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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

The great majority of Beethoven’s works, to the end of the first decade of the new century (that is, up to the time of Hoffmann’s decisively influential critiques), were marked by the new heroic style, whether opera (Leonore, later revised as Fidelio, on a subject supposedly borrowed from an actual incident from French revolutionary history), or symphony, whether chamber music (the three quartets published as op. 59 with a dedication to Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador) or piano sonata (the “Waldstein,” op. 53, or especially the “Appassionata,” op. 57).

Their prodigious dynamism not only transformed all the genres to which Beethoven applied himself, but also met with wild approval from an ever-widening bourgeois public who read in that dynamism a portent and a portrayal of their own social and spiritual triumph. For such listeners (as Hoffmann, their unwitting spokesman, put it explicitly), Beethoven finally realized the universal mission of music, just as they felt that in their own lives they were realizing the universal aspiration of mankind to political and economic autonomy—an aspiration defined as the superhuman realization of the “World Spirit” by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), the great romantic philosopher of history and Beethoven’s exact contemporary. To read Beethoven’s music as a metaphor of the universal world spirit was as seductive a notion as it was perilous.

What made it perilous was the tendency it encouraged to cast one’s own cherished values as “universal” values, good (and therefore binding) for all. To see all music that did not conform to the heroic Beethovenian model as deficient to the extent of the difference was to discriminate invidiously against other possible musical aims, uses, and styles. To the extent, for example, that the Beethovenian ideal was identified with virility, or with at times violently expressed “manly” ideals of strength and greatness, it invited or reinforced prejudice against women as composers, even as social agents. To the extent that it sanctioned neglect of the audience’s pleasure, it could serve to underwrite gratuitous obscurity or difficulty. To the extent that it exalted the representation of violence, whether of Kampf (struggle) or Sieg (victory), it could serve as justification for aggressive or even militaristic action. To the extent that it was identified with German national aspirations or (as we will very shortly see) with a concept of German “national character,” it encouraged chauvinism. To the extent that it was identified with middle-class norms of behavior, it paradoxically thwarted the expression of other, equally “romantic” forms of creative individualism.

That these unwarranted and undesirable side effects have at various times emerged from the Beethoven myth is a matter of historical fact. Whether they are implicit (or, to speak medically, “latent”) in it is a matter for continued, and possibly unsettleable, debate.

That such attributes were not inherent in Beethoven but constructed by listeners and interpreters is certainly suggested by the facts of his actual career. The remarkable thing is the way in which he was accepted both by the new mass public and by the old aristocratic one, which continued as before to support him financially, albeit collectively rather than by direct employment. (It should be added that Beethoven’s own social attitudes, as conveyed in documents and anecdotes, were ambiguous at best, and inconstant.) Thanks to that support, Beethoven was able to evade the prospect of steady work as Kapellmeister at the court of Westphalia in Kassel, where Napoleon had installed his youngest brother Jerome as king. A consortium of Viennese noblemen undertook in 1809 to guarantee Beethoven a lifetime annuity that more than matched the salary he was offered at Kassel, and that allowed him to devote his full time to composing as he wished, provided only that he remain in Vienna.

This consortium included the Archduke Rudolph, the emperor’s younger brother and Beethoven’s only composition (as opposed to piano) pupil, to whom the composer dedicated no fewer than ten works, including the “Archduke” Trio (op. 97, composed 1810–11), the “Emperor” Concerto (Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73, composed 1809), and the Mass in D (Missa solemnis), op. 123 (1819–23), composed in celebration of Rudolph’s investment as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. The consortium also included Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian von Lobkowitz, scion of an ancient Bohemian family long famous for its arts patronage, who had underwritten the first performance of the Eroica Symphony at his own private residence in 1804, and to whom Beethoven dedicated not only the Eroica but six other works as well, including the op. 18 quartets and both the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies.

From this evidence of mutual devotion between Beethoven and the Viennese aristocracy, it is clear that the idea of the composer as a musical revolutionist or Jacobin, widespread in the romanticizing literature that cast him as “The Man Who Freed Music” (the title of Robert Schauffler’s 1929 biography), is as one-sided and misleading as the opposing image—that of the isolated, world-renouncing hermit on a lonely quest of saintly personal fulfillment, just as widespread in an opposing romanticizing literature that culminated in another influential book (J. W. N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, published in 1927, the centennial of the composer’s death). These images, and many others, were partial readings of the life of Beethoven in support of one or another variant of the myth of Beethoven, for almost two centuries one of the most potent stimuli to musical thought and action in the West, but a fantastically various one.

The “heroic” phase of Beethoven’s career lasted until around 1812, with the completion of his Eighth Symphony. He then lapsed, probably as a result of deepening deafness and personal frustrations, into a period of depression and evident decline. Goethe, who finally met his great contemporary at a Bohemian spa in the summer of 1811, remarked that Beethoven “was not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any the more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude,” adding that his deafness “perhaps mars the musical part of his nature less than the social.”28 Between 1810 and 1812 the composer suffered repeated setbacks in his personal life. Increasingly desperate overtures to unwilling or unavailable prospective brides culminated in an enigmatic love letter to an unnamed “Immortal Beloved,” written in the summer of 1812 and discovered unsent, like the Heiligenstadt Testament, among his posthumous effects. Beethoven being almost as much the object of “human interest” attention as he has been of musical, scholars and biographers and movie producers have devoted enormous energy to the problem of identifying Beethoven’s mysterious love interest.

If Maynard Solomon, one of Beethoven’s biographers, was right in advancing the name of Antonie Brentano, now regarded as the most plausible candidate, then Beethoven’s fate as hopeless suitor has been intriguingly illuminated.29 Frau Brentano, the sister-in-law of Bettina Brentano, a young piano pupil and friend of Beethoven’s, was for two reasons out of reach: she was of aristocratic birth, and she was already married. Beethoven’s lifetime status as a forlorn bachelor, another reason for his posthumous casting as a spiritual hermit, may well have been as much the result of psychological obstacles as actual social impediments. Brought to a state of turbulence by his multiple rejections and thwartings around 1812, they may have contributed to his creative silence in the years that followed.

Another painful emotional drain was Beethoven’s involvement with his nephew and ward Karl van Beethoven, following the death of his brother Kaspar in 1815. The composer’s possessive and destructive behavior, culminating in a successful but morally wounding four-year legal battle to wrest custody of the eight-year-old boy from his mother, testified to his deep longings and discontents but augured bleakly as to the welfare of any of the parties concerned. Eventually, in the summer of 1826, Karl attempted suicide, an emotionally shattering experience for his jealous uncle, who was described shortly afterward by a close associate as looking like a man of seventy. (He was in fact only fifty-five, but less than a year away from death.) The creative trough set off by the events of 1812 lasted about five years, during which time Beethoven wrote little of lasting significance. Of the little that he did write, some (inconveniently enough for his mythmakers) was of a calculated popular appeal, including a noisy “Battle Symphony” known as Wellington’s Victory, celebrating Napoleon’s defeat by combined British, Spanish, and Portuguese forces under Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, at the Battle of Vittoria in 1813. It was performed at huge (and hugely successful) charity concerts in December of that year (at which the Seventh Symphony was also unveiled), and again, “by popular demand,” in February 1814 (at which time the Eighth Symphony was along for the ride).

This piece of orchestral claptrap, replete with fanfares, cannonades performed by an augmented percussion section, and a fugue on “God Save the King,” was an early fruit of musical capitalism. It was the brainchild of an entrepreneur inventor named Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772–1838), who sought Beethoven’s name appeal so as to attract crowds to view demonstrations of his panharmonicon, a “mechanical orchestra” (actually a mechanical organ with a variety of noisemaker attachments). Later, Maelzel invented a metronome for which Beethoven again provided testimonials and, more important for posterity, exact tempo settings for his symphonies and other important works. His collaborations with Maelzel cast Beethoven in a rather unheroic light, as a sort of musical market speculator. That was, however, no less typical or “progressive” a role for a musician in economically unsettled times.

Otherwise, Beethoven’s output dwindled drastically. The only important compositions written between 1813 and 1818 are three piano sonatas culminating in the huge sonata in B♭, op. 106, with its famous post-Napoleonic subtitle (the apparently nationalistic für das Hammerklavier in place of the conventionally Italianate per il pianoforte); two cello sonatas, op. 102; and a group of songs united in a “cycle” by a recurring theme, with the poignant title An die ferne Geliebte (“To the far-off beloved”) that must have had manifold personal resonances for the unhappy composer. The year 1817 went by without a single work of any consequence completed. Perhaps even more indicative of the composer’s state of mind, during this period he worked on a number of sizeable projects—a piano concerto, a trio, a string quintet—that he finally abandoned, and that are known only from entries in his sketchbooks.

His largest and most ambitious compositional effort of the period was Der glorreiche Augenblick, a bombastic political potboiler of a cantata, unpublished during Beethoven’s lifetime, intended for performance before the assembled crowned heads of Europe gathered for the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to celebrate “the glorious moment” of imperial restoration following on the final defeat and exile of Napoleon.

So utterly does this reactionary political harangue fail to accord with the Beethoven myth that when it was finally published, in 1837, its text was replaced by a more “esthetic” sort of celebration, Preis der Ton-kunst (“In praise of music”), by Friedrich Rochlitz (1769–1842), who as editor of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the first important modern music magazine, was the most influential critic of his time. As such, he played almost as great a role as Hoffmann had played before him in the early propagation of the Beethoven myth.

Crisis and Reaction

fig. 12-8A A historical painting by Jean Baptiste Isabey: Napeoléon Bonaparte as First Consul (1804). Napoléon was the intended dedicatee of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

Crisis and Reaction

fig. 12-8B Jean Baptiste Isabey, The Congress of Vienna (1814).

Beethoven began to shake off his creative torpor toward the end of 1817, possibly spurred by a flattering invitation from the Philharmonic Society of London to compose two “grand symphonies” for the coming concert season and present them in person. He never composed either symphony, and never duplicated Haydn’s triumphant success with a trip to London, but he was sufficiently energized to embark on the “Hammerklavier” sonata, even though it took him almost a whole year to complete it. Successful completion of this first large project in two or three years brought back his old creative euphoria.

When Anton Diabelli (1781–1858), a minor composer but a major music publisher, asked Beethoven to contribute a variation on a trivial little waltz tune Diabelli had written, for publication in a “patriotic anthology” featuring the work of some fifty Austrian and German composers (including the young Franz Schubert, the eleven-year-old boy wonder Franz Liszt, and Beethoven’s own pupil Archduke Rudolph), Beethoven responded not with one variation but with twenty. Realizing that he had burst the bounds of the commission he had received, he held them back until he had time to complete what had turned into a monumental project. The full set of thirty-three Diabelli Variations, one of Beethoven’s crowning works, was completed in 1822 and published as his op. 120, long before the omnibus album finally appeared. Concurrently with the second phase of work on the Variations, Beethoven composed three short but very intense piano sonatas, the last of which (no. 32 in C minor, op. 111) was finished almost simultaneously with the Variations.

A similar indication of Beethoven’s regained ebullience, and the creative overful-fillment to which it could lead, was the Mass he undertook to compose on hearing that Archduke Rudolph was to be elevated to the rank of cardinal and installed as Archbishop of Olomouc, an important ecclesiastical seat in what is now the Czech Republic. He had meant to have it ready for the installation ceremony in March 1820, but the music expanded irrepressibly under his hand, and the whole vast design, now called the Missa solemnis (Solemn Mass), op. 123, was only completed in the early months of 1823. Beethoven had not only missed the deadline by three years; he had also ended up with a work whose stupendous length precluded its forming part of an actual church service. The first performance took place under secular auspices in St. Petersburg on 7 April 1824, on the initiative of Prince Nikolai Borisovich Golitsyn (1794–1866), a Russian nobleman and chamber music enthusiast who became one of the outstanding patrons of Beethoven’s last years.


(28) Goethe to Carl Friedrich Zelter, 2 September 1812; in Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries, ed. O. G. Sonneck (New York: Schirmer, 1926), p. 88.

(29) See M. Solomon, “New Light on Beethoven’s Letter to an Unknown Woman,” Musical Quarterly LVIII (1972): 572–87; also M. Solomon, Beethoven (New York: Schirmer, 1977), Chap. 15.

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-div1-12006.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-div1-12006.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-div1-12006.xml