March 29, 1795—In Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, 24-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven served notice of a new era in music with a debut in which he played one of his own compositions, leaving listeners running out of superlatives for a new, young force daring to break convention.
I see all kinds of quiz results taken by friends on Facebook. I’ve always avoided these until last week, when, on a classical music history site, I took one that matched my psychological profile to the closest composer. I was expecting—all right, hoping—that the response that would come up would be George Gershwin, a figure of real accomplishment who also happened to be a pretty convivial guy.
Instead, I learned, I matched up most closely with Beethoven.
If you want to know the truth, I read the assessment with some ambivalence. Being compared with a genius is flattering, if transparently ludicrous. But being compared with one whose tempestuous nature led contemporaries (and even a few biographers) to question his sanity—well, that was a different story.
Then I read the summary of why we matched. It seems that we both were enormously, even obsessively, driven in our creative pursuits, sometimes to the point where we worked in solitude for maximum concentration. Neither of us could be said to have many friends, but those friends we did have, we felt intense loyalty to.
Phrased that way, I suppose, we did have something in common. (And so now, Faithful Reader, you have two profiles: not just one of the composer, but also one far more elusive in this blog: of myself.)
Historical eras are notoriously arbitrary conventions, and perhaps none more than musical ones. For instance, what distinguishes the Classical from the Romantic composers? Beethoven, for instance, is generally lumped in with Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a Classical composer, but that seems, as much as anything else, a convenient way of classifying him with them according to a preset timeline and a personal association of the three.
In other important respects, though, Beethoven can be seen as a harbinger of the Romantic Era. His music, like others of the latter era, dealt with nature (e.g., the “Pastoral” Symphony); found many of its deepest wellsprings in literature (Plutarch provided spiritual consolation as his hearing deteriorated); dealt with the tumultuous power of love (the Moonlight Sonata); and embodied his advocacy of greater artistic and political freedom (he stripped his dedication of the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon after the latter had himself crowned emperor of France).
Learning at the hands of Haydn would have been an opportunity that almost anyone else would have dreamed of, but Beethoven was soon intent on cutting loose on his own. Before long, he received his chance at a series of charity concerts, benefiting widows and orphans of the Society of Musicians, at the Burgtheater, the national theater of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
He may have been outspoken in his republican sympathies, but an artist—even one, like Beethoven, intent on creating a commercial market for his work that would liberate him from patrons—has to start somewhere. For Beethoven, it was this national court of the empire in which he lived. The first benefactor of the theater, Emperor Josef II, had boosted attendance simply by showing up, providing a venue where those who hoped to influence imperial policy.
The stakes for Beethoven’s first public performance were enormous, demonstrated by the stress-induced abdominal power that had not bothered him in his native Bonn but that had bedeviled him since arriving in Vienna. Now, “severe colic” plagued him at the most inopportune moment: just as he was striving to complete his composition in time for his show. In the end, he was only able to get it done with two days to spare, as copyists sat in an anteroom, receiving one page at a time of the finale.
It is difficult, given the place that Beethoven occupies in the now-starchy classical music universe, to get a sense of the seismic impact of his performance. “Apart from the beauty and originality of his ideas, and his ingenious manner of expressing them, there was something magical about his playing,” observed fellow pianist-composer Carl Czerny. Late last year, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in listing Beethoven’s unique contribution to classical music instrumentation, pointed out that “The modern piano bears the imprint of his demand for a more resonant and flexible instrument.”
Contemporary listeners knew they were in the presence of something overwhelming, but none of the acclaim translated into the groupies who would throw themselves at a later piano life force, Franz Liszt. Beethoven courted a number of women in his lifetime, but as soon as they got a load of his temperamental outbursts and often slovenly, smelly apparel, they’d had enough.
The composition that Beethoven tried out that magical night in 1795, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, was one he had been working on ever before arriving in Vienna several years before. He was not terribly impressed with it, perhaps feeling it a bit derivative of Mozart, and so he would revise it a fair amount before he would allow it to be printed several years later. That only demonstrated his perfectionist streak all the more.
(To see—and hear—what the effect was about with this work, please see this YouTube clip of this composition, featuring the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelson, with Paul Lewis on the piano.)