The Beethoven boom continues apace. No other composer so completely defines our concert life in each important genre – symphonies, concertos, and chamber music – and no other is subject to such ongoing scrutiny of his life and his art. Indeed, with the passing of time and a deeper knowledge of historical incident has come increased appreciation of his breathtaking, path-breaking innovation. Perceived as unique in his own day, he remains so in ours.
Beethoven’s early training with Christian Gottlob Neefe affirmed his abilities; the first published notice he received, in 1783, applauded a “youthful genius” (Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, p. 66) and Neefe praised him as “unquestionably now one of the foremost pianoforte players” (Thayer, op. cit, p. 113). His inevitable migration from Bonn to Vienna – the Imperial capital and artistically pre-emminent – came in 1792, when he was 21 years old.
Haydn, we know, taught him briefly in a mutually unsatisfying relationship, and there also was tutelage with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the city’s foremost teacher of counterpoint, and with Imperial Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. But nothing learnt from these men can directly account for the transformations he later wrought in how music was composed and how it was perceived. Although primarily known as keyboard virtuoso at first, as a soloist and improviser second to none Beethoven quickly won acknowledgement as the composer who would inherit the mantle of Classicism – nobody assimilated as fully the ethos of Mozart and Haydn. Yet, from the start of his Viennese career, he set about consciously to undermine the premises and practices of his artistic progenitors and redefine music’s most fundamental assumptions.
Beethoven arrived in the Austrian capital with a modest portfolio; his earliest Viennese works, however, already displayed those characteristics we associate with the mature composer: his “longrange control over bold harmonic action,” (Grove, Beethoven entry, p. 379), including melodic concision, rhythmic vigor, and rigorous motivic development.