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Beethoven: a guide for the intimidated

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Ludwig van Beethoven is not an artist that you "discover." Like Shakespeare, da Vinci and the Beatles, he just sort of floats around unavoidably: a collection of familiar quotations and tropes. He’s undeniably awesome, but hugely overexposed. Plus, his esteem in classical circles is so elevated that he can come off as one of those things that you’re supposed to appreciate but that are, in practice, difficult to get enthusiastic about — like oxygen, or democracy.

But, you don’t get to that level of esteem without doing something right. And take it from a confirmed obsessive: once you find your way into Beethoven’s music he does not let go. Beethoven's music runs the gamut of human emotion, and reaches for the upper limit of awesomeness. It's hard for a fan like me to say exactly why he's great, because his greatness seems so self-evident. But, for better or worse, he's been the central preoccupation of the classical music world for two centuries.  

In this guide, I'll recommend some music to start off, I'll suggest a few next steps, and I'll challenge a few bits of popular wisdom that just don't hold up anymore. Let’s begin.

Who was Beethoven?

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to know much about who Beethoven was. Beethoven was a guy who died nearly 200 years ago. If you think of him in terms of his pop culture image — an ultra-serious, disheveled comedy grump — that’s probably good enough. What we’re concerned with here is his music, which is manifestly still alive.

The biggest challenge when approaching any classical composer’s music for the first time is that lists of their complete works tend to be gigantic and unwieldy. And, in Beethoven's case, almost all of it is good. So, we'd better break it down. Let's focus on three genres that Beethoven worked in across his entire career: the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata.

(Note: I'm not going to bother recommending specific recordings of the works I mention. There are lots of places online to find recommendations for recordings: SinfiniGramophone, various forums. Hell, even Amazon reviews can be useful. But, honestly, it’s better just to dive in and listen to the first recording that comes your way than to lose sleep fretting about which of the far-too-many recordings of the complete string quartets you’re going to check out — more on which later. It’s been remarked before that Beethoven’s music is strong enough to survive crap performances. So, you’re probably safe.)

Beethoven's symphonies

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies in his lifetime. Together, they may be the most ballyhooed and talked-about body of work in all of classical music. The first two come from Beethoven's early period, where he was writing music that was strongly influenced by his elders: Haydn and Mozart. Numbers three through eight are the defining works of his middle period, where he found his own distinctive, proto-Romantic voice. And the ninth is his one late-period symphony: a massively ambitious work that introduced singers into a symphony for the first time.

Where to start: Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). The sixth is familiar without being toofamiliar, pleasant without being cloying, and features some of Beethoven's most memorable melodies. He wasn't always a great tunesmith. He was here.

Where not to start: Symphony No. 1. Listening in chronological order will do you no favours. The first is delightful, in a Mozartean sort of way. But, if you want an encounter with the Beethoven that people think of when they think of Beethoven, you'll need to start a bit later in his career.

Where to find yourself eventually: You've really got to hear all of them. I mean, if you decide you like this sort of thing. The full cycle is only about five hours long, on average. Space them out.

Beethoven's string quartets

You can sort of take the pulse of Beethoven's career at any given point by listening to whatever the nearest string quartet is. His six early quartets are delightful good fun, and as Mozartean as he ever got. The middle ones are stately and impressive, and the late ones are among the most individualistic and uncompromising music ever written. 

Where to start: String Quartet No. 7 (Razumovsky)The first quartet from Beethoven's middle period, "Razumovsky 1" (there are two more quartets with this nickname) is a chipper dialogue between four equal partners.

Where not to start: The late quartets. Numbers 12 to 16 are not the sort of music that grabs you on the first listen. Musicians of Beethoven's time weren't sure they even counted as music.

Where to find yourself eventually: Um, the late quartets. Honestly, it's overstating it to say that they're still as challenging as they were when they were written. But they're still as beautiful, and when you've found your foothold with them you may never want to listen to any other music again. Don't worry. It'll pass.

Beethoven's piano sonatas

This genre's trickier, just because there are more sonatas than symphonies or quartets. Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas in total. The most famous appraisal of their significance comes from the conductor/pianist Hans von Bülow, who called them the "New Testament" of piano music. (Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was his "Old Testament.")

Where to start: Piano Sonata No. 29 (Hammerklavier), fourth movement. You need some late Beethoven in your early Beethoven journey. The "Hammerklavier" is a massive piece of music. Its finale might be the most impressive moment in Beethoven's piano music. It holds you in suspense for a couple of minutes, before exploding into one of the most impossible fugues ever written.

Where not to start: Op. 49: Two Piano Sonatas. These two simple works were written for students and amateurs. They're numbered 19 and 20, but they were actually among the first sonatas Beethoven wrote. They are perfectly pleasant, but they are not the late masterpieces that their numbering might suggest. Don't be fooled.

Where to find yourself eventually: One good way to explore the sonatas is to listen to the ones that have familiar nicknames. "Moonlight," "Appassionata," "Pathétique," "Les adieux..." All of those are great. Check them out, then fill in the gaps.

Next steps

There's just so much more. You'll want to hear the piano concertos a.s.a.p. Fans of the symphonies will want to check out the overtures. The cello sonatas are fantastic. 

Hopefully this has helped you choose some of Beethoven's music to start with. But maybe you're wondering how you should approach this music. Is there a particular context or frame of mind that Beethoven works best in? Certainly, the titles of some popular music appreciation guides would imply that there's a "best" way to listen to classical music.

That, of course, is ridiculous. Recognizing that, allow me to impart three pieces of potentially useful heresy, regarding how to listen to Beethoven: 

1. You do not need to listen to complete works. A single movement can be an entirely satisfactory musical experience. It’s totally fine to obsess over the first movement of the sixth symphony and not to have heard the rest.

2. You do not need a billion trillion recordings of a single piece. The number of Beethoven recordings out there exceeds reason by an astronomical factor. If you’re especially in love with a particular work, then sure; it’ll probably interest you to seek out multiple interpretations. But keep a sense of perspective: a lot of those recordings are going to be too similar to each other to justify your purchase or your time. 

3. Live concerts need not be your standard unit of classical music experience. It’s worth hearing Beethoven live at some point, especially if there’s a good soloist or chamber group coming through your town. But, the concert hall is ultimately too small for Beethoven. His is music to live to, and it is not muted by circumstance. The Op. 18 string quartets play just as satisfactorily through a pair of cheap earbuds while grocery shopping as they do in a recital hall. You’ll marvel all the more at the fugue from the "Hammerklavier" Sonata if you put it on while you stumble home, drunk. Listen to LeonoreOverture No. 3 on your commute to work, and you'll suddenly be that guy on the bus who’s smiling beatifically for unknown and unknowable reasons.

Beethoven is awesome. I wish you the best of luck with him.

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