Classicism and Romanticism in Beethoven

September 16, 2012

To discuss the Classic and Romantic elements in Beethoven, one must first understand, the definition of “Classicism” and “Romanticism”.

There is only one historical period that embraces the two styles, with two tendencies, one more classicizing, the other more romanticizing (Blume). By this, we would say that there is, an era that is called “Classic-Romantic” period. Beethoven is the figure that stands between Classic and Romantic styles, the composer who links the two styles together as transition in between. In Classic music, one can find humanity, the creative and individual personality, the space for imagination in audience’s point of view and the music for music’s sake- the “beauty”. But in Romantic music, passivity is given to the audience since the composer has already predetermined almost everything (with details of dynamic markings, tempo and expression markings, and so on) and the rise of “conductor” gives the interpretation in orchestral music to the audience.

In Beethoven’s music, one can see the essential Classical and Romantic elements combined together. For rhythm, meter, and tempo, one can still find the differentiation of one rhythm from the other (Classical element) as well as one rhythm grows smoothly into the other in Beethoven’s music. Beethoven still uses the regular eight-bar period (Classical element) especially in earlier works, but he likes to distort and veil it in some ways by fragmentation and corrosion (e.g. String Quartet Op.131, No.5). He used sonata form, but transformed it in some innovative ways. In tonality and harmony, Beethoven uses much more minor keys than other “Classical” composers like Haydn and Mozart. This is very exceptional since most of the time “Classical” composers seldom used minor tonality or it was for very special use or moment. Folk dance element is very essential in Classical style since it represents a sense of universality, a common element that is known for everybody in the world. Both Beethoven and Haydn use quite a lot, e.g. in Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130, No.13 (IV. Danza alla tedesca: allemande-style dance in triple meter and binary form), and Haydn’s Symphony No.88 (III. Minuetto & Trio, with bagpipe sound and folk music elements).

Beethoven is truly a Classical composer, and together with Haydn and Mozart, they make the essential contemporary musical elements of the time coherently together, and their common understanding of musical language from a stylistic character of the period (Rosen). Beethoven, even though adding a lot of innovative means to his composition. stills adheres to the basic Classical language and keeps the sonata form, only to push the boundary of Classic music to a larger and wider extent. For instance, in Symphony No.3, sonata form is found in the first movement, with important devices of the form (i.e. two main themes, exposition, development and recapitulation). It is also found in Symphony No.5, first movement. However, one can obviously notice that the use of form is combined with dissonance, violent accent, and surprising changes of harmony. Rosen points out that Haydn usually uses monothematic material or two themes of similar characters in symphonies, while Beethoven likes to use two contrasting themes with different characters and dynamics or variations of one single themse in his symphonies (or other genres like piano works or string quartets).

Indeed, Beethoven learns from Haydn about how to develop motives and sustain drama in cyclic form in symphonies. However, Haydn. as other “Classic” composers, builds up climax gradually along the way to the end, whilst Beethoven would build up the dramatic climax in the very center of the whole piece, to make a genuine symmetry.

Before Beethoven, symphonies are usually in three-movement form (fast-slow-fast) or in Italian manner (fast-faster) (Platinga). But Beethoven would add one more movement and change the usual “Minuet and Trio” (third movement of four or second movement of three) into “scherzo” to sustain drama and power. In contrast, Haydn maintains to use Minuet and Trio throughout his symphonic works. To compare with Beethoven, Haydn’s use of tonalities and forms is much more simple than Beethoven. One must say, “more simple” does not mean “more naïve” or “more inferior”. Haydn tries to maintain the essence of early Classic style- elegance, charm, grace and simplicity (Blume) – by using the most basic functional harmony and tonalities to make the audience understand very clearly, though at times he would surprise them with sudden rests and forte passages. Beethoven, on the other hand, likes to raise the audience’s interest by the use of surprising modulation, e.g. in “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement, C minor should be modulated to Eb major in the development, but instead Eb minor is presented there. Also, he would use thundering basses (in broken octaves or chords) as well. The violent contrast between piano and forte is commonly found in his works, e.g. in the opening of Symphony No.5, first movement.

To say Beethoven is the figure who stands between Classic and Romantic styles, Haydn is the one between late Baroque and early Classic. His Symphonies No.7 “Le Midi”, and No. 73 “La Chasse”, still have the reminiscence of late Baroque concertante style. In Symphony No.73 for example. one can still find the harpsichord part as well as the influence of the Italian comic opera.

The change of historical and social background also contributes to that of Beethoven’s musical styles during the composer’s time (Plantinga). Beethoven is truly a Romantic composer after he moved to Vienna in 1792. Around 1790s, Industrial Revolution and French Revolution had enormous impact in Europe – the blossom of commerce and industrialization and the rise of middle cultivated class. Public concerts could be found gradually. The ideas of French Revolution (equality, liberty and fraternity) and Enlightenment thinkers were deeply rooted in Beethoven’s heart from Neefe, his teacher in Berlin. The change of patronage system affected the musical scene most apart from the increase in public concerts. This means that the court and nobles no longer supported the composers like master to servant. Instead individul nobles and bourgeoisie would support composers whom now were note “servants” anymore but “individual” and “independent” musicians. So Beethoven is one of the kind. He is free to composer anything he wants. and he would even argue with publishers about his right of publishing and editions (even though Haydn is under Esterhazy, he is still very free to compose and has an orchestra which he can experiment with). In true sense, Beethoven bears the “Romantic” essence.

All in all, there is only one period in Beethoven with two different musical styles-classic and romantic- as it is had to set a line to separate the two. The more important is to use which context and against which background we can understand Beethoven to the fullest extent. That is what we should concern about when studying Beethoven and his music.

Teresa Wong

Further Reading:

Fredrich Blume. Classic and Romantic Music: A Comprehensive Survey.
Leon Plantinga. Romantic Music: A History of Musical Style in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
Charles Rosen. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.

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