Beethoven Symphony Basics at ESM

From Classical to Romantic Symphony: A New Way, the Heroic Narrative, and the Sublime

“Beethoven in his turn brought a new freedom, not by discarding an artistic convention, but by bringing within its scope a new range of human experiences.”   Wilfrid Dunwell, “The Age of Goethe and Beethoven,” in Hays, ed., Twentieth-century Views of Music History (New York: C. Scribner & Sons, 1972), 297-98.


Through his symphonies and other works, Beethoven built a musical bridge from the Classical past to the Romantic future. Even in his own time this was recognized in Beethoven’s music, especially in his symphonies. Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, one of Beethoven’s earliest and most devoted admirers, sent the young composer off to Vienna in 1792 with a letter that stated Beethoven would “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” (See essay “Significance and Structure” on Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 page.) In 1810, after Beethoven had completed his first six symphonies, the Allgemeine musikalisches Zeitung published the famous essay “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” by prominent Romantic author and critic E. T. A. Hoffmann, which placed Beethoven on the peak of the “Romantics” mountain, reached by climbing through Haydn and Mozart.  (See essay “Others’ Words” on the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 page.) Recent historical assessments have continued to acknowledge the pivotal stylistic role Beethoven played.  Elaine Sisman addressed the matter by asking (and later answering) some questions regarding such historicization and the Western music canon:

Open any textbook in music history or music appreciation and the problem of Beethoven’s relation to music historiography becomes immediately apparent: is he Classical or Romantic or both or neither? Is he part of the Canonical Three of the Viennese Classical Style—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven—or is he a chapter unto himself, as the One destined to inherit and transform, even liberate, the achievements of the Classical Duo?  (“The Spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s Hands,” The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, 45.)

Wilfrid Dunwell’s assessment of the matter, efficiently summarized in the quote that begins the essay, assents to the Beethoven bridge based on the recognition of three factors: 1) an artistic freedom that emerged in the early years of the nineteenth century, 2) expressed using existing music conventions, 3) but reconsidered in order to illuminate a developing outlook of the human condition.  Both past and present commentaries on Beethoven and his music, especially his symphonies, agree that the foundation of his transitional status is his mastery of the expressive capabilities of the Classical symphonic language and practices he inherited (summarized in the essays on the preceding page “Beethoven’s Classical Inheritance: The Symphony and the Orchestra”), and that by recasting and reconsidering elements of rhythm and melody with motivic implications, tonal and harmonic relationships, dynamics and the use of silence, instrumental treatment, and structural boundaries and expectations, he propelled the symphony towards a new Romantic direction, inspired in part by the emerging “Heroic” impulse and sublime aesthetic, with each moment packed with teleological (end-aimed) musical and dramatic implications.


Heroic Narrative and the Sublime

As the Enlightenment came to a close, there was a growing interest in heroic stories and ideals. The turn of the century saw the re-emergence of the Medieval Bildungsroman, or developmental novel, as a popular genre. This was due in large part to the German authors of the counter-Enlightenment Sturm und Drang movement such as Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose tales focused on Romantic heroes, aware of themselves and of the outside forces of society acting against them, particularly concerning how their morals often contradicted societal values. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, exemplified this genre.  This discrepancy of inner and outer worlds meant the hero’s plight was wrought with instability, often leading to isolation, unfulfilled desires, and subsequent brooding. (Garber, “Self, Society, Value, and the Romantic Hero,” 322.)  In many tales, the struggles served to shape the hero into something greater than could have been imagined at the beginning, thus generating a narrative of personal development and overcoming: Per ardua (or aspera) ad astra—“Through struggle, to the stars.”  To make vivid this focus on the internal and emotional aspects of the human condition, and the struggle with external forces that threatened to destroy the hero, Sturm und Drang authors called upon the sublime topic—terror, fear, storminess, pondering the un-understandable and unknowable—with new emphasis.  This may have been one of the leading factors in the popularity of these tales. In 1757 Edmund Burke, in his influential  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, commented on the effectiveness of sublime on raising the interest of “the common sort” as well as those with education and “taste”:

It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. . . . It is this with the vulgar, and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand.  The [sublime] ideas of eternity and infinity are among the most affecting we have, and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity. (Part Two, Section IV.)

Other common themes in these heroic tales included an innocence and naïveté at the beginning of the journey, struggles with the inner self and external pressures, perhaps love and loss, repose in a rural, natural setting where the hero can be isolated and contemplative, and most fully “human” in his attachment to Nature, and finally a resolve that leads to a victorious outcome of some sort, completing and fulfilling the hero.

Such stories were not confined to fiction. When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte was embarking on his rise through the ranks of the army of the infant First Republic of France, and by the time Beethoven’s First Symphony was completed in 1800, Napoleon had seized power and was beginning his conquest of Europe. Napoleon’s quick rise from an unknown to First Consul of France during the 1790s, finally being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1804 with ambitions to lead all of Europe, made him a living image of the Romantic hero.  Beethoven, too, saw himself in this heroic “overcoming” role, particularly related to his hearing loss, which he realized was occurring as early as 1800.  His Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter written to his brothers in October 1802 “to be delivered upon my death,” conveys Beethoven’s utter frustration with his malady, and its effect on his social function.  Resolved to rise above, Beethoven accepts his burden, and overcomes through creating art: “. . . a little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. . . . It seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” (See “Beethoven’s Words” essay on the Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36 page for more details.) 


Beethoven’s “Heroic” (Middle) Style Period

Even during Beethoven’s lifetime, critics began to identify distinct compositional style periods in his music, which would eventually be labelled Early (up to 1802), Middle (1802-16), and Late (1817-27). Beethoven’s friend and student Carl Czerny reported that just months before writing the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven remarked to his friend Wenzel Krumpholz, “I am far from satisfied with my past works: from today on I shall take a new way.” (Downs, “Beethoven’s ‘New Way’ and the Eroica,” 585.) These statements suggest that Beethoven himself recognized a departure from one stylistic approach into another.  The “new way” of his Middle Period compositions shows the influence of the heroic narrative on Beethoven’s compositional planning, and thus his Middle Period has also been labeled his “Heroic” Period.  Symphonies Nos. 2 through 8, written during these years, all show the heroic influence in different ways, and even Symphony No. 9, although composed during his Late style period, is in many ways a culmination of the heroic style.  Furthermore, the literary works for which Beethoven composed accompanying music during this time are decidedly heroic in nature: his only opera Fidelio was begun in 1804 and had its final revision for a Congress of Vienna performance in 1815, and Beethoven composed overtures and incidental music for Goethe’s play Egmont (1810), August von Kotzebue’s King Stephen (1811) and The Ruins of Athens (1811), and a concert overture inspired by Heinrich Joseph von Collins’s play Coriolanus (1807). 

But what makes these symphonies, of themselves, “heroic?” Broadly defined, the same characteristics found in the Bildungsroman and heroic tales of the Sturm und Drang, and in Napoleon’s and Beethoven’s own heroic struggles, particularly the Per ardua ad astra victorious overcoming, are conveyed through instrumental music. Scott Burnham argues that it is Beethoven’s “internalization of classical formal procedure” that allows for the narratives present in his Heroic style to also carry a sense of universality. (Beethoven Hero, 62). To a degree greater than those before him, Beethoven found the symphonic language he inherited to be up to such a task. (See essay “Beethoven’s Classical Inheritance: The Symphony and the Orchestra” for details.) It provided both the intellectual scaffolding—structural, formal, instrumental conventions—and the capabilities for dramatic vividness—conventions of topically-related gestures (topoi)—that Beethoven could shape and mold into his heroic new way. In this age of Napoleon, Beethoven also called upon the tools of French Revolutionary music, particularly wind-band marches, and the beautiful melodies and large choral/instrumental forces of French opera (especially that of Luigi Cherubini, who Beethoven regarded as the greatest among his contemporary composers) and fête music, to create his narrative.  (See Michael Broyles, The Emergence and Evolution of Beethoven’s Heroic Style, 116-26.)  Emphasis of the ardua—the struggle—was achieved by introducing thematic material in a most basic way that allow, even require, expansion or completion, and the listener’s own disquietude was established and sustained by more prominent and prolonged use of the sublime aesthetic, characterized by insistence of the minor mode, strong dissonances and sudden dynamic changes, rhythmic instability, and other such obscuring and threatening gestures. The disquietude might be interrupted by battlefield exploits (battle topos) and repose in the country (pastoral topos), but these proved temporary. Only a final defeat and overcoming of the struggles—a victorious ending characterized by an overwhelming move to and maintaining of the major mode, full, bright orchestration, and affirming, unrelenting cadential formulae—would signal the final, full, complete ending, taking the listener ad astra.  Elements throughout the work pointed to the victorious ending, and are constantly reconsidered according to this goal, thus rooted in a teleological planning of Beethoven’s careful formal design.

While all of Beethoven’s Heroic Period symphonies contain these characteristics, and take the listener on such a journey, each is unique in its approach.  For example, the “Eroica” Symphony, the first to be composed after the writing of the Heiligenstadt Testament (he was finishing Symphony No. 2 when he wrote the letter), treats the heroic idea as a series of four distinct tableaux:  the first movement focuses on the colossal and arduous, with themes being presented vaguely at first but building throughout, even changing their endings in order to defeat melodic and harmonic dissonances; the second movement, Marcia funebre, depicts a funeral procession—Beethoven’s most direct reference to an actual narrative story; in the third movement scherzo, horn calls and shepherd tunes in the winds paint pictures of soldierly and pastoral liveliness; and the finale theme-and-variations depicts its own heroic narrative, with the simple bass-line harmonic outline presented st the beginning developing into a bona fide melody, which itself, through struggles and trials, becomes more and more complete, rushing to the end in a final burst of confident energy.  The Fifth Symphony, on the other hand, presents a single line of struggle, building over the entire work and finally triumphing at the end. The C-minor angst and simple short—short—short—long motive introduced in its opening bars continues all the way through the third movement, despite a interruptive pastoral respite with some militaristic gestures in the second movement, until finally, without pause, a glorious C-major march tune, enhanced by added instruments, pushes the C-minor third movement materials aside for good (or so we think), and builds energy to the end of its long coda. Arguably, this overall narrative approach most closely relates to the Bildungsroman. In this symphony, and in its twin the “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6, Beethoven’s music impresses us as coming from a quite personal place, expressing personal feelings and emotions in a universal way, which becomes a staple of the Romantic symphony. (John Culshaw, A Century of Music, 17.) The Ninth Symphony, while not composed within the time span of the “Heroic” Period, is in many ways the culmination of Beethoven’s symphonic Heroic narrative.  All things lead to the introduction of human voices expressing joy and “brotherhood” in the grand finale movement, revealing the true, perfect hero as humanity itself, striving for perfection and ultimate joy by recognizing its duty to itself, and to its Creator who dwells above the stars (super-astra!). While these four symphonies most directly and clearly relate to the heroic narrative, all of the symphonies of Beethoven’s Heroic Period address the topic in some obvious and some more subtle ways. 


Specific Compositional Trends

Beethoven’s broad heroic narrative goals led to some specific musical characteristics that one can observe in his Heroic Period works. Some of these characteristics are introduced below, and are treated with more detail in the essays for each symphony that appear on the subsequent pages of this website. (It is suggested that the reader consult those pages for details, and to hear excerpts discussed below.) 

Motivic Aspects of Melody and Rhythm. The concept of telos in Beethoven’s symphonic repertoire greatly relies on thematic development.  Beethoven’s approach to melody is often recognized as being largely driven by the establishment of motives—short and distinct melodic-rhythmic gestures that can be developed over time in many different guises, and can reappear as a common thread throughout a work, in all movements (referred to as motivic integration). Motivic focus is most clearly evident in the last movement of the “Eroica” Symphony, where a silly little four-note motive at the beginning serves as the simplest starting point for grand development and expansion.  The Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most famous motivically-integrated work in the symphonic repertoire, with the four-note short—short—short—long motive of the opening pervading the entire piece, serving as the kernel of nearly all of the most prominent themes in all of the movements. Symphony No. 7, too, is known for its motivic gestures which give it a unique rhythmic vitality and energy; Richard Wagner’s recognition of the centrality of the motivic-rhythmic qualities led him to label it “the apotheosis of dance.” 

But it is an unfair or at least an incomplete assessment to say that Beethoven’s melodies were all based on simple motivic gestures.  He composed some fine, vocally-modeled lyrical tunes, particularly in slow movements. Notable are the lovely, yearning themes in the slow movements of his Second, Fourth, and Sixth (“Pastoral”) symphonies, establishing some most intimate and “personal” feelings and settings, often with pastoral topical implications. The second movement of Symphony No. 2 begins with an intimate serenade melody passed from the string quartet to a small wind ensemble, and a singing, aria-like tune in the slow movement of Symphony No. 4, introduced by the violins and taken up by the winds, moves from foreground to background in a fight against a strong rhythmic motive, creating a sense of melancholy and reminiscence that is most intimately conveyed when solo clarinet sings the lyrical melody.  Longer and more lyric vocal-modeled tunes also play prominantly in Beethoven’s expression of folk and rustic topics, as in the third movements of the Third (“Eroica”), Sixth (“Pastoral”), and Eighth Symphonies. Usually played by the woodwinds in imitation of shepherd pipe calls and country bands, his folk tunes transort the listener into pastoral joie de vivre.  The third-movement trio of the Eighth Symphony, with a horn duet conversing with a solo clarinet, is an especially touching folk-melodic treatment.

Expanding Dynamics and Silence as a Dramatic Gesture.  Sudden and gradual dynamic changes are important considerations in Beethoven’s musical language, and show expansion throughout is Heroic Period works.  Beethoven took great care and exactitude in his dynamic planning and effects, and this dynamic planning is enhanced by an equally compelling control of instrumental forces. The soft solo clarinet melody in the second movement of Symphony No. 4 described above is a wonderful example of such careful dynamic and instrumental control. In Symphony No. 8, Beethoven stretches the dynamic indications from ppp to—for the first time in his symphonic repertoire—fff, as he adamantly shouts out the return of the first theme following the development section. To be sure, the loud dynamics coupled with full orchestral forces powerfully dramatize struggle using the sublime aesthetic, but as stunning as these overwhelming sounds is his clever and most effective use of disruptive silences.  These “loud silences” often occur in the most unexpected places, and continue longer than anticipated, and so take us to the sublime realms of obscurity and disruption.  Disruptive silences are features of the first and last movements of Symphony No. 2, and the silences that break into pieces the funeral march melody at the end of the “Eroica” second movement seem to compel the listener to gasp for breath, along with the last gasps of the dying hero.

 Expanding Tonal Relationships. The previous essay Beethoven’s Classical Inheritance: The Symphony and the Orchestra discusses the typical key relationships of the Classical style, which emphasize either changes in mode, such as the parallel and relative major-minor relationships, and keys immediately next to each other on the Circle of Keys—the subdominant and dominant keys—whose keynotes are a fifth apart.  Structural conventions typically relied on these tonal relationships.  Beethoven stretched tonal relationships into new areas, and so regularly generated a larger number of possible tonal directions.  Secondary themes in first movements will often first appear in a “wrong” key before being corrected to the “right” key—the dominant—thereby suggesting a new tonal relationship in the exposition which is mirrored in the recapitulation (“wrong” key to tonic at that point). This, of course, generates a narrative problem of keys that must be struggled with and overcome, but it also serves to highlight interesting and subtle ways of managing tonal relationships that effectively expand the tonal palette.  In the Symphony No. 8 in F, for example, the second theme first appears in D major, and is subsequently correctly played in the dominant key C major. Another notable tonal “problem” occurs in the development of the first movement of the “Eroica” Symphony, when a new melody is introduced in the key of E minor, a pitch collection that has very little in common with the tonic E-flat major.  Beethoven has to “solve” this problem before returning to the E-flat tonic for the recapitulation; he does so by restating the new theme in E-flat minor, leading back to the tonic. Similar ½-step tonal misplacements and corrections are prominent in the finale of Symphony No 8.  Beethoven also makes more and more use of keys that are separated by a third—called a “mediant” or “submediant” relationship—rather than a fifth (dominant or subdominant relationship).  Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 are fine examples.  In the “Pastoral” Symphony, sudden unprepared shifts to keys a third away feature prominently in the first movement’s development, giving the impression of rays of light beaming down.  The first and last movements of the Seventh Symphony are in the tonic A major, and the second movement in the parallel A minor.  But the third movement, rather than appearing in the expected A major, begins in F major, a third away from A major (submediant relationship), and the trio is in D major, a third below F major (another juxtaposed submediant relationship, although D is the subdominant of the overall A major). 

New Approaches to the Orchestra. Perhaps the most immediate impression of the Beethoven style is his treatment of instrumentation. The influence if the French musical style, particularly wind-band marches and the monumental combined sounds of fête music, is evident in his concept of orchestral sound. As early as Beethoven’s First Symphony, the preponderance of wind material drew the criticism of having “too much of Harmonie music” (see “Others’ Words” essay on the Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 page), and his more prominent use of the winds in ensemble and as soloists as compared to his predecessors remained a staple of his orchestral music. This includes melodic material for the “natural” horns and trumpets—the instruments of the rustic hunt and heroic battle topics—such as the main theme of the “Eroica” first movement.  Even timpani are given a melodic role, notably in the Fourth and Eighth Symphonies. With the opening massive sound of the finale of Symphony No. 5, Beethoven would be the first to use a choir of three trombones in a symphonic work; he also added piccolo and contrabassoon at that moment. He would include these instruments in the Ninth Symphony as well, along with Janissary percussion.

Other than the amount of wind music, Beethoven’s orchestral concept also effectively featured thunderous orchestral unisons, extremes of register (screaming high horns in the Seventh Symphony, clarinet in its low register with low strings a the opening of the Fifth Symphony), and what is sometimes described as a “dropping of the center of orchestral gravity,” achieved by assigning melodic material to instruments of the middle and lower registers.  The “Eroica” Symphony cello melody at the beginning of the first movement is a good example of this, as are the opening passages of the second and third movements of the Fifth Symphony, where violas, cellos, and basses alone introduce the main thematic material. While Beethoven was not the first to use such orchestral techniques, they became more prominent in his works. This resulted in a larger set of instrumental choices, alone and in combination, that could effectively convey Beethoven’s desired narrative, and brought about an even a greater appreciation for the instrument sounds themselves outside of topical labels, all of which became part of the Romantic symphonic language. See the orchestra portion of the “Beethoven’s Classical Inheritance: The Symphony and the Orchestra” essay for more details, as well as the individual symphony pages.   

Challenging Conventions of Structure: Clouding Boundaries and Reconsidering Formal Function. Beethoven’s bridge from a Classical to a Romantic symphonic style is most crucially built by his challenging and bending of the Classical conventions of symphonic structure. Each symphony in its own way, achieving its own narrative goals and representing its own journey’s points of interest, stretches, bends, and in other ways reconsiders expectations regarding structural order and formal function, yet does so while still maintaining, even strengthening, the structural integrity of the symphonic form. In most of Beethoven’s symphonies, these twists serve to shift the balance of compositional weight towards the last two movements by increasing their interest and dramatic impact, thereby emphasizing the victorious ending ad astra.  As with many of the compositional trends discussed above, Beethoven may not have “invented” some of these, but his more consistent use of them, and his genius in having them serve his narrative desires, make Beethoven deserving of recognition for their innovation.  

There are far too many creative formal and structural twists to discuss here, but a list and brief description of some of the macro- and micro-level structural qualities would help in understanding Beethoven’s compositional logic, with specific symphonies/movements where they are used identified in parentheses. (Details of these and others appear in the individual symphony pages):

  • Connection of movements without pause—attacca—thus lengthening the time of continuous music, and creating immediate juxtapositions of dramatic difference. (Symphony No. 5/iii-iv, Symphony No. 6/iii-iv-v.)
  • Changing the third movement minuet-trio into a scherzo by making it too fast, disrupting the meter and expectations of phrase length, thus adding intensity and often sublimely unexpected materials. This increases its dramatic weight. (All of the symphonies.)
  • Switching expected movement order in the internal movements, with the scherzo coming second and slow movement coming third. (Symphony No. 9/ii & iii.)
  • Recalling large portions of material from previous movements at the end, thereby emphasizing the teleological planning of the symphonic cycle. (Symphony No. 5/iv, Symphony No. 9/iv.)
  • Lengthening and dramatically enhancing codas, particularly in first and finale movements, by beginning it with developmental materials, as if it is a second development section, and finally resolving to a solid conclusion, often accompanied by an increase in tempo that drives to the end. (Symphony No. 3/1 & iv, Symphony No. 5/i & iv, Symphony No. 8/iv, Symphony No. 9/iv.)
  • Adding length and impact of the developmental sections of sonata-form movements—introductions, developments, and codas—thereby adding more time and weight to the “struggling” destabilizing function of developmental procedures that serves the dramatic narrative, and changes the balance of stable (exposition and recapitulation) vs. unstable (development and coda) musical sections. (Symphony No. 2/i, Symphony No. 3/i, Symphony No. 5/i, Symphony No. 7/i & iv, Symphony No. 8/i & iv.)
  • Related to the expansion of developmental sections: challenging expectations of materials, such as sections and themes, in their “stabilizing” or “destabilizing” functions. For example, themes are typically stabilizing in that they emphasize the key and main ideas, but Beethoven would compose themes in such a way that they could and would continue to develop, as a hero develops in a Bildungsroman. In the “Eroica” first movement, the main theme is presented in a basic way first by the cellos, then by the winds, then finally with full orchestral forces including trumpets and horns playing the melody. Thus the theme is not stable but is itself constantly developing in new ways, and is therefore unstable. (A similar treatment occurs in the first theme of Symphony No. 6/i.)  Furthermore, the “Eroica” first theme ending changes in the development, removing dissonances and rising up to a more complete, victorious effect, which is reiterated and insisted upon in the coda. A destabilizing change in thematic material also occurs in the first movement of Symphony No. 8: the recapitulation begins with the first theme missing four internal bars, and over an unstable chord (tonic chord in second inversion), thus pushing the tonal resolution that should have occurred at the entrance of the theme to the cadence of the theme. The other side of the stability-instability function is demonstrated in many development sections, which are designed to be unstable, yet Beethoven introduced new themes—stabilizing material—in developments to offer a brief sense of stability, yet usually in  unusual keys. (Symphony No. 3/i, Symphony No. 4/i.)  Symphony No. 8 is full of ways stable and unstable functions are challenged, giving it a scherzo-like character throughout, and Symphony No. 9 pushes formal and gestural instability to new and confounding heights, making the introduction of the “Joy” theme in the finale, and the adding of human voices and text, all the more satisfying and uplifting.


Reception and the Heroic “New Way” Opening the Door to Romanticism

The compositional characteristics of Beethoven’s heroic style discussed above only scratch the surface of how he pushed the symphonic genre in a new direction. It is important to reiterate that each symphony Beethoven composed is a work unto itself, containing its own struggles and solutions for overcoming those struggles, and its own journey. Such careful treatment of each as its own suggests that Beethoven’s views of his art included the expectation that each could eventually be judged an artistic masterpiece, thus putting musical works on equal artistic footing with other art forms. Critical reception, then, also became a consideration in developing and recognizing this new way.

Contemporary critical reception of the works that infused personal biography and programmatic content to the symphonies enhanced their heroic aura.  These elements are all related by the emerging Romantic aesthetic at the turn of the nineteenth century, including the need felt by critics to “approach works of imagination with imagination” (Burnham, Beethoven Hero, 8).  The idea of associating the life events of composers with their work, too, became a common trope in the Romantic era, particularly when those composers had to overcome significant struggle (in Beethoven’s case deafness and social isolation).  Later critics such as Richard Wagner proposed programs for the symphonies in which Beethoven himself was the hero.

The prominence of the sublime aesthetic weighed heavily in such critical analysis.  E. T. A. Hoffman’s 1810 essay “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” argues that it is Beethoven’s emphasis of the sublime that makes him most purely Romantic. It suggests “indefinite emotions” and the “stir[ring of] the mists of fear, of horror, of terror, of grief, [it] awakens that endless longing which is the very essence of romanticism.” (Locke and Hoffmann, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” 128.) Mark Evan Bonds assessment of Hoffmann’s essay affirms the “progression from the beautiful . . . to the sublime,” and credits this progression as one of the factors that moved the relationship of the audience to the music and its composer toward a more Romantic model: 

We also find here progressions from innocence to wisdom and from the earthly (Haydn) . . . to the divine (Beethoven). . . . Mozart [like Haydn] “leads us.” In both instances, the composer bears the burden of intelligibility.  Beethoven, on the other hand, . . . “opens up to us” the “realm of the monstrous and the immeasurable.”. . . Listening to Beethoven’s music, we become aware of a higher reality. The music is a source of a light that illuminates the transcendent figures whose shadows we can only dimly perceive here on earth. Beethoven’s music, in short, is a source of Truth. (Bonds, “Rhetoric vs. Truth: Listening to Haydn in the Age of Beethoven,” 122-23.)

Heroic transcendence . . . leading to a higher reality . . . illumination . . . TRUTH.  These are the emerging hallmarks of the Romantic generation of artists and philosophers at the dawn of the nineteenth century.  There are myriad ways in which Beethoven transformed Classical style, moving it towards the Romantic aesthetic, without rejecting it. It is important to note that these are not arbitrary transformations. Beethoven’s compositions do not randomly reprioritize Mozart’s and Haydn’s symphonic values, arriving at a variant merely for difference’s sake. On the contrary, whether consciously or not, Beethoven’s transformations of Classical style point in a consistent, specific direction. In particular, his engagement with form, rhetoric, and orchestration became the cornerstones of a pivot to a more heroic and therefore Romantic aesthetic. Dunwell writes that “Beethoven found in the sonata a living organism, not a stereotyped form” ( “The Age of Goethe and Beethoven,” 297), and this is exactly the transformation enacted in Beethoven’s heroic style—the use of musical development to capture and effectively express to humankind the emotion, conflict, and individualized nature of human experience, and perhaps ultimately, freedom.

Contributors:  CH, EH, LB, MC, YS, MER


Topics and sources for further inquiry

The Heroic and Romanticism
Garber, Frederick. “Self, Society, Value, and the Romantic Hero.” Comparative Literature 19/ 4 (1967): 321–333. JStor link.

Beethoven and the Heroic
Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Broyles, Michael. The Emergence and Evolution of Beethoven’s Heroic Style. New York, Excelsior Music Publishing Co., 1987. 

Downs, Philip G. “Beethoven’s ‘New Way’ and the Eroica.” Musical Quarterly 56 (1970): 585-604. JStor link.

The Sublime
Bonds, Mark Evan. Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.  ProQuest Ebook Central.

_______ “Rhetoric vs. Truth: Listening to Haydn in the Age of Beethoven.” In Tom Beghin and Sander M. Goldberg, editors, Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric, 109-28. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Burke, Edmond.  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 4thedition. London, 1764 (1st edition 1757).  Link

Doran, Robert. The Theory of Sublime, from Longinus to Kant. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Botstein, Leon.  “Sound and structure in Beethoven’s orchestral music.”  In The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, edited by Glenn Stanley, 165-85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Cambridge University Press link

Broyles, Michael. The Emergence and Evolution of Beethoven’s Heroic Style. New York, Excelsior Music Publishing Co., 1987.