Beethoven – Classical or Romantic

Was Beethoven a Classical or a Romantic composer? The 6th Symphony seems to present the strongest case for the latter – it’s a programmatic work, and program music is a distinctive element of much romantic music. It was written in 1808, just three years after Wordworth finished his 13-book Prelude, when the romantic movement in poetry was in full swing. Also, the standard classical four-movement symphonic structure is replaced by five movements in the 6th symphony, a model which Berlioz adopted for his early romantic work, the Symphonie Fantastique.

Nevertheless, all the experts that I have referenced agree that Beethoven was a purely classical composer. In his classic survey The Classical Style Charles Rosen says:

Beethoven enlarged the limits of the classical style beyond all previous conceptions, but he never changed its essential structure or abandoned it, as did the composers who followed him. In the other fundamental aspects of his musical language, as well as in the key relations within a single movement, Beethoven may be said to have remained within the classical framework, even while using it in startlingly radical and original ways.
Charles Rosen, The Classical Style

There is a technical basis for this view, as Rosen explains how the classical style is rooted in the tonic-dominant relationship, while romantic composers (when not sticking strictly to sonata form) favour subdominants as secondary tonalities. This point is reinforced by close anlaysis of the 6th Symphony, which, as Bernstein says in one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures (available on DVD and in book form), is dominated by the tonic-dominant relation – F to C. Bernstein tells us that this tonal relationship is what the music is really ‘about’, and not the jonquils and the daisies implied by its ‘program’.

And if that weren’t enough, here’s one final expert opinion: :

For all the religious and potentially programmatic elements, the ‘Pastoral’ is never really in danger of forsaking its status as a Classical Symphony. True there are five movements, and some imitative bird song towards the end of the slow movement; but the latter is little more than an inventive cadenza and the former is self-evidently part of – or a powerful preface to – the Finale. Moreover, the craftmanship is unwavering.
Richard Osborne, Beethoven, A Guide to the Symphony

One response to “Beethoven – Classical or Romantic”

  1. Although I do agree with Charles Rosen , We should look further in time directing our attention more importantly to the problematic reception of Beethoven’s 9th synphony (choral) here we find use of fugal, cannon, Theme and variations, Kantian and Romantic ethos, and perhaps a precursor to the operatic form. Sure Beethoven still uses similarities which we can relate to classical symphonic form from the evidence of Marx, Dahlhaus,Wagner and Hoffman it is more acceptable to suggest that perhaps Beethoven was the keystone to the Beginning of the romantic movement. Due to the expressive nature of this symphony and the incompatibility with its presented Viennese audience of 1824. If we take into account the idea of the Beethoven periods (especially that of Beethoven’s late development (after deafness) it is plausible to suggest that Beethoven in many developmental ways was the creator or the “Missing link” to the romantic period.
    If anyone is interested in this idea I suggest reading Knittle’s monograph on Wagner,deafness and the reception of beethoven’s late style…

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