Beethoven’s new emotional language

by Martin Saving

(The following text is an augmented version of a short talk the quartet gave during a recent Beethoven Discovery Day in Southampton. It doesn’t have any pretensions of exploring this vast subject in any great depth.)

Musicologists and musicians, desperate to categorise, struggle to place Beethoven in a clearly defined category, and there are strong arguments for regarding him as either a Classical or a Romantic composer (or both). Regardless of which one chooses, there can be little doubt that he reformed or even revolutionised the musical language, and maybe in particular the attitude to emotions expressed in music.

The Classical style out of which Beethoven’s musical language grew was one that stressed certain qualities such as clarity, good taste, moderation.  Although Mozart and Haydn stretched the boundaries of this style, Mozart, for instance, emphasised the utmost importance of beauty in music, and he warned of trying to express emotions in music in a way that risked sounding unpleasant or exaggerated. He said in a letter:

“The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.”

Whether Beethoven would have agreed with this on an intellectual level is hard to say, but there certainly are plenty of passages in Beethoven’s music that don’t “flatter and charm the ear”. Rather, as in the Grosse Fuge, he sometimes challenges the listener with music that is violent, aggressive and discordant.

The late Hungarian pianist György Sebők talked about how he envisaged the music of the Classical style as expressed within quotation marks. The musical narrative is related in the third person, whereas the music of the Romantics can be said to strive for a narrative in the first person. Conductor and musicologist Nicolaus Harnoncourt has written about how verbal and rhetorical elements in the music started to disappear around the time of the French Revolution, and were replaced with the pictorial. He says:

“I like to say that music prior to 1800 speaks, while subsequent music paints. The former must be understood, since anything which is spoken presupposes understanding, while the latter … should be felt”

I think it’s important to stress that this is not meant as derogatory of the emotional content of the Classical composers’ works, but rather as showing that there is a certain tasteful distance to the emotions expressed, however profound: a kind of musical decorum, or etiquette if you will. In some sense you connect to the emotions expressed by ”reading between the lines“, as if listening to an immaculately verbalised narrative, where the often very compelling emotive content is implied. Our experience and processing of it is not necessarily any less powerful for it. The parallels to different styles in literature are, of course, obvious.

When Beethoven realised he was losing his hearing, he slumped into a great depression which turned into a kind of life crisis. He wrote the famous “Heiligenstadt testament” in 1802, expressing his desperation but also his determination to fulfill his musical destiny, and this was the beginning of a quite radical change of style in his composing. Many of his new works distanced themselves more and more from the works of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart by becoming grander in scale, and more challenging as regards form and harmony. During his later years he went back to study the works of Händel and Bach, and although influenced by them in certain aspects, his style became ever more personal, and, for many contemporaries, eccentric.

So, why is Beethoven regarded by some as the first Romantic composer? What means did he use which would warrant his music to be described as more emotionally direct and more subjective than, say, Mozart’s? I am going to issue a warning: there will be quite a lot of simplifications and generalisations in what I say next!

Beethoven was increasingly experimenting by taking more and more liberties with the form. Whereas the Classical sonata style strives to achieve great clarity in its compositions (you have a first theme, then a second theme contrasting to the first, then a short section experimenting with these themes in different ways, before the first and second themes return and the movement is finished with a short concluding section, a coda), Beethoven, particularly in his late style, challenges this concept, and sometimes almost even dissolves it. In some movements you seem to have a sort of “stream of consciousness” that speaks to your emotional perception in a certain, often very profound, way. The formal structure may be there but is often hidden or at least smoothed out.

The sections experimenting with the themes – the development sections – and the coda are expanded to an extent that often changes the proportions of the movements radically. Not infrequently, the effect is that you feel as if you have gone through a lifetime while listening to a certain piece, partly because of this grand scale.

Beethoven is also known for his use of motifs, and I am convinced the way he uses them has an emotional impact. The use of musical motifs was something familiar to the Classical composers (and indeed the Baroque composers), but Beethoven will often take a small musical cell, and use it almost obsessively over and over again in different guises, to sometimes almost hypnotic effect. Take, for example, the first movement of his fifth symphony:


symf5motivA musical motif can be described sometimes by the melody or intervals, and sometimes by the rhythm. It can then be reversed, turned upside down, prolonged or shortened, etc. (In the example to the left x marks the rythm, short-short-short-long, and y the melodic part of the motif, a falling major third.)

A strong motivic connection will also often link different movements together.

It may sometimes seem overly intellectual to analyse music in this way, but I am of the strong conviction that all these ingredients have a very profound impact on our subconscious, even if we’re not trained in music. A clever use of motifs can give logic to a composition without us even knowing it.

Another aspect of Beethoven’s changing language is his use of ever more complex harmonies. The ideal of the Classical style was simplicity in harmony, and even if the great figures like Haydn and Mozart expand the limits of this concept, Beethoven goes even further, and finds more complex harmony and more distant keys within a movement. This can be exemplified by the famous introductory La Malinconia movement of Op. 18 no.6 (from as early as 1800), whose harmonies, musicologist Michael Steinberg writes, “move across the entire known universe, from B flat major all the way to E major, than which there is no greater possible distance”. Utilising these distant and sometimes discordant harmonies (combined with strong dynamic contrasts) the composer manages to depict the condition of being depressed in the most striking way.

The contrasts in Beethoven’s music are another aspect of his new language. He leaps with great confidence from one emotion to one which is very radically different in a way that would have been seen as alien by his precursors. Part of this is his use of extreme dynamics. Whereas Mozart used dynamics ranging from pp to ff (and these extremes are rather rare), Beethoven’s dynamics range from ppp to fff, and not infrequently in quite close proximity. You see these new, extreme dynamics already in the Op.18 quartets where they sometimes stand out as rather different from, say, the music of Mozart. This sometimes creates the effect of a musical narrator not fully in control of his extreme emotions, a feeling that you rarely, if ever, get with the Classical composers.

Contrasts between movements can also be quite astonishing, as between the first two movements of Op. 130, where the first movement is really rather monumental, and the second, a lot of which is to be played pianissimo, is over in a flash.

There are also greater extremes in tempo than are to be found in the Classical composers. Beethoven often asks, especially in his later works, for very fast or very slow tempi.

One final contributor to Beethoven’s new emotional language is perhaps the fact that his music is sometimes extremely hard to execute on a technical level. I think that a sense of technical struggle for the performers sometimes evokes a sense of emotional struggle in the listener.



Share |

2 Responses to “Beethoven’s new emotional language”

  1. […] An element of Beethoven’s music that appeals to students is his expression of emotion, both in his life and in his music. This is one quality that set him apart from his predecessors. Good article on this subject here. […]

  2. Roger Booker says:

    Just to say that I enjoyed reading this article as someone who struggles with the technicalities of music but responds strongly at both intellectual and emotional levels. We attended the first Brighton Festival concert on 7th May and enjoyed it greatly; it was refreshing not to have the quartets in strict sequence, op.127, while being the most familiar, making the most demands and providing rewards when attention is still strong.

    Good luck with the final concert.

Leave a comment