I’m wrapping up Beethoven #2 at the moment. The “Choral Fantasy” was round one, and the Missa Solemnis is round three. I’m still not a Beethoven fan in terms of his vocal compositions, although some of his earlier masses are nice. He tends to park vocalists up at the top of our range and then come back later. Even the tenors have been muttering darkly about “was he writing for castrati?”
One of the other challenges with Beethoven, for vocalist and instrumentalist, is that we think of him as Romantic but he’s not. In some ways he prefigures the Romantic movement (Brahms) but he’s actually a classical composer, and has to be treated in that way to get an accurate sound. If you sing his music as Romantic, it’s not being true to what he intended.
This is why his volume changes are… abrupt. You get eight or ten fast beats to go from very, very quiet to top of the dial loud. Classical music (Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn) tends to do that. The long, slow building tension and passion of Romantic isn’t there yet, even though modern performers sometimes default to that style. As someone said, Beethoven didn’t have a modern piano. Mozart certainly didn’t. The piano really “makes” Romantic style in some ways.
So singers, and instrumentalists, have to change volume and intonation almost instantly. This is a very good way to hurt yourself. Beethoven seems to inspire choirs to scream or bark rather than singing. You need to be loud and to cut over the orchestra. The temptation is to let your voice slide back in your throat, and to force loud sounds. That way leads to disaster, and actually makes your voice fade into the orchestra. Only proper, forward technique and good tone quality gets through.
What was interesting was the looks of comprehension vs. confusion when the orchestra conductor said, “Remember, Beethoven is a Classical composer, not Romantic. We have to perform him as Classical or it doesn’t work properly.” Those of us who grew up with some music history knew what was meant. The younger folks looked puzzled.
Classical today is not used to refer to a specific time period and style. It means orchestral and choral music that’s not rock, jazz, New Age, R&B, hip-hop, country, or gospel. So we have modern classical composers (John Williams could be considered one, and is) and 18th-19th century Classical composers, who come before the Romantics and after baroque.
Classical music is not as linear as Baroque, and has more variation in tempo and intensity written into each part. However, it is also not focused on emotion and “sound painting” the way the Romantics would be. Again, this has in part to do with who was paying for the music, and what instruments were available. The harpsichord has one volume setting. Other instruments, and human voices, could do more, but not all the instruments were the same then as now. In 1750, trumpets did not have valves, and were more limited in what they could do. By 1820, we have close to modern trumpets. Likewise violins and some of the other stringed instruments. Technology contributed to the options available. However, style takes longer to change than does technology.
So, back to Beethoven. He straddles two compositional eras. He began as very much Classical, like Mozart and Haydn. His early masses and compositions are Classical. Then he went his own way, and became Beethoven. In some ways he just “was,” a musical odd-ball.