Thoughts on Beethoven: power, courage and C minor


Whenever we think of Beethoven (whose 250th birthday lands right in this year-of-no-concerts-but-perhaps-a-bit-more-reading), we think about the power of his music, we think about courage, and we think about C minor … (Or – is this the Year of the C minor ?  ….)

We are not alone …

That great physicist Albert Einstein – who also plays music quite seriously – was speaking about art versus science when he invoked Beethoven to make a point about how to understand the world and the limits of science:

It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.

Zoom forward to contemporary times, we find pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim’s words on Beethoven:

By all accounts he was a free-thinking person, and a courageous one, and I find courage an essential quality for the understanding, let alone the performance, of his works.

For some of us stressed by various things during this year of 2020, “What we can learn from Beethovenpenned by Iván Fischer, music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and honorary conductor of Konzerthausorchester Berlin, may give some Beethovenian en-courage-ment.  

The prize for great humour, in the meantime, goes to Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel who admitted in an interview that he wrote a poem about Beethoven murdering Mozart in order to take full possession of the key of C minor ….

We imagine Beethoven’s response to these comments about him and power, courage, and C minor, and thought these Beethoven quotes may be quite apposite:

On power:

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”.

On courage:

Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine”.

And on C minor:

I would rather write 10000 notes (in C minor) than a single letter of the alphabet.”

(The totally inappropriate corruption of the original meaning of this quote is in bracket and entirely our imagination ….)

(But, we ask, is the C minor year an inevitable part of the journey towards a “triumph” in C major?).

Meditating on this final point a bit more, Beethoven was one of the first composers to use C minor so often, and especially in using it together with a modulation to C major (it has been said that Beethoven was continually haunted by a vision of C minor moving to C major).  It may feel less unusual today, 200 years or more later, but many of Beethoven’s minor key compositions did not modulate to the tonal major, nor did the C minor works of earlier composers.

Pianist and scholar Charles Rosen writes that Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character.  As singers, we think of the Choral Fantasy (Op.80, written in 1808) that is in this key and modulates to C major (and well here’s a wonderful version rendered by Argerich and Ozawa), and many pianists are well-acquainted with the drama and intensity in the “Pathétique” sonata (no 8, Op.13, written in 1798) where the key of C minor is very much present throughout even if the second movement is in the sub-mediant A flat major (here’s Annie Fischer’s interpretation of the “Pathétique” where the pathos is very present).  Researching into this, we learned that Beethoven’s first extant composition written in C minor dates from 1790 when he was around the age of twenty.  It is also noteworthy that of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, three (numbers 5, 8 and 32) are in the key of C minor (a disproportionate and non-random use of the key!), and with the final sonata (Op.111) having its 1st movement in C minor and its only other and final movement in C major throughout (two of the most convincing interpretations, here in a 1951 studio recording by Solomon, whose Beethoven interpretations made him legendary, and here also recorded in the 1950s, by Gulda, also renowned for his Beethoven interpretations, and a revered version here recorded “live” with Richter), and furthermore, Beethoven wasn’t done with C major as he moved on to completing the Diabelli Variations (Op.120) which is in C major (the fact is that the writing of the #32 and the Variations overlapped in time period).

The keys of E flat major (Beethoven’s “heroic key”) and its relative minor, C minor, as well as C major, the tonal major to C minor, are keys that Beethoven reserved for some of his most intensely emotional works.  It is interesting to us that E flat major is also especially meaningful in Brahms’s music, even if it is E flat minor where the major-minor modulation is the most personal for Brahms, something we meandered on a little when we were singing Brahms’ Op.30 in 2016.


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