at the time, they were shown to Haydn, who passed through Bonn en route to England in December of that year, and received his approval. After Haydn’s return from his first London visit, late in 1792, the Elector arranged for Beethoven to study with the great man in Vienna. A line of succession was thus established. The lessons, confined in the main to basic training in counterpoint, did not last long. Haydn was summoned back to England early in 1794. In his absence Beethoven took instruction from some other local maestros—from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1809), the Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral; and possibly from Antonio Salieri (1750–1825), the imperial court Kapellmeister—and began making a name for himself as a pianist. He became the darling of the aristocratic salon set, and seemed to be duplicating, or even surpassing, Mozart’s early Viennese success as virtuoso performer and improviser.

By the time Haydn returned in August 1795, Beethoven had become a household name among the noble music lovers of the capital. He had had his first big concert success, performing his Concerto in B♭ major (later published as his Second Concerto, op. 19), and had also published his opus 1. This was a set of three trios for piano, violin, and cello, dedicated to one of his patrons, Prince Karl von Lichnowsky (1761–1814). Haydn expressed regrets that Beethoven had published the third of these trios, a brusque work in the dark key of C minor. In retaliation, Beethoven refused to identify himself on the title page of his op. 2 (three piano sonatas) as Haydn’s pupil, even though the sonatas were dedicated to his former master. (He claimed, when pressed, that although he had taken a few lessons from Haydn, he hadn’t learned anything from him.) These acts of self-assertion, like the startling assertiveness of some of the early compositions, were probably the product of both sincere self-regard and self-promoting calculation. They later became key elements in the Beethoven myth.

Beginning in 1796 Beethoven made concert tours throughout the German-speaking lands. They were immensely successful, both in pecuniary terms and in terms of his spreading fame. The Czech composer Václav Tomášek (1774–1850) heard him in Prague in 1798; in memoirs he published near the end of his long life he averred that Beethoven was the greatest pianist he had ever heard. Beethoven’s supremacy among composers of his generation was established by the turn of the century, especially after a concert he organized for his own benefit on 2 April 1800. The program contained works by Haydn and Mozart, another Beethoven concerto performed by the author, and, as always, an improvisation.

But it also contained two new Beethoven compositions without keyboard: the Septet for Winds and Strings, op. 20, which would remain one of his most popular works, and most important by far, the First Symphony, op. 21. This last was the crucial step, because with his symphonic debut Beethoven was now competing not only with other virtuoso composers of his own generation, but directly with Haydn on the master’s own turf. The next year he published a set of six string quartets (op. 18) that challenged Haydn in his other genre of recognized preeminence. This secured Beethoven’s claim, so to speak, as heir apparent to the throne Haydn’s death would shortly vacate.

Kampf und Sieg

fig. 12-5 Piano by Sebastian Erard, presented to Beethoven by the maker in 1803.

Kampf und Sieg

fig. 12-6 Ear trumpets, made for Beethoven between 1812 and 1814 by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who was best known for his metronome.

And now disaster. In a letter to a friend dated 29 June 1801, Beethoven confessed for the first time that, after several years of fearful uncertainty, he was now sure that he was losing his hearing. The immediate result of this devastating discovery was withdrawal from his glittering social life: “I find it impossible to say to people, I am deaf,” he wrote. “If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.”24 What an understatement! And yet, while eventually he had to cease his concertizing, he did not give up his composing.

Indeed, as he told his brothers in a letter he addressed to them in October of the next year from a suburb of Vienna called Heiligenstadt, composing remained his chief consolation. The realization that he still had music in him, and that he had an obligation to share it with the world, had cured his obsessive thoughts of suicide. This letter, which he apparently never sent, was discovered among Beethoven’s papers after his death. Its poignant mixture of despondency and resolution, and its depiction of a man facing unimaginable obstacles over which he was by then known to have triumphed, have made the Heiligenstadt Testament, as it has come to be known, perhaps the most famous personal utterance of any composer.25 It has done more than any other single document to make Beethoven an object of inexhaustible human interest, the subject of biographical novels, whole galleries of idealized portraiture, and most recently, of biopics.

None of these books, pictures, or films would have been made, it could go without saying, were it not for the extraordinary musical output that followed the Heiligenstadt Testament. And yet perhaps it needs saying after all, for Beethoven’s deafness not only became the chief basis of the Beethoven mystique, and the chief source of his unprecedented authority as a cultural figure; it also served as one of the chief avenues by which Beethoven’s personal fate, as mediated through the critical literature we have been sampling, became the most commanding and regulating single influence on the whole field of musical activity from his time to ours.

The idea of a successful deaf composer is a virtually superhuman idea. It connotes superhuman suffering and superhuman victory, playing directly into the emerging quasi-religious romantic notion of the great artist as humanity’s redeemer. That scenario—of suffering and victory, both experienced at the limits of intensity—became the ineluctable context in which Beethoven’s music was received. And, as we shall shortly see, that very scenario was consciously encoded by the composer in some of his most celebrated works.

Yet there was also another factor at work, profoundly affecting Beethoven’s output and his significance, and enabling him to facilitate by his example the inexorable romantic transformation of musical art and life. His deafness caused him to disappear physically from the musical scene. It removed him, so far as the musical world was concerned, from “real time,” the time frame in which musical daily business was conducted. His creative activities now took place in an unimaginable transcendent space to which no one but he had access. The copious sketches he made for his compositions beginning in the late 1790s (and, somewhat bizarrely, kept in his possession throughout his life) have precisely for this reason exercised an enormous fascination—and not only on musicians or musicologists—as a lofty record of esthetic achievement, but also as an ethically and morally charged human document of Kampf und Sieg (struggle and victory).

The creative and performing functions were in Beethoven gradually but irrevocably severed, leaving only the first. And that sole survivor, the creative function, was now invested with a heroic import that cast the split—again, just as romantic theory would have it—in ethical, quasi-religious terms. Never again would the performing virtuoso composer, on the Mozartean model, be considered the ideal. The composer—the creator—became a truly Olympian being, far removed from the ephemeral transactions of everyday musical life—improvisations, cadenzas, performances in general—and yet a public figure withal, whose pronouncements were regarded as public events of the first magnitude. That was the difference between Beethoven and such earlier nonperforming composers as Haydn. Haydn passed most of his creative life in the closed-off, private world of aristocratic patronage, while Beethoven, even after his social alienation, spoke to the mass public that emerged only after the patronage system had begun to wither.

Beethoven’s last appearance as concerto soloist took place at a concert on 22 December 1808 at which the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies both received their first performances, and Beethoven, in addition to improvising, performed his Fourth Piano Concerto and his so-called Choral Fantasy, a short but grandiose work that begins with a piano solo (extemporized at the first performance) and ends with a choral hymn that foreshadowed the gigantic “Ode to Joy” at the end of the Ninth Symphony. His last public appearance as pianist took place in the spring of 1814 (in the so-called “Archduke” Trio, op. 97), from which time onward, even down to the present, a “classical” composer’s involvement in performance (except as conductor, another sort of silent dictator) would carry something of a stigma, a taint of compromise, as “art” (the province of creators) became ever more radically distinguished from “entertainment” (the province of performers). The distinction between art and entertainment is wholly the product of romantic esthetics. Mozart would not have understood it. Beethoven certainly did. The social and economic conditions that followed the demise of the private patronage system were its enablers. Critics like Hoffmann were its inventors.


(24) Beethoven to Franz Wegeler, 29 June 1801; in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations trans. Michael Hamburger (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1960), p. 24.

(25) For the full text, trans. Piero Weiss, see P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 277–79.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 The First Romantics. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12004.xml