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Beethoven continues to intimidate / CPR Classical

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Some years ago, I was stopped at a traffic light and heard Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 on the radio. It dawned on me (after many times listening and playing it in orchestras on the violin) that Brahms channeled his predecessor, Ludwig van Beethoven.

The young Brahms cleverly passed this famous rhythmic tattoo among the various voices in the orchestra. Sometimes it's in your face. Sometimes it's subtle like this:

There are other nods to Beethoven in Brahms' First Symphony that have been well pointed out. For instance, the nature of the broad, stately theme in Brahms' finale has been compared to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."  

The pressure of such high expectations terrified him. That's why Brahms took nearly two decades - from early doodles and sketches to final product - to complete that first symphony. Once he cleared that hurdle, the music flowed freely. He completed his other three symphonies each in less than a year.   

The looming shadow of Beethoven was and is legendary; intimidating numerous composers who followed him. Besides Brahms, great symphonists like Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler felt his presence.

David Korevaar, a concert pianist and Distinguished Professor in the College of Music at the University of Colorado Boulder, said Beethoven had a similar effect on his contemporaries, including his teacher. 

 "Poor Haydn," Korevaar said.

Franz Josef Haydn realized his student's genius and changed his focus as a composer. Haydn pretty much stopped writing instrumental music and turned his attention largely to choral works instead.

"Beethoven by the late 1790s made such an impact that Haydn - who, after Mozart's death, briefly got to revel in being the greatest composer in Vienna - found himself again eclipsed," Korevaar said.

Two centuries later, Beethoven continues to intimidate.

"There's this kind of masterpiece complex where we say, 'Do you dare to play this music?' Well, why not?" Korevaar said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Korevaar challenged himself to record all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas, mostly in his home living room  The goal was to complete the cycle in 60 days. He did it in 41.