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Visionary or Reactionary?

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The Role of Counterpoint for Beethoven the Romantic

19 November 2017

The decades surrounding 1800 were marked by instability, both politically and musically. Politically, some ideals of the Enlightenment were halted by the Napoleonic wars and the conservative outcome of the Congress of Vienna. Musically, consider these three seemingly contradictory statements: (1) although one element separating the Classical period from the Baroque is the minor role of counterpoint, it was precisely a resurgence in contrapuntal writing that contributed to the apogee of the Classical period with Haydn and Mozart; (2) in his writings on Romanticism in music, Hoffmann readily labelled Haydn and Mozart, alongside Beethoven of course, as Romantics; (3) a generation later, Schumann labels his own music, as well as that of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Hiller, as being closer to Bach than to Mozart. 

These three statements indicate an interplay of concepts that goes beyond a simplistic characterization of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. In this essay, we shall illustrate one musical aspect of this disruptive period, which marked the start of musical Romanticism, by studying how Beethoven uses tradition, specifically counterpoint, as progression. Whereas the Congress of Vienna’s conservatism purposed containment, late Beethoven’s return to counterpoint served Romantic ideals of expressive individuality. 

To start, Beethoven’s admiration for composers like Händel, Bach, and Palestrina, can explain his fascination for counterpoint. Several letters to publishers show his eagerness to receive more scores to study, and in his diary, he writes how the portraits of Händel, Bach, Gluck, Mozart and Haydn in his room increase his endurance. Of Bach, he once remarked that his name should actually be Meer (i.e. Sea instead of Brook), and he called him the father of harmony. Beethoven had already played extensively from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier in Bonn, but in Vienna, like Mozart before, he attended evenings at the house of Baron van Swieten, where he could discover music by Bach, Händel and others. 

Händel really struck a chord: before 1809, Beethoven called Mozart the greatest composer, but after discovering Händel’s music, Mozart is relegated to the second place. Harp builder Stumpff recounts a visit when Beethoven knelt down to show his admiration for Händel, whom he called the most classical and thorough of all composers. It was also Stumpff who famously sent Beethoven Händel’s collected works in 1827, which pleased Beethoven immensely. He kept them close to his bed, and enthusiastically mentioned them to visitors. Mendelssohn even considered Beethoven’s musical spirit to be most similar to Händel’s – all the more remarkable since Beethoven discovered Händel quite late, around the age of forty. 

Arriving now at the examination of Beethoven’s contrapuntal studies, we can divide them into three waves, the last of which will bring us back to the old masters he admired. The first wave is when Beethoven arrived in Vienna for the second time in 1792 and took lessons with Haydn and, later, Albrechtsberger. Although Count Waldstein wrote about Beethoven receiving Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands, it was really also Fuxian counterpoint that occupied Beethoven. 

Whereas in the 1790s, counterpoint was part of a curriculum Beethoven thought desirable after a lack of formal training in Bonn, the second wave in the summer of 1809 is more distinctive. In 1808, he held a four-hour long Akademie, encompassing all genres, which arguably marked the end of an artistic phase. After that, 1809 became a gloomy year, with the second occupation of Vienna in five years, and the deaths of his physician Johann Schmidt and notably his two counterpoint teachers, Albrechtsberger and Haydn. Whether gloomy circumstances led him back to the old and stable art of counterpoint, or wether a sense of artistic liberation accompanied his grief, is perhaps hard to say, but it is at least not very surprising that the first work he wrote after restudying counterpoint was a string quartet (op. 74). Although the genre had been contrapuntal in the more general sense since the 1780s, the present author detects an influence of strict species counterpoint in the rhythmical organisation of the first movement of op. 74, with clear slow and fast voices. 

The third wave of Beethoven’s contrapuntal studies, occurs when Beethoven returned to studying Palestrina, Bach and Händel in 1815, and brings us to the core of the tension between looking backwards and forwards. By now totally deaf, Beethoven’s success in concerts was dwindling, prompting negative comments from his side about younger, more popular musicians, most notably Moscheles and Rossini. Additionally, Beethoven had become disillusioned with current societal inclinations, and pessimistic about politics. Just like in the political sphere, revolutionary ideals were counterbalanced by policies of restoration after the Congress of Vienna, and a longing by some for the stability of the Ancien Régime, so fugues, imitative counterpoint and canons start popping up everywhere in Beethoven’s music. He pays tribute to Händel directly in Die Weihe des Hauses, and sketched an overture on the B-A-C-H motif. There are the famous fugues like in the Hammerklavier sonata, or the Grosse Fuge, but also fugues in more unexpected places, such as the finale of the fifth cello sonata (op. 102 nr. 2) or the first movement of the string quartet op. 131. 

The crucial point is that Beethoven is not just being retrospective. On the contrary, his idiosyncratic use of contrapuntal techniques serves as a way to break free from the bounds of classical conventions, even to the point of slightly obscuring tonality, although his goal is to imbed fugal techniques within the sonata form. Indeed, even though he is reapplying old styles, his music does not sound archaic, but in many places precisely more experimental, because he loosens these objective, rigorous contrapuntal styles with subjective and improvisatory elements, which combine to give his music a sense of timelessness. In works like the piano sonata op. 111, counterpoint is one of Beethoven’s means to convey the sublime and the infinite through music. 

In summary, counterpoint was a recurring interest of Beethoven’s during his whole life, sometimes even bordering on the obsessive. What distinguishes his late use of counterpoint from that of predecessors like Haydn and Mozart, is how he reapplies its old techniques in a novel way, in effect freeing them, as a way to realise his own Romantic ideals in music.


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