Being overshadowed by greatness is something that's a part of life in many fields, and music is no exception. In a way, this article is intended to express sympathy and admiration for those poor, unfortunate composers - some of whom were very good - who just happened to be alive at the same time as Beethoven.
Talk about a "towering presence"! Beethoven was famous in his own lifetime, even if he wasn't universally loved as a person or understood as a composer. Around 20,000 lined the streets of Vienna for his funeral procession. The Beethoven cult which arose even before he died continued throughout the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Indeed, it probably continues in some form today. Beethoven was so important, so famous, so revolutionary, and so good, that composers who lived at the same time - even composers of the calibre of Schubert - had a tough time of it.
This post looks at some of the composers who lived and worked in the shadow of Beethoven. I hope it’ll reveal that the great man lived in a vibrant musical culture full of talented, gifted people. All up, we'll look at nineteen different composers. A few will be very well-known, some less so (and for obvious reasons, some will have been mentioned in my last post on Mozart’s contemporaries). Many knew Beethoven personally and all of them wrote music which is worth hearing.
Beethoven was born in 1770 but we start with a composer who was a generation or so older, Leopold Kozeluch. Kozeluch was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1747 and - like many of the composers I'll mention in this overview - was a gifted pianist. Both Mozart and Beethoven knew Kozeluch and his music, which includes 30 symphonies, 22 piano concertos, other orchestral works, sonatas, chamber music, choral music, songs, operas and ballets. The symphonies mostly date from the 1780s (when Beethoven was a teenager) and are in the high classical fashion of the day. While his later works look forward to the Romantic style of the 19th century, the earlier works invite a direct comparison with Haydn. [listen]
Born in 1752 - five years after Kozeluch - was a composer whose name is more familiar to us today, Muzio Clementi. These days Clementi is remembered mainly for his piano sonatas (he wrote about 110 of them) which are often given to students as preparatory works before tackling Mozart and Beethoven. However in his day Clementi was a major figure in European music, not only as a composer. He was a famous pianist, highly regarded as a teacher, one of the major European music publishers, and a well-known piano manufacturer. Clementi was one of Beethoven's publishers, and he spent much of his time in England. It's probably due to him that Beethoven gained a major following in Britain; we sometimes forget that the ninth symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London.
Mozart had unkind things to say about Clementi, but it's interesting that the opening of this sonata of Clementi's - written in 1781 and published in 1788 - seems to have been in Mozart's mind when he came to write The Magic Flute a few years later. [listen]
Most of Clementi's output is for the piano, but in addition to all those sonatas he also wrote a smaller amount of chamber music, orchestral music, vocal music and teaching works.
Another composer from this period, but one with a very different focus, was Paul Wranitzky. Born in Moravia in 1756, Wranitzky was a violinist, composer and conductor. He wrote much for the stage and a great deal of orchestral music. He and his brother Anton were among Vienna's most highly-regarded violinists, and Paul Wranitzky conducted, among many other things, the first performance of Beethoven's first symphony.
Wranitzky's own symphonies (there are 51 of them!) are still worth a look today. This is the finale of a symphony in C minor, published in the early 1790s. The influence of Mozart is very strong in this piece and it shows Wranitzky to be a vibrant and imaginative composer. [listen]
Ignaz Pleyel was born a year after Paul Wranitzky, in 1757. Though born in Austria, Pleyel made his name in France, initially in Strasbourg and then - from 1795 - in Paris, and so he lived through some of the most turbulent times in French history. He still managed, though, to have a multiple career as a composer, and then as a publisher, and eventually as a piano manufacturer. He outlived Beethoven, dying in 1831 not far from Paris, but his own music never left the Classical era and was already out of date by the time of his death. Still, he was an enormously prolific composer, leaving a large amount of orchestral and chamber music (including many symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano trios). Pleyel's quartets show a strong debt to Haydn but that's not surprising; every composer's quartets in the late 18th century did that, even Mozart's. This is part of a quartet in G minor; this piece alone makes me realise Pleyel deserves more attention. [listen]
Another Czech composer who gained fame throughout Europe was Jan Ladislav Dussek, who was born in 1760. Dussek was one of a family of musicians with the same surname and he was known in his day as a piano virtuoso. He travelled widely, working for periods of time in Holland, Hamburg, Eastern and Central Europe, France, Italy and London. His work is yet another example of music which straddles the classical style of Haydn and Mozart and the early Romantic style of Beethoven and Schubert. As might be expected, a lot of Dussek's music is for the piano, including a large number of sonatas. The E flat sonata op 44 was published in 1800 and it has the subtitle of "The Farewell". It invites interesting - and favourable - comparisons with Beethoven's sonata with a similar title, published 11 years later. [listen]
In surveying composers who lived at the same time as Beethoven - and who today tend to be overshadowed by him - it seems that a high proportion of them spent time in Paris. The next - though born in Italy - spent most of his working life there. Luigi Cherubini was born in 1760 - ten years before Beethoven - but came to be one of the most important and influential composers of opera in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Paris. In later life he devoted himself to sacred music, and his C minor Requiem of 1816 - much-admired by Beethoven and performed at his funeral - is still occasionally performed today.
Cherubini's 40 or so operas span the worlds of 18th century opera seria to early Romantic heroic drama, but apart from the Medea of 1797 very few are ever revived today. This is the overture to Cherubini's Anacréon, premiered in 1803. [listen]
One of the more colourful figures of Beethoven's time was the pianist Daniel Steibelt, who was born in Berlin in 1765. After initial success in Paris as a composer of opera he travelled around Europe making a name for himself as a piano virtuoso. He's described in Grove as appearing to have been "vain, arrogant, discourteous, recklessly extravagant and even dishonest". He's known to have passed off old works as new, and bizarrely added tambourine parts to some of his piano works so that these could be played by his wife while he played the piano. She was apparently a virtuoso tambourinist. After the performance, the tambourine was auctioned off to the audience.
In 1800 Steibelt visited Vienna and entered into a keyboard duel with Beethoven. Each had to improvise more and more virtuosic music until one or other was clearly outdone. Beethoven won decisively but Steibelt's colourful career took him back to Paris and then eventually to St Petersburg, where he died in 1823. Many feel Steibelt's best music is in his operas, but his piano music - including about 160 sonatas - is at the core of his large output. [listen]
Anton Reicha was born in 1770, ten months before Beethoven, and is mainly remembered today as one of the composers who put the wind quintet on the map as a viable ensemble. He was born in Prague and when he was 15 moved with his family to Bonn, where he made the acquaintance of Beethoven. Eventually both composers ended up in Vienna, although Reicha later went on to live in Paris, where he died in 1836.
Apart from his many works for wind quintet and other chamber ensembles, Reicha also wrote theatrical works, orchestral music and choral works. While in Vienna, around 1806, he wrote a number of cello quintets, scored for solo cello and string quartet. This elegant music is perfectly of its time, and serves to lay to rest the myth that Reicha could only write for winds. [listen]
A little-known name from the period under discussion here is that of Joseph Wölfl. Wölfl was born in Salzburg in 1773, and he studied in there with Leopold Mozart (father of Wolfgang) and Michael Haydn (brother of Joseph). He was a renowned piano virtuoso with a huge finger span, and he moved to Vienna in 1790. There he was a rival of Beethoven, and in a piano duel between the two Beethoven again came out on top. Wölfl's career took him to Paris and London, and while he left a number of stage works as well as chamber music, his piano music is at the centre of his surviving compositions. He wrote dozens of sonatas, among them this one, part of his op 33 set, published in 1805. [listen]
We now come to a much more familiar name (and a composer to whom I’ve devoted an entire post previously): Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Hummel was born in 1778 and as a child prodigy went to live and study with Mozart. He was regarded as one of the finest pianists of his day and had a reasonably close friendship with Beethoven, although they later had a falling out, something not unusual with Beethoven who was difficult to get along with at the best of times.
Hummel was greatly influential on later generations of pianists, including Chopin and Schumann. He died in 1837, ten years after Beethoven, and his music very much helped set the stage for German Romanticism. Most of his later career was based in Weimar, where Goethe was also based, and this helped him maintain a high profile in European culture of the time. This is Hummel's Rondo brillant in B flat, Op. 98, which dates from the early 1820s. [listen]
The name Diabelli is remembered today mainly as belonging to the music publisher who brought about the composition of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. But in addition to being a publisher, Anton Diabelli (who was born in 1781), was also a composer. He wrote an operetta, sacred music, songs, and works for piano. He also wrote a number of works which involve the guitar including a Serenata Concertante for flute, guitar and viola. [listen]
The next composer is much better-known. Carl Maria von Weber was born five years after Anton Diabelli, in 1786. Weber is one of the most important composers in German music, and one whose music is better known than most in this survey. Along with Beethoven and Schubert, he's perhaps one of the greatest figures in music by German-speaking composers of the early 19th century. His tragically early death in 1826 at the age of only 39 certainly robbed us of great things.
Weber's opera Der Freischütz is cited by most commentators as his finest achievement. It was first performed in Berlin in 1821 and it's usually regarded as the first real Romantic opera in German. The Wolf's Glen scene at the end of the second act is one of the great horror scenes. [listen]
A name also known well these days, but perhaps for the wrong reasons, is that of Carl Czerny, born in 1791. Czerny's huge output of teaching music for the piano has led to him being perhaps loathed by generations of piano students who were forced to play his technical studies whist unaware of his other works. Famous in his day as both a pianist and a teacher, Czerny's compositions include many sonatas and shorter piano works, orchestral and chamber works, and sacred choral music. This is his Variations brillantes. It's one of those works which sound deceptively simple - and shallow - at the start. The theme is straightforward and predictable, but as the variations proceed we see Czerny capable of dazzling us with technical virtuosity and great dramatic timing. [listen]
Also born in 1791, just a few months after Czerny, was Giacomo Meyerbeer. Here again we encounter a brilliant pianist, and for a time he was torn between performing and composing. He studied with Clementi and was acquainted with Beethoven, but it was eventually composition which won out. Meyerbeer made his name as a composer of opera, and especially grand opera in the French manner. A large proportion of his career was based in Paris where his works were very popular.
Apart from one symphony, one concerto, and a small number of instrumental works, all of Meyerbeer's music involves the human voice. He wrote a huge number of songs, cantatas and sacred works, but his seventeen surviving operas mark him out as one of the great stage composers of his time. One of his grandest operas, still occasionally performed today, is Les Huguenots, which premiered in Paris in 1836. [listen]
Even more famous as an opera composer than Meyerbeer was Gioachino Rossini, born in 1792. Rossini is perhaps the only one of all of Beethoven's contemporaries who was not actually bothered by his greatness. In no respect could it be said that Rossini ever lived in Beethoven's shadow, because their lives were so different. One writer has said that Rossini "held sway in such a different geographical and artistic arena that he might as well have been a sculptor or a poet".
By the time Beethoven and Rossini met in Vienna in 1822 Rossini was 30 and famous all over Europe. Beethoven, then 51 and very deaf, congratulated Rossini on the success of The Barber of Seville (which had premiered in 1816) and predicted its eternal popularity. Rossini's operas were all written in the first half of his life, after which he retired to Paris and lived off his royalties, writing only minor works for the last 30 years or so of his life, but Beethoven was certainly right about The Barber of Seville... [listen]
The Prague-born Ignaz Moscheles had a close relationship with Beethoven, whom he idolised. Moscheles was born in 1794 and he too was a famed piano virtuoso. Beethoven supported him and gave him important tasks, such as preparing the piano score of Fidelio. Moscheles' later career took him all over Europe as a famous pianist, most notably in London, and he had a close friendship with Felix Mendelssohn. Moscheles left a wide variety of works, many as one might expect involving the piano. These include seven piano concertos (an eighth only survives in a fragment). This is part of the sixth concerto, known as the "Fantastique". It premiered in London in 1834. [listen]
Beethoven's greatest and most gifted contemporary was 27 years his junior, and of all the famous Viennese composers was one of the very few to have actually been born in that city. Franz Schubert needs no introduction and even though his genius is undisputed, I think it's fair to say that as he and Beethoven both lived in Vienna that at times he felt overwhelmed by the great man's work. Sadly, Schubert only outlived Beethoven by a year, dying at the age of 31 in 1828. [listen]
At the other end of the fame spectrum - almost totally unknown today - is the French composer Henri Jérôme Bertini, who was born in London to French parents in 1798. His career was based in Paris. He was regarded as one of the finest pianists of his age and was a greatly respected - and respectful - teacher. In an age when garish flamboyance was the norm, Bertini was regarded as one of the most scrupulous and thorough artists of the day. He took great concern in the development of his students and his music for the piano is likewise beautifully crafted. His playing was often likened to that of Clementi, Hummel and Moscheles: rare praise indeed. There are many amateur recordings of Bertini’s piano music available on YouTube, but sadly not much else.
To conclude this survey of Beethoven's contemporaries I invoke one of the most famous names, among pianists and among composers: Franz Liszt. Liszt was born in 1811 so was only 16 when Beethoven died in 1827, but when he was just 12 the prodigiously gifted Liszt met Beethoven and played for him. This meeting has become shrouded in legend ever since but it's a meeting which seems to have actually taken place. Beethoven is supposed to have kissed the boy in admiration of his playing, and even the kiss itself has taken on a holy aura; it's known in German as the Weihekuss, the kiss of consecration. Regardless of the details, there's no doubting that throughout his long life Liszt regarded Beethoven with due reverence, and his amazing transcriptions of all nine Beethoven symphonies for solo piano remain one of the great acts of homage from one genius to another. They certainly remain incredibly challenging for any pianist who would tackle them today. [listen]
I hope this survey has helped shine some light in some otherwise darkened corners of the repertoire. There are many composers who lived and worked at the same time as Beethoven who wrote music which is thankfully becoming more available on recordings. The work of these composers is richly rewarding - and plentiful - so I hope you're able to discover some more on your own.
This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October and November, 2010.