Young composers are frequently pointed to late Beethoven as an example of the highest achievement of their art, and late Beethoven indeed rewards repeated study. But there are lessons in late Beethoven that have little bearing on composers who are still finding their way through the compositional process. Late Beethoven is impossible without early Beethoven: it is innovation built on a foundation of mastery. When young composers go for the late Beethoven version of their art, they risk innovation unsupported by a lifetime of experience, which can result in an empty pursuit of novelty.
A better lesson can be gained from comparing Beethoven’s second and fourth symphonies, to see how a composer of sensitivity can turn the dissatisfaction that perpetually plagues every artist into a building block for further accomplishment. Written five years later, the fourth covers a lot of the same ground as the second, but with greater economy, focus and mastery.
Compare the intros to the first movement. Compare the scherzos. Note the slow movement, where Beethoven switches pulse in the accompaniment from dotted rhythms to thirty-seconds to triplets, then into various combinations of those three, creating a subtle, ever-shifting sense of pacing. That’s the work of someone who has been down a path before and has a deeper appreciation for the way every detail contributes to the whole.
Then take an earlier work of your own and write an updated version of it. Focus on making every aspect of the piece better than its predecessor. If you can do that, you are on the way to being able to learn from late Beethoven everything that late Beethoven has to offer.
Not all composers will gain from this exercise, but for the ones who will it can be invaluable.