The Musical World of Beethoven

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In my early years as a pianist, and I mean EARLY like middle school all the way through graduate school, I played a lot of Beethoven: 12 out of the 32 piano sonatas, 3 out of the 5 piano trios, 6 out or the 10 violin sonatas, the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte, a cello sonata and a couple of piano trios. If I wasn’t practicing or performing Beethoven myself, I was listening to his music in the concert hall played by the Minnesota Orchestra or Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra when I was a kid, the Boston Symphony Orchestra during a transformative summer at Tanglewood in 1985, or the Cleveland Orchestra when I was studying at Oberlin. Beethoven was a constant in my early musical life.

After grad school at Yale, I veered off my path to be a pianist/conductor and found myself in love with opera. Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin were replaced by composers like Puccini, Verdi, and Rossini. As I prepare for Kentucky Opera’s September production of FIDELIO, Beethoven’s only opera, I feel like I am re-engaging an old friend and rediscovering his amazing genius.

Beethoven had three compositional periods and FIDELIO was composed during his middle period from 1803-1814. At this point in his life, Beethoven was coming to terms with his encroaching deafness and decided to travel to Heiligenstadt where he endured some treatments to see if his deafness could be reversed. While there he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament in which he poetically speaks about his own deafness and his willingness to not end his life, but to continue to live. Musically, this period mirrors the theme in the Heiligenstadt Testament which is the struggle against adversity and the concept of the hero. These ideals served as a foundation for his instrumental compositions, and his pieces took on a narrative aspect.

We are all familiar Beethoven’s music whether it be his Fifth or Ninth Symphony or “Moonlight” Piano Sonata — we hear him everywhere. Below are some musical examples to get you into his middle period and the musical world of FIDELIO. You will hear Beethoven’s signature harmonic tension, rhythmic syncopation, sublime melody and sharp dynamic contrasts. But more important is the integration of a narrative of the hero or the struggle over adversity which are themes through out FIDELIO.

 

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica”, Movement 1, Allegro con brio.

Beethoven was fond of Napoleon and the ideals of the French Revolution for a period of time and he instilled with in this symphony a narrative describing the portrait of a hero. With this symphony the audience no longer was focusing on the compositional technique of Beethoven but more towards the meaning and interpretation of the work.

 

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 “The Emperor”, Movement 3, Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo.

This piece is regarded as the “culmination” of his heroic phase. I have selected one of my favorite pianists.

 

Piano Sonata in f minor, Op. 57 “Appasionata.”

In this sonata Beethoven is shedding light on nature’s forces and the power of man to overcome them (struggle over adversity). Another one of my favorite pianists.

 

Beethoven composed Fidelio and fleshed out the many version of his magnificent score over the course of 12 years or the entire span of his middle period. He was a musical revolutionary that bridged the classical and romantic periods. All the aspect and traits of Beethoven’s great musical transformation are in his opera Fidelio.

 

July 8, 2014
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