Beethoven the titan: this traditional view of the composer may well be a cliché that we’re right to suspect. Still, the myth didn’t come about by accident. Many of Beethoven’s works shatter old constraints and boldly cross traditional genre boundaries – especially in the Ninth Symphony, with its utopian embrace of humanity that unites liberty, equality and fraternity under the banner of joy, but also in the monumental Missa solemnis. ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart’ is inscribed on the first page of the score, which stylistically condenses the entire history of music in its praise of God, albeit praise streaked by doubt. The incidental music to Egmont, on the other hand, underpins Goethe’s drama with what already sounds like a modern film score. Equally fascinating, and especially so as a direct comparison, is how Beethoven takes the travel-friendly format of the Mozartian piano concerto and expands it to an imposing scale, with an entirely new sense of grandeur that brings the form to mature completion. He also makes inroads into unfamiliar territory with his treatment of the violin sonata and in particular the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’. Finally, Beethoven strides the world of the string quartet with early examples modelled on Haydn’s and Mozart’s style followed by middle-period works dedicated to Prince Rasumovsky, in which he redefines the genre. The unprecedented enigmas of his later quartet writing, long regarded as daunting, culminate in the ultimate challenge of the Große Fuge.
But there’s also another side to Beethoven: the Septet is an early success, written with playful verve and a popular touch; the ‘Spring Sonata’ captivates with its melodic charm; and working from the lyric vocal line outwards, he completely reinvents the violin concerto and lends it epic breadth. In the composer’s commonly underrated songs, unexpectedly heartful melody often holds sway. The piano sonatas and the monumental ‘Diabelli Variations’ represent a thematic backbone in this Beethovenian universe: as a testing ground and musical diary, at once intimate and world-shaking.