The idea of romanticism and the Romantic period in music is frequently inconsistent and fraught with internal contradictions. Its boundaries and essential qualities – as with most convenient periodizations in the history of the arts – are subject to much debate. One composer, however, seems to embody almost all of the qualities and stylistic characteristics attributed to romanticism: Ludwig van Beethoven. Whether the first romantic, the last of the Viennese classicists, a transitional figure, or in some category all to himself, Beethoven cannot be ignored in any discussion of Romantic music. He looms over the nineteenth century as the great expression of musical genius and casts a weighty shadow over indisputably Romantic composers from Schubert to Brahms.
Born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven quickly distinguished himself as a prodigy and began performing and composing before the age of ten. Following early studies in his hometown – and attempted exploitation as a Mozart-like prodigy by his father – he would go on study with Haydn in Vienna, the city where he would truly begin his career and spend almost all of his adult life (Kinderman 32). While his early works are very much in the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven soon began to assert his individuality. After a period of great personal and artistic crisis, he wrote, in 1803, his third symphony (the “Eroica”), a ground-breaking work in scope, style, and expression (Kinderman 93). Originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven admired as the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution, the composer – according to legend – tore up the title page when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, betraying those values.
Around 1800, Beethoven began to lose his hearing, leading to an almost complete deafness over the next ten or fifteen years (Kerman). Nonetheless, while it impaired his career as a performer, Beethoven continued to compose during this period and until his death in 1827, producing many of his most famous and lasting works. His deafness and difficulty in personal relationships led Beethoven to become increasingly cantankerous, difficult, and withdrawn, dedicating himself almost completely to the work of composing. In this way, he became the virtual embodiment of the Romantic ideal: the tragic artist who overcomes worldly impediments to create sublime art expressing the “triumph of the human spirit” (Samson).
Beethoven is, in essence, the Romantic “genius.” Romanticism began as a literary movement, but was soon applied to music which embraced the passions and imagination, as opposed to a Classical adherence to rules and form. One of the original nineteenth-century conceptions of romanticism in music is found in the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann on Beethoven’s instrumental works (Samson). Hoffmann was particularly taken with the composer’s fifth symphony, music which “unlocks for mankind an unknown realm – a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses” (Hoffmann 97). This invokes the idea of “absolute” music: that instrumental which is free of any representational aspects and expresses something ineffable, a fundamental essence of human experience. For Hoffmann, Beethoven “awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer” (98).
Romantic music was attached to the idea of the individual, creative genius that had access to some metaphysical plane beyond the visible world. The Romantic artist had a privileged view into this transcendent reality that he could share with an audience. Being viewed in such a way, Beethoven became one of the first composers to be truly free of patronage and courtly duties, able to devote himself freely to his imaginative capacities and see his works performed widely during his own lifetime. He would be inspired by politics, common people, and nature, incorporating programmatic movements and folk song in his third and sixth symphonies; he would create music so technically challenging as to be deemed unplayable in his time (the Grosse Fuge); and he would compose a final, ninth, symphony that would be used as an anthem celebrating the human spirit.
Beethoven, then, represented all the qualities that would be associated with the Romantic period: individualism and creative genius; liberalism; folk music; absolute music and programmatic music; the emotional, passionate, tortured, transcendent spirit of mankind. While twentieth-century scholars may have questioned it, “the Beethoven myth remains an indelible part of the popular imagination” (Samson). Many of his compositions, particularly the nine symphonies, thirty-two piano sonatas, seventeen string quartets, and numerous concertos remain among the most popular and frequently performed works in the repertoire of Western art music.
- Hoffmann, E T. A, and David Charlton. E.t.a. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, the Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.
- Kerman, Joseph, et al. “Beethoven, Ludwig van.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
- Kinderman, William. Beethoven. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
- Samson, Jim. “Romanticism.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.Web. 29 Mar. 2014.