Beethoven: Symphonies & Shift from Classical to Romantic

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  • 0:01 Beethoven's Legacy
  • 0:41 Beethoven & His Music
  • 3:38 Symphony No. 3, 'Eroica'
  • 4:32 Symphony No. 5
  • 5:54 Symphony No. 9, 'Choral'
  • 7:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

It's not every day that a musician comes along and changes the world's perception of music, but that's just what Ludwig van Beethoven did. In this lesson, we'll explore how his nine symphonies helped inspire the intense 19th-century musical style called Romanticism.

Beethoven's Legacy

How many artists can we describe as 'epoch-making'? Shakespeare would probably make the list for his impact on the English language. So would The Beatles, for changing rock music irrevocably in the 1960s. However you add up epoch-making artists, the list could never be complete with the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). In this lesson, we'll explore Beethoven's stormy life and music and see how he changed the course of history by inspiring a new musical era: the Romantic Period.

Beethoven & His Music

Beethoven was born during music's Classical period, which lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. It was a time when accessible, entertaining, elegant music was in vogue. Composers throughout Europe wrote in strict, predictable musical forms, and they were more interested in presenting beautiful, orderly sounds than exploring intense human emotions.

Beethoven was born in 1770 to a working-class family in Bonn, Germany. As a young man, he moved to the musical epicenter of Vienna, Austria, where he studied with the renowned composer Franz Joseph Haydn. Beethoven made a living playing private concerts for aristocratic audiences, who were stunned both by his nasty temper and his sensitive, powerful piano playing. You can think of the young Beethoven as a temperamental, emo rock star.

When Beethoven was in his twenties, something happened that would ruin his piano career but jumpstart his composing: he began to lose his hearing. He suffered an emotional crisis in 1802, which he described in a letter that scholars call his 'Heiligenstadt Testament.' In it, Beethoven confessed the depression caused by his disability but also his determination to find hope through sharing music with the world. After this crisis, Beethoven produced increasingly experimental, powerful music. His works brought him such acclaim that he became the first composer to earn a living solely through writing music.

Even before his death in 1827, Beethoven had become a cultural icon for young musicians. Just like you might have your favorite band's poster on the wall, hip, young 19th-century musicians might have statues of Beethoven, like you see in this famous painting of Parisian musicians and writers.

Painting of Parisian musicians and writers
painting of Parisian musicians and writers

Beethoven's life and music helped inspire a musical trend called Romanticism, in which narrative, originality and emotion were all-important. The style of Romanticism remained popular throughout the Romantic period, which lasted from around 1820-1910.

Beethoven's Symphonies

To see how Beethoven's music inspired a shift from Classical to Romantic style, you couldn't do better than look at his nine symphonies. A symphony is a work for orchestra in multiple sections, called movements. This musical genre was invented during the Classical period, and by Beethoven's time, symphonies were established as short, entertaining, conventional works. Let's look at three of Beethoven's symphonies to see how he infused new intensity into this Classical genre.

Symphony No. 3, Eroica

Beethoven's first groundbreaking symphony was his Third Symphony, subtitled Eroica, which means 'heroic.' Beethoven began this symphony in 1803, only a year after writing his angst-laden Heiligenstadt Testament. Many scholars think the Eroica expresses Beethoven's own struggle against depression and disability.

Though Eroica follows the traditional structure of a Classical symphony, it's longer and more intricate than any symphony that came before it. Its intense rhythms and clashing dissonances came as a shock to Classical-era listeners, who expected symphonies to be entertaining and accessible. But connoisseurs lauded the work for opening the symphony genre to newer, more powerful emotions.

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