Routes to Beethoven – 1770: Music in the year of Beethoven’s birth

by Ben Hogwood

Picture: Beethoven’s parents, Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich

The last listening exercise before diving into the music of Beethoven is to explore the music being made in the year of his birth, to try and get an idea of the temperature in Western classical music.

For Mozart, opera was key – even at the age of 14. His year began with a trip to Italy, organised by father Leopold with the aim of securing a big stage commission. That was duly achieved in Milan, at the flagship Teatro Regio Ducal (below). In December this prestigious venue became the setting for the premiere of Mozart’s first opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto. An ambitious three-act work, it has some eyecatching arias for the leading cast, virtuoso writing that established Mozart as a composer of real intent and secured a number of standing ovations at the premiere.

With the commission for Mitridate secured in January the Mozarts toured Italy for much of 1770, where Wolfgang found the time to take his symphonic canon into double figures. Don’t forget, he was still barely a teenager!

Haydn, meanwhile, an established composer in his late thirties, was beginning to flex his symphonic muscles. His Sturm und Drang period was just under way, and the innovations he would make in nearly every musical genre were beginning to take shape. 1770 was a relatively quiet year for his output, however. The symphony he completed, no.43 in E flat major, is known as the Mercure for no obvious reason. It is perhaps a more ‘polite’ piece than the minor key examples around it, but that should not be seen as a derogatory observation – it has the typical Haydn poise, guile and wit.

In London, Johann Christian Bach (Bach’s eleventh and youngest son) was impressing with his symphonies and piano concertos, and Hummel published a set of six as Op.6 in 1770. Daniel Heartz writes of how no.5 was a favourite with the public, to judge by the number of reprinting, but that the sixth in the series is impressive, with a ‘fiery middle movement’.

Meanwhile the fifth Bach son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was adding to his enormous output too. Exact dates are harder to find for his works, though the first version of the Passion According to St Mark can definitely be said to have been completed in 1770.

Meanwhile Gluck, one of the most prominent operatic composers of the day, was occupied with the Viennese premiere of Paride ed Elena. When compared with his stage successes Orfeo ed Euridice or Iphigenie en Tauride, it has not performed well historically. Little is written about its premiere or reception, save for the relative lack of a convincing plot in the opera itself, but listening to it reveals some beautiful writing for soprano and castrato, and a Chaconne that becomes increasingly daring as it proceeds. It has been cited in a number of articles such as this one that Paride ed Elena marks a change in opera from singing to storytelling.

Elsewhere Boccherini was making a name as a prolific composer of works for strings, the most since Vivaldi – and secured for himself a prestigious role as cellist and composer to the royal court in Madrid. He would write more than 15 cello concertos and much chamber music besides.

What of the music of Bonn, where Beethoven was born in 1770? Well not much is known – or at least, not within easy reach in books or on the internet! It would be intriguing to know what was played at his baptism in St. Remigius on 17 December. Listen to the playlist below though and you will get an idea of the music circulating in what appears to have been a transitional year in European music. In many ways it was the calm before the storm.


The music of 1770 is collected in a Spotify playlist below:


Routes to Beethoven – Clementi

by Ben Hogwood

“Clementi plays well, with regard to right-hand technique. His speciality is passages in thirds. Otherwise he hasn’t a trace of feeling, or taste, in a word, he is a mere mechanic.”

This withering assessment of the virtuoso 18th century pianist Muzio Clementi came from none other than Mozart, who had engaged in a keyboard competition with the Roman composer at the request of Haydn on Christmas Eve in 1781. Mozart was writing to his father Leopold, as Daniel Heartz reports the duo in his superb book Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Perhaps not surprisingly Haydn, who organised the duel, was more independent in his views, describing a set of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas as ‘very beautiful’ a year or so later.

Clementi was a nimble-fingered virtuoso. Born in Italy but settling in London, he is not mentioned a great deal in books of the time. Heartz reports a number of lukewarm reactions to his symphonies in England, though again this is not surprising given he was being compared with the visiting Haydn.

It was then in the field of piano music where Clementi really made his mark, and not just as a musician but as a publisher too. Beethoven recognised his influence in both disciplines, recommending his music for the use of piano students. Jan Swafford writes of how Beethoven and Clementi finally cemented a friendship in 1807. “As a pioneering composer for the piano, he had been a formative influence on the young Beethoven, because Clementi was among the best available models for how to write idiomatically for the instrument. Now retired from performing, Clementi lived in England and prowled the continent looking for music to publish and customers for his pianos.” He made several visits to Vienna. After an initial misunderstanding in Vienna in 1804, the pair struck a publishing deal and a friendship on a subsequent visit three years later.

Charles Rosen, writing in The Classical Style, recognises his influence. “In his (Beethoven’s) youthful works, the imitation of his two great precursors is largely exterior: in technique and even in spirit, he is at the beginning of his career often closer to Hummel, Weber, and to the later works of Clementi than to Haydn and Mozart.”

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion about Beethoven’s piano music, goes further. “I think it is true that Beethoven absorbed so much of this music of Clementi and Dussek that many times themes crop up in his work which go right back to themes in their work and that it seems probable he was unconscious of any origin; they had become part of him. We should be careful to distinguish between such unconscious connections and real influence, although the mere fact that these themes penetrated so deeply into his musical make-up seems to show that they had a great impact upon him.”

He observes many characteristics in the make-up of Beethoven’s themes and their treatment that have their common points with equivalent Clementi works. Looking at the Op.2 sonatas in particular, Truscott says, “Throughout his career the essentials of Beethoven’s piano writing changed little from what is displayed in these three sonatas. It was the writing of a virtuoso, using the basic techniques of Clementi and Dussek, but gradually developing their potential in his own way to meet new expressive demands as they arose.”

We will encounter the Op.2 sonatas early on in the Beethoven listening project…but for now we can enjoy Clementi’s own writing, when at its best is full of dramatic contrast, taking minimal melodic material and growing it substantially. The Sonata in G minor is perhaps the best example of his craft, and showing these qualities with the reminder that its date of composition, 1795, is before all of Beethoven’s early published work. It is included in the Spotify playlist below.

About the F minor work, also included in the playlist, Anselm Gerhard writes in his booklet notes how “the whirl of the final movement proclaims the definitive end of music’s historical dependence on traditional dance forms: here purely instrumental music reveals its determination to stand on its own two feet. It was not long before this idea was put into practice by Beethoven”, he continues, “albeit using completely different, characteristically revolutionary means: by consistently dramatising his music, he set out to transfer the prestige of the age’s most celebrated literary genre to instrumental music, and in the highly charged atmosphere of works like the Op.26 and Tempest sonatas, the medium’s new artistic ambitions were plain for all to hear.”

There is humour in Clementi’s thought process too, nowhere more so than in the brilliant pastiche of the Preludes in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning the playlist is the Piano Concerto in C major, and there are two symphonies that illustrate how the composer’s prowess was not as stilted as some might have claimed. They may of course have seen him as a rival.

Clementi’s standing proves him to be more than that – and his influence on Beethoven will become clear in due course.

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!

Routes to Beethoven – Joseph Haydn

by Ben Hogwood

November, 1792. The 21-year old Beethoven was planning to leave his home town of Bonn for Vienna, and he left with a ringing endorsement from Count Waldstein, his most important patron. Mozart had died the previous year at the age of thirty-five, and Waldstein sensed the stage was clear. “Dear Beethoven!”, he wrote. “You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of a wish that has long been frustrated. Mozart’s genius is still in mourning and weeps for the death of its pupil. It found a refuge with the inexhaustible Haydn but no occupation; through him it wishes to form a union with another. With the help of unceasing diligence you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”

This was of course rather fanciful. To suggest Haydn as a channel for Mozart’s inspiration did the older composer – now sixty and in the prime of his musical life – little recognition. Haydn was aware of Beethoven, the younger composer having sent him his ambitious choral Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II – and was willing to take him on. Thus Beethoven left Bonn in early November 1792 and travelled for ten days until arriving in Vienna.

All appeared to be going well for him there, but when Haydn sent a letter to Elector Maximilian dated just over a year later he included a clutch of works that Beethoven had already written in Bonn. Most were sadly lost – including an Oboe Concerto – but an Octet-Partita for wind ensemble has survived. The covering letter expressed the conviction that ‘On the basis of these pieces, expert and amateur alike must admit that Beethoven in time will attain the rank of one of the greatest musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher. I only wish that he might remain with me for some time yet.’

The reply was curt, since Maximilian was receiving music he had already seen – and could not see any discernible progress to finance Beethoven further. As Lewis Lockwood points out in his Beethoven biography, Haydn’s priorities as a composer were stacked up. He had made a pioneering and highly successful visit to London in 1792, and a sequel was on the cards, for which he would need new string quartets and symphonies. Beethoven, too, given his ability and individuality, was not to be the perfect match. Lockwood talks of ‘the same stubborn personal resistance’…which ‘seems to have troubled his relationship to Haydn, though here it was mingled with reverence for authentic genius.’

With Haydn’s focus abroad, Beethoven looked elsewhere for his teaching and found counterpoint studies with Johann Schenk. Haydn returned to London and the brief relationship was at an end. Before he left Vienna, however, he was privy to Beethoven’s Op.1 – three trios for piano, violin and cello – and Op.2, a set of three piano sonatas dedicated to Haydn.

The trios contained a problem, in the explosive form of the third piece in C minor. Haydn advised withholding this from publication, calculating the impact on the Viennese audience might damage Beethoven’s reputation. It was, as Michael Steinberg in The Beethoven Quartet Companion points out, ‘a surprising attitude from a composer who was himself so bold. An observer went further, noting ‘a kind of apprehension, because he realised that he had struck out on a path for himself of which Haydn did not approve.

Jan Swafford holds the conviction that Beethoven took far more from Haydn than he himself declared at the time. ‘There is no record of what transpired in their lessons’, he writes. But it can be said that at least by his Op.2 Piano Sonatas, composed in 1794-5, Beethoven was showing the fruits of his studies in a startlingly mature way. After his months with Haydn, Beethoven emerged a far more sophisticated composer. To mention only one issue: Before Haydn, Beethoven had a shaky idea of proportion, might write an introduction to an aria that was a quarter of its length. After he finished the lessons with Haydn, he had one of the most refined senses of proportion of any composer – a sense of it, in other words, at the level of Haydn.’

Haydn’s influence on Beethoven can be gauged at this stage by listening to some of the works he was writing while teaching the younger composer. The three string quartets published as Op.74 are a case in point. The slow movement of no.3 in G minor finds the sort of spaciousness we became accustomed to from Beethoven in his equivalent slow movements. Meanwhile in the slow movement of no.1 in C major Haydn goes on all sorts of unusual tonal routes, seeming to travel far from home but only so he can show his dexterity as a composer, bringing the music ‘home’ with a single, deft switch. Beethoven was to acquire that quality too.

The Piano Sonatas offer some clues, too. The playful opening of the Sonata in C major has a wit Beethoven was only too keen to take forward. So too the grand gestures of the Sonata in E flat major, a key that was to assume great importance for Beethoven over the years. Haydn’s Masses were well known to Beethoven too, and the Nelson Mass – closely associated with Nelson’s victory over Napoleon – cast quite an influence on the younger composer’s Mass in C major.

The later symphonies acquire a dramatic instinct which must have appealed to Beethoven too. Like C.P.E. Bach, who we have already heard from, Haydn had a Sturm und Drang period that marked his music forever, and the last twelve symphonies, written for use in London, are even more vivid in their stories. The introduction to the relatively unsung Symphony no.98 in B flat major has a dark edge, and these works, now laden with timpani, have more emotive and dynamic contrasts, straining at the leash of the conventions of form and harmony. The final, London symphony – no.104 in D major – demonstrates best of all how far Haydn had taken the form. Its dramatic slow introduction reaching towards the 19th century and beyond, while the slightly rustic finale is brilliantly written.

There is much speculation on how Beethoven and Haydn’s relationship developed, if it did at all, beyond that of a prodigious pupil and a seasoned master of his craft in his early sixties. Certainly a healthy mutual respect existed, Haydn spotting the gifts Beethoven had in abundance, while Beethoven himself found his early works bearing clear influence of Haydn even more than Mozart. We will explore those in greater depth, as Beethoven takes on the forms of symphony, string quartet, piano trio and piano sonata and bears them into the 19th century.

You can listen to selections from Haydn’s enormous output, including the works discussed above, on the playlist below:

Routes to Beethoven – The Teachers: Salieri & Albrechtsberger

by Ben Hogwood
Picture (left to right): Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Beethoven, Antonio Salieri

In which we briefly explore the music and influence of two of Beethoven’s teachers. In their entry on the composer, The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians talk of how the composer initially struggled to find an appropriate teacher. “In his dissatisfaction Beethoven went to another master, Albrechtsberger, a distinguished authority on contrapuntal and sacred music who had been court organist for twenty years”, reads the article. “Beethoven’s lessons with this able teacher continued for an indefinitely recorded period that was more than a year.”

Albrechtsberger was a well respected composer but his music has rather fallen by the wayside. His best-known composition is an unusual one, a Concerto for Jew’s Harp and Orchestra. Once heard, the sound of this unusual instrument is certainly not forgotten, its friendly buzz either appealing or infuriating – a marmite instrument for sure! As you may well hear from the String Quartet included on the Spotify playlist below, Albrechtsberger’s output was extremely accomplished – but not always with especially distinctive material.

Grove then talks of how, from “about 1793 to 1794 he put himself under another specialist, Antonio Salieri, court Kapellmeister, who had for many years been director of the Opera and was himself a flourishing operatic composer.” Beethoven’s aim here was to get a greater understanding of the musical aptitudes required for the stage. As Grove points out, that may seem a bit odd for a composer looking to excel in the supposedly more rigid forms of the symphony and the sonata. Yet Beethoven built on the essence of musical drama, studying with Salieri until 1802 and maintaining strong links with him after that.

Listening to some of Salieri’s large canon of music reveals a composer capable of turning his music into a drama. The Sinfonia in Pantomima, written for Armida, gives an idea of his dramatic instincts, changing mood quite abruptly. It also acknowledges the influence of Gluck in the operatic world at the time. The Overture to Daliso e Dalmino has a rush of violins, uses timpani freely and generates quite a head of steam, which surely would have appealed to his pupil. Likewise the terrific cut and thrust to the Overture to Les Danaides, with flurries of violins.

Again, we will have to wait until the Beethoven listening starts in earnest to gauge the influence of Salieri in particular. Yet the signs are – with Ludwig a dedicated pupil – he will have absorbed important elements from both these teachers. Now to see what Haydn and Mozart could impart!

You can listen to the music of Albrechtsberger and Salieri on the playlist below:

You may also wish to try an acclaimed recent release from Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, a thrilling account of Salieri’s opera Les Horaces, written seven years before Beethoven came to call: