Beethoven’s creative life is frequently placed into three periods; early, middle and late. It is a way of breaking down and analyzing the substantial contribution this remarkable composer made to the world. Broadly speaking the late period, which this article will focus on, spans 1815 up until his death in 1827.
Beethoven Late Period
The last years of Beethoven’s life were a cruel blend of great success, fame, and suffering. Beethoven’s deafness had taken full hold of him by this stage in his career making every aspect of his days full of paranoia and frustration. He felt a deep distrust of even his closest friends and associates and the difficulties he experienced composing and paying can hardly be imagined. Accounts of Beethoven’s health at this time make for hard reading. Not only was he deaf, but his heavy drinking had taken a terrible toll on his liver. Other ailments plagued Beethoven’s days and nights compounded, unfortunately, by woefully inadequate medical attention. The Doctors of the day, it seems, did not fully understand how to treat Beethoven and instead tragically added to his suffering.
Perhaps his deteriorating health and deafness caused Beethoven to become increasingly introspective and withdrawn. Many of his compositions were for more modest and intimate forces, like the solo piano and the string quartet. No more concertos came from Beethoven’s quill in this period, with the last Piano Concerto, (The ‘Emperor’), having been completed around 1811.
The one notable exception is the 9th Symphony (1824), regarded by many as the pinnacle of the composer’s output and the epitome of the Romantic Symphony.
This symphony is reflective of many of the characteristics of Beethoven’s late period. The symphony is reflective, but also retrospective. This is shown in the use of, or return to the idea and concept of the symphony, with the eight being completed nearly a decade previously. What the symphony is not is a straight forward regurgitation of previous symphonic models or an attempt to somehow resurrect the past.
Instead, Beethoven forges ahead with his overhaul and development of sonata form most clearly in the opening movement of the work. The concept of an evolving melodic material plays an equally central role in this last symphony that could be said to pave the way for the ‘leitmotif’ and motivic development of composers like Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. It is the only symphony in which Beethoven employs a choir, in this instance with the setting of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, that creates a quasi-religious and redemptive finish to this monumental piece.
A few creative years remained for Beethoven. Following the intensive work on the 9th Symphony, Beethoven turned to the string quartet. Throughout Beethoven’s life, he had devoted significant time to the composition of string quartets and made great progress with this type of chamber music. Five ‘late’ quartets were composed and are considered by many to be amongst the finest ever written. The first quartet (Op. 127 in Eb), exhibits many of the characteristics of that thread through the other four quartets. Two themes feature in the opening movement but they are written deliberately in different tempi. The lyricism flows within this quartet as does the dominance of fugal techniques, folk-music and the integration of separate movements into a cohesive single structure.
For the Op. 132, the central slow movement is of particular note. Beethoven was desperately ill during the composition of this quartet and the ‘Lydian mode’ hymn-like central movement seems much like a prayer of thanks to God. The quartet is brimming with intricate detail and complex motivic relationships that appear to reflect the terrible anguish felt by Beethoven at the time.
The last string quartet is Op.135 in the key of F. It is a brilliant farewell to the string quartet taking many of its ideas with a certain Classical nostalgia. Innovation is not in short supply in this final quartet with perhaps one of the most curious elements being the composer’s marking of the main Finale theme with the words, ‘Es muss sein!’ (It must be!). This is in response to the words ‘Muss es sein?’ written by Beethoven in the darkness of the second movement. Keep in mind that the title for the Finale is ‘Der Schwer gefaßte Entschluß’, (The difficult decision’), that Beethoven seems to have answered or at least provided an element of self-parody.
Of the final piano works the Diabelli Variations (Op. 120), are important to draw attention to. On a personal note, I have always found that writing ‘variations’ is the test of a composer’s ability. Beethoven, in my opinion, was an absolute master of variation form and in this ultimate set of variations, Beethoven demonstrates his prowess. There are 32 variations in this work during which Beethoven does not only vary the original material but transforms the very character of the source material. Beethoven uses every means at his disposal in this composition and paves the way for such as Robert Schumann and his ‘Symphonic Etudes’, with the reinvention of the variation model.
The ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata in Bb major (Op. 106), is often felt to mark the beginning of Beethoven’s late period works.
It is an extraordinary work, inspired by the new arrival of a British Broadwood & Sons Piano that perfectly matched Beethoven’s playing style. What makes this sonata stand out from what Beethoven had previously composed is that is almost entirely based on a single musical idea. It is also one of the most technically demanding of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and has a duration of nearly 50 minutes. There is a decidedly symphonic feel to this piece alongside Beethoven’s stylistic features of this period of composition. He employs classical forms but with fluency and interdependence within movements that singles him out as unique.
There are huge contrasts and abrupt changes of mood that pull the traditional structures into new shapes, conjuring a terrifying spectrum of emotions. Heroism, struggle, and redemption permeate this sonata making it one of the most compelling pieces Beethoven composed. A fugue provides the framework for the last movement that is preceded by a Largo and an Allegro showing Beethoven’s calculated manipulation of pre-existing musical forms.
Three further sonatas for piano came before Beethoven succumbed to illness and death. Some works never matched the grandeur of the Hammerklavier Sonata but are amongst the most intimate and beautiful of Beethoven’s output. Op. 109, 110 and 111 do not represent a composer who is withdrawn and defeated but one who is defiant and rich with innovation; even hope.