The Beethoven Effect

Ahead of pianist Jonathan Biss’s first Sunday Concert (November 3) in a three-concert series exploring the Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven during the 250th anniversary of the composers birth, The Phillips Collection’s Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on Beethoven’s legacy at this milestone year of celebration.

The 2019/20 season marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most well-known and most admired Classical composer in the history of Western music. Beethoven’s status within culture is something akin to ubiquity; not only is his music performed more than that of any other composer but some of his works have made unusual symbolic leaps into broader cultural, political, and social spheres. Beethoven is the composer we turn to in moments of national crisis (as with the performances of the Ninth Symphony after the September 11 attacks), and the composer of unity, hope, and humanitarianism (the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony is the anthem of the European Union, and as recently as October 25 this year, the Ode was sang in Arabic by Lebanese protesters in Beirut). Indeed, the “Beethoven effect” can be traced in all manner of seemingly disparate fields of activity across time, from 18th-century philosophy to 21st-century film and pop culture, which says much about the adaptability of the Beethovian image and the enduring power of his music.

Illustration by Kathryn Zaremba

Yet the monumentalizing of Beethoven’s genius is not new; it began in his own lifetime, and his trajectory from earthly musician to transcendent musical prophet closely paralleled a shift in the perceptions of music itself. In the years after 1800, music as a practice both in performance and composition became less dependent on court appointments or church practices. The proliferation of public concert halls in the early 18th century democratized the experience of musical performance, whilst the philosophy and aesthetics of enlightenment thinkers such as Kant or Schlegel raised music’s status to that of the highest art, capable of speaking a truth beyond words, reason and concepts. Musicologist Mark Evan Bonds has observed that at the dawn of the Romantic era, the composer became “an oracle who speaks in tones that cannot be translated into words: rhetoric gives way to revelation.” In this context, Beethoven became the paradigm of the “liberated composer,” his music imbued with a metaphysical transcendence that was beyond the vagaries of the mundane world. As a means to interpret and understand this new revelatory power of music, new modes of poetic and descriptive written criticism proliferated. The influential writings of E.T.A Hoffman (which were published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) made Beethoven’s putative claim to the sublime clear: In his 1810 review of the Fifth Symphony, he writes that Beethoven’s music “opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro.” Within Beethoven’s chamber music, some of his piano sonatas gained nicknames such as “Moonlight” and “Pathétique” (added by critics and publishers), which lent opaque, suggestive, and poetic visions to the music. The practice of bestowing music with extra-musical allusion would have a long history after Beethoven but it began with his example. Long after his death, these fragments of history and biography stick to the mythology around Beethoven, both enriching and complicating our relationship to his music.

Assessing Beethoven’s legacy does not necessarily mean stripping back the excesses of Romantic-era thought, or returning an earthly, mortal image to this most immortal of composers. The 250th anniversary represents an opportunity to view the composer in his totality, celebrating the scope of his achievement in music, and his singularity as a figure in the history of art. He was one of those rare characters who both seized the spirit of their own epoch and left a body of artistic work that has only grown in popularity since his death. As the conductor Andris Nelsons has observed, Beethoven’s music is “for our time and all time.”

The Piano Sonatas

Within the many musical forms that Beethoven revolutionized, his achievement within the 32 piano sonatas represents something completely unique in his output. Generally split into three distinct periods, they exemplify the shift into early Romanticism, as Beethoven developed from the relative simplicity of the classical style in the first few sonatas, to the greater harmonic innovations and emotional complexity of the monumental final three sonatas of Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111.

For any pianist, recording the 32 piano sonatas is akin to summiting a (crowded) musical Mt. Everest. Yet it is an Everest that demands maturity, patience, and vision, as much as youth and ambition. In recent years, the acclaimed American pianist Jonathan Biss has brought such a balanced approach to his recording of the complete cycle, a process that began in 2011, and will conclude in 2020 with the release of the full box set. During Biss’s nine-year odyssey into recording the music of Beethoven, he has published an e-book about his experiences called Beethoven’s Shadow, and launched an online course exploring all 32 Piano Sonatas in collaboration with the Curtis Institute of Music. In the 2019/20 season, Biss performs full cycles of the sonatas worldwide, including performances at The Phillips Collection on November 3, December 1, and March 22 to explore sonatas from Beethoven’s middle and late periods respectively.

-Jeremy Ney, Director of Music

What’s the big deal about Beethoven?

Albert André, The Concert, 1903. Oil on cardboard on wood panel,. 20 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923

Albert André, The Concert, 1903. Oil on cardboard on wood panel,. 20 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923

Last Sunday, The Phillips Camerata began its five-concert exploration of Beethoven’s piano concertos, in collaboration with resident musicians from the National Gallery of Art. In the space of a few weeks, all five concertos will be performed at our two institutions in a project that explores the depth and scale of these great works in arrangements for chamber ensemble. Camerata pianist Irina Nuzova began the cycle on Sunday with Piano Concerto No. 1, followed by Piano Concerto No. 2 performed at the National Gallery yesterday afternoon with soloist Edvinas Minkstimas. Concertos 3-5 will be performed respectively by pianists Danielle Deswert Hahn (April 7 at 6:30 pm at the National Gallery), Thomas Pandolfi (April 14 at 4 pm at The Phillips Collection), and Mykola Suk (April 21 at 6:30 pm at the National Gallery).

What does Beethoven offer us in these works? Almost always a journey of some kind. If we trace an arc from the first to the last concerto, we can see the enormity of Beethoven’s musical achievement. This can also be found in his 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, and in the symphonies, but never is this voyage so uniquely distilled as it is in the piano concertos. By the time he had completed the first concerto, aged 28, Beethoven had established himself in Vienna as the preeminent keyboard virtuoso of his age. He had absorbed the influence of Mozart and Haydn, and this is evident in his first two concertos. Yet having done so in his 20s, he wanted to show himself as more than the inheritor of their tradition, rather as a revolutionary, dragging the coattails of courtly Viennese society into the dawn of a new musical age. By the third concerto, composed in 1800, it is clear that he was trying something totally new and never before heard.

It was a timely shakeup of the status quo. Until the arrival of Beethoven, composers were largely expected to fulfill obligations to patrons and aristocracy, and music was the gilded flower of social elites. However by the late 18th century the system began to break down–music was being written for a broader audience and published and sold more widely. It was becoming universal. Beethoven’s passionate and explosive new music grasped the spirit of his epoch; truly a man of his time, Beethoven’s compositions elevated music to new levels of expression.

Beethoven the man was a complex and contradictory character, however. He was often gloomy, dark, and intolerable. He detested crowds, led a miserable love life, and through his growing deafness suffered the greatest affliction imaginable for a musician. Yet it was precisely through this adversity that he channeled his art, communicating incredible hope, positivity, and warmth. Our fascination with his life is because his music takes us on an intimate journey through it; we share in his joys, loves, and pains in equal measure.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant

Formosa Quartet

The Formosa Quartet (Stefan Milenkovich, Ru-Pei Yeh, Jasmine Lin, Che-Yen Chen)

An excerpt from the Formosa Quartet’s May 1 performance in the Music Room:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59, No.3 ‘Razumovsky’ (1806)

Introduzione: Andante con moto – Allegro vivace

Andante con moto quasi allegretto

Menuetto: Grazioso

Allegro molto

Casey Fox Smith, Music Program Intern