Routes to Beethoven – Mozart

by Ben Hogwood

It has often been speculated that Beethoven met Mozart in Vienna when he was 17. What a meeting that would have been, with a musician and composer at the peak of his powers and the man seen by many as his successor-in-waiting.

There were many contacts to link the two – not least Archduke Maximilian, elector and archbishop of Cologne. Mozart enjoyed good relations with him, and Beethoven was sent out with his strong recommendation. However not much is known about the outcome of their proposed meeting, nor even if it took place at all, given the conflicting tales afterwards. Yet what cannot be doubted is that the music of Mozart exerted a considerable influence on Beethoven for years – more so even than Haydn.

In his biography of the composer Lewis Lockwood writes of how Beethoven played Mozart piano concertos with the orchestra in Bonn. Beethoven’s good friend Reicha recounts of how, ‘after hearing an aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo (Electra’s passionate D minor aria), he talked of nothing else day and night for weeks thereafter.’ He also treasured Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.20, written in the same key, and wrote two cadenzas for it to be performed by his student Ferdinand Ries.

Lockwood goes on to examine the 14-year old Beethoven’s prodigious Piano Quartets, found after his death and posthumously published. So accomplished was the writing in these pieces that contemporaries doubted if Beethoven could have written them at all, but an autograph score survives to confirm their authenticity.

Lockwood notes them as ‘the first and clearest examples of the teenage Beethoven’s dependence on Mozart. They mark the beginning of a relationship to Mozart that remained a steady anchor for Beethoven over the next ten years as he moved into his first artistic maturity. Just as Mozart himself had once told his father that he was ‘soaked in music’ so Beethoven was soaked in Mozart. His invention of new ideas sometimes began with his asking himself if what he was writing was his own, or something he might have heard or seen in a work by Mozart, or partly both.

Several sources note that Beethoven copied out two of Mozart’s string quartets when the time came for his first forays into the form. Both form part of the set of six dedicated to Haydn – in G major (K387) and A major (K464), and the latter became a model for the fifth of the set published as Beethoven’s Op.18. He was also deeply impressed and affected by the otherworldly way in which Mozart begins another ‘Haydn’ quartet, the one known as the Dissonance in C major, K465. The introduction to this work is remarkable, removed almost completely from tonality and – at the time – regarded as deeply unattractive. Beethoven took it on board, however, and imitated it twice in subsequent slow introductions, the string quartets Op.18/6 and Op.59/3.

In his early work Beethoven used a number of titles and forms common to Mozart. A Serenade, a Quintet for piano and wind instruments, and he built several pieces of variations on Mozart themes. Some of Mozart’s forays into C minor – often seen as a ‘tragic’ key – are precedents for Beethoven’s own thoughts. The Piano Concerto no.24 is an especially vivid example, its mood and musical arguments emulated in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.3.

As I mentioned, Beethoven had to check a theme he had written was not a Mozart original, so concerned was he about marking his own path. As Lewis Lockwood writes, ‘Nothing could be more revealing of his anxiety about Mozart, his musical god and artistic father, whose music he knew and heard in his mind so well and clearly that he must have felt he had to work his way through the Mozartian landscape to find his own voice.’

The playlist includes all the works mentioned above and closes with Mozart’s crowning orchestral glory – the final Symphony no.41 in C major, known as the Jupiter:

Next we’ll briefly examine Beethoven’s relationship with the music of Clementi, one of the piano-playing stars of the time…and then it’s a look at the music of 1770, Beethoven’s birth year!

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