Beethoven: Classical or Romantic

June 19, 2007 at 03:30 PM · If you HAD to choose one of the following what would you say:

Beethoven is a classical composer


Beethoven is a romantic composer

Replies (45)

June 19, 2007 at 03:41 PM · I guess my question would be: "why choose?" Does it matter? Historians have broadly defined these terms for convenience very much "after the fact," and it is possible for a piece to be written that could fall into both catagories. He has elements from both in every one of his works. More technically, some say that he started out following the classical tradition and ushered in the romantic era.

June 19, 2007 at 03:56 PM · Romantic. Not because all of his music is, it isn't, but because he broke so much ground in getting into the Romantic era.

June 19, 2007 at 06:34 PM · I agree with Laurie. Especially after op.95, the serioso quartet. Of course, there are exceptions. Op. 18 no. 4 is quite romantic in nature as well as sections of the violin concerto and op. 59 quartets.

When you get to the late quartets (also symphony no.9 and the late piano sonatas, like op 109.), the harmonic language changes completely and its becomes a new language in itself. Also the breakdown of conventional forms is also occuring. Even though some movements are still in classical form, (first movement of 130 is an ingenius sonata form movement.)Beethoven opens new doors for the quartet. The idea that a quartet (131) is in a seven variation format was unheard of before beethoven. The fourth movement of 132 has a recitative in a operatic style which literally comes out of nowhere. Listen to the cavatina of op 130 (especially the "beklemnt" or choked section.), the sixth variation of op 131, the Heliger Dankesang from 132 and the slow movement of 135 and you can really see the opening of the romantic era through his music. His later style is similar in its transitional ingenuity of Debussy's Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun which literally broke down tonal music forever and officially ushered in a new era of music.

June 19, 2007 at 07:56 PM · Presumably the distinction has some importance in determining how you play various of his pieces.

Laurie and Kevin - if you think Beethoven is romantic, what does this mean to you and how does this affect the way you play his music.

June 19, 2007 at 08:33 PM · A lot of it is articulation. For instance, in the violin concerto, the obbligato triplets outling theme after the long trills are traditionally played on the string, sometimes even closer to the tip. This gives more breadth and tone to the note as opposed to a more traditional "classical" approach which would probably be off the string in a faster triplet passage. In general, the more romantic passages are played with more legato than traditional classical style.

Also, more nuances within the bowstroke can be used in the slower passages, even some (tasteful) glissandi in certain areas of the late quartets. (all the big quartets do that.)

There is more time for rhythmic liberties in for instance, the violin concerto. I can't think of anyone who plays the opening cadenza completely in time, as opposed to say Mozart concerto no.4 where only select moments can have those liberties.

June 19, 2007 at 08:33 PM · Beethoven died as a Romantic, so I'd have to say he was a romantic. There's a great book on Beethoven by Maynard Solomon that could shed more light on the subject if you're interested. It's a great read.

June 19, 2007 at 10:44 PM · I forgot to mention vibrato. In Mozart etc, you have to curb (should)your vibrato speeds because of the style. It has to be expressive without being too sensuous. In Beethoven, especially late Beethoven, the vibrato pallate becomes a little wider and use of a more romantic vibrato is quite attractive.

June 20, 2007 at 05:28 AM · Romantic. No question at all in my mind. He began as a Classical composer it's true, but then he basically created the Romantic Movement in music. (pre-Liszt, I mean.) :-)

June 21, 2007 at 05:41 PM · for me beethoven was the first romantic, he broke alot of rules

June 21, 2007 at 06:21 PM · I think of Beethoven as a Romantic composer who wrote in Classical form.

June 22, 2007 at 02:26 AM · This is an important discussion and deserves some thought and study.

As I see it, early period Beethoven is written absolutely in classical (period) style and should be treated the same way as Mozart and Haydn, with lightness, elegance, steady tempo, and classical period articulation, meaning that unless specifically marked with slurs, notes are generally somewhat detached especially in fast movements. It wasn't until the later nineteenth century that legato became the norm, as in Wagner. I would say that the classical approach applies to the first 8 violin sonatas, the opus 18 quartets, the first four piano trios and all the string trios.

Yes, of course the Op. 18 #4 quartet is passionately intense and expressive, but so is lots of Mozart and Haydn. The Romantic movement in music, which evolved along with similar movements in painting and literature, is about other things -- such as, individuality, rejection of the social order, grandeur of scale, preoccupation with the heroic and the supernatural and often the bizarre.

In music, the first true exemplar of the Romantic movement was Berlioz, followed by Wagner, Lizst, Mahler and Strauss. Other early nineteenth century composers including Schubert, Carl Maria von Weber, Chopin and Rossini, led the way more gently into Romanticism, followed by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. Nobody really followed in Beethoven's footsteps until Mahler and to some extent, Brahms.

For a very illuminating book which fully explores this subject, check out "Classic and Romantic Music" by Fredrich Blume

June 22, 2007 at 02:57 AM · I think of Beethoven as the first romantic composer as well, as he did many innovative things for the first time...

Out of curiosity...

For those who disagree: Who would you say is the first romantic, then?

June 22, 2007 at 03:22 AM · Greetings,

Roy, you wrote a very interesting post. However, I think that by arguing that the true romantics came later you unerestimate the impact works such as the fifth symphony had in shattering musical norms by corrsponding to the very criteria you suggest.I woudl also be inclined to disagree with you about Schubert and gentleness. As Harnoncourt ha spointed out, Schuverts orchestral scores were bowdlerized by 19th century editors so that he could be slotted into a kind of convenient pastoral slot. However, if one actually plays the dynamics in chuberts scores and takes into account the kind of brash and explosive noises of the brass of that period it one enters a violent and catalismic world which is much mnrore shocking than many people realize



June 22, 2007 at 06:18 AM · Buri,

Interesting point about Schubert. I know when playing his string quartets I'm definitely guilty sometimes of fitting him into a nice flowing "gentle" Romantic box. Though I can't get around the fact that he wrote (IMO) most beautiful melodies on the planet.

I think using broad categorizations in the musical interpretation of music can be very dangerous. Certainly historical context and knowledge is useful and should be factored in, but for me, every (good) composer is a unique voice, and when you sort of lump composers together into a period generalization you lose that uniqueness.

Beethoven was the most unique of composers - the periods didn't define him, he defined the periods! For those of you who defined him as Romantic, though I would tend to agree with you, look at the Op. 132 quartet and especially Op. 133, the Grosse Fugue! As I mentioned before on another thread, Stravinsky called the Fugue "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever." There's something in his music that transcends both classical emphasis on form and symmetry and Romantic allegory and emotional turmoil...I think Bernstein talked about the "inevitability" of his writing. When you play a phrase of his, there's such an inexorable push to its climax (where he often changes keys or does something completely ridiculous).

This is all very subjective and mushy sounding, however. Does anyone else feel his music the same way?

June 22, 2007 at 11:24 AM · "Out of curiosity...

"For those who disagree: Who would you say is the first romantic, then?"


June 22, 2007 at 11:55 AM · Is there anything more "romantic" in style and substance than the 2nd movement of the Bach Double Violin Concerto?

And I don't think Beethoven sat around wondering whether he was "classical" or "romantic."

June 22, 2007 at 02:40 PM · Sandy- Yes he did.. :) lol

Nick - I think you are on to something. His music is mushy because its stuck between periods in a identity crisis type of way. He, like Paganini, stand alone in their uniqueness and ingenuity. There are traits of both periods and when I first heard the late quartets or the 10th violin sonata, i was has a little lost. The 132 is written very counterpuntally but yet the melodies and harmonies are quite romantic.

If you want to lump composers together, make sure its Meyerbeer, Hummel, Dittersdorf... :)

This thread could go on forever since there is no real answer...

Beethoven also changed the "flow" of the symphonic format. Traditionally, classical symphonies revolved around the first movement. Beethoven later changed this notion by shifting the importance to the last movement. This is very evident in the fifth and ninth symphony. Some of the "inevitablity" you speak of may touch on this idea.

I must say that the Bach is very romantic ideed - it seems that the greats were always one step ahead of the game.

Schubert, while known as being "gentle" wrote pieces like the Erlking and the b section of the 2nd mov. of the cello quintet which is not exactly a lullaby.

June 22, 2007 at 03:29 PM · I agree with Sandy, Bach is quite romantic. I think we have to remember the guy had over 20 kids! I think both Heifetz and Friedman really both captured the essence of the DVC in that 2nd movement of their studio recording.

I'd counter the notion suggesting everything of Beethoven and Mozart's time was written in nothing but classical style/form and thus should be interpreted in the "classical" manner. For example, take a listen to the Creation by Hadyn ( I'd suggest the Berlin Philharmonic recording under Van Karajan). There are parts in this work that resemble late Wagner or even some 20th century composers, and the furthest thing from Mozart!

There's no right answer to the original question, it's all how you see it in terms of interpretation. On the flip side, I've heard lots of Brahms, Wagner, Mahler etc. played very *unromantically*.


June 22, 2007 at 10:28 PM · I consider Beethoven a late classical composer. True, his later music is romantic (i.e. late piano sonatas), but his earlier music is not. I don't think any of his solo violin music is romantic (including, ironically, his two romances, 10 sonatas, and violin concerto). It's getting there, but it's still classical.

June 22, 2007 at 11:42 PM ·

June 22, 2007 at 11:43 PM · I don't like b.

June 23, 2007 at 01:31 AM · Jenna asks "why choose?"

I feel it's not a matter of choosing but an exploration. Why explore this silly question when all composers are unique and especially Beethoven? We explore because it helps us to become more musically knowledgeable, because we seek order and understanding, because we become more musically cultured and by extension more broadly cultured in general. Also we continue to explore and discuss because we desire to share and grow, and maybe even to show off a little.

June 23, 2007 at 01:07 AM · Classicist.

For me, the most important difference between the classical and the romantic is the motivation of the artist. The classicist is inspired by the idea of creating emotion, while the romantic is moved to create by his own emotion. There is that certain layer of removal - of objectivity - in classical music that I think Beethoven never left behind. Yes, Beethoven's music became more and more advanced and yes, some of his innovations were adopted and championed by hardcore romanticists, but Beethoven himself was always motivated by his craft. Form, counterpoint, development, motivic unity - all are Beethoven's hallmarks, and all betray an approach to music that is, essentially, classical.

June 23, 2007 at 01:51 PM · The romantic era in music began on April 23, 1803 at approximately 13:17 hrs Universal Time. Anything Beethoven wrote before then is classical; anything after, romantic.

June 23, 2007 at 02:10 PM · ". . . Beethoven himself was always motivated by his craft. Form, counterpoint, development, motivic unity - all are Beethoven's hallmarks, and all betray an approach to music that is, essentially, classical."

That's precisely why Chopin ranks among the greatest of the Classical composers. Likewise, Brahms and Mendelssohn.

June 23, 2007 at 09:29 PM · Jesse - Could you elaborate on the notion of objectivity? I'm curious...I feel that he was inspired by emotion - the frustrastions in his love life, his loss of hearing and his bad behavior towards the his common man.

I guess I feel that when someone like Beethoven begins to break the rules, a new era of music begins.

Easiest way to view Beethoven. String Quartets.

Early - op.18 - classical

Middle - Op. 59, 74 - classical - elaborated and elongated

Late- Op.95 on - romantic

I think 1803 is a little early for the romantic era. It is generally regarded that the start is around 1815. I'm not sure I would call Brahms or Mendelssohn classical composers - I feel that they are conservative romantics. Sure, they upheld certain classical ideals - such as sonata form, but Mahler also used sonata form and even built upon it - 2nd symphony has a double exposition.

June 23, 2007 at 04:12 PM · We need to create a new category for Beethoven -

Clomantic, or Rassical, or Clomassical, or something like that. He was in the middle. He was both, not just one or the other.

June 23, 2007 at 09:47 PM · Motivations are always complex. I think any good artist takes an intense interest in his craft and derives great pleasure from the mastery of it. And every artist is also motivated by the desire to express something above and beyond craft.

Beethoven was the first composer who consciously and purposefully believed he was composing for the future and for posterity. Previously composers wrote for their own contemporary audiences. Certainly this was the case with Mozart and Beethoven.

We regard Beethoven as the great revolutionary, but he wasn't the only one. Haydn single-handedly, in the course of his life work, created sonata form as we know it. He also created the Symphony and the String Quartet. Arguably Haydn's work was an even greater break with the past than Beethoven's.

Chopin invented the sound and the style of modern piano playing, which every composer after him used and built upon. He did this, apparently out of thin air. There was no piano music before Chopin that has anything resembling his sound.

Debussy was another composer who created a sound and a musical language out of thin air, and who influenced generations of composers after him, not only the obvious french composers, but also Bartok and Stravinsky consciously followed in his footsteps.

June 24, 2007 at 02:34 AM · "The romantic era in music began on April 23, 1803 at approximately 13:17 hrs Universal Time. Anything Beethoven wrote before then is classical; anything after, romantic."

And that is why we begin the trills from above in all music composed before 4-13-1803. Also we use period instruments and never vibrate. But are you sure it wasn't Greenwich Mean Time?

June 23, 2007 at 09:29 PM · Hey Kevin - nice to "see" you again! First of all, I'm a bit nervous disagreeing with a DMA candidate! Go easy on me ;-)

OK - a bit about Beethoven's objectivity... I agree that Beethoven had plenty of emotional issues - two examples you mentioned are 1) his love life and 2) his hearing loss. Conveniently for us, a frustrated love life was a common affliction of the Romantics. Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, and Richard Wagner all had, well, unconventional love lives. Schumann wrote Liederkreis while waiting for Clara to turn 21. Listen to "Es treibt mich hin" - the tempo is all over the place and there is an explicit heartbeat motive. The music is just entirely heart-on-sleeve - unstable, emotional, irrational music coming from an unstable, emotional, irrational Schumann. Also listen to the more mature Dichterliebe "Im wunderschonen Monat Mai" for an incredibly clear musical depiction of yearning (in the piano part)... Now look at Schubert's songs and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde - explicit, passionate, and (more important) all of that emotion is very "visible" on the surface of the music.

Now for Beethoven... I can't really think of any of Beethoven's music that betrays his emotions about his own love life in a similar way. First, he seems to have a more chivalrous ideal when it comes to love, based on the text he chose for Fidelio. In instrumental music, I think some would point to the Cavatina from opus 130 as an expression of frustrated love (you already mentioned the "choked" passage). In my opinion, the Cavatina and all the late quartets are different in a fundamental way from the music of the Romantics. The Cavatina was conceived by the mind, not the heart. There is so much going on beneath the surface. The drama of the orchestration between the violins, the motivic connection between the two main melodies, and the careful formal design are not emotional or irrational. The effect of longing and frustration (regret?) is certainly there, but the effect comes as a result of Beethoven's incredible decision-making during the process of composing; not as a result of Beethoven's deep inner feeling. Even the beklemmt passage is calculated and controlled, in its way - only the first violin becomes lost; the other three voices maintain a basically traditional chord progression and texture.

I am not sure how Beethoven's hearing loss effected his music. The Heiligenstadt Testament (regarding his deafness) was written in 1802 (the year after op.18). There is certainly no explicit "I Am Deaf!" moment in Beethoven's output, that I am aware of. I suppose you could argue that the middle period preoccupation with heroism and the late period withdrawal from the outside world were both reactions to deafness, but it is never explicit in his music.

The Romantics (again, conveniently) also suffered from a bit of hearing loss. Smetana builds the onset of deafness right into his first quartet "From My Life." It is a devastating, terrifying moment in the last movement where there is an abrupt cutoff, and then a piercing high violin note (representing tinnitus leading to deafness). Such a literal reference to deafness would have been almost inconveivable to Beethoven. Mahler uses a similar device in the beginning of the first symphony, with A's in multiple octaves. Again, the Romantics work with emotion in a more direct way than does Beethoven.

With Beethoven, the craft and the process of composition comes first. That layer of objectivity between the composed music and the emotion behind it is what the Romantics did away with, and what Beethoven did not. In my humble opinion. Thoughts?

June 24, 2007 at 02:47 AM · Jesse - It's good to disagree! Sort of a musical ping pong match between old buddies...:)

I can definitely see where you are coming from with your theories on Beethoven. I feel that the sudden changes in dynamics or the crazy ff chords out of nowhere, (borrowed and elaborated from Haydn)dramatic shifts in harmonies and sudden changes of tempo are "emotional" trademarks in his music. To me, that was his way of conveying his emotions through the "dry" classical standard. Those "shocking" (Maria Lambros moments to me represent his frustrations and emotional turmoil in his life. True he was not writing program music but the conception seems to be emotionally driven. His compositional style of the classical period was en vogue at the time, but I feel through his maturing that he felt restrained in the classical style. His "classical" compositional technique was exquisite and fluent, which is why I think he chose to use the older techniques up to his death. Think about it, there is hardly any bad Beethoven. Even Mozart and Haydn definitely wrote stuff that was little under par. But there was something in him that wnated more than just the "classical" style. The third movement of the 132, while almost Baroque in style, has a pre-Wagnerian expansivenss that has yet to be seen. Yes, not all of his musical traits are romantic, but he definitely paved the way for everyone else.

The Cavatina for me, is very romantic in conception. Just the name, cavatina, refers to an Italian aria. To my ears that is very romantic. The first violinist is the lead role and the rest are a palpatating heartbeats underneath.

The German dance movement of op. 130 is a lot like a german landler which was used by Brahms and Mahler.

Quote from Karl Holz, 2nd violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet (who worked very closely with Beethoven.)

"...caused the composer tears in writing and brought out the confession that nothing he had written had so moved him; in fact, that merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears."

June 24, 2007 at 04:45 AM · The talk here about Beethoven's negative sex appeal reminds me of a sitcom I saw once. There's a TV on and a guy comes on it rich and famous or something, while two women are watching it. The mouth on one of them drops open and the other one says "Isn't that the guy who was trying to..." And the other woman says, "I'd have loved him if I'd known!" :)

June 24, 2007 at 03:35 PM · "Beethoven was the first composer who consciously and purposefully believed he was composing for the future and for posterity."

What about Bach?

"there is hardly any bad Beethoven."

Actually, in my judgment, there's lots of bad or at least sub-par Beethoven. String trio op. 8, the Hummelesque Clarinet Trio op. 11, Triple Concerto, Wellington's Victory (the worst of the worst, although maybe deliberately bad, a joke), Ruins of Athens, King Stephen, and any number of works without opus numbers. I wouldn't exactly call the Eyeglass Duo, ingratiating as it may be, one of the Masterpieces of Western Music.

However, again in my judgment, there are no sub-par piano trios, string quartets, symphonies, violin sonatas, piano sonatas, cello sonatas, symphonies, or piano concertos. The violin concerto, Fidelio, the string trios op. 9 are other works that rise to the highest level.

June 24, 2007 at 04:28 PM · Bill:

One disagreement. If the Triple Concerto were somehow rediscovered and nobody knew it was written by Beethoven, it would probably be judged as the work of some unknown genius at least as great as Beethoven. I think it stands proudly along side and on the same level as his other concertos. Otherwise, some of the other pieces you mentioned (I'm familiar with some of them), I agree with.

And I'd add the Choral Fantasie, which is a mixed stew of every major form (concerto, symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, piano concerto, opera, etc.), even though the Ode to Joy theme is prominent. In fact, someone has taken the liberty of renaming it the "Choral Fricassee."

Many years ago, when I was in my college orchestra, our orchestra and chorus played it. When we were all listening to tapes after the concert, everyone looked at the pianist (who was excellent) and asked him what he thought. "Man," he said, "playing that piece is like trying to F____ a kangaroo" (words that can haunt a person forever).

:) Sandy

June 24, 2007 at 04:35 PM · I kind of like the Choral Fricassee -- sort of a rough draft for the Ninth Symphony -- though I admit it's a mess.

June 24, 2007 at 05:49 PM · Bill - you listed 8 works that were "sub-par". I don't agree that the triple concerto was a bad work, but only 8 or so (lets say 20) out of over 130 works is not too bad. I wouldn't classify that number as "a lot". Of course no one is perfect and everyone writes "bad" music, but one needs at ask:

How many Haydn symphonies do you know? (out of 104, i know maybe 10 well and a few more ok - many are forgetable.)

How many Mozart Symphonies do you know? (i know about ten out of 41 - many forgettable ones too.)

How many Beethoven Symphonies do you know? (I know 8 out 9 well and i'd say 4 is least familar to me - he did not write a bad symphony)

Than one should ask: how many of each compsers symphonies are still performed? Same outcome. I don't really hear about Haydn symphony no. 19 or Mozart symphony no. 8 etc...

Yes, Beethoven wrote a lot less than the previous, but if you did a ratio with a common denominator of know and enjoy to the unknown/not so great, Beethoven would easily win. This also includes all the genres too...

June 24, 2007 at 07:39 PM · Beethoven wrote a lot of often ingratiating but less than outstanding music, to which he usually didn't assign an opus number. He was selective about the works he wanted to be remembered by--and he certainly left a substantial body of outstanding, titanic compositions--but he also wrote his share of less than earth-shattering music. We remember him for his towering achievements, not for the occasional stuff.

Not to make invidious and meaningless comparisons, but I suspect that if you went through the Koechel catalogue you could find at least as many first-rate works by Mozart as by Beethoven--and all that within a substantially shorter lifespan. But much more of Mozart's juvenalia has been preserved for posterity, which maybe weights the comparison somewhat unfairly. (Some of the Mozart juvenalia can be outstanding, too!)

June 24, 2007 at 08:15 PM · I think of Beethoven as being a transitional composer. Much of his oeuvre mirrors Haydn but on a grander scale (eg. Haydn's late symphonies grow complex in line with Beethoven's symphonies, and Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ are a premonition of Beethoven's late quartets in terms of musical expansiveness and depth of expression). Therefore i'd call Beethoven a proto-romantic: he was headed in that direction and defined much of the romantic movement's conventions, but he didn't live long enough to become a romantic himself.

To my way of thinking, the first truly romantic composers were Weber and Schubert.

June 24, 2007 at 08:43 PM · I know there are a lot of unpublished works, but the consistancy of his symphonies, concertos etc. are almost unparalleled. I'm not trying to compare work for work with Mozart, but in the major genres Beethoven was hard to beat.

June 24, 2007 at 09:30 PM · RRRRRRRRRRRomantic!!!

all the way.....the only composer who EVERY time I hear certain parts of his an donly his music I's strange how with no other composer.

Happens in the concerto a lot of times :s a bit annoying!

June 25, 2007 at 11:49 PM · Does anyone know when the "Romantic Era" in classical music was first called by that name? When did it become labeled as such?

June 26, 2007 at 01:51 AM · There is a very good article in Wikipedia on Romanticism:

which gives a broad perspective on the romantic movement in the arts and philosophy with its relationship to the history and politics of the era.

On the other hand, the article, "The Romantic Period in Music" is rather superficial.

June 27, 2007 at 04:13 PM · for me romanticism as a feeling imbuded by the music and during the "romantic period" there was on a whole a conscious effort to achieve this.

For me, Bach can be very romantic (not talking about playing here, just the music), Beethoven is supremely romantic, and for me Shostakovich is romantic.

I think that a LOT of bad composing happened in the romantic period. I think the great composers in that period, Brahms etc born in another time would have had the same feel to them bu tin a different idiom.

There is an intangibile constant that ties all "romantic" music together (not romantic period music) and for me that is romantic, not the purposeful evoking of images etc that it seems to be defined as.

Long story short........beethoven is not a composer from the romantic period, he defined the idiom but was himself always harking back to mozart, hayden etc......he didn't consciously make 9th smphony "romantic", it was an extension of his works.

answering the question, beethoven is a composer form the clasical period

June 27, 2007 at 06:47 PM · classical.

June 27, 2007 at 08:27 PM · revolutionary... -the symphony movements thing.

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