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Ludwig van Beethoven

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beethovenLudwig 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.

Early Life

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 period.

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 exposition".

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.

Late Beethoven

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", emerged.

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 beliefs.

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 door.


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