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The time has come to reacquaint music connoisseurs with the greatest achievements of Ludwig van Beethoven. He and his music have begun to gather dust in recent years and although he is still part of our landscape, his presence is not as keenly felt as it once was. His symphonies are hard to find in concert programmes; his piano sonatas are performed only at schools; and perhaps his reputation is nowadays only sustained by the string quartets which from time to time play his visionary works.
This genius, revolutionary and explorer produced an oeuvre that subsists in many dimensions: it has its roots in the best classical templates and later set the horizons of the future. Examples? Beethoven’s symphonies. If we compare the number of works written by him with those of his teacher Joseph Haydn, the difference is striking. Haydn left one hundred and four symphonies (generally speaking) while Beethoven bequeathed us a mere nine. However, during the course of writing them, Beethoven changed the weight, significance and to some extent even the content of the symphony. It is true that he was also capable of writing purely classical pieces, as in the case of Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60, which is very much in the style of Haydn; however, those who seek inventiveness in music place much more value in its immediate predecessor and successor, i.e. Eroica and The Fifth. They also more explicitly highlight the importance of his late, monumental string quartets with their exquisite, refined sound. We might also add here that Beethoven deserves to be remembered more often than simply on his birthday and that we also ought to bear in mind the different contexts of his music. For his music is great, incredible and ambiguous – without it our world would be a completely different place.
Beethoven’s Farewell to Classicism
Three giants of Classicism and three of their incredible works of music were “neighbours”. In this context, one of the last of Beethoven’s works served as a symbolic signpost setting out a new direction in music. The composer’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, which he wrote between August and November 1825 showcases his urge for creative exploration and artistic vision: it makes use of extreme contrasts, dissonance and sounds that even today, almost two hundred years after its premiere, amaze and strike awe in its listeners. During the first performance, on 21 March 1826, the Schuppanzigh Quartet was called back on stage for encores of both scherzos. Beethoven was said to be furious: “Lumps! Jackasses! Why didn’t they encore the fugue? The fugue, only the fugue should have been encored!”. Joseph Haydn, on the other hand, did not execrate anyone over the finale fugue from his Quartet in F minor Hob. III:35. He had a different temperament from his pupil; and probably was also aware of the fact that the quartet cycle completed in 1772 and published as Opus 20, constituted a new chapter in the history of the genre. The set became known as the “Sun” quartets because of the print on the title page. These inventively elaborate works were hailed as truly “modern”, and the “sun” lithograph became a symbol in its own right. Actually, the esteem that Haydn enjoyed is best reflected in the famous dedication that Mozart wrote in a copy of quartets that he presented to Haydn (1785): “To my dear friend Haydn! […] I send my six children to you and hope that you will not consider them wholly unworthy of your favour. I entreat you, however, to be indulgent to those faults which may have escaped a father's partial eye”. Also among them was the serious – if not sombre – Quartet in D minor, KV 421, in which Mozart, usually quite reserved as a person, expressed the emotions he felt following the death of his first son Raimund Leopold.