The Looming Shadow of Beethoven

What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.  

–Beethoven (1770-1827)


Nineteenth-century composers were forced to operate beneath the mighty legacy of Beethoven.

And that legacy wielded more influence upon Beethoven’s successors, the so-called Romantics, than did any other contributing factor. This means Beethoven had more influence on music than did literature, poetry, or the visual arts, which are the three factors usually considered the prime movers of the Romantic period.  

Imagine you’re Franz Schubert or Robert Schumann or Hector Berlioz, and you’re composing in the aftermath of Beethoven’s death, and it’s clear to you that Beethoven will be lionized by posterity, how would you operate musically? Would you spend a lot of time writing symphonies, concertos, and string quartets in a strict classical style just like Beethoven?

Probably not, unless you wanted to hear endless comparisons—likely not good ones—between you and the old master.

Looking for other avenues of expression would seem the only sane option. The rest of this blog post explores how Schubert, Schumann, and Berlioz each kept their musical sanity beneath the looming shadow Beethoven.

Schumann Quotes Beethoven’s Music to tell His Girlfriend—Virtuoso Pianist Clara Wieck—that He Loves Her

In addition to being an adept musician, pianist, and composer, Robert Schumann was an adept writer, editor, and publisher. He wrote many articles for a music magazine that he co-founded called, Die Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, “The New Journal for Music” (Robert Schumann para. 15).

German Romantic pianist/ composer, Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Here is Schumann writing in his magazine and reflecting on Beethoven’s capacity to supersede even the brilliant Mozart:

“Let us not forget the beautiful epoch which Mozart dominated and which Beethoven then shook until it shuddered in every joint” (Schumann 23).

British musicologist, John Worthen described how Schumann coped with Beethoven’s shaking and shuddering in his 2007 book, Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician. Worthen writes that Schumann, “like his contemporaries [still] felt in the shadow of Beethoven,” and that he needed to “create something which—like his piano music—expressed his own new musical romanticism” (209).

Schumann actively “expressed his own new musical romanticism” and distanced himself from the style of Beethoven, yet he still respected and revered the great composer. This fact was made plain by Schumann when he composed a large-scale piano solo in 1836 called, Fantasie in C-major, which featured a long musical quote from Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (Worthen 128).

Separated from his beloved Clara by order of her protective father, Schumann used the quote in Fantasie in C-major to communicate surreptitiously with her. This is a thoroughly romantic notion if there ever was one.

However, the Fantasie is a pretty straightforward piano sonata, and it’s very much in the Classical style. To many listeners, it may be indistinguishable from Beethoven. With the Fantasie in C-major, Schumann managed to be simultaneously Romantic and Classical—a feat sought after by many nineteenth century composers.

One of Beethoven’s Great Admirers, Schubert Laments Never Getting to Know the Great Man Personally

Franz Schubert’s dying wish was to be buried next to Beethoven, and his final musical request was to hear string quartet No. 14 in C# minor Opus 131. This is a piece revered for Beethoven otherworldly heights of sorrowful drama, so it was perfect music for Schubert’s deathbed scene (“Franz Schubert” para 24).

Austrian Romantic pianist, composer, and songwriter, Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

However, he was twenty-five years younger than Beethoven, so he naturally felt intimidated by the old master.

Nevertheless, the two were operating concurrently in Vienna, Austria, so they can be thought of as colleagues.

Despite their shared space, two factors kept them from having any real interaction: (1) Schubert’s shy nature, and (2) Beethoven’s withdrawal from the public eye towards the end of his life. They almost certainly met on several occasions, though. But these interactions were done in passing among groups of people and without any real discussions occurring between the two masters. They certainly never got to know one another personally. Schubert regretted this fact from his deathbed (Gibbs 137).

His disappointment was due to how seriously he took up Beethoven’s mantle, if only as a steward. Here is Schubert expressing his own role in the preservation of the Classical style:

“Our castle is not imposing, but it is well built, and surrounded by a very fine garden. I live in the bailiff’s house” (“brainyquote” para 24).

A bailiff is an overseer of an estate, so Schubert was suggesting that he was a sort of protectorate for Beethoven’s musical legacy.

The most obvious way he offered his protection was through imitation. For example, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 resembles Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Both works are impressively beautiful, brilliantly virtuosic, and ridiculously long—both clocking in at over an hour. In classic Beethoven fashion, Schubert’s ninth symphony was declared unplayable by some Viennese conductors, many of whom had made similar noises about Beethoven’s ninth symphony (“Franz Schubert” para 21).

Although Beethoven had no rival, Franz Schubert may have been his closest competitor.

Berlioz Realizes The Power of Instrumental Music Through Beethoven’s Model and Writes a Symphony Based on His Own Romantic Infatuation

As it happens, Beethoven had many deputies. Another custodian of his genius was Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Although at first glance this wily composer of drug-influenced symphonic music and literature-inspired program music may seem more of an assailant to Beethoven’s formalisms than protectorate, Berlioz was, in fact, as committed a disciple as any of the Romantics.

Hector Berlioz
French Romantic composer, Hector Berlioz (1805?-1869)

Here he is on the matter of Beethoven’s legacy from an 1862 letter to a friend:

“Beethoven wrote seven masterpieces but Beethoven is not human. And when you are only a human being you should not pass judgment on the God” (Tayeb and Austin para 10).

Berlioz’s prayers to the Beethovian deity must have been answered because he somehow managed to combine Beethoven’s tendency for epic proportions and structural formalism with the Romantic tendency for ad hoc arrangements and programmatic source material. This sort of fusion is most apparent in Berlioz’s masterpiece, Symphonie Fantastique (Steen 316).

Since Beethoven had taken the symphonic form to the absolute edge of possibility, Berlioz knew that he needed an additional element for his symphonic music. The additional element for Symphonie Fantastique was an autobiographical poem about romantic infatuation.

The poem told a story of unrequited love and Berlioz’s attendant descent into madness. Each movement of the piece was tied together by a single melodic theme. Through the course of five movements, the theme changed from a benign and happy tune into a malignant and terrifying one. A single musical idea used in such a way was known as an idee fixe, a concept best described as an obsessively repeated thought.

The Symphonie Fantastique was a revolutionary composition, and Berlioz proved himself an innovator.

Despite his alterations to the symphonic form, Berlioz felt indebted to Beethoven’s model. He covered the topic in his memoirs where he wrote that “Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry” (“Hector Berlioz” para 54).

Perhaps Berlioz could’ve gone further and said Beethoven revealed a new universe of musical emotion only available through the world of poetry.


German pianist/composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven was the prime mover for the Romantic period. Without his influence, the music of the period would’ve taken on a very different character—perhaps an opaque and diaphanous version that lacked Beethoven’s enormous emotional power, epic structures, and deep drama.

Schumann, Schubert, Berlioz, and others dealt with the looming shadow of Beethoven in various ways—both by running in the opposite direction and by leaning in for a loving embrace—but all composers, one way or another, were forced to deal with Beethoven’s monument and its position from on high.

Works Cited

Gibbs, C.H. The Life of Schubert. Ambridge University Press: 2000. 

“Hector Berlioz.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 Feb. 2016. 

Comini, Alessandra. The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking. Santa Fe, New Mexico. 2008. 

“Franz Schubert.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 Feb. 2016. 

“Robert Schumann.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Feb. 2016. 

Schumann, R. Schumann on Music: A Selection from the Writings. Published by Courier Corporation. 

Tayeb, M. and Austin, M. Berlioz and Beethoven. The Hector Berlioz Website. 18 Jan. 1997. 

Worthen, J. Robert Schuman Life and Death of a Musician. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2007.

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