Beethoven: variations on a life
Photo: Maria Lupan on Unsplash. And the two just didn’t match. The music was playful and jesting, but Beethoven looked deeply unhappy. It struck me at that moment that the assumption of composers expressing themselves in their music was not as straightforward as it is often taken to be.
The Beethoven Syndrome is my name for the inclination of listeners to hear music—particularly instrumental music—as the projection of a composer’s innermost self. It’s a common response. People often hear Beethoven’s music as a kind of sonic diary, as a soundtrack of his own life, so to speak. But that’s not how his contemporaries heard it. They knew very little about him as a person, and it was only after his death that they began hearing his music as an outpouring of his soul. Yet by 1850, just a few decades after his death, audiences were hearing not just Beethoven’s music but pretty much all instrumental music by any composer as a form of autobiography.
Why was that? Why did listening habits change so radically in the years around 1830?...
Why did Beethoven write particular pieces the way he did? It was long assumed—but again, only after his death—that the “Moonlight” Sonata, op. 27, no. 2, was his response to a passionate love affair (of which Beethoven had quite a few). And maybe it was. It’s easy to map this onto the piece, with its brooding first movement and turbulent finale. But then how do we explain its companion piece published alongside it, the Piano Sonata op. 27, no. 1, which conveys a completely different mood?
To celebrate 250 years since Beethoven’s birth, we’ve pulled together new and notable content across all of our products—from academic books to reference works to journal articles—to offer a wide range of perspectives on one of the most admired composers in the history of Western music.