Beethoven was still full of his projects. Three days before the end he added a codicil to his will, and saw Schubert, whose music had aroused his keen interest, but was not able to speak to him, though he afterwards spoke of the Philharmonic Society and the English, almost his last words being “God bless them.” On the 26th of March 1827, during a fierce thunderstorm, he died.
Beethoven’s Music.—The division of Beethoven’s work into three styles has become proverbial, and is based on obvious facts. The styles, however, are not rigidly separated, either in themselves or in chronology. Nor can the popular description of Beethoven’s first manner as “Mozartesque” be accepted as doing justice to a style which differs more radically from Mozart’s than Mozart’s differs from Haydn’s. The style of Beethoven’s third period is no longer regarded as “showing an obscurity traceable to his deafness,” but we have, perhaps, only recently outgrown the belief that his later treatment of form is revolutionary. The peculiar interest and difficulty in tracing Beethoven’s artistic development is that the changes in the materials and range of his art were as great as those in the form, so that he appears in the light of a pioneer, while the art with which he started was nevertheless already a perfectly mature and highly organized thing. And he is perhaps unique among artists in this, that his power of constructing perfect works of art never deserted him while he revolutionized his means of expression. No doubt this is in a measure true of all the greatest artists, but it is seldom obvious. In mature art vital differences in works of similar form are generally more likely to be overlooked than to force themselves on the critic’s attention. And when they become so great as to make a new epoch it is generally at the cost of a period of experiment too heterogeneous and insecure for works of art to attain great permanent value. But in Beethoven’s case, as we have said, the process of development is so smooth that it is impossible to separate the periods clearly, although the ground covered is, as regards emotional range, at least as great as that between Bach and Mozart. No artist has ever left more authoritative documentary evidence as to the steps of his development than Beethoven. In boyhood he seems to have acquired the habit of noting down all his musical ideas exactly as they first struck him. It is easy to see why in later years he referred to this as a “bad habit,” for it must often take longer to jot down a crude idea than to reject it; and by the time the habit was formed Beethoven’s powers of self-criticism were unparalleled, and he must often have felt hampered by the habit of writing down what he knew to be too crude to be even an aid to memory. Such first intuitions, if not written down, would no doubt be forgotten; but the poetic mood, the Stimmung, they attempt to indicate, would remain until a better expression was forthcoming. Beethoven had acquired the habit of recording them, and thereby he has, perhaps, misled some critics into over-emphasizing the contrast between his “tentative” self-critical methods and the quasi-extempore outpourings of Mozart. This contrast is probably not very radical; indeed, we may doubt whether in every thoughtful mind any apparently sudden inspiration is not preceded by some anticipatory mood in which the idea was sought and its first faint indications tested and rejected so instantaneously as to leave no impression on the memory.
The number and triviality of Beethoven’s preliminary sketches should not, then, be taken as evidence of a timid or vacillating spirit. But if we regard his sketches as his diary their significance becomes inestimable. They cover every period of Beethoven’s career, and represent every stage of nearly all his important works, as well as of innumerable trifles, including ideas that did not survive to be worked out. And the type of self-criticism is the same from beginning to end. There is no tendency in the middle or last period, any more than in the first, to “subordinate form to expression,” nor do the sketches of the first period show any lack of attention to elements that seem more characteristic of the third. The difference between Beethoven’s three styles appears first in its full proportions when we realize this complete continuity of his method and art. We have ventured to cast doubts upon the Mozartesque character of his early style, because that is chiefly a question of perspective. While he was handling a range of ideas not, in a modern view, glaringly different from Mozart’s, he had no reason to use a glaringly different language. His contemporaries, however, found it more difficult to see the resemblance; and, though their criticism was often violently hostile, they saw with prejudice a daring originality which we may as well learn to appreciate with study. Beethoven himself in later years partly affected and partly felt a lack of sympathy with his own early style. But he had other things to do than to criticize it. Modern prejudice has not his excuse, and the neglect of Beethoven’s early works is no less than the neglect of the key to the understanding of his later. It is also the neglect of a mass of mature art that already places Beethoven on the same plane as Mozart, and contains perhaps the only traces in all his work of a real struggle between the forces of progress and those of construction. We will therefore give special attention to this subject here.
The truth is that there are several styles in Beethoven’s first period, in the centre of which, “proving all things,” is the true and mature Beethoven, however wider may be the scope of his later maturity. And he did not, as is often alleged, fail to show early promise. The pianoforte quartets he wrote at the age of fifteen are, no doubt, clumsy and childish in execution to a degree that contrasts remarkably with the works of Mozart’s, Mendelssohn’s or Schubert’s boyhood; yet they contain material actually used in the sonatas, op. 2, No. 1, and op. 2, No. 3. And the passage in op. 2, No. 3, is that immediately after the first subject, where, as Beethoven then states it, it embodies one of his most epoch-making discoveries, namely, the art of organizing a long series of apparently free modulations by means of a systematic progression in the bass. In the childish quartet the principle is only dimly felt, but it is nevertheless there as a subconscious source of inspiration; and it afterwards gives inevitable dramatic truth to such passages as the climax of the development in the sonata, op. 57 (commonly called Appassionata), and throughout the chaos of the mysterious introduction to the C major string-quartet, op. 59, No. 3, prepares us for the world of loveliness that arises from it.
Although with Beethoven the desire to express new thoughts was thus invariably both stimulated and satisfied by the discovery of the necessary new means of expression, he felt deeply the danger of spoiling great ideas by inadequate execution; and his first work in a new form or medium is, even if as late as the Mass in C, op. 89, almost always unambitious. His teachers had found him sceptical of authority, and never convinced of the practical convenience of a rule until he had too successfully courted disaster. But he appreciated the experience, though he may have found it expensive, and traces of crudeness in such early works as he did not disown are as rare as plagiarisms. The first three pianoforte sonatas, op. 2. show the different elements in Beethoven’s early style as clearly as possible. Sir Hubert Parry has aptly compared the opening of the sonata, op. 2, No. 1, with that of the finale of Mozart’s G minor symphony, to show how much closer Beethoven’s texture is. The slow movement well illustrates the rare cases in which Beethoven imitates Mozart to the detriment of his own proper richness of tone and thought, while the finale in its central episode brings a misapplied and somewhat diffuse structure in Mozart’s style into direct conflict with themes as “Beethovenish” in their terseness as in their sombre passion. The second sonata is flawless in execution, and entirely beyond the range of Haydn and Mozart in harmonic and dramatic thought, except in the finale. And it is just in the adoption of the luxurious Mozartesque rondo form as the crown of this work that Beethoven shows his true independence. He adopts the form, not because it is Mozart’s, but because it is right and because he can master it. The opening of the second subject in the first movement is a wonderful application of the harmonic principle already mentioned in connexion with the early piano quartets. In all music nothing equally dramatic can be found before the D minor sonata, op. 31, No. 2, which is rightly regarded as marking the beginning of Beethoven’s second period. The slow movement,