“When we examine things finely enough,” writes Gary Saul Morson, “they baffle us with ever finer distinctions.” So it is with the music of Beethoven and the circumstances surrounding its composition. As devotees of classical music prepare to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s birth, they can be grateful for all that has been uncovered about his life and times and music. But they realize there is always more to see, always finer distinctions to be made.

Mark Ferraguto, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, looks through a musicological microscope at a group of works from a single year of Beethoven’s second period. Extending from 1802 to about 1815, the second period includes some of Beethoven’s most popular compositions: the “Emperor” Concerto; the Third through Eighth Symphonies; and the...


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