The year 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, commonly regarded as one of the towering figures of western music, even to people who recognize the name mostly from a Chuck Berry song or a Saint Bernard.
Several months ago it occurred to me that it would be fun to spend 2020 posting videos of performances of Beethoven’s music in chronological order of their composition, starting with relatively unknown works from Beethoven’s early years written in the age of Haydn and Mozart, and progressing towards the heights of the 9th Symphony, the late Piano Sonatas and String Quartets, and the Grand Fugue.
YouTube has lots of videos of live music performances, so that’s an obvious source. At first I thought I’d post these videos on Facebook, but I ultimately decided that Twitter would be a better platform. I was surprised to find that the @Beethoven250 username was available for the taking, so I took it.
Like much of what I do, this project is mostly for my own benefit. It gives me a framework of discipline that allows me to hear virtually all of Beethoven’s music over the course of the year. Of course, I’d love for other people to share this listening experience with me — those who are already acquainted with Beethoven’s music and imagine that a systematic tour through his compositional life would be fun, and those who are strangers to Beethoven’s music but consider themselves “Beethoven-curious.”
The celebration begins today at twitter.com/Beethoven250.
Details about my approach follow. One of the problems I had to solve was figuring out the chronological order of Beethoven’s music. This took more work than I imagined.
Beethoven’s compositions are often identified by opus numbers. For example, the famous Fifth Symphony is Opus 67.
Beethoven began assigning opus numbers to his published compositions in 1795 when he was 24 years old. Composers commonly used opus numbers to denote the works that they considered to be their most important and which should form their legacy. For Beethoven, there are 138 such opus numbers. (See this convenient list in Wikipedia.) However, several opus numbers encompass multiple compositions — most obviously the six string quartets of Opus 18. Taking these into account adds 28 compositions to the 138 for a total of 166.
At first I thought I’d take the easy approach and post videos of performances in opus number order. But that only approximates chronological order. Sometimes older compositions were published with new opus numbers. For example, Opus 102 dates from 1815 and Opus 104 dates from 1817 but Opus 103 is a 1792 composition.
Also, lots of Beethoven’s music was published without opus numbers, and some wasn't published at all during his lifetime. If the intent of this project is to explore the full range of Beethoven’s music — including pieces unfamiliar to me and many others — I’d have to take these other compositions into account.
Without Opus Numbers
Conveniently, many of Beethoven’s compositions without opus numbers were assigned WoO numbers. This stands for “Werke Ohne Opuszahl,” and it almost works in English as “Without Opus.” A convenient list in Wikipedia lists 228 such numbers. For example, Für Elise, a favorite of beginning piano students, is WoO 59. Adding those to the compositions with opus numbers brings the total to 394, which isn’t too much higher than the 366 days available in 2020. Posting one composition per day seemed ideal to me.
But were the without-opus compositions available in YouTube performances? Mostly, yes, I discovered. What convinced me was WoO 63. This was Beethoven’s first published composition when he was 11 years old. It is a set of variations for piano on a march by an otherwise obscure composer named Ernst Christoph Dressler. I found no fewer than six performances by five young musicians about the same age as Beethoven when he composed this work. I knew that’s where I had to start, and that’s where I am starting today.
The WoO numbers are not in chronological order. They’re arranged by genre, and then roughly by chronological order. The authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music has an extensive and apparently well-researched list of Beethoven’s music. (The Beethoven article in the New Grove was published by itself in a small paperbound book by W. W. Norton.) But the New Grove list is also by genre, and I spent several hours consolidating those listings onto index cards, one per year from 1782 to 1826.
In many cases, the dates of composition listed by the New Grove are not exact because they’re not known, or because Beethoven stopped working on something and resumed later, or perhaps later revised what he had done. Consequently, New Grove indicates composition dates like “c1790–92,” “?1792–3,” “before 1794,” or (for the 2nd Piano Concerto) “begun before 1793, rev. 1794–5, 1798.” It was first performed in 1795 but the 1798 revision was not published until 1801. So what year is that?
Obviously, any arrangement by chronological order is going to be approximate. At some point, I decided to make this easier for myself by relying upon Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s famous Life of Beethoven, originally published in German and then translated into English in 1921. Thayer was apparently appropriately obsessive about putting Beethoven’s music in chronological order, and I love him for it. Each chapter of his book covers a year or two in Beethoven’s life and ends with a list of the compositions during that period. Princeton University Press has an edition of Thayer revised and edited by Elliot Forbes, and that’s what I’ll be generally using.
I don’t know yet exactly what I’ll be posting on each day during the year. I now have most of the compositions in an Excel spreadsheet, so I have a general idea. The early months will have more obscure music than you might imagine. Don’t expect to see Symphony No. 1 until May.
Songs and Canons
A couple categories of Beethoven’s music are going to give me more trouble than everything else combined. These are the songs and the canons.
Beethoven is not known for his songs (or lieder, using the more common German word). Consequently, there are very few live performances on YouTube, but many of these songs are available on YouTube ripped from recordings. I think it is possible to include most of the songs, but I think I might end up consolidating several songs in single days.
In the 1810s and 1820s, Beethoven created whole collections of folksong arrangements, including 57 Irish songs and 37 Scottish songs. These are performed even less frequently than the lieder, and rarely recorded. I have not yet decided how I’ll be handling these.
There’s also a whole category of canons, a form of composition in which several voices sing the same text with the same melody but offset from each other. These were often written as exercises or dashed off in letters, and they are usually extremely short, but there are 43 of them, and I don’t feel right excluding them. Again, I’ll probably be consolidating multiple canons in individual days.
In selecting performances, I will emphasize live performances and only in desperation resort to studio recordings, even if the performance is not perfect. My mind revolts at the idea of a “definitive” performance. I am much more interested in the physicality of music-making rather than some “ideal” sequence of sounds. I have a soft spot in my heart for young musicians and amateur musicians, but occasionally there might be a string quartet composed entirely of white men.
Generally I’ll be posting one composition per day, but I intend to be somewhat flexible:
Sometimes I will post multiple performances of a one short composition during a single day. That is the case for today.
Sometimes I will post multiple compositions in a single day. This will be the case for songs and canons. Consequently, sometimes the chronological order will not be as strict as my OCD would desire.
Sometimes I’ll post multiple performance of significant longish compositions over two or three days. Expect this for the later works, particularly the string quartets.
Sometimes I’ll post non-standard renditions, such as a pianist playing one of Liszt’s piano arrangement of the symphonies, or Tina Setkic’s stunning rendition of the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata.
I’m afraid that I’ll sometimes have to include YouTube videos with ads at the beginning, but videos with ads that interrupt the music will be immediately disqualified.
So let’s go!