Beethoven-Jazz-blog-image-6-11-16Did Beethoven invent jazz?

No, of course not! (But hey, can't I have a little fun with a blog title once in a while?)

But what Beethoven did do, was to use a few musical elements that would become cornerstones of the jazz style, 110 years later.

Curiously, Beethoven used one of these jazzy elements in the 1st movement of his first piano sonata and the other in the last movement of his last piano sonata; effectively bookending his 32 piano sonata output with elements of jazz.

Even at his most playful, Beethoven isn't really a "jazzy" composer in the sense that Bach and Mozart can be. There are many places in both of those composer's works that are very close to jazz in spirit and sound. So it's all the more striking to find these two passages in Beethoven where he foreshadows jazz so exactly.

Beethoven spent his whole career breaking down musical barriers into abstraction. (Unlike Bach, who was born into a fully-developed contrapuntal tradition and was already abstract from the beginning.) Beethoven took the music of the early classicists and gradually made things "less obvious." What key are we in? Where's the downbeat? What's the musical form? (Yes, other composers did this sometimes too, but Beethoven took this principle very, very far. So far, in fact, that he led us right out of the Classical and into the Romantic period of music!)

Even in his very first piano sonata, which he composed when he was only 14 years old(!), Beethoven did what he could to disguise the downbeat. The first beat of each measure is traditionally emphasized, but in one passage, Beethoven has the pianist's left hand only playing chords on beats 2 and 4. (Sound familiar, jazzers?) Of course these are the very beats that jazz musicians tend to emphasize. It's one of the specific characteristics of jazz and can be heard everywhere from a drummer's high hat rhythm to the accents in a walking bass line.

Here's Beethoven's score. Check out the LH chords on beats 2 and 4:
Beethoven 1:1

If we fast-forward to the early jazz era, we find this technique used by groups such as Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. At times, the band would accompany the soloist with this exact rhythm. Everyone, even the drummer, would leave beats 1 and 3 empty while the soloist soared above this unusual pattern. The effect is the same as with Beethoven's sonata: a syncopated rhythm with a lively sense of forward propulsion.

When Beethoven again anticipated jazz, in his final piano sonata, the effect is even more striking. The last movement of Piano Sonata No. 32 is written in a fast triplet rhythm that sounds like it "swings" in the jazz sense. He even has the right hand play a "Charleston" rhythm with chords on the downbeat and the "and" of beat 2. Here's the excerpt:
Beethoven 32:2

I made a video so you can hear these 2 examples:
Did Beethoven invent jazz?

So even though Beethoven didn't exactly invent jazz, it's fascinating to see how his musical interests led him to use some of the exact rhythmic techniques that early jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong used a century later. Even though they each came from a different time and culture, they were looking for at some of the same things in their music.

And by the way, Beethoven used jazzy "blue" notes in each of these passages. Jazzy rhythms plus blue notes. Coincidence? 🙂

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