Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized December
17, 1770 d. March 26, 1827) was a German composer, the predominant
musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and
Romantic eras. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers
of all time.
Beethoven was born in Bonn in the archbishopric of Cologne in
western Germany. His parents were Johann van Beethoven (1740-92)
and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744-87). Ludwig's father
was himself a musician employed in the Electoral court at Bonn.
The family was Flemish in origin (hence "van", not "von")
and can be traced back to Mechelen, now in Belgium. They named
their son after his grandfather. Beethoven's parents had a total
of seven children, of whom only three survived infancy. These were
Beethoven and his two younger brothers, Caspar Anton Carl, born
1774, and Nikolaus Johann, born 1776.
Beethoven began his musical education under the tutorship of his
father, who was an alcoholic and is believed to have beaten him
in the course of his lessons. The child's musical talent manifested
itself early, and his father attempted unsuccessfully to exploit
the boy as a child prodigy.
In 1779 Beethoven became the protegé of Christian Gottlob
Neefe, who taught him composition. Beethoven soon began working
with Neefe as assistant organist, first on an unpaid basis (1791),
and then as paid employee of the court (1784). His first three
piano sonatas, the so-called "Kurfürst" sonatas,
were published in 1783. During this time, Beethoven's talent was
noticed and appreciated by the reigning prince, Elector Maximilian
Franz (1756-1801), who subsidized his musical studies.
In 1787, Beethoven traveled to Vienna hoping to study with Mozart.
Scholars disagree on the authenticity of a story whereby Beethoven
is said to have played for Mozart and impressed him. After just
two weeks in Vienna, Beethoven learned that his mother was severely
ill, and he was forced to return home. His mother died shortly
thereafter, and the father lapsed into incapacitating alcoholism.
Beethoven thus became responsible for the care of his two younger
brothers, and he spent the next five years in Bonn.
In 1789, he succeeded in obtaining a legal order by which half
of his father's salary was paid directly to him for support of
the family. Another source of income was payment for Beethoven's
service as a violist in the court orchestra. This familiarized
Beethoven with three of Mozart's operas performed at court in this
Establishing his career in Vienna
With the Elector's help, Beethoven moved again to Vienna in 1792.
Beethoven did not immediately set out to establish himself as a
composer, but rather devoted himself to study and to piano performance.
Working under the direction of Joseph Haydn, he sought to master
counterpoint, and he also took violin lessons. At the same time,
he established a reputation as a piano virtuoso and improviser
in the salons of the nobility, often playing the preludes and fugues
of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
With Haydn's departure for England in 1794, Beethoven was expected
by the Elector to return home. He chose instead to remain in Vienna,
continuing the instruction in counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger
and other teachers. Although his stipend from the Elector expired,
a number of Viennese noblemen had already recognized his talent
and offered him financial support, among them Prince Joseph Franz
Lobkowicz, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and Baron Gottfried van Swieten.
Beethoven's first public performance in Vienna was in 1795, with
his Second (or perhaps First) Piano Concerto; and in the same year
were published the first of his compositions to which he assigned
an opus number, the piano trios of Opus 1. By 1800, with the premiere
of his First Symphony, Beethoven was considered one of the most
important of a generation of young composers who followed after
Haydn and Mozart.
During his early career as a composer, Beethoven concentrated
first on works for piano solo, then string quartets, symphonies,
and other genres. This was a pattern he was to repeat in the "late" period
of his career (see below). Thus, 12 of Beethoven's famous series
of 32 piano sonatas date from before 1802, and could be considered
early-period works; of these, the most celebrated today is probably
the "Pathétique", Op. 13. The first six quartets
were published as a set (Op. 18) in 1800, and the First and Second
Symphonies premiered in 1800 and 1802.
All musical authorities agree that Beethoven's early work was
closely modeled on that of Haydn and Mozart. However, Beethoven's
own musical personality is still very much evident even at this
stage. This is seen, for instance, in his frequent use of the musical
dynamic sforzando, found even in the "Elector" sonatas
for piano that Beethoven wrote as a child. Some of the longer piano
sonatas of the 1790's are written in a rather discursive style
quite unlike their models, making use of the so-called "three-key
Loss of hearing
Around 1801, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered
a severe form of tinnitus, a "roar" in his ears that
made it hard for him to appreciate music and he would avoid conversation.
The cause of Beethoven's deafness is unknown, but it has variously
been attributed to syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly
even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake.
Over time, his hearing loss became acute: there is a well-attested
story that, at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be
turned round to see the tumultuous applause of the audience, hearing
nothing. In 1802, he became depressed, and considered committing
suicide. He left Vienna for a time for small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt,
where he wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament", in which
he resolved to continue living through his art. He continued composing
even as his hearing deteriorated. After a failed attempt in 1811
to perform his own "Emperor" Concerto, he never performed
in public again.
As a result of Beethoven's hearing loss, a unique historical record
has been preserved: he kept conversation books discussing music
and other issues, and giving an insight into his thought. Even
today, the conversation books form the basis for investigation
into how he felt his music should be performed, and his relationship
to art - which he took very seriously.
There are a variety of theories as to why Beethoven suffered from
hearing loss, from illness to lead poisoning. The oldest explanation,
from the autopsy of the time, is that he had a distended inner
ear which developed lesions over time. This theory is outlined
in Beethoven et les malentendus by Maurice Porot et Jacques Miermont.
Russell Martin argued, from analysis done by Walsh and McCrone
on a sample of Beethoven's hair, that there were alarmingly high
levels of lead in Beethoven's system. And that high concentrations
of lead can lead to bizarre & erratic behaviour, including
rages. Another symptom of lead poisoning is deafness. In Beethoven's
era, lead was used widely without true understanding of the damage
it could lead to: in sweetening wine, finishes on porcelain, and
even medicine. The investigation of this link was detailed in the
book, "Beethoven's Hair : An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey
and a Scientific Mystery Solved". While the likelihood of
lead poisoning is very high, the deafness associated with it seldom
takes the form that Beethoven exhibited. It is more likely that
his generally bad health as he grew older was related to plumbism
rather than his hearing loss.
The Middle Period
Around 1802 he declared "I am but lately little satisfied
with my works, I shall take a new way." The first major work
of this new way was the "Eroica" Symphony in E flat.
While other composers had written symphonies with implied programs,
or stories, this symphony was also longer and larger in scope than
any other written. It made huge demands on the players, because
at that time there were few orchestras devoted to concert music
that were independent of royal or aristocratic patrons, and hence
performance standards at concerts were often haphazard. Nevertheless,
it was a success.
The Eroica was one of the first works of Beethoven's so-called "middle
period", or "Heroic Period", a time when Beethoven
composed highly ambitious works, often heroic in tone, that extended
the scope of the classical musical language Beethoven had inherited
from Haydn and Mozart. The middle period work includes Symphonies
3-8, the string quartets 7-11, the Waldstein and Appassionata piano
sonatas, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto and many other
compositions. During this time Beethoven earned his living partly
from the sale and performance of his work, and partly from subsidies
granted by various wealthy nobles who recognized his talent.
The work of the middle period established Beethoven's reputation
as a great and daring composer. In a review from 1810, he was enshrined
by E. T. A. Hoffman as one of the three great "Romantic" composers;
Hoffman called Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "one of the most
important works of the age".
The middle period ended with a flourish around 1814, with the
Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the third--and at last, successful--version
of Fidelio. It was around this time that Beethoven's popularity
with the contemporary public reached its apogee, and he was almost
universally regarded as the greatest of living composers.
However, there soon followed a deep crisis in Beethoven's personal
life, possibly in his artistic life as well. His output dropped,
and one critic even wrote that "the composing of great works
seems behind him". The few works that date from this period
are often of an experimental character. They include the song cycle "An
die ferne Geliebte" and the piano sonata Opus 90, works which
inspired later generations of Romantic composers. This period also
produced the extraordinarily expressive, almost incoherent, song "An
die Hoffnung" (Opus 94).
Then Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including
works by J. S. Bach and Handel, then being published in the first
attempts at complete editions. He composed "The Consecration
of the House" overture, which was the first work to attempt
to incorporate his new influences. But it is when he returned to
the keyboard to compose his first new piano sonatas in almost a
decade, that a new style, now called his "late period",
The works of the late period are commonly held to include the
last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two
sonatas for cello and piano, the late quartets (see below), and
two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth
Symphony ("Choral"), perhaps Beethoven's best known work.
The Ninth Symphony is the first to use a chorus, and its dimensions
were, again, larger than any previous work.
Beethoven then turned to writing string quartets - the war between
Austria and France had devastated his finances - for 100 gold ducats
each. This series of quartets - the "late quartets" -
would go far beyond what either musicians or audiences were ready
for at that time. One musician commented that "we know there
is something there, but we do not know what it is." Composer
Louis Spohr called them "indecipherable, uncorrected horrors," though
that opinion has changed considerably from the time of their first
bewildered reception. They would continue to inspire musicians
- from Richard Wagner to Béla Bartók - for their
unique forms and ideas.
The late quartets are now widely considered to be Beethoven's
greatest works. They are a manifestation of his lifelong spiritual
progress, and deviate radically from almost everything he had ever
written up until that point. And of the late quartets, Beethoven's
favourite was the quartet op.131 in C# minor, upon hearing which
Schubert is said to have remarked, "After this, what is left
for us to write?"
Beethoven's health had been bad for most of his life, worsening
even as he composed these last works; in his last months he became
seriously ill. He died on March 26th, 1827, after several operations
to relieve abdominal swelling, and a subsequent infection. Unlike
in the case of Mozart, who was buried in a pauper's grave, 20,000
Viennese citizens lined the streets at Beethoven's funeral.
Musical style and innovations
Beethoven is viewed as a transitional figure between the Classical
and Romantic eras of musical history. He built formally on the
principles of sonata form and motivic development that he had inherited
from Haydn and Mozart, but expanded their scope, writing longer
and more ambitious movements. The work of Beethoven's middle period
is celebrated for its frequently heroic form of expression, and
the works of his late period for their intellectual depth.
Personal beliefs and their musical influence
Beethoven was much taken by the ideals of the Enlightenment. He
initially dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon
in the belief that the general would sustain the democratic and
republican ideals of the French Revolution, but in 1804 crossed
out the dedication as Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear,
replacing it with "to the memory of a great man". The
fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony is a setting of Schiller's
ode An die Freude ("To Joy"), an optimistic hymn championing
the brotherhood of humanity.
Scholars disagree on Beethoven's religious beliefs and the role
they played in his work. For discussion, see Beethoven's religious
Beethoven as fictional character
Beethoven's larger-than-life persona has led many authors and
filmmakers to incorporate him into works of fictionalized biography,
among them Beethoven Lives Upstairs by Barbara Nichol and Scott
Cameron and the popular 1994 film Immortal Beloved.
Beethoven was the title character in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's
concept album, Beethoven's Last Night. In it, he makes a deal with
the Devil to ease the suffering of a child sitting outside his