The learned musicologists who have been trailed in these hesitant pages divide Beethoven’s productive career into three periods: 1792–1802; 1803–16; 1817–24. In the first he worked tentatively in the simple and placid style of Mozart and Haydn. In the second period he made greater demands upon the performers in tempo, dexterity, and force; he explored contrasts of mood from tenderness to power; he gave rein to his inventiveness in variation, and to his flair for improvisation, but he subjected these to the logic of affiliation and development; he changed the sex of the sonata and the symphony from feminine sentiment and delicacy to masculine assertiveness and will. As if to signalize the change, Beethoven now replaced the minuet in the third movement with a scherzo frolicking with notes, laughing in the face of fate. Now he found in music an answer to misfortune: he could absorb himself in the creation of music that would make the death of his body a passing incident in an extended life. “When I am playing and composing, my affliction… hampers me least.”24 He could no longer hear his melodies with his physical ears, but he could hear them with his eyes, with the musician’s secret ability to transfer imagined tones into spots and lines of ink, and then hear them, soundless, from the printed pages.
Almost all the works of this period became classics, appearing through succeeding generations in orchestral repertoires. The “Kreutzer Sonata,” Opus 47, composed in 1803 for violinist George Bridgetower, was dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, teacher of the violin in the Paris Conservatory of Music; Beethoven had met him in Vienna in 1798. Kreutzer judged the piece alien to his style or mood, and seems never to have played it publicly.
Beethoven ranked as the best of his symphonies the Eroica,25 composed in 1803–04. Half the world knows the story about its original dedication to Napoleon. Despite his titled friends and judicious dedications, Beethoven remained to the end of his life a resolute republican; and he applauded the seizure and reconstitution of the French government by Bonaparte in 1799–1800 as a move toward responsible rule. In 1802, however, he expressed his regret that Napoleon had signed a concordat with the Church. “Now,” he wrote, “everything is going back to the old track.”26 As to the dedication, let an eyewitness, Ferdinand Ries, tell the tale:
In this symphony Beethoven had Bonaparte in his mind, but as he was when he was First Consul. Beethoven esteemed him greatly at the time, and likened him to the greatest Roman consuls. I as well as several of his more intimate friends saw a copy of the [Eroica] score lying upon his table, with the word “Buonaparte” at the extreme top of the title page, and at the extreme bottom “Luigi van Beethoven” but not another word. … I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage, and cried out, “Is then he too nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he will trample on all the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant.” Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The first page was rewritten and only then did the symphony receive the title “Sinfonia eroica.”27
When the symphony was published (1805) it bore the title Sinfonia eroica per festeggiare il sovvenira d’ un gran uomo—“Heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.”28
It received its first public performance April 7, 1805, in the Theater-an-der-Wien. Beethoven conducted despite his defective hearing. His style of conducting accorded with his character—excitable, demanding, “most extravagant. At a pianissimo he would crouch down so as to be hidden by the desk; and then, as the crescendo increased, would gradually rise, beating all the time, until at the fortissimo he would spring into the air, with his arms extended as if wishing to float on the clouds.”29 The symphony was criticized for “strange modulations and violent transitions,… undesirable originality,” and excessive length; the critic advised Beethoven to go back to his earlier and simpler style.30 Beethoyen winced and growled, and worked on.
Giving another hostage to fortune, he tried his hand at opera; on November 20, 1805, he conducted the premiere of Leonore. But Napoleon’s troops had occupied Vienna on November 13; the Emperor Francis and the leading nobles had fled; the citizens were in no mood for opera; the performance was a resounding failure despite the applause of the French officers in the scanty audience. Beethoven was told that his opera was too long, and clumsily arranged. He shortened and revised it, and offered it a second time on March 29, 1806; again it failed. Eight years later, when the city teemed with the Congress of Vienna, the opera, renamed Fidelio, was given a third trial, and achieved a moderate success. Beethoven’s mode of composition had become attuned to instruments with greater range and flexibility than the human voice; the singers, however anxious to break new barriers, simply could not sing some soaring passages, and at last they rebelled. The opera is occasionally staged today, borne on the wings of the composer’s fame, and with revisions that he can no longer revise.
From that difficult and unrewarding experience he passed to one masterpiece after another. In 1805 he presented Piano Concerto in G, No. 4, Opus 58, second only to the fifth in the affection of virtuosos. He celebrated the year 1806 with the Sonata in F Minor, Opus 57, later christened “Appassionata,” and added three quartets, Opus 59, dedicated to Count Andreas Razumovsky, Russian ambassador at Vienna. In March, 1807, Beethoven’s friends, probably to console him for the failure of his opera, organized a benefit concert for him; there he conducted his Symphonies No. One, Two, and Three (the Eroica), and his new Symphony No. Four in B Flat, Opus 60. We are not told how the audience bore up under this surfeit.
In 1806 Prince Miklós Nicolaus Esterházy commissioned Beethoven to compose a Mass for the name day of his wife. Beethoven went to the Esterházy château at Eisenstadt in Hungary, and presented there his Mass in C, Opus 86, on September 13, 1807. After the performance the Prince asked him, “But, my dear Beethoven, what is this that you have done again?” Beethoven interpreted the question as expressing dissatisfaction, and he left the château before his invitation had run out.
He signalized 1808 with two symphonies now known throughout the world: Symphony No. Five in C Minor, and the Sixth or Pastoral Symphony in F. They appear to have been composed concurrently through several years, in alternations of mood between the brooding of the Fifth and the gaiety of the Sixth; fitly they received their premiere together on December 22, 1808. Frequent repetitions have lessened their charm, even for old music lovers; we are no longer moved by “Fate knocking at the door,” or birds warbling in the trees; but perhaps the fading of our enchantment is due to lack of the musical education that might have equipped us to follow with appreciation and pleasure the logic of thematic contrasts and developments, the cooperation of counterpoint, the playful rivalry of different instruments, the dialogue of winds and strings, the mood of each movement, the structure and direction of the whole. Minds are differently molded—some to feelings, some to ideas; it must have been as hard for Hegel to understand Beethoven as for Beethoven—or anyone—to understand Hegel.
In 1808–09 he composed the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Opus 73, known as the “Emperor.” Of all his works this is the most lovable, the most enduringly beautiful, the one of which we never tire; however often we have heard it, we are moved beyond words by its sparkling vivacity, its gay inventiveness, its inexhaustible fountains of feeling and delight. In this concerto a man rising triumphantly out of apparent disaster wrote an ode to joy far more convincing than the stentorian chorus of the Ninth Symphony.
Perhaps the happiness of the “Emperor Concerto” and the Pastoral Symphony reflected Beethoven’s increasing prosperity. In 1804 he had been engaged as piano teacher by Archduke Rudolf, youngest son of the Emperor Francis; so began a friendship that often helped the increasingly discreet republican. In 1808 he received a flattering offer from Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, to come and serve as Kapellmeister in the royal choir and orchestra at Cassel. Beethoven agreed to fill the post at six hundred gold ducats per year; apparently he had still some faith in his dying ears. When word spread that he was negotiating with Cassel, his friends protested against what they called disloyalty to Vienna; he answered that he had toiled there for sixteen years without receiving a secure position. On February 26, 1809, the Archduke sent him a formal agreement by which, in return for Beethoven’s remaining in Vienna, he would be guaranteed an annual sum of 4,000 florins, of which Rudolf would pay 1,500, Prince Lobkowitz 700, and Count Kinsky 1,800; in addition Beethoven might keep whatever he earned. He accepted, and stayed. In that year 1809 Papa Haydn died, and Beethoven inherited his crown.