It was over 200 years ago that Fur Elise was composed by Beethoven. Ironically the composition was found 40 years after his death. It is unthinkable how a person who had acquired deafness, could transform into one of the most profound composers of all time. There are stories that while his final masterpiece Ninth Symphony was being premiered, Beethoven had to look at the clapping of the audience, as he had by then become deaf.
Dominating a period of musical history as no one else before or since, Ludwig van Beethoven’s body of musical composition has been compared with William Shakespeare’s plays at the outer limits of human brilliance. And his phenomenal creative music output with a severe hearing handicap can probably be compared with the stunning artistic achievement of John Milton, who was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost. An unimaginable music genius, with his Ninth Symphony on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Beethoven widened the scope of sonata, symphony, concerto and quartet with his innovative compositions, blending vocals and instruments in the most wonderful manner– despite his tragic battle with deafness. In fact, he found it difficult to hear his own compositions during the last 10 years of his life, when some of his most important works were composed.
Moonlight Sonata – Presto Agitato (3rd Movement)
Music lovers across the world had grandiose plans in 2020 to celebrate the 250th birth anniversary of German pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). People were about to witness a Beethoven crescendo, so to speak,to celebrate his string quartets, piano works, violin sonatas, songs, and of course, the nine symphonies. It was hoped that while old timers would cherish fond memories of the good times they enjoyed courtesy Beethoven, a new generation of music lovers could get enthralled by some of Beethoven’s best-known compositions : Eroica: Symphony No.3, Symphony No.5, Fur Elise, Symphony No.7, Missa Solemnis, Ode to Joy: Symphony No.9, String Quartet No.14…But the pandemic played spoilsport.
Music aficionados talk about the ‘three Bs’ of classical music comprising three stalwarts—Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. The fact that Beethoven was a pivotal figure is evident from the fact that two Voyager probes sent to outer space had a Voyager Golden Record (phonograph record) which features his music, along with the Earth’s sample sounds, languages, images and music.
Beethoven, who composed in several musical genres, had a rich spectrum of compositions for piano – 32 piano sonatas and innumerable shorter pieces; and his works with piano accompaniment included 10 violin sonatas, 5 cello sonatas and a sonata for a French horn, besides writing an appreciable quantity of chamber music, among others.
Beethoven’s genius flowered as he evolved, and which was also influenced by his personal life’s challenges. In what is known as the Early Period of his life, his compositional career was deeply influenced by his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, wherein he explored new avenues. This period witnessed the birth of the first and second symphonies, including the well-known Pathetique sonata, Op.13, the first dozen piano sonatas, the set of string quartets, Op.18, the first two piano concertos…
The onset of deafness and personal tribulations coincided with the Middle Period of his music journey. Termed also as a heroic period, to denote his struggle and heroism, this phase saw the outpouring of six symphonies, five string quartets, several piano sonatas (Moonlight, Waldstein and Appasionata sonatas), the last three piano concertos, the Kreutzer violin sonata and Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio.
Excerpt from Piano Sonata No. 21, “Waldstein”
The Late Period witnessed the String Quartet, Op.131 with seven linked movements, and the Ninth Symphony adds choral forces to the orchestra in the last movement—and other compositions such as Missa Solemnis, the last five piano sonatas and the last five string quartets. All of these creations, in a way, represent an intense personal expression with intellectual depth and unique innovations.
The Vintage Guide to Classical Music says of his immortal contribution, ‘Don’t be surprised if his works do not immediately reveal their depths. Beethoven unveils his elemental strength over time, the music growing with one’s own spirit and understanding. He becomes part of one’s joys and tragedies, attaches himself to them; because he was one of us, he was there, he knew and captured it all. One’s journey through his work is the same as the journey of life, at its highest and wisest and most passionate.’
No wonder then, that even after two and a half centuries, the timeless magic of Beethoven, continues to capture the imagination of successive generations.