Damian Thompson says we can learn a lot about Beethoven if we look beyond the symphonies
Beethoven Unwrapped is the title of the year-long musical celebration marking the opening of Kings Place, the new ‘creative centre’ at King’s Cross. But does Beethoven, of all composers, need unwrapping? The answer is yes, more than ever, if the process allows us to examine his music without constantly genuflecting in front of the symphonies.
The Kings Place festival includes only one live Beethoven symphony: the First, played by the Avison Ensemble next March. That’s fine by me. A full cycle would have distracted attention from performances of the complete piano sonatas, violin sonatas, cello sonatas, string quartets, piano trios — and, significantly, neglected string trios, works for wind and songs. Beethoven Unwrapped helps answer the question: how would we view the composer if he hadn’t written his symphonies?
That may seem a pointless exercise in alternative history, since there are movements in the symphonies which are integral to the development of Beethoven’s musical language: the explosion of possibilities in the Eroica, in particular, helped create the space that Beethoven needed for experiments in sonata form which were cut short only by his death. Still, let’s suppose that he was unable to write for a symphony orchestra. I’m sure that he would have found other pathways to his supreme achievement: the music we refer to as ‘late Beethoven’.
Beethoven’s music is commonly divided into three periods: early, middle and late. Sometimes their styles are described as ‘classical’, ‘heroic’ and ‘sublime’. I’ve listened to Beethoven almost every day for 40 years and these three styles still jump out at me. They overlap, of course, but one would expect nothing less from an artist whose personal life was so spectacularly untidy.