Wednesday, June 14, 2017


How and Where did Beethoven channel Mozart ?

Wolfgang Amade' Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Two of the greatest composers in history. Two composers who mastered Viennese Classical Style. Two composers who took Classicism to its apotheosis, and then, with Beethoven, opened the door to Romanticism, the door that Mozart knocked on. Two composers inextricably linked together, historically and stylistically.
Yet, Beethoven and Mozart most likely never met. Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen, in his detailed commentary in Hermann Abert's magisterial 1921 biography of Mozart, (edited and annotated in 2007), points out that the only time in which both composers were even in the same place, were a few weeks in the spring of 1787, when both were in Vienna. Beethoven arrived in the Habsburg capital some time in the first week of April, at the behest of his patrons in Bonn, with the express purpose of meeting and studying with Mozart. However, he had to leave abruptly only a few weeks later, to attend to his severely ill mother back in Bonn.

In April, 1787, Beethoven was an unknown sixteen year-old piano prodigy. Mozart was 31, well established in Vienna as a composer, pianist, violist, organist, conductor and piano pedagogue.

In 1856, sixty-nine years after those April weeks in 1787, the Mozart biographer Otto Jahn commented in his monumental Mozart biography that "it was communicated to me in Vienna on good authority that Beethoven may have played piano at a recital at which Mozart attended."

Here is Jahn: "....Beethoven made his appearance in Vienna as a young musician in the spring of 1787, but was only able to remain there a short time; he was introduced to Mozart, and played to him at his request. Mozart, considering the piece he performed to be a studied show-piece, was somewhat cold in his expressions of admiration. Beethoven, noticing this, begged for a theme for improvisation, and, inspired by the master he revered so highly, played in such a manner as to gradually engross Mozart's whole attention. Turning quietly to bystanders, he (Mozart) said emphatically, "Mark that young man; he will make a name for himself in the world...."

This second-hand anecdote is the only written comment we have about the putative meeting of the two geniuses. 

However, there is no contemporary document to corroborate the meeting. There is no letter written by Beethoven to commemorate it. Mozart does not describe an encounter with Beethoven in any of the copious correspondence that has been left to posterity. 
The authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians does not describe the meeting. 
Beethoven himself never mentioned or wrote that he had ever met Mozart or had ever played for him. Someone of Beethoven's enormous self-confidence and ego would likely have documented such a monumental event. 
He never did.
Carl Czerny and Ferdinand Ries, two of Beethoven's piano students and among his closest friends, disagreed as to whether Beethoven and Mozart had ever met.

Even if Beethoven  never greeted Mozart in person, and even if Beethoven never played in Mozart's presence, there is no doubt that Mozart's music had a profound influence on Beethoven's creative process.

One of the more famous anecdotes of Mozart's "effect" on Beethoven is found in Alexander Wheelock Thayer's monumental biography of Beethoven. It concerns Beethoven and the great fortepianist Johann Baptist Cramer. At an Augarten concert in Vienna, they were seated next to each other, listening to a performance of Mozart's c minor piano concerto, KV 491. Upon hearing the lovely motif in the coda to the finale, Beethoven turned to his friend and exclaimed, "Cramer ! Cramer ! We shall never be able to do anything like that." (In actuality, it was the motif in the first movement of the concerto that had caught Beethoven's attention, but Thayer cannot be faulted, as he had heard this story only from Cramer's widow, Cramer himself having died shortly before Thayer made his third trip from the United States to Europe in 1858 to continue his Beethoven research).

Mozart's influence on Beethoven was deep and long, and is evident in several of Beethoven's compositions:

The 19th century musicologist Gustav Nottebohm was the first to observe that the third movement theme in Beethoven's fifth symphony (c minor Op 67) has the same sequence as the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's 40th symphony (g minor, KV 550). Nottebohm noticed that, in Beethoven's sketchbook for his fifth symphony, Beethoven had copied out the first 29 bars of the finale of Mozart's 40th symphony, making it unlikely this was simply a motivic coincidence. 

The musicologist Charles Rosen noted that a theme from Mozart's Piano Concerto in c minor, KV. 491, occurs within Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto  and in the same tonic.

A prominent example of Beethoven channeling Mozart can be heard in the many similarities between Mozart's sublime Quintet for Piano and Winds in Eb, KV. 452, and Beethoven's quintet for the same instrumental combination and in the same tonic of Eb, Op. 16. The "coincidence" of the Eb tonic in both works is likely not Beethoven "copying" Mozart, but rather, both composers understanding the problems inherent in playing wind instruments. Eb major (F major for the Bb clarinet) is a preferred tonc for the clarinet and oboe, with fewer side keys or forked fingerings, and more natural for the French horn.

Mozart's  A major String Quartet, KV. 464, was a source for Beethoven's A major String Quartet Op. 18 No. 5.

Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, KV. 457, was a  model for Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata, Op. 13, in the same key. 

Beethoven wrote cadenzas (WoO 58) to the first and third movements of Mozart's piano concerto in d minor, KV. 466.

Beethoven wrote four sets of variations on themes by Mozart:
1) "Se vuol ballare" from Le Nozze di Figaro, for piano and violin, WoO 40 (1792–3);
2) "Là ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni, for two oboes and cor anglais, WoO 28 (?1795);
3)  "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from The Magic Flute, for piano and cello, Op. 66 (?1795);
4)  "Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen" from the same opera, for piano and cello, WoO 46 (1801).

Beethoven's feelings about Mozart's Don Giovanni were conflicted. In 1823, Beethoven wrote to the Archduke Rudolph that the "sacred art of music ought never to permit itself to be degraded to the position of being a foil for so scandalous a subject.” Beethoven’s indignation grew from his own religious view of Mozart as an artist. (1) (1)  Despite these reservations about Mozart's Don Giovanni, Beethoven went on to praise Mozart, stating that “there can be no loftier mission than to come nearer than other men to the Divinity, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind." Beethoven paid homage to Mozart's Don Giovanni (specifically, the opening theme of Leporello's aria, ‘Notte e giorno faticar’) in the 22nd of his monumental Diabelli Variations.

We can hear Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" motif decades earlier, in Mozart's 1775 sacred work, Misericordias Domini KV. 222 (listen particularly closely at 1:00 and 5:10)

A motif from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony can be heard in the overture to Mozart's 1768 opera, Bastien and Bastienne, KV 50, written forty years earlier.

Did Beethoven actually hear these last two Mozart's compositions, or was this an example of what I have termed "convergent musical evolution"? Beethoven likely never saw the manuscripts or heard performances of either the Misericordias Domini nor Bastien und Bastienne. He independently conjured these simple and enduring themes.


1. Cooper, M.  Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817- 1827 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 118 and 127.