Beethoven@250 with the TSO

In 2020, celebrations will be held worldwide to commemorate two and a half centuries of a titan of classical music—Ludwig van Beethoven.

With four symphonies, four concertos, two overtures, and one Violin Romance on the program from January to June, the TSO is getting into the spirit of this beloved and prolific composer. Read on for an overview of our Beethoven@250 celebrations.

A prolific decade: The Middle Period

Around 1798, Beethoven began to suffer from hearing loss (which would eventually result in complete deafness). In 1802, he travelled to Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, to rest and come to terms with his condition.

His return to Vienna in 1802 marked a change. "I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way," Beethoven supposedly remarked. The result was a shift to a new “heroic” style, creating large orchestral works on a grand scale. He composed prolifically, creating some 30 major works in a decade—and it’s this “Middle Period” that we mostly revisit over the course of our celebrations.

Symphony No. 7: Declining health

Kicking off the festivities, the Seventh Symphony and King Stephen Overture, both written in 1811, date from the end of Beethoven’s Middle Period, when the composer’s hearing continued to decline. The stately second movement of Symphony No. 7, with its “long–short–short” motif, was an immediate success with audiences, and has often been performed independent of the full symphony. It has been widely used in popular culture, most recently in the 2010 film The King’s Speech.

The Fourth Piano Concerto, written in 1805–06, is among the most original of Beethoven’s Middle Period works, with its gentle solo-piano opening, and its striking second movement comprising just soloist and strings. Yet, due to Beethoven's fading hearing, the concerto’s public première in 1808 was the composer’s final appearance as a soloist with orchestra.

The “Pastoral” Symphony: A jaunt in the countryside

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal are annual visitors to Roy Thomson Hall, and this time they bring Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Peasant dances, shepherd songs, a terrifying thunderstorm, and general merriment abound in the “Pastoral” Symphony, written in 1808. It’s one of Beethoven’s few works that follows a narrative, and was inspired by the composer’s frequent ramblings through the Austrian countryside.

The “Emperor”: The last completed piano concerto

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto—with its defiant opening and militaristic undertones—is often seen as the most representative of the heroic Middle Period. In contrast, the Third Piano Concerto (which is also on the bill on April 4 and 5) dates from as early as 1800. It’s an important step toward the “heroism” that Beethoven would become so known for—but also owes a lot to the elegance of Mozart.

Did you know? The Fifth Piano Concerto was composed in early 1809, when Napoleon’s army was laying siege to Vienna. Despite Beethoven’s early admiration of the French ruler (which he later retracted, violently scratching Napoleon’s dedication from his “Eroica” Symphony), the nickname “Emperor” was not given by the composer and is only known in English-speaking countries.

Symphony No. 5: The most recognizable opening in classical music

A score showing the opening phrase of Beethoven Symphony No. 5.

Sing anyone the first four notes of Symphony No. 5, and you can almost guarantee that they will be able to sing the next four notes back to you. Beethoven’s turbulent Fifth Symphony has become one of the most well-known orchestral works ever written.

It may sound familiar to us now, but 19th-century audiences were in awe of the Symphony’s innovative nature. Author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote in 1810 that it “awakens that endless longing which is the essence of Romanticism” and was “one of the most important works of the time.”

Did you know? At the première in 1808, audiences also heard the première of the Sixth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto in one four-hour concert in Vienna. But such a long performance was not without its difficulties: the orchestra were under-rehearsed, and the venue was freezing cold!

Symphony No. 8: A musical throwback

Written toward the end of the Middle Period in 1812, Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is lighthearted and frolicking, and a parody of 18th-century masters Mozart and Haydn. Many passages are seen as musical jokes, with some regarding the second movement as a comic imitation of the recently invented metronome, or Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony.

Also on the program are two violin works, separated by a decade: Romance No. 1 and the Violin Concerto. Likely written around 1798, the lyrical Romance No. 1 is a glimpse into Beethoven’s early style, more firmly rooted in 18th-century traditions (before this became a subject for parody!). Nearly a decade later, his Violin Concerto of 1806 was written in haste for virtuoso Franz Clement. The piece wasn’t well received and remained largely unperformed until celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim revived interest in it in the 1840s. It’s since become one of the most performed concertos for violin.

Beethoven Lives Upstairs: Young People’s Concert

Beethoven’s music isn’t just for grown-ups. Our Young People’s Concert—Beethoven Lives Upstairs—is an introduction for the youngest members of the family. This concert features a lively exchange of letters between young Christoph and his uncle about the “madman” who has moved in upstairs. Through touching correspondence and beautiful excerpts, Christoph comes to understand the genius of Beethoven, the beauty of his music, and his personal torment.

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