What's the deal with Beethoven?


In my younger years, Beethoven was hit or miss for me. While I found much of his music sublime (*ahem* violin concerto), a lot of it eluded me. 

Just when I thought that a phrase was going to cadence -- in other words, that a thought or a sentence would finish -- he'd take things in a completely different direction. This would happen on the macro scale, too: just when I thought the piece itself was about to end, a whole new section would emerge. 

As a result, I often felt that his works were about 30% too long. 

In my wise old age, however, there are few composers I find fresher or more compelling. And as a performer, there are few composers whose works are more of a delight to bring to life.

In fact, what puzzled me about Beethoven as a kid is now what intrigues me most.

All good music is about setting up expectations, and either satisfying or breaking them. In other words: music is enjoyable, beautiful, and meaningful because of how composers navigate the landscape they're creating in real time. 

Few composers do this more thoughtfully or inventively than Beethoven. Given that a hallmark of emotional maturity is being able to hold different thought and feeling states simultaneously, it's no surprise that the music of Beethoven has grown on me with age. 

Beethoven: he who fakes you out with a crash when you expect a delicate resolution. Who does the opposite just as often. Who, in one simple stroke, alters a harmony in a way that fundamentally colors the emotional feeling of a familiar passage. Who brings back old material, or introduces new ideas, when you instead expect finality -- giving you entirely different feelings in either case.

The scope of these sudden changes gives you the feeling of an energetic current, a life force, that runs through all of his music. It brims with endless potentialities and the inevitable quality of ultimate events. This is the same feeling that makes us believe -- despite our awareness of life's infinite possibilities -- in fate.

I asked this weekend's performers to answer the question: "what makes Beethoven so great?"

Here are their responses.  

"Beethoven is great because he runs the gamut of what makes a human. He can juxtapose the sublime against total rudeness. You'll be playing the most elegant thing in the world followed by a flying chamber pot. We think of older music as being so polite and courtly, yet there is so much impoliteness in Beethoven. That's how I can always tell it's him." ~ Amy
"You can have completely opposing emotions in so few bars of music, and yet the contrast makes sense because everything is about intensity. If there's one word I had to choose, it would be intensity. That's the underlying element that allows him to have opposing emotional content." ~ Kevin

"In Beethoven, there is a chess-like element of detail that he is transferring to life. His music forces you to pay attention to the smallest of details." ~ Marek

"In Beethoven, there is nothing written out of plain musical instinct. He writes more like how human beings think: with thought to everything. It's not like Mozart, where things effortlessly flow out. Of course, he's just as great a genius. But he gave us so much in music that we can all share and feel in a common way as human beings." ~ HyeJin

For fun, I asked my Caltech students the same question this afternoon. While their responses were certainly less thorough, consensus is there:


"It encompasses so much emotion."

I've observed a "9th Symphony" effect every time I play it. Once the concert is over, I'm struck by how the audience is much more open and chatty with us musicians as we all head back to our respective cars. And the musicians treat each other with a greater degree of warmth. I don't think this feeling of natural, easy connectedness is an accident. The way the message of the piece exists within the music has an incredible -- and amazingly consistent -- effect.

50:20 in the video above is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music: the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 132. He wrote it after he almost died, and was feeling profound spiritual gratitude. So it's pretty special, even for Beethoven. (Recognize those suckers? That's from last summer, when Meredith and I joined Kevin at the festival in New York he co-directs with Amy -- who happens to be in town to play with Salastina this weekend.)

We hope you'll join us for our cycle of the complete piano trios of Beethoven this weekend!