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LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, second child of Johann and Maria
Magdalena van Beethoven, was born in Bonn, Germany, on
December 16, 1770. His father, a singer in the Electoral choir, was a
ruthless martinet who planned to turn his son into as profitable an
investment as the child prodigy Mozart had been. With the help of
some friends who were local musicians, Johann van Beethoven
subjected Ludwig to ruthless discipline and occasionally to physical
abuse. At times he would return home late at night from one of his
drinking bouts, rouse the sleeping child, and force him to practice his
exercises on the clavier. Beethoven's childhood was darkened by
poverty and the merciless autocracy of his intemperate father; but his
mother's tenderness and the affection and sympathy of his
grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven, brought some warmth into his
somber life.
Beethoven's first important teacher was Christian Gottlob Neefe,
court organist and former cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig (a
post formerly held by Bach). Neefe was not only an extraordinary
musician, but a teacher who thoroughly understood Beethoven's
sensitivity and appreciated his astonishing gifts. Under Neefe's careful
guidance Beethoven developed rapidly. He was only eleven when his
first compositions, three piano sonatas, were published. At twelve,
while his teacher was absent from Bonn, Ludwig took his place as
court organist. And at thirteen he was appointed cembalist for the
rehearsals of the court theater orchestra. "Beethoven, son of the
court tenor singer of that name," reported Neefe in Cramer's
Magazine, "possesses talent of great promise.... He plays the piano
with wonderful execution, and reads very well at sight.... He will
certainly be a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he continues as he
has begun."
Though he was no Mozart, able to dazzle audiences with spectacular
feats, Beethoven did prove to be a musician of extraordinary power,
especially in improvisation. He gained the interest and support of
several influential people in Bonn--the Elector Max Franz (who in 1784
appointed him assistant organist at court), Frau von Breuning, and
Count Ferdinand von Waldstein. They became his friends and patrons.
On the advice of Neefe, and with funds provided by the Elector,
Beethoven made a brief visit to Vienna in 1787. There his
improvisation for Mozart prompted the older composer to say, "This
young man will leave his mark on the world." Beethoven's trip was
cut short by news that his mother was seriously ill. He rushed back to
Bonn, and was at her side when she died. "She was, indeed, a kind
mother to me," Beethoven wrote soon after her death. "Ah, who was
happier than I when I could still utter the sweet name of 'mother,' and
it was heard? To whom can I now say it? Only to the silent form which
my imagination pictures to me!"
After his mother's death Beethoven assumed the responsibility of
supporting his family, for by this time the older Beethoven's
intemperance had caused his dismissal from his court post.
Beethoven gave lessons, performed at court, and devoted himself to
composition. One of his Masses, performed in 1790 in the Bonn
Cathedral, was heard by Haydn, who was passing through on his way
to London. "He is a man of great talent," the master said of the young
composer. When Haydn revisited Bonn en route back to Vienna, he
urged Beethoven to study with him.
Beethoven went to Vienna in November 1792, finding lodgings at
Alserstrasse 45. Determined to make his mark in the big city, he
bought a wig, silk hose, and a fashionable coat--sartorial trimmings
planned for his visits to the salons and palaces, but soon discarded. He
looked older than his years. His face was pock-marked, florid, and of
leonine strength. He was gruff, ill-mannered, awkward, self-conscious,
and ungovernable in spirit. His unruly strength made him an
intractable pupil. He had come to Vienna to study; but neither Joseph
Haydn, nor Albrechtsberger of St. Stephen's, nor even the
Kapellmeister Salieri could please him--or be satisfied with him.
Haydn, admiring Beethoven's genius, could not understand or
tolerate the young man's undisciplined ways and boorish manners.
Albrechtsberger said, shaking his head sadly: "He has never learned
anything, and he can do nothing in decent style."
Beethoven, soon impatient with instruction, began to establish
himself in Vienna as a virtuoso. He performed in the palaces of some
of Vienna's most highly placed noblemen--Prince Lichnowsky, Prince
Lobkowitz, Baron von Swieten, and others. He taught clavier to the
children of the rich. He introduced his own compositions in fashionable
salons. Though he not only considered himself the equal of his highborn benefactors but was insulting, bumptious, and rude to them, his
patrons tolerated his storms and moods for the sake of his undeniable
brilliance. As early as 1793 he was acknowledged to be "beyond
controversy one of the foremost pianoforte players," as a
contemporary journalist described him. His powers of improvisation
were said to be matchless. "Apart from the beauty and originality of
the ideas," said Karl Czerny, Beethoven's contemporary, "there was
something extraordinary in the expression."
At his first public concert in Vienna, on March 29, 1795, Beethoven
overwhelmed his audience and critics with his improvisations and the
B-flat major Piano Concerto. By the close of the century he had
published his first set of trios, several piano sonatas, and the song
"Adelaide." "I have more orders than I can execute," he said at the
time. "I have six or seven publishers for each one of my works, and
could have more if I choose. No more bargaining! I can name my
terms and they pay."
On April 2, 1800, at the Burgtheater, the premiere of Beethoven's
First Symphony took place in a program with his Septet. It cannot be
said that contemporaries recognized in that symphony the birth of a
new age for orchestral music. The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung
condemned the work for its excessive "use of wind instruments, so
much so that the music sounded as if written for a military band rather
than for an orchestra." Academicians denounced its shocking opening
tonality, its heavy-footed minuet movement. When the First
Symphony was heard in Leipzig soon after its Vienna premiere, one
critic described it as "the confused explosions of the presumptuous
effrontery of a young man."
By 1802 the first of Beethoven's three creative periods had drawn to
a close. He had written two symphonies, three piano concertos, six
string quartets (op. 18), three piano trios, three string trios, a septet,
eighteen piano sonatas, seven violin sonatas, and many other
compositions. Discussing the works of his first period, Daniel Gregory
Mason wrote: "Beethoven had in the first place thoroughly
assimilated the sonata form developed by his forerunners as the most
convenient and natural medium for the expression of the free, direct,
and widely electric secular spirit in music. He had, in the second place,
raised this form to higher potencies of beauty and expressiveness by
rigorous exclusion of what was superfluous and inorganic in it, by
purification of its texture and strengthening of its essential structural
features, and by introduction into it, through the power of genius for
composition, of more subtle and more thoroughgoing contrasts of
rhythm, harmony, and general expressive character."
In 1802 Beethoven wrote: "I am not satisfied with my works up to
the present time. From today I mean to take a new road." He was fully
conscious of his powers ("With whom need I be afraid of measuring
my strength?"); proudly self-assured ("This much will I tell you, that
you will see me again, when I am really great; not only greater as an
artist but as a man you will find me better, more perfect"); certain of
his destiny ("I must write--for what weighs on my heart I must
express"). And so he embarked upon his second creative phase, to
realize completely new powers and richer, deeper poetic thought. The
Eroica Symphony and the Kreutzer Sonata for violin were completed in
1803, the Waldstein and Appassionata Piano Sonatas in 1804. With
these works the old classical order was decisively abandoned. A new
Romantic era began to unfold. Structure, design, and law now bent
before the poetic idea in which, as Alfred Frankenstein said, "a new
sense of scale to the classic forms of instrumental composition ...
[was] related to the most dynamic forces of the society in which he
Across these years of immense creativity there passed also the
shadow of tragedy. Early in 1801 Beethoven had begun to detect that
his hearing was failing him. As this infirmity developed he became
increasingly sensitive, and tried, pathetically, to keep his deafness
from even his close friends. He refused to appear in public; he
shunned the society of all except the few with whom he was most
intimate. The overpowering despair which the loss of his hearing
brought is expressed in the remarkable document "The Heiligenstadt
Testament," written in 1802 while he was living in the Viennese suburb
of that name. "For me," he wrote, "there can be no recreation in the
society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of
thought; only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix
with society. I must live like an exile.... O Providence--grant me at
least but one day of pure joy--it is so long since real joy echoed in my
heart--O when--O when, O divine One--shall I feel it again in the
temple of nature and man--Never?--No--O, that would be too hard."
Despair gave way to resignation ("Sorrowful resignation, in this must I
find refuge"); resignation to defiance ("I will seize fate by the throat; it
shall certainly never overcome me!"). If his career as a pianist had
been destroyed, he would now dedicate himself completely to
composition, hammering the pattern of his thoughts into works of
unimaginable scope, dimension, and expressiveness. He wrote the
three Rasoumovsky Quartets, op. 59, in 1806; the mighty Fifth
Symphony in C minor and the Pastoral Symphony, between 1805 and
1808; the Violin Concerto and the fourth and Emperor piano concertos,
between 1805 and 1809; his one opera, Fidelio, an eloquent paean to
human freedom, in or about 1805; the Coriolan Overture, in 1807; the
great Cello Sonata in A major, in 1808. In Beethoven's second phase,
Paul Bekker wrote, "music is no longer sonority pure and simple. It
contains abstract ideas. Beethoven did not write music to
preconceived ideas, but the ideas and the music went inseparably
together. With him the dynamic urge which is an organic part of all
harmonic music goes far beyond the ordinary scope of dynamic
impulses and becomes the means of interpreting the idea.... It is ...
impossible to dismiss the idea from Beethoven's music without
misrepresenting the man. It is the idea which constitutes the
constructive power, the dynamic principle of form in his compositions.
It is the idea which determines the character of his work and which
makes possible the further development of harmonic music.
Beethoven's true relationship with Schiller and Kant lies in their being
men who stood for ideas, though they worked along different creative
lines. But in his particular type of ideas, Beethoven is the great child
of a great imaginative era--an era in which the gods and heroes of
idealism throve, an era which believed in man as a spiritual being, in
freedom and brotherhood, in the joy of divine inspiration, in the
everlasting peace and happiness of mankind."
As the years passed Beethoven grew increasingly irritable, volatile,
and unreasonable. He subjected even close friends and patrons to
violent abuse. On more than one occasion he magnified a minor
incident or misunderstanding into a major crisis. In the summer of
1806 he broke with his lifelong patron, Prince Lichnowsky, because he
had been asked to perform for some visiting French officers (since
Napoleon had declared himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven hated all
things French); for five years Beethoven refused to speak to the most
generous of his admirers. He became estranged from Hummel because
he had misinterpreted a casual remark and would accept no
explanation. Stephan von Breuning, who had solicitously nursed
Beethoven through a serious illness, was driven away over a trifle.
Beethoven excoriated Ferdinand Ries because he suspected his friend
of seeking a conductor's post which he had been offered.
Still his friends and patrons clung to him, cognizant of his genius,
sympathetic to his stormy nature and growing introversion. The
highest-born nobility--the Archduke Rudolph, for example--tolerated
even Beethoven's fervent republicanism. In 1809 his patrons
arranged a generous annual pension for him.
Yet what he wanted most desperately, and vainly, was a woman's love
and dedication. Beethoven was often enamored, but with women who
were too young, who were inaccessible because of their social
position: Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom he dedicated the Moonlight
Sonata; her cousin Theresa von Brunswick, inspiration for his
Appassionata Sonata; the fifteen-year-old Therese Malfatti; or
Goethe's friend, Bettina Brentano
Beethoven, «BAY toh vuhn», Ludwig van (1770-1827), was
one of the greatest composers in history. His most famous works
include the third (Eroica), fifth, sixth (Pastorale), and ninth
symphonies; an opera, Fidelio; and his religious composition
Missa solemnis.
Beethoven has had a great influence on music. He won for
composers a new freedom to express themselves. Before his
time, composers wrote works for religious services, to teach, and
to entertain people at social functions. But people listened to
Beethoven's music for its own sake. As a result, he made music
more independent of social, religious, or teaching purposes.
Beethoven's life
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in December 1770,
probably on December 16. He showed musical talent at an early
age and learned to play the violin and piano from his father,
Johann. Johann hoped to make Ludwig a gifted child like the
famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the age of 11,
Ludwig became assistant to the organist of the local court. In
1783, he first accompanied opera rehearsals at the keyboard.
From 1788 to 1792, Beethoven played viola in the local theater
Beethoven's father developed a severe drinking problem. His
mother died in 1787. Beethoven found relief from his difficult
family life when he became the tutor of the two children of the
von Breuning family. The children's mother was a kind, welleducated woman who introduced Beethoven to important people
in Bonn.
Beethoven visited Vienna in 1787. There, he played for Mozart
and probably took a few lessons from him. Mozart is quoted as
saying: "He will give the world something worth listening to."
Beethoven also met Count Ferdinand Waldstein, who became his
lifelong friend and often helped his career. In 1792, the
composer Joseph Haydn, who was in Bonn, praised one of
Beethoven's compositions and encouraged him to visit Vienna.
The elector (ruler) of Cologne sent Beethoven to Vienna later
that year. He was welcomed into the homes of many of Vienna's
leading noblemen. Except for short trips, he stayed there the rest
of his life.
Many great composers of the day, even Haydn and Mozart, were
treated as employees by the people who bought their music.
However, Beethoven associated as an equal with royalty and the
nobility. They paid him for his works, but they knew and admired
him as a friend rather than as an employee.
Beethoven suffered from chronic illnesses throughout his life and
began to lose his hearing in the late 1790's. From about 1800,
his personality changed. Beethoven had always been proud,
independent, and somewhat odd, but he became more suspicious
and irritable. In 2000, scientists announced the results of an
investigation which suggested that Beethoven's physical and
personality problems, though not his loss of hearing, may have
been caused by lead poisoning. Beethoven became totally deaf
during the last years of his life. His deafness did not hinder his
composing, but it did reduce his normal social life.
Beethoven's life took on added bitterness because of his unhappy
relationship with his brothers Johann and Karl. The two quarreled
frequently with Beethoven. Some scholars blame the two
brothers for the trouble, but Beethoven himself was very difficult
to get along with. Karl died in 1815, leaving a 9-year-old son.
The boy became Beethoven's ward, but this relationship also
turned out badly. Beethoven did not have the disposition to be a
father and the young man rebelled against him, causing
Beethoven much grief. Beethoven caught a serious cold at the
end of 1826, which developed into pneumonia and then dropsy.
He died on March 26, 1827.
Print "Beethoven's life" subsection
Beethoven's music
Beethoven's works for orchestra include nine symphonies, five
piano concertos, a violin concerto, and several overtures. His
chamber music consists largely of 16 string quartets; 5 string
trios; 9 trios for piano, violin, and cello; 10 violin sonatas; and 5
cello sonatas. His piano works include about 35 sonatas, more
than 20 sets of variations (musical themes repeated with
changes), and several smaller pieces. His vocal works consist
chiefly of the opera, Fidelio; a song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte,
and many other songs; several short pieces called cantatas; and
the Mass in C major and the Mass in D major (Missa solemnis).
Throughout his life, Beethoven was guided by a basic optimism
and a faith in moral values. These always dominated his music,
although darker moods and a grim struggle usually preceded the
joy typically found at the end of his compositions.
Fifth Symphony
Beethoven's sketchbooks show that he worked out his
compositions with great care, tirelessly revising his themes and
altering the shapes in which they appeared. This process often
went on for many years before he was satisfied with the details
and the overall form of his ideas. This painstaking workmanship
is evident in the first movement of the fifth symphony and in the
Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106. Such compositions show
Beethoven's belief in the serious nature of his mission and the
immortality of his work—a novel belief at that time.
Print "Beethoven's music" subsection
The first period of Beethoven's composing career extended
from the late 1780's to approximately 1800. Beethoven's works
during this period also show some dependence on older
composers, especially Haydn, Mozart, C. P. E. Bach, and
Christian Neefe, one of his teachers in Bonn. These works,
nevertheless, show individuality in the careful way they are
written and their strong melodies.
Print "The first period" subsection
Moonlight Sonata
The second period, from about 1800 to 1815, was Beethoven's
most productive period. He wrote his third through eighth
symphonies, the last two piano concertos, his violin concerto,
and many chamber pieces. In addition, Beethoven wrote 14
piano sonatas, including the Moonlight Sonata, the "Waldstein,"
and the "Appassionata."
Symphony No. 3 by Beethoven
Beethoven's music has become familiar on most concert
programs today, but early in his own career his works aroused
much controversy. He greatly expanded and changed traditional
music forms such as the symphony. The force and strength of
these works confused some critics, who found many of
Beethoven's compositions impossible to understand. In his third
symphony, the Eroica, he revealed the ideal of heroism that he
thought Napoleon symbolized. His audiences could not
understand this work at first. However, the power and nobility of
Beethoven's music came to be widely recognized and praised
before he died.
In Fidelio, Beethoven was inspired by the story of a wife's
devotion and courage in rescuing her husband from unjust
imprisonment. In this opera, Beethoven praised the ideals of
freedom, dignity of the individual, and heroism overcoming
tyranny—ideals characterizing the French Revolution. Fidelio gave
Beethoven more trouble than any of his other works. Beethoven
revised it twice, and wrote four overtures before he was satisfied.
He found himself restricted by the demands of composing for the
stage and may have felt that writing operas was unsuited to his
talents. Fidelio displays dramatic force, but its mood and
meaning are expressed more by music than by action.
Print "The second period" subsection
The third period includes several important works. The Missa
solemnis is one of the most moving of religious compositions.
The ninth symphony glorifies the ideal of human brotherhood
that flourished in the late 1700's. In his last piano sonatas and
string quartets, Beethoven created a new and personal world of
expression. These works carry a feeling of great power and
mysterious complexity. Yet Beethoven gave these works a lyrical
quality expressed with touching simplicity.
The works of the second period had tremendous influence on the
Romantic composers of the early 1800's. But the works of the
third period were not fully understood until later, partly because
they were extremely difficult to perform. In his quartets and
sonatas, Beethoven tried to include complicated musical
structures and fugues—short themes imitated or repeated by
different instruments according to strict musical rules. These
works demanded entirely new qualities of sound from the string
quartet and piano. His compositions of the last period had a vital
influence on the composers of the 1900's, notably Arnold
Schoenberg and Bela Bartok.
Print "The third period" subsection
Beethoven's place in music history
Beethoven belongs to both the Classical and Romantic eras of
music history. In his skillful musical motives (brief themes), he
was a master of Classical techniques. Beethoven also explored
the new and more mysterious qualities of tone that attracted the
Romantic composers. Beethoven's music suggests meanings
without making them specific.
Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven
Because of this constant feeling of hidden significance,
Beethoven was regarded in the 1800's as one of the founders of
musical Romanticism. It became fashionable to invent or
"discover" stories that would explain the meaning of his
instrumental works. Beethoven set this fashion by attaching
descriptive titles such as "Pastoral" to some of his works. The
ninth symphony in particular seems to endorse the notion that
his instrumental music was striving for some definite meaning,
since its final movement uses the words of an ode by the German
writer Friedrich Schiller.
To the Romantic composers of the first half of the 1800's, this
suggestive but indefinite property was the most attractive feature
of Beethoven's instrumental music. However, the more realistic
composers of the later 1800's regarded this indefinite style as a
fault. This style made the realistic composers turn away from
sonatas, quartets, and symphonies toward opera and program
(descriptive) music.
To both Romantic and realistic composers, however, Beethoven
correctly appeared as the composer who had first realized the full
potential of instrumental music. He had sustained large,
independent works of art from beginning to end with a
convincing and highly varied flow of emotion. Yet the unity of
each musical work did not rely on this psychological development
or on an external course of action. Such unity always rests on the
organization and interrelationships of the music itself. This was
the classical and major part of Beethoven's accomplishment. Like
Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven expressed emotion without
sacrificing formal balance.