The Romantic Period
With the onset of the Romantic era in the wake of the French Revolution, composers began to view their own role in society as well as the social function of their work, and hence also its aesthetic prerequisites, in a radically different light. With respect to social function, Beethoven was actually the first musician of stature to achieve emancipation in the sense that his work reflected, with relatively few exceptions, purely personal artistic concerns. He simply took it for granted that patrons would supply funds sufficient for him to pursue his creative career unfettered by financial worries. This attitude represents a total reversal of the basic assumptions of the preceding century, when composers were hired by and large to satisfy the musical needs of specific individuals or institutions.
Ludwig van Beethoven, (baptized December 17, 1770, Bonn, archbishopric of Cologne [Germany]—died March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria), German composer, the predominant musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras.
Widely regarded as the greatest composer who ever lived, Ludwig van Beethoven dominates a period of musical history as no one else before or since. Rooted in the Classical traditions of Joseph Haydn and Mozart, his art reaches out to encompass the new spirit of humanism and incipient nationalism expressed in the works of Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller, his elder contemporaries in the world of literature; the stringently redefined moral imperatives of Kant; and the ideals of the French Revolution, with its passionate concern for the freedom and dignity of the individual. He revealed more vividly than any of his predecessors the power of music to convey a philosophy of life without the aid of a spoken text; and in certain of his compositions is to be found the strongest assertion of the human will in all music, if not in all art. Though not himself a Romantic, he became the fountainhead of much that characterized the work of the Romantics who followed him, especially in his ideal of program or illustrative music, which he defined in connection with his Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony as “more an expression of emotion than painting.” In musical form he was a considerable innovator, widening the scope of sonata, symphony, concerto, and quartet, while in the Ninth Symphony he combined the worlds of vocal and instrumental music in a manner never before attempted. His personal life was marked by a heroic struggle against encroaching deafness, and some of his most important works were composed during the last 10 years of his life when he was quite unable to hear. In an age that saw the decline of court and church patronage, he not only maintained himself from the sale and publication of his works but also was the first musician to receive a salary with no duties other than to compose how and when he felt inclined.
Early influences of Ludwig van Beethoven
Like other composers of his generation, Beethoven was subject to the influence of popular music and of folk music, influences particularly strong in the Waldstein ballet music of 1790 and in several of his early songs and unison choruses. Heavy Rhineland dance rhythms can be found in many of his mature compositions; but he could assimilate other local idioms as well—Italian, French, Slavic, and even Celtic. Although never a nationalist or folk composer in the 20th-century sense, he often allowed the unusual contours of folk melody to lead him away from traditional harmonic procedure; moreover, that he resorts to a folklike idiom in setting Schiller’s covertly nationalist text in the Ninth Symphony accords well with nationalist practices of the later 19th century.
Reputation and influence of Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s greatest achievement was to raise instrumental music, hitherto considered inferior to vocal, to the highest plane of art. During the 18th century, music, being fundamentally non imitative, was ranked below literature and painting. Its highest manifestations were held to be those in which it served a text—that is, cantata, opera, and oratorio—the sonata and the suite being relegated to a lower sphere. A number of factors combined to bring about a gradual change of outlook: the instrumental prowess of the Mannheim Orchestra, which made possible the development of the symphony; the reaction on the part of writers against pure rationalism in favor of feeling; and the works of Haydn and Mozart. But, above all, it was the example of Beethoven that made possible the late-Romantic dictum of the English essayist and critic Walter Pater: “All arts aspire to the condition of music.”
After Beethoven it was no longer possible to speak of music merely as “the art of pleasing sounds.” His instrumental works combine a forceful intensity of feeling with a hitherto unimagined perfection of design. He carried to a further point of development than his predecessors all the inherited forms of music (with the exception of opera and song), but particularly the symphony and the quartet. In this he was the heir of Haydn rather than of Mozart.