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Join the RSNO in 2020 as we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Dedicated to the man who revolutionised classical music, our Beethoven Series pairs his masterpieces with works by the revolutionary composers who followed in his footsteps. Discover more about the birthday boy in this exclusive article by former ITN newscaster, Classic FM presenter and the country’s best-known Beethoven obsessive John Suchet.

Beethoven. Revolution. The two words go together as naturally as if they had been invented for each other. Beethoven was a revolutionary, to the core of his being, and in every sense. His head was full of revolutionary beliefs, his music was full of revolutionary ideas.

We can trace it back to his childhood. Bonn, where he was born, was an outpost of the Habsburg Empire. It was ruled by the Elector of Cologne and Münster, a member of the ruling House of Habsburg in Vienna. But Vienna was 500 miles and several days’ coach ride from Vienna, and the burghers of Bonn – and their Elector – rather prided themselves on their relative independence from the seat of power. They were accustomed to making decisions for themselves, and if those were sometimes calculated to offend the powers in Vienna, so be it.

One such decision was to have the most profound impact on a young boy who was showing a remarkable aptitude at the keyboard, a certain Ludwig van Beethoven. There was a vacancy in Bonn for court organist, and the extraordinary decision was made to appoint, not just an outsider from Saxony, but a man of the wrong religion too. Christian Gottlob Neefe was a Protestant, and as if to embellish his seditious credentials, once appointed he wasted no time in joining the proscribed organisation of like-minded dissidents in Bonn, the Illuminati.

Of what relevance is this to our story? Well, we do not know what persuaded the largely incapable and alcoholic Johann van Beethoven to employ Neefe as teacher to his son Ludwig, but it was an inspired choice. It does not take too much imagination to see Neefe, in the close confines of a music room, alone with the boy, filling his head with radical ideas about religion, philosophy, politics. To use modern parlance, we could say that Neefe radicalised Ludwig.

On the musical front too, Neefe – himself a composer – encouraged Beethoven’s early attempts at composition. Another teacher might have cautioned the boy to learn to walk before he could run. Neefe, quickly realising a prodigious talent, did all he could to encourage Ludwig. Not only did he write a piece in a music magazine comparing Ludwig to Mozart – the first to do so – but he also actively encouraged Ludwig to compose three piano sonatas at the age of just twelve.

By the time Beethoven was in his late teens, by which time Neefe had moved away from Bonn, he was well established as a superb keyboard player, and composer of prodigious talent. It was still a huge surprise, though, that when the musical establishment of Bonn decided to commission a work to commemorate the Emperor’s death, they chose 19-year-old Beethoven over older, and more established, names. The fact that the commission involved setting to music words by a local poet which were considered to be politically provocative only burnished Beethoven’s revolutionary credentials.

Just one month short of his 22nd birthday Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna, never to return. The date was November 1792. Just look at that date. Paris was in the grip of the single most cataclysmic event of the age. Three years earlier the people had stormed the Bastille, and the French Revolution had begun. Louis XVI and his Queen, the Austrian Marie Antoinette, were under arrest. The King would go to the guillotine within two months, the Queen would follow him later in the same year.

It was not long before the French set about exporting their revolution, a task made easier by the good fortune that one of their young artillery officers was on his way to becoming the greatest military commander in history. On continental Europe, the longest-serving monarchy, held in place by a wealthy aristocratic class, steeped in old-world tradition, and therefore most vulnerable to the new French Revolutionary Army, was the Habsburgs in Vienna.

Thus the young man from Bonn arrived in a city living in fear and seething with plots and conspiracies. Spies frequented cafés and restaurants, loitered on street corners, and a network of informers reported on what they heard. Careless conversation could prove fatal. In public places you kept your opinions to yourself, and you never ever discussed politics in the back of a horse-drawn fiacre – your words would be on the desk of the Interior Ministry the following morning.

At the back of the Schwann Inn in the Neuer Markt in the centre of Vienna, a growing number of exiles from Bonn and the Rhineland met, deploring the occupation of their homeland by the French army.

Beethoven was one of them, but to him the ideals of the French Revolution were far from alien. Here was a man who, beginning under Neefe’s tutelage, had no time for the born-to-rule aristocratic class. And in Napoleon Bonaparte he saw a man of the people, born into a poor Corsican family, yet rising to the top of his chosen career.

It was inevitable that the revolutionary ideas which had found such fertile ground in his brain would find their way into his music. The most obvious example is the Symphony No3, the Eroica. It has become a cliché to say that those two massive opening chords propelled music into the 19th century, but they really did. Beethoven had finally left the influence of Mozart behind. He was now his own man.

And to whom was the Eroica dedicated? To the ‘hero’ Napoleon Bonaparte, of course, until Beethoven heard that the First Consul had appointed himself Emperor. In a fit of rage he declared Napoleon to be nothing more than a tyrant after all, and angrily scratched his name from the title page of the manuscript.

No one – certainly not either of his two great predecessors Mozart and Haydn – had begun a symphony in such a revolutionary way. It was simply not how you did things. Beethoven did! Never mind the rules, they were there to be broken. Take the Piano Concerto No4. It begins with a phrase on solo piano. Again, not something any composer had done before. The sophisticated Viennese audience at the premiere must have been shocked – again. That’s Beethoven, they will have said, you never know what he’s going to come up with.

Nothing could have prepared them for the Fifth Symphony, premiered at the same concert as the Fourth Piano Concerto. That famous opening – not so much a theme as a motif – which he carries right through all four movements, was reminiscent of music by the French composer Méhul, much admired by the revolutionaries. Who influenced whom? We cannot say.

The one musical form in which Beethoven composed all his life, with no significance break, was the Piano Sonata. If we include those three early sonatas, as I believe we must, we have 35 in all – in effect his autobiography. In them we share his life – his pain, his passion, his deafness, his triumph.

The mightiest of the 35 is the Hammerklavier. No one had ever written a Piano Sonata on such a huge scale. The final Piano Sonata, Op111 (no name), is almost free form, with a page of pure syncopated jazz. No one had ever included voices in a symphony, as Beethoven did in his Ninth, the Choral.

And where to begin when discussing the Late String Quartets, surely the most profound body of music ever written? By now totally isolated by his deafness, Beethoven has retreated within himself.

From his earliest days right to the end, Beethoven was a revolutionary.

© John Suchet 2019

Listen to John on Classic FM

Discover more about Beethoven in John's book, Beethoven: The Man Revealed


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© Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2019