LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827)
German composer and pianist.
- Produced over 200 compositions during his lifetime, including the Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”) (1801), Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (1804-1808), Für Elise (1810).
- Began composing at the age of 7; continued to compose throughout his life despite losing his hearing in his mid-twenties.
- Contributed significantly to the shift between musical Classicism to Romanticism that occurred between 1800 and 1840.
- Dedicatee of the Beethoven Memorial in Bonn, Germany.
EARLY LIFE AND CHILDHOOD
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn (then part of Cologne, now Germany) to a musical family. His father, a particularly stern teacher to his children, sang tenor at the Electoral Court of Bonn. The maternal grandfather for whom he was named had been a musician in the court of Clemens August of Bavaria. Johann Beethoven was a strict and unloving parent with a history of alcoholism, but Ludwig’s mother Maria-Magdalena was a warm and caring woman whom he later described as “my best friend.” When Ludwig displayed talent as a young boy, his father dreamed of shaping him into a “new Mozart.” He arranged further and more intense instruction for him under Tobias Pfeiffer, a family friend, and the elder Beethoven’s drinking buddy. Pfeiffer’s late nights of drinking would often end with Ludwig’s early-morning instruction—and though that may sound scandalous, certainly that instruction was competent and helped guide Beethoven in the right direction.
At the age of seven and a half, Ludwig performed for the first time in Cologne. By eight, he was training on the organ, piano, and viola, and he soon began studying with the Court Organist of Bonn, Christian Neefe. At the age of 12, Beethoven unveiled his first composition, 9 Variations in C Minor. Neefe’s support for his student was unfailing, and in 1783, he wrote the following in a musical magazine: “This young genius deserves to be supported in his artistic endeavors. If he continues in the same manner he started, he is sure to become a second Wolfgang-Amadeus Mozart.”
At 16, Ludwig traveled to Vienna in the hopes of meeting his idol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had been a child prodigy himself. Beethoven wished to study with the elder genius, but it isn’t clear whether he even succeeded in meeting him. He returned home only two weeks later because his mother had taken ill. Since the two composers are so revered, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to the possibility of this meeting taking place. Even two weeks of instruction by Mozart would have an indelible impact on young Beethoven. It seems reasonable to assume that whether or not they met, there was little significance to their meeting except in historical retrospect.
Beethoven’s mother died shortly after, and he took on the principal duties of raising his younger brothers, making an immediate return to Vienna impossible. He didn’t go back there until 1792, five years later, by which time Mozart was dead. Beethoven was able to study with Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and Johann Albrechtsberger, and within a year, he was known throughout the city’s musical community.
Every musician is plagued by the question of how to earn a living, especially in the days before recording. While many composers of his day sought the patronage of a church parish or a noble family, Beethoven’s income model was closer to what we might expect from a modern musician: he earned money from concerts and sales of his work (sheet music), bolstered by gifts from wealthy fans and occasional private teaching. He was not rich, and by the end of his first decade earning a living in such a fashion, he had fallen into debt. When he prepared to leave Vienna to take a job in Westphalia (Germany), various nobles pledged a substantial pension to entice him to stay; most of them never made good on their promise.
RISE TO FAME
Beethoven’s national fame began in 1795 with his first performance at an “Academy”—a charity event for widows and orphans. After another Academy performance, this one put on by his old teacher Haydn, Beethoven decided to take his talents on tour. He visited Prague, Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig, making acquaintances in the musical world and building his connections and musical abilities along the way. It was during this time between 1795 and 1799, commonly referred to as Beethoven’s “early period,” that Beethoven produced his famous piano sonatas.
In 1800, Beethoven held an Academy of his own, during which he unveiled his first Symphony No.1. The composer had finally become recognized as one of the greatest masters of the craft in Germany- but a cruel affliction was beginning to complicate his career.
DEAFNESS AND THE MIDDLE PERIOD
While on tour, Beethoven had been gradually losing his hearing, which further hurt his earning potential. While he could compose without difficulty, performing a concert was much harder with hearing impairment, and by 1814, he was deaf. In the 20 years before that, he used a variety of hearing aids and “conversation books” on which friends and visitors would conduct their conversations with him in writing. He suffered from periodic bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. While living in a small town outside Vienna in 1802, he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament—a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann in which he despaired of his deafness but resolved to continue living for the sake of his music.
And continue living Beethoven did- 1802 marked the beginning of his “middle period,” during which his composing style began to change. Driven by his struggle with his hearing loss, Beethoven started to focus on more epic and “heroic” symphonies, including his famous Fifth Symphony. It is for this reason that the middle period is also commonly known as Beethoven’s “Heroic” period. His high output (six symphonies, several piano, and violin concertos, and even an opera) and shifting focus toward Romanticism marked Beethoven as one of the greatest composers of the time.
FAILING HEALTH AND THE LATE PERIOD
Beethoven never married but had affairs with a number of women, some of them married, many of them from the aristocratic families who were part of his fan base. His lack of lasting romantic success combined with his financial difficulties and growing health concerns led Beethoven to leave Vienna very nearly for a position as the chapel maestro at the court of the king of Westphalia. Only a pension of 4000 florins from Archduke Rudolf and other members of the nobility ultimately persuaded Beethoven to remain in the city of his success.
The difficulties of his personal life, including a custody battle for his nephew Karl against the boy’s mother, had a significant impact on Beethoven’s creative output. His Late period is marked by highly emotional, personally intense pieces such as his famous Ninth Symphony. The Late period continued until 1825, with Beethoven struggling to finish his final string quartets amidst horrible illness.
Beethoven finally succumbed to his ailments and died in 1827, leaving behind a vast library of work and a legacy that had altered the course of composing itself. His pieces are still commonly performed in orchestras today along with those of his idol Mozart; the two men are considered to be the greatest composers who ever lived.