Has any composer ever expressed a wider range of emotions in music than Ludwig van Beethoven?
That question will be hotly debated throughout 2020, as the classical music industry celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth in Bonn, Germany.
The sheer sonic power of Beethoven's music was certainly unprecedented. Using an orchestral template inherited from Mozart, he ramped up the volume and muscularity that an orchestra was capable of producing, in works such as the super-energetic Seventh Symphony.
Beethoven poured extra emotion into his music, too. Bach, Haydn and Mozart had written deep, probing compositions before him, but Beethoven went even deeper. His exploration of human suffering and isolation had an intensity unmatched by any previous composer, particularly in the sonatas and string quartets of his late period.
At the same time, few composers had such a fanatical belief in the power of music to transfigure life, to wring joy and optimism from the dregs of human inadequacy. Time and again Beethoven worked that crisis-to-catharsis narrative — in the triumphant Fifth Symphony, the mighty "Hammerklavier" Piano Sonata, and the prison opera "Fidelio."
Some of the key strands in Beethoven's personality are discussed below, as a road map to his output and his way of thinking.
Beethoven can bully, cajole and batter you in his music. But he can melt a heart of stone, too; find hope from virtually nothing, and set the pulses racing as few other composers have before or since.
Beethoven's life had more than its fair share of tribulation. In adulthood he suffered from abdominal pain, rheumatism and headaches, and fought an ugly family battle over custody of his nephew. But by far his biggest burden was the deafness that began afflicting him in his late 20s.
By the time his Ninth Symphony was premiered in 1824 Beethoven could hear nothing, although he sat on stage beside the conductor, beating time to what he thought was happening in the orchestra. And yet the Ninth ends in an explosion of joy and elation, its chorale finale blowing aside the turmoil and desperation of earlier movements.
That same emotional journey — from darkness to light, from negativity in the present to hope for the future — happens in the barnstorming Fifth Symphony, too. Beethoven's refusal to buckle to adversity is virtually a moral principle in his music, and a big reason why audiences continue to find it inspirational.
Essential listening: Symphony No. 9 (Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, BIS Records)
The nature worshiper
An intense, confrontational individual, shaking his fist at fate. That is a stock image of Beethoven, and there is truth to it. But he had another side, too — away from the brouhaha of his professional life in Vienna, Beethoven enjoyed nothing more than walking in the fields and meadows surrounding the city.
"No one can love the country as much as I do," he wrote. "For surely woods, trees and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear." That "echo" is heard most vividly in his Sixth Symphony (the "Pastoral"), a glowingly affectionate evocation of the impressions Beethoven gathered on his country rambles.
For him, landscape had a spiritual significance, and the balm and consolation he found there can also be heard in his "Spring" Sonata for violin and piano. Today, Beethoven's attachment to the natural world seems freshly relevant, and it spawned some of his most relaxed and soothing music.
Essential listening: Symphony No. 6 (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm, Deutsche Grammophon)
Humor existed in music before Beethoven: He did not invent it. Haydn — who once taught Beethoven — was a master of it, in works like his "Surprise" Symphony. But Beethoven took the art of musical pranking further, in pieces like the Diabelli Variations.
There he turned a request to write a single, short variation on a simple waltz tune for piano into a giant, 50-minute canvas comprising 33 different versions of it. The "Diabellis" are full of jolts and japery. In one variation Beethoven quotes playfully from Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni." In another the piano scoots off like a frightened rabbit in the undergrowth.
There are hijinks in the symphonies, too. The finale of the Third lulls audiences with a gentle pizzicato theme, before startling them with a pummeling bam-bam-bam outburst. Portraits of Beethoven typically show him with a stern, serious-minded expression. But a cussed sense of humor pervades his compositions. It kept his audiences guessing, reminding them that music could be fun as well as thought-provoking.
Essential listening: Diabelli Variations (Igor Levit, Sony Classics)
The human rights advocate
Beethoven was not a fan of authority, and bridled at the rigid class system of Austria in his period. He famously tore out the dedication of his Third Symphony (the "Eroica") to Napoleon Bonaparte, when the famed military commander embraced the hierarchy by declaring himself Emperor of France. "Now he, too, will tread under foot all the rights of man," Beethoven angrily commented.
Those rights are front and center in Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio," which took a decade to reach its final, definitive version. The plot turns on the plight of a man (Florestan) imprisoned for political reasons by a rival, along with other prisoners. Weakened by starvation and close to death, he is rescued by his wife, who disguises herself as a man to work at the prison.
Florestan's predicament drew from Beethoven some of his most powerful, heartfelt music, and the prisoner release scene arguably tops even the Ninth Symphony in its sense of raw elation. "Fidelio's" deep commitment to individual freedom is unmistakable, and the opera remains a rousing clarion call against dictatorship and tyranny in the 21st century.
Essential listening: "Fidelio" (Leipzig Orchestra/Kurt Masur, Sony Classics)
The path of love did not run smoothly for Beethoven, and its bumps found their way frequently into his music. In 1801, when he was 30, he fell in love with a piano pupil 12 years his junior. In vain: She was an aristocrat, and above his social station.
Some of his feelings about her went into the famous "Moonlight" Piano Sonata, whose moody opening movement and tumultuous finale are roilingly emotional. A letter that he wrote a decade later in 1812 shows that the perfect partner continued to elude him. Addressed to an anonymous "Immortal Beloved," it paints a sorry picture of unrequited affections — the solitary existence of the artist, and Beethoven's gruff temperament, did not make intimacy easy.
The longing that he felt was channeled into "An die ferne Geliebte"("To the Distant Beloved"), a poignant song-cycle permeated by thoughts of separation. Beethoven remained unmarried, and never enjoyed a satisfying long-term relationship.
Essential listening: "An die Ferne Geliebte" (Fritz Wunderlich, Philips Classics)
Beethoven was an innovator all his life, but even by his own high standards the music he wrote in his last decade is stunningly original. It began with the monumental "Hammerklavier" Piano Sonata, and ended just months before he died in 1827 (at age 56) with his final string quartet.
Taken whole, these late sonatas and quartets show Beethoven moving beyond the storm and stress of his earlier music to a vein of transcendental contemplation where life's most enigmatic questions are pondered.
There is still drama — in the "Grosse Fuge" of the 13th Quartet, for instance, or the opening of the 32nd Piano Sonata. But it's in the slow movements — of the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, or the 14th Quartet — where Beethoven truly achieves sublimity, and a philosophical acceptance that life can be sad and beautiful in one and the same heartbeat, or one and the same bar of music.
Essential listening: String Quartet No. 14 (Takács Quartet, Decca)
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.