Ludwig van Beethoven (pronounced ['be.to.v?n]) (baptized December 17,
1770 – March 26, 1827) was a German composer and pianist. He is
widely regarded as one of history's greatest composers, and was the
predominant figure in the transitional period between the Classical
and Romantic eras in Western classical music. His reputation and genius
have inspired—and in many cases intimidated—ensuing generations
of composers, musicians, and audiences.
Born in Bonn, Germany,
he moved to Vienna, Austria, in his early twenties, and settled there,
studying with Joseph Haydn and quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso
pianist. In his late twenties he began to lose his hearing, and yet
continued to produce notable masterpieces throughout his life in the
face of this personal disaster, even after his deafness became absolute.
Unusually among his contemporaries, he worked as a freelance composer,
arranging subscription concerts and being supported by a number of wealthy
patrons who considered his gifts extraordinary.
Beethoven was born
at 515 Bongasse, Bonn, Germany, to Johann van Beethoven (1740–1792)
and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744–1787). Beethoven was
baptized on December 17, but his family and later teacher Johann Albrechtsberger
celebrated his birthday on December 16.
music teacher was his father, a musician in the Electoral court at Bonn
who was apparently a harsh and unpredictable instructor. Johann would
often come home from a bar in the middle of the night and pull young
Ludwig out of bed to play for him and his friend. Beethoven's talent
was recognized at a very early age. His first important teacher was
Christian Gottlob Neefe. In 1787 young Beethoven traveled to Vienna
for the first time, where he may have met and played for Mozart. He
was forced to return home because his mother was dying of tuberculosis.
Beethoven's mother died when he was 16, and for several years he was
responsible for raising his two younger brothers because of his father's
to Vienna in 1792, where he first studied with Joseph Haydn in lieu
of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had died the previous year. Beethoven
immediately established a reputation as a piano virtuoso. His first
works with opus numbers, the three piano trios, appeared in 1795. He
settled into the career pattern he would follow for the remainder of
his life: rather than working for the church or a noble court (as most
composers before him had done), he supported himself through a combination
of annual stipends or single gifts from members of the aristocracy,
income from public performances, concerts, and lessons, and sales of
portraitBeethoven's career as a composer is usually divided into Early,
Middle, and Late periods.
In the Early period,
he is seen as emulating his great predecessors Haydn and Mozart while
concurrently exploring new directions and gradually expanding the scope
and ambition of his work. Some important pieces from the Early period
are the first and second symphonies, the first six string quartets,
the first two piano concertos, and the first twenty piano sonatas, including
the famous Pathétique and Moonlight.
The Middle period
began shortly after Beethoven's personal crisis centering around deafness.
The period is noted for large-scale works expressing heroism and struggle;
these include many of the most famous works of classical music. Middle
period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3–8), the last three
piano concertos, triple concerto and his only violin concerto, five
string quartets (Nos. 7–11), the next seven piano sonatas including
the Waldstein, and Appassionata, and his only opera, Fidelio.
period began around 1816 and lasted until Beethoven's death in 1827.
The Late works are greatly admired for and characterized by their intellectual
depth, intense and highly personal expression, and experimentation with
forms (for example, the Quartet in C Sharp Minor has seven movements,
while most famously his Ninth Symphony adds choral forces to the orchestra
in the last movement). This period includes the Missa Solemnis, the
last five string quartets and the last five piano sonatas.
depth and extent of Beethoven's artistic explorations, as well as the
composer's success in making himself comprehensible to the widest possible
audience, the Austrian-born British musician and writer Hans Keller
pronounced Beethoven "humanity's greatest mind altogether".
life was troubled. Around age 28, he started to become deaf, which led
him to contemplate suicide (see the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament). He
was attracted to unattainable (married or aristocratic) women; he never
married. His only uncontested love affair with a known woman began in
1805 with Josephine von Brunswick; most scholars think it ended by 1807
because she could not marry a commoner without losing her children.
In 1812 he wrote a long love letter to a woman only identified therein
as the "Immortal Beloved." Several candidates have been suggested,
but none has won universal support. Some scholars believe his period
of low productivity from about 1812 to 1816 was caused by depression
resulting from Beethoven's realization that he would never marry. He
didn't publish anything during this period, but he released an enormous
amount of material in 1816.
often bitterly, with his relatives and others (including a painful and
public custody battle over his nephew Karl); he frequently treated other
people badly. He moved often and had strange personal habits, such as
wearing dirty clothing even as he washed compulsively. Nonetheless,
he had a close and devoted circle of friends his entire life.
Many listeners perceive
an echo of Beethoven's life in his music, which often depicts struggle
followed by triumph. This description is often applied to Beethoven's
creation of masterpieces in the face of his severe personal difficulties.
His last musical sketches belong to the composition of a string quintet
in C Major .
Beethoven was often
in poor health. According to one of his letters, his abdominal problems
began while he was still in Bonn and thus can be dated to before 1792.
In 1826 his health took a drastic turn for the worse. The autopsy report
indicates serious problems with his liver, gall bladder, spleen, and
pancreas. There is no general agreement on the exact cause of death.
Modern research on a lock of Beethoven's hair cut from his head the
day after he died and a piece of his skull taken from his grave in 1863,
both now at the Beethoven Center in San Jose, California , show that
lead poisoning could well have contributed to his ill-health and ultimately
to his death. The source (or sources) of the lead poisoning is unknown,
but may have been fish, lead compounds used to sweeten wines, or pewter
drinking vessels. It is unlikely that lead poisoning was the cause of
his deafness, which several researchers think was caused by an autoimmune
disorder such as systemic lupus erythematosus. The hair analyses did
not detect mercury, which is consistent with the view that Beethoven
did not have syphilis (syphilis was treated with mercury compounds at
the time). The absence of drug metabolites suggests Beethoven avoided
Beethoven died on
26 March 1827, after a long illness, in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm,
and legend has it that the dying man shook his fists in defiance of
He was buried in
the Währinger cemetery. Twenty months later, the body of Franz
Schubert was buried next to Beethoven's. In 1888, both Schubert's and
Beethoven's graves were moved to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery),
where they can now be found next to those of Johann Strauss I and Johannes
Beethoven is viewed
as one of the most important transitional figures between the Classical
and Romantic eras of musical history. As far as musical form is concerned,
he built on the principles of sonata form and motivic development that
he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart, but greatly extended them, writing
longer and more ambitious movements. But Beethoven also radically redefined
the symphony, transforming it from the rigidly structured four-ordered-movements
form of Haydn's era to a fairly open ended form that could sustain as
many movements as necessary, and of whatever form as necessary to give
the work cohesion.
During his lifetime,
Beethoven also radically influenced the evolution of the piano. There
had previously existed two common schools of piano making: In Vienna
the instruments were made light and easy to play for purposes of precision
with less dynamic range whereas those in London had a fuller sound with
heavier keyboard action. Beethoven, though living in Vienna, had adopted
a much heavier style of playing than most of his contemporaries, and
although he was not the only pianist of the time to lobby for a heavier
instrument, he was the only one whose musical genius had become synonymous
with the artistic culture of Vienna. More specifically, Beethoven had
connections to the prominent piano manufacturer Andreas Streicher and
as Beethoven's esteem increased, the pianos in Vienna evolved to fit
his specific taste.
Beethoven was much
taken by the ideals of the Enlightenment and by the growing Romanticism
in Europe. He initially dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica (Italian
for "heroic"), to Napoleon in the belief that the general
would sustain the democratic and republican ideals of the French Revolution,
but in 1804 tore out the title page upon which he had written a dedication
to Napoleon, as Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear, renamed
the symphony as the "Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare
il Sovvenire di un grand Uomo", or in English, "composed to
celebrate the memory of a great man". The fourth movement of his
Ninth Symphony features an elaborate choral setting of Schiller's Ode
An die Freude ("Ode To Joy"), an optimistic hymn championing
the brotherhood of humanity.
on Beethoven's religious beliefs and the role they played in his work.
For discussion, see Beethoven's religious beliefs.
A continuing controversy
surrounding Beethoven is whether he was a Romantic or a Classical composer.
As documented elsewhere, since the meanings of the word "Romantic"
and the definition of the period "Romanticism" both vary by
discipline, Beethoven's inclusion as a member of that movement or period
must be looked at in context.
If we consider the
Romantic movement as an aesthetic epoch in literature and the arts generally,
Beethoven sits squarely in the first half along with literary Romantics
such as the German poets Goethe and Schiller (whose texts both he and
Franz Schubert drew on for songs) and the English poet Percy Shelley.
He was also called a Romantic by contemporaries such as Spohr and E.T.A.
Hoffman. He is often considered the composer of the first Song Cycle
and was influenced by Romantic folk idioms, for example in his use of
the work of Robert Burns. He set dozens of such poems (and arranged
folk melodies) for voice, piano, violin and cello.
If on the other
hand we consider the context of musicology, where Romantic music is
dated later; the matter is one of considerably greater debate. For some
experts, Beethoven is not a Romantic, and his being one is a myth; for
others he stands as a transitional figure, or an immediate precursor
to Romanticism, the "inventor" of the Romantic period; for
others he is the prototypical, or even archetypal, Romantic composer,
complete with myth of heroic genius and individuality. The marker buoy
of Romanticism has been pushed back and forth several times by scholarship,
and it remains a subject of intense debate, in no small part because
Beethoven is seen as a seminal figure. To those for whom the Enlightenment
represents the basis of Modernity, he must therefore be unequivocally
a Classicist, while for those who see the Romantic sensibility as a
key to later aesthetics (including the aesthetics of our own time),
he must be a Romantic. Between these two extremes there are, of course,
in the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna.Listening to Beethoven's music yields
another possible scholarly analysis: there is definitely an evolution
in style from Beethoven's earliest compositions to his later works.
The young Beethoven can be seen toiling to conform to the aesthetic
models of his contemporaries: he wants to write music that is acceptable
in the society of his days. Later, there is much more iconoclasm in
his approach, like adding a chorus to a symphony, where a symphony had
until then only been a purely instrumental genre. This means that the
question changes from whether Beethoven was a classicist or a romantic,
to: where is the pivotal moment that Beethoven tilted from dominant
classicism to dominant romanticism?. Most scholars seem to concur: the
presentation of the 5th and 6th symphonies in a single concert in 1808
is probably closest to that pivotal point. In the 5th symphony, he let
a short pounding motto theme run through all movements of the composition
(unheard of until then). Then the 6th symphony was the first example
of a symphony composed as "program music" (what in Romanticism
became standard practice), and it broke up the traditional arrangement
of a symphony in four movements. Yet, after that, Beethoven still wrote
his gentle 8th symphony and some innocent-sounding chamber music for
the English market. However, by the end of the first decade of the 19th
century, Beethoven the romantic was without a doubt primary.
In contrast, Carl
Dahlhaus argues that the evolution of Beethoven's style actually takes
him past Romanticism to a place where he was separate from the music
of his contemporaries. Dahlhaus points out that our understanding of
Beethoven as a Romantic composer derives largely from Beethoven's early
middle period, which contains the Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 5.
Beethoven's impact on other Romantic composers, however, is taken largely
from works between Opp. 74 and 97, of the second half of the so-called
middle period. Dahlhaus argues that the tradition of Romantic music
is essentially a tradition of Schubertian music, and that Beethoven's
influence on Schubert is largely taken from Opp. 74 to 97. By the time
Beethoven reaches the late period, he is such an individual as to be
best understood as no longer belonging to the same genre as his Romantic
Ludwig van Beethoven
was baptised on December 17th 1770 at Bonn. His family originated from
Brabant, in Belgium. His father was musician at the Court of Bonn, with
a definite weakness for drink. His mother was always described as a
gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart. Beethoven referred to her
as his "best friend". The Beethoven family consisted of seven
children, but only the three boys survived, of whom Beethoven was the
At an early age,
Beethoven took an interest in music, and his father taught him day and
night, on returning to the house from music practice or the tavern.
Without doubt, the child was gifted, and his father Johann envisaged
creating a new Mozart, a child prodigy.
On March 26th 1778,
at the age of 8, Beethoven gave his first know public performance, at
Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years old. Because of this,
Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was. Even
much later, when he received a copy of his baptism certificate, he thought
that it belonged to his brother Ludwig Maria, who was born two years
before him, and died as a child.
But the musical
and teaching talents of Johann were limited. Soon Ludwig learned music,
notably the organ and composition by renowned musicians, such as Gottlob
Neefe. Neefe recognised the how extraordinarily talented Beethoven was.
As well as teaching him music, he made the works of philosophers, ancient
and modern, known to Beethoven.
In 1782, at the
age of 12, Beethoven published his first work: 9 variations, in C Minor,
for Piano, on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler (WoO 63). And the
following year, in 1783, Neefe wrote in the "Magazine of Music",
about his student: "If he continues like this he will be, without
doubt, the new Mozart".
In June 1784, on
Neefe's recommendations, Ludwig was appointed organist of the court
of Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne. He was 14. This post enabled
him to frequent new circles, other than those of his father and friends
of his family. Here he met people who were to remain friends for the
rest of his life: The Ries family, the von Breuning family and the charming
Eleonore, Karl Amenda, the violinist, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a doctor,
and a dear friend who also went to Vienna, etc.
At home, little
by little, Ludwig replaced his father. Financially first of all, because
Johann, often under the influence of drink, was less and less capable
of keeping up his role at the court. The young Beethoven felt responsible
for his two younger brothers, an idea he kept for the rest of his life,
sometimes to the extent of being excessive.
Franz was also aware of Beethoven's gift, and so he sent Beethoven to
Vienna, in 1787, to meet Mozart and to further his musical education.
Vienna was, after all, the beacon city in terms of culture and music.
There exist only texts of disputable authenticity on the subject of
this meeting between Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart is thought to have
said "Don't forget his name - you will hear it spoken often."!
But a letter called
Beethoven back to Bonn: his mother was dying. The only person in his
family with whom he had developed a strong and loving relationship passed
away on July 17th 1787.
Five years later,
in 1792, Beethoven went back to Vienna, benefiting from another grant,
for two years, by the Prince Elector, again to pursue his musical education.
He never went back to the town of his birth. His friend Waldstein wrote
to him: "You shall receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands"...
At Vienna, the young
musician took lessons with Haydn, then with Albrechtsberger and Salieri.
He captured the attention of, and astonished, Vienna, with his virtuosity
and his improvisations on piano. In 1794, Beethoven composed his opus
1, three trios for piano. The following year, Beethoven made his first
public performance at Vienna (an "Academy") whereby each musician
was to play his own work. Then followed a tour: Prague, Dresden, Leipzig
and Berlin before leaving for a concert in Budapest.
Beethoven made numerous
acquaintances at Vienna. Everybody in the musical and aristocratic world
admired the young composer. These music-lovers were Beethoven's greatest
supporters. He became angry regularly with one or another of them, often
making honourable amends soon afterwards. His talent excused his excessive,
In 1800, Beethoven
organised a new concert at Vienna including, notably, the presentation
of his first symphony. Although today we find this work classical, and
close to the works of Mozart and Haydn, at the time certain listeners
found the symphony strange, overly extravagant, and even risqué.
This genius, Beethoven, who was still a young, new composer, was already
pushing the established boundaries of music.
In 1801 Beethoven
confessed to his friends at Bonn his worry of becoming deaf. At Heiligenstadt,
in 1802, he wrote a famous text which expressed his disgust at the unfairness
of life: that he, a musician, could become deaf was something he did
not want to live through. But music made him carry on. And he wrote
that he knew that he still had many other musical domains to explore,
to discover, and to pass on. Beethoven did not commit suicide, rather,
knowing that his handicap was getting worse and worse, he threw himself
into his greatest works: exceptional sonatas for piano (notably The
Storm, opus 31), the second and the third symphonies- The Eroica - and
of course many more.
this third symphony in honour of a great man, Bonaparte. He was seen
as the liberator of the people, opening, from the French Revolution,
a door to hope. When the First Consul declared himself Emporor, Beethoven
became enraged and scowled out Bonaparte's name from the score.
On April 7th 1805
the Eroica symphony was played for the first time.
had finally finished his opera, Leonore, the only opera he ever wrote.
He wrote and re-wrote four different overtures. The name of the opera
therefore changed to Fidelio, against the wishes of the composer. November
20th 1805 was the date of the opening performance … before a thin
audience of French officers. This was because Napolean, head of the
army, had captured Vienna for the first time. This happened again in
read and listen on this site
In the years that
followed, the creative activity of the composer became intense. He composed
many symphonies, amongst which were the Pastoral, the Coriolan Overture,
and the famous Letter for Elise. He took on many students, those he
found young and attractive, and he therefore fell in love with several
of them. The Archbishop Rudolph, brother of the emperor, also became
his student, his friend and eventually one of his benefactors.
In 1809, Beethoven
wanted to leave Vienna, at the invitation of Jérome Bonaparte.
His long-standing friend, the Countess Anna Marie Erdödy, kept
him at Vienna with the help of his wealthiest admirers: the Archbishop
Rudolph, the Prince Lobkowitz and the Prince Kinsky. These men gave
Beethoven an annual grant of 4 000 florins, allowing him to live without
financial constraint. The only condition was that Beethoven was not
to leave Vienna. Beethoven accepted. This grant made him the first independent
composer. Before this contract musicians and composers alike (even Bach,
Mozart and Haydn), became servants in the houses of wealthy aristocratic
families. They were thus part of the domestic staff, with no more rights
than any other, but with the added task of composition and performance.
Thus, for the musician of the day, Beethoven had outstanding circumstances:
he was free to write what he wanted, when he wanted, under command or
not, as he pleased.
In 1812, Beethoven
went for hydrotherapy at Teplitz, where he wrote his ardent letter to
"The Immortal Beloved". This letter which was found in a secret
draw with the Heiligenstadt Testament, has not stopped the theories
and suppositions of researchers and biographers ever since. Numerous
women amongst his students and friends have been, in turn, proposed
as the recipient of this letter. Unless a new document is discovered
(perhaps within the possessions of a private collector) it is likely
that the truth about this mysterious woman will remain a secret.
At the end of July
1812, Beethoven met Goethe, under the organisation of Bettina Brentano.
These two great men admired each other, but didn't understand each other.
The composer found the poet too servile, and the poet last estimation
was that Beethoven was "completely untamed". Beethoven admired
Goethe, he put to music several of his poems. I always regretted not
having been better understood by Goethe.
Then one of his
benefactors, the Prince Lobkowitz, fell into financial difficulty, and
the Prince Kinski died from falling off his horse. Kinski's descendant
decided to put an end to the financial obligations towards Beethoven.
Here started one of the composer's many attempts at saving his financial
The Czech Johann
Nepomuk Maelzel took up contact with Beethoven. Inventor of genius,
and probably inventor of the metronome, Maelzel had already met Beethoven
and had created various devices to help Beethoven with his hearing:
acoustic cornets, a listening system linking up to the piano, etc. In
1813, Beethoven composed 'The Victory of Wellington', a work written
for a mechanical instrument made by Maelzel, the "panharmonica"
(or "panharmonicon"). But it was above all the metronome which
helped evolve music and Beethoven, who had taken interest straight away,
noted scrupulously the markings on his scores, so that his music could
be played how he wished.
The Academy of 1814
regrouped his work, as well as the seventh and eighth symphonies. This
was also the time of the re-writing of Leonore as Fidelio, Beethoven's
only opera. This work eventually became successful before the public.
Then the Congress
of Vienna met, which brought together all the heads of state to decided
the future of Europe after Napoleon. This was one of Beethoven's moment
of glory. He was invited to play many times, bringing him recognition
and admiration of which he could be truly proud.
On November 15th
1815, Kaspar Karl, Beethoven's brother, died. He left behind his wife,
whom the composer referred to as 'The queen of the night' due to the
pastimes of the widow, as well as a son, Karl, who was 9. Here Beethoven's
life was to change dramatically. His brother had written that he wished
Karl's guardianship to be exercised by both his wife and his brother
Ludwig. Beethoven took this role very seriously, but the 45 year old
celibate who could no longer hear found it difficult to live with and
understand a child, and then a young man. This cohabitation was the
cause of a new trial against the mother of the child, a generation conflict
and numerous troubles.
In 1816, Carl Czerny
(future teacher of Franz Liszt and once Beethoven's student) became
Karl's music teacher, but didn't find the talent in the boy which Beethoven
hoped him to posses. At this time , he ended his cycle of lieders 'To
the distant loved one'and drafted the first theme for his ninth symphony.
Two years later,
the Archduke Rudolph became Cardinal and Beethoven began composing his
mass in D. It was never ready for the intronisation, but the work was
rich beyond compare.
triumphed in Vienna in 1822 where he met Beethoven again. The language
barrier and Beethoven's deafness meant that they could only exchange
brief words. The Viennese composer tolerated Italian opera only in moderation
- he found it lacked seriousness.
The ninth symphony
was practically finished in 1823, the same year as the Missa Solemnis.
Liszt, who was 11, met Beethoven who came to his concert on April 13th.
He congratulated the young virtuoso heartily who, years later, transcribed
the entirety of Beethoven's symphonies for piano.
May 7th 1824 was
the date of the first playing of the ninth symphony and despite musical
difficulties, and problems in the sung parts, it was a success. Unfortunately
it was not financially rewarding. Financial problems constantly undermined
the composer. He always had money put to one side, but he was keeping
it for his nephew.
Then began the period
of the last quartets, which are still difficult even for today's audience,
which knows how to interpret his other works. He started to compose
his tenth symphony.
In 1826, Beethoven
caught cold coming back from his brother's place, with whom he had rowed
again. The illness complicated other health problems from which Beethoven
had suffered all his life. He passed away encircled by his closest friends
on March 26th 1827, just as a storm broke out.
The funeral rites
took place at the church of the Holy Trinity. It is estimated that between
10 000 and 30 000 people attended. Franz Schubert, timid and a huge
admirer of Beethoven, without ever having become close to him, was one
of the coffin bearers, along with other musicians. Schubert died the
next year and was buried next to Beethoven.