The course on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas finished up recently. It was a fun and insightful series of lectures and if it runs again I recommend doing it. Aside from learning about Beethoven and his music you get to listen to snippets of works played by Jonathon Biss and that’s well worth it too (here's a sample).
So what did I learn? Quite a bit to be honest and I’m not going to go into all the detail and everything here. What I want to talk about is how the course helped shape something of my idea of the history of music because I’ve come to see Beethoven as a pivotal figure in ways I didn’t understand previously.
I studied a course on the Ancient Greeks at the same time as this one and in it was discussed that history works out in big forces and movements – migrations, economic upheavals etc, etc – but there are also certain individuals who manage to alter the course of history through sheer force of will or some similar manifestation of their brilliance. Alexander the Great was one standout example.
From what I learned in the Sonata course this is also very much the case. There were big movements taking place during Beethoven’s lifetime, but his talent and his unrelenting personality played their own role in shaping music’s path heading into the 19th century.
At the beginning of his lifetime music was still largely a court affair. Joseph Haydn spent most of his career in the employ of one such court; he wrote what his employer wanted, he managed the court’s musicians etc. Late in his life his employer did give him incredible freedom and allowed him to write what he wanted instead. Mozart, unable to cope with the strictures of being a court composer tried his hand as a freelancer but with variable success.
The way was becoming clear however and courts were no longer the bastions of classical music. If we consider the social and political upheavals that were happening at this time, it’s little wonder Beethoven never had to consider being employed as a court musician. He was free from the beginning to do his own thing. The individual was free.
And free from such constraints, Beethoven’s talent and strong personality led him to explore musical forms in all new ways. He took the sonata form, perfected it, toyed with it to test its limits, then tore it apart and reshaped it in his own way. He broke all the rules and paved the way for further experimentation down the track. And he allowed music to truly ambitious and completely about self-expression. He could paint emotional landscapes freely in ways previous composers could not and in so doing he set the Romantics up to do what they did.
So while history’s big movements were most certainly in play – it’s one of the most dramatic shifts in Western history in all fields of endeavour – Beethoven’s individuality and precocious talent shifted the history music very much to follow his footsteps and no-one else’s.