The Necessary 100: Even choosing 8 pieces doesn't begin to do Beethoven justice
I've spent the last week agonizing over which pieces of Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) should be on the Necessary 100 list of pieces of music that we cannot live without.
One day, my list skews this way. Then, the next day, I change my mind. All in the name of my little game. Surely I have better things to do with my time (and yours).
Well, to mix clichés, I have to stop waffling and draw a line in the sand.
I'm going to distill matters to the point of oversimplification (as is my wont). Beyond writing a library-full of impressive music, Beethoven accomplished three great things, which need to be reflected in the Necessary 100:
Beethoven helped shape the modern symphony and there is something special in each of Nos 5 to 9 that makes it a valid candidate for inclusion on the list. I'm choosing three:
-Symphony Nos 5 & 6: It's hard to believe Beethoven premiered these two pieces on the same night -- Dec. 22, 1808. The Fifth is angst-filled and mocks all sorts of Classical-era musical conventions. The Pastoral is a gorgeous example of thematic development joined with an evocation of mood and landscape. Together, these two works encapsulate everything that's important to the Romantics, in terms of self-expression and worship of nature, and beloved by 21st century classical music listeners. Like many other pieces I've put on the Necessary 100 list, these symphonies are over-played and over-recorded. But that doesn't take away from their value.
-Symphony No. 9: The Fifth and Sixth only hint at what was to come in the Ninth, which had its premiere in 1824. Everyone thinks of the final-movement vocal/choral setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy, but there are three complex and challenging instrumental movements before that. There isn't a dull moment here for anyone on stage -- or anyone listening.
Beethoven's piano sonatas really pushed the boundaries of the instrument as well as playing technique. The piano concertos do the same. I'm picking three pieces covering the span of Beethoven's lifetime:
-Sonata No. 8 (C minor, Op. 13). The publisher called it the Pathétique in 1799. The minor-key opening heralds drama that takes the music well beyond the Classical-era sonata form.
-Piano Concerto No. 5 (E-flat Major, Op. 73). The Emperor (also named by the publisher) appeared in 1809 and was premiered in 1811. This is a concerto on a symphonic scale.
-Sonata No. 32 (C minor, Op. 111). Oh gosh, it's 1823 and we're still in C minor. Or is it C Major? No, it's C minor. No, it's C Major.... Two movements contain a world of difficuties -- and a wealth of rewards.
There are many chamber pieces that should be on the list. I've chosen one of the string quartets and, changing my mind, joining Larry Beckwith in putting forward the violin concerto.
-String Quartet Op. 132 (No. 15, in A minor). This piece is titled "Heiliger dankgesang" because Beethoven wrote it while recovering from from illness in 1825. There is an intense intimacy to much of this quartet, which also offers layers and layers of musical structure to appreciate. It's my favourite of a fantastic collection of string quartets.
-Violin Concerto (D Major, Op. 61). Here's another work from the composer's rich middle period (1806, in this case). The piece is a microcosm of everything Beethoven does best: unexpected drama, masterful development of themes, quiet lyricism and, even, dancing.
Rather than posting video clips from all of these well-known pieces, I thought I'd post something truly special: a 7-minute section from a three-year-old Beethoven-heavy film, Lesson 21, by Italian director Alessandro Barrico. We are hearing the third of five movements (Molto adagio; Andante) from the Op. 132 String Quartet, as played by Marco Rizzi, Danilo Rossi, Fabio Paggioro, Mario Brunello: