In a similar vein to many other classical composers who are collectively considered to be important, Beethoven was a pioneer. If you only examine his contribution to the piano repertoire, this provides one solid reason why Beethoven is important.
Despite living a relatively short life that was strewn with unrequited love and poor health, Beethoven composed thirty-two Piano Sonatas. Each of these is a powerful indicator of his development as a composer and his radical development of Classical conventions.
Alongside the sonatas are five magnificent Piano Concertos that transformed the concept of what a concerto could be and to a great extent, what it would become in the hands of other composers.
Why Is Beethoven Important
When you remember these innovations were possible against Beethoven’s deteriorating health and eventual deafness, he seems to have achieved the impossible. In this way, Beethoven has become heroic.
His music embodies the enduring human spirit that he represents to us now. Through his music, Beethoven reaches across time and reminds us of the resilience we are capable of showing in the face of adversity.
Beethoven’s compositions were not limited to his works for piano. As you will doubtless be aware he composed nine symphonies with the last setting the ‘Ode to Joy’.
The sheer majesty coupled with a mighty message of hope make this one of his most important works.
There are many string quartets too. These demonstrate an almost unparalleled prowess in the use of form. Like Beethoven’s piano sonatas they chart a pathway through his immense progress as a composer, pushing the established boundaries to breaking point.
The later quartets are a gigantic achievement absorbing traditional musical devices whilst driving them into unknown territories. It is these revolutionary musical advances that make Beethoven such an important composer.
The influence of these composers is clear in Beethoven’s music, especially Haydn in Beethoven’s early piano sonatas.
Why Beethoven holds a position of great importance is that he was able to base his compositions on Classical models but then stretch them into realms as yet unheard. Beethoven almost single handily drove the Classical music world into the Romantic.
On a purely speculative point, would Beethoven have been such an innovator had he been born fifty years earlier?
Two popular forms of music from the Classical era were Sonata and variation. The variation form is self-explanatory, but it’s worth pausing to reflect on Sonata Form for one minute as it is a form that Beethoven fully exploited.
The principle of Sonata form is to present two contrasting themes, one in the tonic, and one in the dominant key. They come on stage in the exposition are explored in the development section and reviewed in the recapitulation.
The from is sleek, balanced, and appealing. It adheres to the Classical ideas of what music should be.
Beethoven takes these forms and does something unique with them. He was a celebrated pianist and improviser. These qualities show through in his compositions.
In some respects, this tremendous facility that Beethoven possessed propelled the development of these Classical forms where the development section, in sonata form, increasingly became the focus of the piece.
Variation was ideally suited to Beethoven’s talents as he was able to show his exceptional ability at creating an entire piece from simple melodic and motivic material. Here is another example of Beethoven’s importance.
Motivic development as opposed to purely thematic development meant that Beethoven was not restricted by past conventions. He expanded existing structures to the point where they are almost unrecognisable in their original form.
Motifs began to provide the pulsing lifeblood of entire compositions as Beethoven squeezed every drop of potential out of his material.
This compositional approach opened doors to composers like Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz amongst many others, who would exploit the idea of a ‘leitmotif’ in their work.
Beethoven not only broke the classical mould in terms of form but also in terms of his use of harmony. The tonic/ dominant orientated harmony that characterised much of the Classical period Beethoven redefined, tearing up the rule book in the process.
Beethoven’s complex exploration of tonal relationships goes so far as almost to lose sight of original keys in later compositions.
Chromaticism and intricate textures create a vehicle for immense expression that removes the austerity of the Classical purists.
And it is this deep emotional content in Beethoven’s music that speaks to us even today. Not to be overlooked, Beethoven is also important for his contribution to the development of the piano.
Had it not been for Beethoven’s demands for pianos that were capable of handling his playing and compositional expectations, the piano we know today may not have evolved the same way.
As Beethoven composed more and more sophisticated music for the instrument, manufacturers had to keep pace.
By the end of Beethoven’s life, it is simple to see from his last piano sonatas the kind of advances that had taken place in manufacturing in just a few decades.
Beethoven was able to achieve what perhaps no other composer of the time could hope to achieve. Single-handedly Beethoven was able to transform music from one historical period into another.
In so doing he redefined the musical landscape for all composers to come, opening new exciting avenues to explore and exploit.
Through unbearable suffering Beethoven reignited the fire of the human spirit energising musicians and composers to embrace a whole new and challenging musical world. The age of the ‘artist’, the intellectual, and the virtuoso all pay homage to Beethoven and his legacy.
From humble, dark, and troubled beginnings Beethoven forged a way forward through sheer hard work and determination. You can see from his composition sketches that nothing was easy for him, he earned every step forward he made.
In many respects this singles Beethoven out from other composers whose gifts perhaps were more immediate. It raises Beethoven to a heroic status that is rightly deserved.