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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Superconductor Guide: Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven
The musical influence of Ludwig van Beethoven is so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to sum up in one sentence. But here goes. Beethoven led the development of music from the formal, classical style of Mozart and Haydn in the 18th century to the wild Romanticism of the 19th.

That's pretty much it.

Along the way, he broke new ground in symphonies, string quartet and piano music. His vast output resounds with a fierce, humanist spirit, a love of nature, and (as expressed in the words of the Ninth Symphony) a fierce desire for universal brotherhood.

Here's a few of the essential works of Beethoven to get you started. As always, the hyperlinks go to recommended recordings.

Piano Sonata No. 21 "Waldstein"
It's hard to pick one among Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, and this writer will admit that the 'Waldstein' is a personal favorite. The galloping first movement is decked with difficult runs and trills. The slow central movement leads into the finale, with a searching theme of great beauty. A good place to start exploring the piano works. And if that doesn't work, try the 'Pathetique', the 'Appasionata' and the 'Moonlight' sonatas. No, they don't all have cool nicknames.

Symphony No. 5 in c minor
With its four hammered opening notes, the beginning of the Fifth has become a cliché. But what's amazing is that the entire symphony, all four movements, are constructed based on that theme. This style of musical development paved the way for the 'motivic' music of Wagner and Strauss.

When you write only one opera in your career, make it Fidelio. Although this work had a complex, tortured birth (and went through four different versions and a title change) the story of a wife who cross-dresses and poses as a prison guard in order to rescue her wrongfully jailed husband has particular resonance today. Highlights include the quartet 'Mir est so wunderbar' and the Prisoners' Chorus: 'O welche lust.'

String Quartet No. 8 in e minor ("Razumovsky No. 2")
This is one of the more accessible string quartets, part of a set which Beethoven dedicated to his benefactor, a Russian prince. Its final movement incorporates the 'Hymn to the Tsar', a Russian melody that also shows up in the Grand Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Symphony No. 9 in d minor
Written toward the very end of his life, and premiered when the composer was suffering from total deafness, the Ninth Symphony was the first work to add voice to the symphony's traditional four-movement structure. Its climactic movement, a setting of the poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is one of the most popular melodies ever written. But it's the development of that theme to celestial heights (including a brain-melting double fugue for chorus and orchestra) that makes the Ninth a fitting climax to Beethoven's career.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats