Nowadays when we think about artists using technology in their art – whether that be musicians, actors, writers etc – we probably think about them incorporating digital technology into their work. For example, a musician using MIDI instruments or apps like Garage Band to compose, or computer programmes to write down their music; or an artist combining video with other media in their artwork.
In every age throughout history there have been amazing developments in technology that have helped artists in their craft. New ways of making or writing down music, maybe, or new instruments to write for or play. And while we now see these as old, or ancient. ways of making or writing music, to composers in their day these developments would have been state-of-the-art, cutting edge, exciting developments.
What were the technological developments from Beethoven’s day?
In Beethoven’s day there were two developments in particular that hugely impacted the music he wrote and the way his career as a musician progressed. At the time musicians generally earned their money by being attached to a particular Court, or being patronised by a wealthy aristocrat. The Court, or aristocrat, would commission pieces of music from the composer, or performances from them. An influential person like a member of the country’s Royal Family or Nobility watching a new opera performance could make or break that production by signalling their enjoyment of dislike of it. It was largely the tastes of the nobility in a particular country that determined what music was made or performed. And a composer was often subject to their whims and musical interests.
Just like other musicians, Beethoven accepted commissions to write music from the aristocracy. He was engaged as a Court musician at the start of his career. Beethoven also earned most of his income from performing, particularly his own music. But for Beethoven, his career started to change thanks to developments within the printing press, and in the development of a new musical instrument – the piano.
Developments in the printing press
In the past, if a composer wanted other people to have copies of their compositions – say for musicians to play the piece, or benefactors to receive the music they had paid for – then that composition had to be written out by hand. This was a long and laborious task. Only a few copies would be produced, and the composition would be heard by relatively few people.
Developments within the printing press meant that it was becoming easier and easier, and cheaper, to print music. So a composer could have many more copies of their work published. The work was easier for people to buy, and so more people could listen to a composer’s work. The upshot was that a composer could become famous, they would be sought after to give performances of their works thanks to their new found fame, earning more from their concerts. Publishing their works in itself became a new source of income as well. Composers became less and less reliant on the generosity of one or two patrons.
Beethoven was amongst the first composers to benefit from this new development. And there still exists a lot of correspondence between Beethoven and his publishers available for historians to review detailing the deals he made with publishers, and showing how this became an important source of income for him. Being far less reliant on writing music that someone else wanted him to write meant that Beethoven was far more free than many of his predecessors to write the music that he wanted to write. He could express his own musical ideas more easily without being constrained by the whims of a King or Nobleman (and it would have been men, generally, who were commissioning musical works).
The fact that Beethoven’s music could more easily be published, meant that more and more people heard his music and heard of him. He became a famous composer. People wanted to hear a piece of music performed by the composer, and so he was very much in demand as a performer, and his ability to earn a living performing his own music was increased.
Another musical development that occurred in Beethoven’s time was the development of a new musical instrument – the pianoforte, or piano for short. Before the piano, keyboard instruments had a shorter keyboard, meaning that they could play fewer notes, and their mechanism meant that there was only really one volume that the instrument could play. The piano was so called because it was the first keyboard instrument that could play both quiet (piano) and loud (forte). The piano also came equipped with a set of pedals that could change the playing mechanism so that it played quieter or with sustain, and the way a musician pressed the keys on the instrument produced a quieter or louder sound. The instrument could produce more sounds due to the larger keyboard and could be more expressive thanks to its playing mechanism.
The piano was a versatile and interesting instrument to compose for. Unlike many other instruments, pianists can play several notes at once, they can have a few different lines of music going at once – a melody line and a harmony line for instance. This means that composing for the piano you can make a richer, fuller sounding piece for just one performer. And composing a piece intended for just one performer again meant that a composer’s music could be performed more often by more people as there wasn’t the need to gather a whole choir or whole orchestra together to play a particular piece. Beethoven composed a lot of music for the piano, and also for smaller ensembles featuring the piano, such as for piano trio (often piano, violin and cello).
Next week I will post a suggested playlist giving you an introduction to some of Beethoven’s works, from his solo piano sonatas to his symphonies.
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