Beethoven's Secret

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Beethoven's Secret


THE SOURCE: "Why Beethoven?" by Leon Botstein, in The Musical Quarterly, Fall-Winter 2010.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is something of a mystery. Unlike Mozart and Wagner, Beethoven didn't produce much music for the stage, which offers narrative and direction that keep music scholars busy and provide enjoyable distractions for unpracticed audiences. He wrote only one opera, while Wagner composed 13. In fact, much of Beethoven's canon is labeled as "absolute" music, possessing no narrative or extramusical intent.

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To Leon Botstein, a music historian and the president of Bard College, this characterization of Beethoven's oeuvre is not entirely convincing. One of the reasons Beethoven's work remains so popular, Botstein says, is that the German composer "defied the later reductive separation of program music"--work intended to produce a set of feelings or complement a story--"from absolute music." Some of Beethoven's pieces do contain hints of narrative, ideas, and emotions, even while they lack text. After Beethoven died, his simply titled Piano Sonata no. 14 became informally known as "Moonlight Sonata" for a reason, Botstein points out.

Even though Wagner and others are better known for the practice, Beethoven also used standard musical techniques to give his work emotional depth; for example, he conveyed intensity by alternating between fast and slow tempos in the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony. …

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