It is Beethoven—not Bach or Mozart—who is the most universally popular composer in the classical canon. Why is this? Some authors have posited his democratic social beliefs or his personal story of victory over deafness. These are all certainly factors, but I prefer to look first at the aesthetic qualities of the music itself.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven: These three composers are commonly judged the greatest in Western classical music. Few people would argue with this judgment, least of all me. Growing up, as I took violin lessons and got to know the classical repertoire, this trinity of composers became my favorites, and they still seem to me the best baseline for exploring the classical canon. An interest in any one of the Big Three can branch out into many directions. In my own case, a love for Bach led to a focus on the Baroque, and I discovered many new favorites, including the great violinist-composer Biber. Stretching my ears (thanks to my violin teacher), I also became interested in certain 20th-century styles, especially the Stravinsky school.
I admit I’ve never been as enthusiastic about the next tier—Handel, Haydn, Schubert, and Brahms—as I have been about the Great Three. Perhaps they always struck me as lesser satellites: Handel more earthbound than Bach, Haydn lacking the depth of Mozart’s genius, Schubert a somewhat schmaltzier Beethoven. This is a totally subjective reaction, perhaps an eccentric one, and I don’t begrudge anyone who loves those composers. It’s simply that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have been my mainstay.
The mainstream concert repertoire essentially begins with Bach, although the Early Music Movement of recent years has revealed the glories of pre-Bach music—the sacred polyphony of Tallis and Palestrina, Monteverdi’s operas and madrigals, medieval chant and organum, not to mention the Baroque masters who preceded Bach, such as Buxtehude or Purcell. There is a sense in which Bach summed up all earlier musical trends and brought them to their highest fulfillment—particularly in his learned pursuit of counterpoint and the integration of melody and harmony. Bach thus might be thought of as the hinge of musical history. In the words of Jay Nordlinger: “Bach seems to encompass all the music that came before him, all the music of his own time, and the music that would come after, too.” A generation later, Mozart brought new depth to the elegant rococo style of his day through his genius for melody and the pathos that often pierces his classic serenity.
Yet it is neither Bach nor Mozart but Beethoven who is the most universally popular composer in the classical canon. Why is this? What quality does Beethoven’s music possess that gives him such wide appeal? Some authors have posited his democratic social beliefs or his personal story of victory over deafness. These are all certainly factors, but I prefer to look first at the aesthetic qualities of the music itself.
There is a popular biography of Beethoven titled Beethoven, the Universal Composer. The author argues that Beethoven’s universality is due to his ability “to embrace the whole range of human emotion, from dread of death to love of life—and to the metaphysics beyond—reconciling all doubts and conflicts in a catharsis of sound.” I would add that Beethoven’s music is somewhat closer to our modern sensibilities and thus more accessible than that of Bach or Mozart. Bach is the rational composer par excellence, whose music expresses a divinely appointed order. (Critics have spoken of the “gothic” qualities in Bach and he has been described as bearing a medieval sensibility.) We don’t listen to Bach for a “great tune” so much as for a sense of order, dignity, and majesty that come from the rich network of relationships in the music.
Mozart’s works are filled with a preternatural charm and grace, and his spontaneous fount of melody gives his music a more popular quality than Bach’s. Yet the refinement and subtlety of Mozart’s music make it less immediate in its impact than Beethoven’s, which thrives on forceful statement, bold experimentation, and surprise—subverting the listener’s expectations. Beethoven benefited from Haydn’s and Mozart’s musical architecture, which he inherited and enlarged. He also, especially in his late works, drew upon the Baroque grandeur of Bach to enrich his own style. In a sense Beethoven is, like Bach, a comprehensive and summing-up composer, even a retrospective and hinge composer: summing up the Classical and looking ahead to Romanticism and modernity. His music thus has broadness of scope, including many things within it.
When we talk about what makes a composer universal, a key factor would seem to be timelessness—not being tied down to a particular historical or cultural context. Vivaldi’s music is closely linked to Baroque Venice in its style and sonic conception, and his music loses something when taken out of the context of Venetian churches and palazzi. Must one enter into the spirit of Lutheran North Germany to appreciate Bach? To some extent; works like the cantatas are hard to understand otherwise. But there is something elemental in his music that transcends the particularities of his milieu and appeals directly to the spirit and intellect. The same is true of Mozart, whose music is not inextricably tied to rococo Austria but speaks to people of many times and cultures.
Music that is universal is wide in its emotional range and does not cater to a specific national or regional taste. The weakness of 19th-century nationalist music is that it can degenerate into a musical travelogue and lose relevance as we get farther away in place and time. The classical, in whatever era, is a standard of cultural excellence for the civilization as a whole, and Beethoven represented Viennese Classicism at its height. The style as perfected by Haydn and Mozart emphasized cogency of form, the way the composer organized his thematic material to create an emotional journey for the listener. Yet the balance between form and emotion, between the head and the heart, is closely observed in Beethoven, another reason why we find his music so satisfying.
If one wants specific technical reasons for the popular appeal of the music, its strong rhythmic drive is surely one. Rhythm is the most primal element of music, appealing to us on a visceral or physical level, and popular and folk music everywhere has been rooted in dancing. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a relentless, thrilling invention on a four-note rhythmic motif. His Seventh Symphony pulses with joyous rhythmic life—it has been dubbed “apotheosis of the dance.” Music that is markedly rhythmic, as in jazz and other popular genres, seems to tap into an élan vital deep within us.
But beyond individual stylistic features, perhaps at the heart of Beethoven’s popular appeal is his humanity. To a greater degree than the others, Beethoven in his music shows us Man in all his complexity and contradictions. If Bach built a cathedral in sound, and Mozart evoked an ideal world of grace and beauty, Beethoven left us a sort of diary. He is often credited as the first composer to realize the potential of music to become the expression of individual personality. While Baroque composers sought to express the “affects”—sentiments universal to human nature—the Romantic era sought to give music a more explicitly personal, autobiographical content. We see this clearly in Beethoven’s works. While based on classic forms, they are filled with poetic associations—like the deep love of nature evoked in the Pastoral symphony or the grateful prayer to God that forms the slow movement of the late A-minor String Quartet—and listeners take for granted that many of them relate to Beethoven’s inner emotional life.
It has been suggested that Beethoven’s universal appeal is partly due to his being the first “freelance composer.” Instead of writing to satisfy the pleasure of an individual patron, he wrote for humanity at large and thus was able to give his music a wide expressive scope. Every emotional state can be found in his music, and it accompanies us in our various emotional states. As composers sought independence from patronage, music became less tied to ephemeral circumstances. Whereas Bach had to compose a cantata for every Sunday of the church year, and Mozart had to produce serenades on order for weddings and parties, Beethoven’s freedom from patrons and deadlines meant that he could aim at a much more elusive target: posterity.
The idea that a great artist wrote for an unseen future audience, and that his work would not be understood until after his death—and therefore he must suffer and be misunderstood in the present—is inherently Romantic. It goes hand in hand with the notion that a great artist’s work will be unconventional and difficult to listen to—which indeed was the case with much of Beethoven’s work, especially from late in his life. At first glance this would seem to contradict the idea of Beethoven as a popular and accessible composer. Yet the contradiction is only apparent. We thrill to the drama of the misunderstood artist; it makes us explore his work all the more. The work receives more exposure, and thus we come to know it and understand it better. We have come to recognize how the “bizarre” elements of Beethoven’s style—the abrupt changes, offbeat rhythms, rough humor—reflect in an intense way how we experience everyday life. It is less idealized and more “realistic” than music had been previously.
In Bach’s time, music had a smaller public—an audience largely of connoisseurs and aristocrats, the patrons of the composer, as well as devoted amateurs. A composer strove to show his mastery of and inventiveness in established forms (think of Bach’s mastery of fugue). From Beethoven onward, the audience for music would be broader and musical composition would be defined by the individual creative personality. Originality became a trait to be consciously sought. Hence the bold individuality of Beethoven’s music, with its novel approach to harmony and rhythm and its unheard-of expansion of form (the first movement of the Eroica Symphony may be the longest symphonic movement up to that time). Such independence of spirit compels our attention and admiration.
Beethoven’s rise also coincided with a secularizing trend in music, due to Enlightenment values and the loss of church patronage that had sustained composers for centuries. While Bach could say that he wrote music for the glory of God, such a specifically religious statement of purpose would become rare. The precise nature of Beethoven’s religious beliefs is much debated—he was a baptized Catholic—and this is not to discount the very real meaning that a Christian listener may draw from Christ on the Mount of Olives, the Mass in C and Missa Solemnis. But his oeuvre as a whole is nonsectarian, and this may well be a reason why it speaks so strongly to the modern sensibility. When Beethoven writes a “holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity” (the great slow movement of his A-minor Quartet), it is not cast in a specific liturgical form; it is a religious sentiment that people of different confessions can relate to and draw personal meaning from.
For all these reasons Beethoven is the most universal and popular composer in our tradition. That the Fifth Symphony became a symbol of the Allies during World War II and that, decades later, the Ninth Symphony with its choral Ode to Joy was performed as the Berlin Wall fell, testify to the composer’s strong public presence. And while it’s true that this music has often become the pretext for platitudes about democracy and peace and brotherhood, more important is the aesthetically uplifting mood it conveys. His symphonies, without exception, are ordered toward hope and transcendence, a pattern that is closely related to the strong pull of tonality in his music. Tension is succeeded by resolution, upheaval by victory, darkness by light—like the burst of exultant C major in the finale of the Fifth. Despite all he suffered, Beethoven does not give way to despair; his music affirms the value of life and the design and purpose inherent in the universe.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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The featured image, a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Karl Jäger (1833-1887), is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.