Music – Beethoven And The Expression Of Emotion In Music

IT is commonly, and quite fairly, said that Beethoven’s great contribution to music was to show how it could be made to express deeper emotion.

His immediate predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, had perfected the Sonata-Symphony form, and within this form had expressed their sense of beauty and often also a good deal of sentiment and of humour.

But Beethoven expressed within the form deeper emotion than they had ever felt called upon to express, and perhaps than they had ever felt. Where Mozart would have been plaintive or, at most, pathetic, Beethoven was able to be tragic. Where Haydn might have been quaintly humorous, Beethoven would be boisterously uncontrolled.

Now, of course, this deeper expression would have been impossible to Beethoven if C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, and Mozart had not prepared the way for him. They had solved for him the main problems of the effective arrangement of material, so that it might contrast well, and yet ` hang together’. In Orchestral music they had, further, found out the sound general method of combining or contrasting the various tone colours. Beethoven born earlier could not have been Beethoven. The man who designed the Lusitania if born in A. D. I would have been content with making a coracle a foot longer than any Briton before him, and making it a little less circular and a trifle better balanced. Bach in 1400 would have been a Dunstable (see page 74), showing the way to a somewhat better counterpoint. Beethoven in 1600 would have been a Monteverde (see page 74), showing the way out of pure Counterpoint to a more direct expression through chords struck as chords, and vivid declamation. All these men were dependent for their opportunity to do what they did upon the chance of being born when they were. We do not know how many Beethovens have been lost to us through their unlucky coming to birth at a wrong time or in a wrong place.

Beethoven, then, wrote music outwardly much like that of Haydn and Mozart, but longer, broader, and deeper (by length here I mean actual length, by breadth I refer to style, and by depth to emotional significance). To some people, necessarily, his music was, by its all-round bigger calibre, incomprehensible ; they could follow the sonata road as far as Haydn and Mozart had taken it, but when they reached the Beethoven section, they became alarmed at leaving trim hedges and well-kept gardens and finding themselves in the open country.

Moreover, Beethoven’s music was necessarily more difficult to perform. In keyboard music he was the first to introduce a true Pianoforte style, since Haydn and Mozart had both been brought up on the Harpsichord. As one example of this, consider say a Mozart sonata and a later Beethoven one and see the greater use of, and even dependence on the sustaining pedal, which is, of course, a distinct Pianoforte contrivance, corresponding to nothing at all in the Harpsichord. Big spread harmonic arpeggios, bass notes struck by the left hand and then given to the pedal to sustain whilst the left hand occupies itself otherwise—this sort of thing is constantly seen in Beethoven but hardly to any extent in Mozart, and, of course, it is a great addition to the opportunities-of forceful expression. Similarly Beethoven’s use of the Orchestra, as has already been explained, was an intelligent modification of that of Haydn and Mozart, largely directed by the wish to express more. The two older men sought to express themselves with crystal clearness ; Beethoven often sacrificed their sort of clarity for the purpose of gaining force. All these three composers had a strong sense of Beauty; but with Haydn and Mozart beauty came first and expression second, and with Beethoven, perhaps, expression first and beauty second.

All that has just been said about Beethoven naturally applies more strongly to the later than the earlier compositions.

The Minuet has, on account of its compactness, been chosen throughout this book as a convenient illustration of style in various periods. We have examined together a Purcell Minuet, a Bach Minuet, and a Mozart Minuet. Beethoven retained the Minuet as a movement of his early Sonatas, &c. But the Minuet can hardly express much beyond a very formal beauty, and Beethoven longed for a deeper manifestation of emotion. Soon he had so changed the Minuet that he abandoned the name, and the movement that appeared in the Minuet-place in a Sonata or Symphony was now called a `Scherzo’. This word is the Italian for joke. Many of Beethoven’s Scherzo movements were actually jocular ; others whilst retaining the feeling of unexpectedness which is the chief element in a successful joke, verbal, practical, or musical, passed out of jocularity into something more tremendous. The Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony (see its opening on the previous page) is a good example of this. It is wildly extravagant in its modulations and bold in its harmonies and orchestration. Humour does come into it (see the example on page 143, where the clumsy double-basses are made to scamper like elephants, and are then abruptly pulled up and started again), but the predominant feeling is something beyond humour, and at the end, -where a link is needed to carry us from the Scherzo to the Finale, the composer has soared right away into the mystical.

Hear this movement and recognize the coming of the element of the Romantic into music. Such a passage as that which ends this Scherzo and leads into the Finale is the equivalent in music of such lines as those of Keats—

magic casements opening on the foam Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.’

Romance can be found in Bach ; much more rarely in Handel. It can be found in Mozart, and, more rarely, in Haydn. But with Beethoven Romance begins to become a common and vital element in the stuff of music. He was, if you like, the last great Classic, but he was, at the same time, the first great Romantic. You will find it quite interesting to compare chance pages of Mozart and Beethoven, and in this way to test the change in the matter of feeling which Beethoven brought about. For example, here is the opening of a Mozart Piano Sonata Slow Movement (Sonata V) contrasted with a very similar movement from Beethoven (Sonata XI).

And that Sonata of Beethoven is but a rather early one. If you will test the later ones you will find much deeper feeling than that.

Compare now the sort of air Mozart takes for the purpose of making a set of Variations (Sonata XII).

That is plaintive and charming.

Now look at one of Beethoven’s airs (again a rather early work—Sonata XII).

These are but one or two, almost chance, examples, but they are sufficient to indicate what is meant by the statement that with Beethoven we see the coming of Romance’ and deeper feeling into music.

Schubert must be classed with Beethoven as partaking of both Classic and Romantic characters.

A period of but sixty-three years separates the composition of the first symphony of Haydn and the last of Beethoven. What a change of spirit and a growth of mastery in so short a time !

The composers who immediately followed Beethoven and Schubert were those who are now classed as the definite ` Romantic School’ in music, and with them, i.e. Weber, Schumann, Chopin, and their contemporaries, will open the next volume of this `Listener’s History’, which will then attempt a rapid sketch of the development of music from their day to this, our own.