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I have never thought of writing
for reputation and honor.
What I have in my heart must out;
that is the reason why I compose.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Remark to Carl Czerny
A vicious, early-spring storm darkened Vienna's late-afternoon sky. Suddenly, an enormous thunder-clap
reverberated throughout the Schwarzspanierhaus ("House of the Black-Robed Spaniards"). Inside, a man
was dying.
Although deaf and comatose, Ludwig van Beethoven seemed startled by the enormous thunder peal.
Lifting his right arm - as though he were a general, commanding an army - the 56-year-old composer
momentarily clenched his raised fist.
Seconds later, his arm fell back onto his bed, and Beethoven died. It was the 26th of March, 1827.
Some people thought Beethoven strange - or even hostile. Except for his servants, the maestro lived
alone, like someone who had been banished.
In a way, he was banished. Separated from the hearing world - in which people listened to his music Beethoven heard nothing as the sound of his compositions echoed throughout Europe.
How could someone who penned great musical works - like the second movement of his 7th Symphony, or
the 9th, or the 5th - create when he was profoundly deaf? How did he view his genius, coupled with his
Two centuries later, Beethoven's music is still popular. His influence remains extraordinary. But ... who was
Ludwig - as a boy, as a man and as a musician?
Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D.
Beethoven was born in the attic room of his family home in Bonn, Germany during December of 1770.
Because his birth record is missing, no one can be sure of his exact birthdate.
His baptism record did survive, however. It reveals the child was christened on December 17, 1770 - at a
time and place when infants were typically baptized the day after birth. As a result, Beethoven's birthday is
commemorated on December 16.
As a lad, Ludwig had a difficult life. His father, never actualized his potential. Although Beethoven greatly
loved his mother, she was unable to mitigate her husband's shortcomings. Their home, in Bonn, was
generally an unhappy place.
Ludwig inherited his grandfather's musical talent, but his father treated him harshly. Although the senior
Beethoven boasted of his son's ability, he did not praise him in public. Historians and biographers believe
the young boy never knew his father was proud of him.
Beethoven, an impressive keyboardist, was composing by the time he was twelve. Greatly encouraged by
his teacher - Christian Gottlob Neefe - the youngster thought he had a muse who whispered in his ear.
Later Carl, his brother, recalled how fortunate it was - for the entire family - that Ludwig had such talent.
Soon his skills produced income. The timing could not have been better since the family's inheritance from Beethoven’s paternal grandfather - was nearly gone.
Escaping the turmoil in his own house, Beethoven found peace at the home of friends - Eleonore and
Stephan von Breuning - whose mother (Helene) understood the growing child was fragile, needing
protection. "It's our job," she would say, "to keep the insects off the flower."
Lost in music, the teen-aged Beethoven went to Vienna where he could study with the best teachers. Plans
changed, however, when his forty-year-old mother became extremely ill.
Returning home to Bonn, Beethoven lost the person he loved most.
Music lessons in Vienna were put on hold as Beethoven remained in Bonn. Realizing his father was
incapable of managing the family’s finances, Ludwig persuaded the Elector of Bonn (his father's employer)
to pay him half the earnings, so he could care for the family's obligations. He was then nineteen years old.
By 1790, Bonn's leaders knew about Beethoven's skills. They selected him to write a cantata
commemorating the death of Joseph II, the popular Hapsburg emperor. "Cantata on the Death of Joseph
II," was the result.
This work, never publicly performed during Beethoven’s lifetime, provides an early clue to the composer’s
blossoming genius. With its simple-yet-beautiful melody, the music initially rises - then falls back into itself.
It was a technique Beethoven would use - to great acclaim - for the rest of his composing career.
Beethoven had much to learn and moved to Vienna to study. It was a good break for him, in more ways
than one.
While still in Bonn, Ludwig had fallen in love with his friend, Eleonore von Beuning. Writing to Eleonore
from Vienna, to patch-up a quarrel which had erupted between them, Beethoven was able to repair
whatever damage he had caused.
Twenty-one when he left Bonn for Vienna, Beethoven was pleased when Joseph Haydn - then the mostfamous composer in Europe - invited him to be a pupil. Haydn had learned that Beethoven was "brilliant."
The two men did not always see eye-to-eye. Every true artist, said Beethoven, must find his own path.
Haydn, then in his twilight years (and composing famous works like "The Creation"), observed Beethoven
was "a young man in a hurry." He believed, however, that one day people everywhere would know about
Soon after he arrived in Vienna, Ludwig lost his father. He did not return to Bonn for the funeral - or for
anything else. Getting on with his life, Beethoven must have thought that nothing (or no one) could hold
him back.
Though impressed with his student's compositions, Haydn (who often signed his own work in Italian)
believed they were a bit complicated. Expressing his thoughts, that the public might not be ready for such
emotional works, Haydn (who died in Vienna, in 1809) was shocked when Beethoven stormed out of a
Despite Haydn’s cautions, Beethoven wanted to make his works distinctive. He wasn't interested in
copying what others did. Finding his own way, he would compose what made sense to him - not what
made sense to others.
He applied the same concept to his piano playing. Beethoven's skill was extraordinary. His unique ability to
constantly improvise helped to catapult him into the top tier of Vienna's most sought-after performers.
Although he played the same work as other skilled musicians, the music did not sound the same under his
Life, in Vienna, was becoming very good for Beethoven. Happy with his own compositions, he was also
idolized by the public. He wrote to friends that his life had changed for the better.
In 1801, Beethoven dedicated his Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor - known as the "Moonlight Sonata" after
Beethoven's death - to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. He gave it the subtitle, "Sonata in the
Manner of a Fantasia."
The Moonlight Sonata begins with a slow movement - rare for the time period in which Beethoven wrote it
- and reflects his incredible talent for improvisation. Its dedication reflects something else: Ludwig had
fallen in love with another pupil.
Once again, however, Beethoven's romantic ideas came to naught. Although Giulietta cared for her friend
and teacher, she did not marry him.
Another disturbing event, for Ludwig, occurred at about the same time. While walking with a friend,
Beethoven was engrossed in conversation. Then, the soft sounds of a flute filled the air. The friend
commented how beautiful it was.
"What?," Beethoven wanted to know.
"The sounds of a flute," his friend replied. "So simple, yet so beautiful."
Ludwig thought his friend was joking. He did not hear the sound of a flute at all.
Working in Vienna, Beethoven was busy composing. To the outside world, including those individuals who
commissioned his work, all was well. But inside Beethoven, health issues were becoming bigger concerns.
His ears "buzzed and hummed," day and night - a disaster for an accomplished musician building a career.
He wrote to his friend, Franz Wegeler, that he didn't go out much. Why risk having to tell anyone he was
going deaf?
The extent of Beethoven's deafness came on gradually, over a ten-year period. When it became hard for
him to understand what people said to him, he panicked.
A feeling that time was running out began to overwhelm him. An almost-manic response to that worry
began to surface in letters to his brother. Everything Beethoven had fought so hard to achieve seemed in
To cope with his growing deafness, Beethoven began writing symphonies. At breakneck speed, he worked
on several projects at once. "I live entirely in my music," he said. "At my current rate, I'm often composing
three or four more works at the same time."
His Second Symphony reflects its creator’s internal struggle. Characterized by ferocious speeds, in various
sections, the work is trend-setting.
Meanwhile ... his love life was completely in shambles.
Giulietta Guicciardi heard rumors that Beethoven might be losing his hearing ... how would that impact a
musician? Yes ... he played his compositions brilliantly - no one else could touch his mastery - but what did
that do for his personal life? Nothing, really ... and that fact presented another exceedingly bad problem
for Ludwig.
To protect himself from the outward effects of his growing deafness, Beethoven stopped going out with
friends. Because he could not hear well, people thought him rude when he didn't properly respond to
questions or comments. Very few actually knew what was happening to him.
Nothing he tried restored his hearing. Was there no cure for him? If so, what would that mean? Filled with
despair, Beethoven searched for peace and quiet in the countryside. Perhaps he could find a cure outside
Beethoven's move to Heiligenstadt, a village outside the city, would change things for him. While there, he
poured-out his heart in a cathartic, never-sent letter to his brothers. Known today as the Heiligenstadt
Testament, it is filled with the composer’s anguished questions and worries.
On his return to Vienna, Beethoven began to compose a symphony he'd originally planned to dedicate to
Napoleon. Instead, he called it the "Eroica" - Symphony No. 3 in E flat major. A complex work, it eclipsed
the earlier two symphanies.
Beethoven wrote that he was coming closer to his goal - which remained undefined to others.
After Eroica, which Beethoven premiered in 1804, the maestro's symphanies were like those never-before
conceived. Reaching his peak as a composer, he struggled even more with the world around him.
It wasn't just his deafness that was an issue.
At the age of 35, Beethoven pulled himself back from the edge of potential suicide. Instead of allowing
deafness to overwhelm him, he began a period of prodigious - and brilliant - composition.
In the early nineteenth century, Europe was in chaos. Beethoven appreciated the ideals of the French
Revolution - liberty, truth, justice - and wrote an opera to honor them. In a groundbreaking move, he
created a female lead. Unfortunately, Leonore opened to a small crowd.
Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Beethoven's patron and friend, believed problems with the work could explain its
initial lack of success. It was - he told Beethoven - too sophisticated, too long and too drama-lacking.
Beethoven blamed everything on the tenor soloist. How could the public really want an opera with more
drama and less music? Apt to "chuck" the whole work, Beethoven resisted his impulses. His friends urged
him not to condemn but refine it.
In the edited work, Beethoven reduced the size of the score and featured new musical techniques. Still ...
the audience did not show up. Crushed by the lack of pay and attention, the maestro locked his opera
away - for a time.
Intolerant of anyone who did not live up to his high moral standards, Beethoven felt more and more
isolated from those around him. He harnessed his emotions to great effect, however, with the
Appassionata (his powerful Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, opus 57) which contains one of his 5thSymphony themes.
A mood of desperation, yet determination, flows through every bar of the Appassionata's first movement.
Beethoven, as he had done before and would do again, was transforming his internal emotions into
stunning music.
While Beethoven was writing the Appassionata, Europe was in chaos. Although not political, Beethoven
was sometimes asked to entertain French officers who were stationed in Vienna. He was not happy to do
so and resented that some people thought him "a performing seal."
One night, Beethoven’s patron - Prince Karl Lichnowsky - asked his friend to play for a few Frenchmen.
Ludwig absolutely refused. Extremely angry that Lichnowsky expected him to perform - when he didn’t
want to - Beethoven stormed out in the rain, music score in hand. He reportedly said:
Prince, what you are you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been
thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven! *
Rain streaks can still be seen on on the original Appassionata manuscript.
Soon after this tempestuous episode, the maestro learned that he had a new nephew - Karl. Although he
was happy about the birth, he did not quickly visit his brother and the newborn. He remained upset with
Karl and Johanna for conceiving a child before they were married.
After leaving Prince Lichnowsky, in anger, Beethoven found a new patron who asked an intriguing
question. How was it possible for a composer, who was losing his hearing, to still create music?
Although he could not hear all the notes with his ears, Beethoven said, he could hear them in his mind:
They are all there - in my head.
The notes for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (another name for Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68)
reflect his love of nature. They also reflect the degree of sorrow Beethoven must have felt as he continued
to lose his hearing. The much-loved work was first performed on the 22nd of December, 1808. The maestro
also debuted his 5th Symphony that night.
The concert (featuring eight separate works) was extremely important for Beethoven’s reputation and his
purse. He began with the Pastoral. The orchestra had only one rehearsal with its conductor.
As though a single rehearsal weren’t difficult enough, Beethoven's conducting style had become very
hard-to-follow. Sometimes, during a rehearsal, the orchestra would simply stop (because the musicians
could just not go on with him). It was then left for someone else - who could act as an intermediary
between the composer/conductor and the players - to take over.
For those reasons, and more, the December 22nd concert (at the Theater an der Wien) was nearly a
disaster. There was so much new work - and it was so difficult to play - that the orchestra's members were
afraid they would make mistakes.
The concert was four hours long. After an intermission, the gathered audience heard the first-ever
performance of Beethoven’s dramatic 5th Symphony. How it ever came off - with just one rehearsal remains a mystery (or, perhaps, a miracle).
The audience also heard something unusual that night. Beethoven’s 5th is a different kind of symphony.
One cannot really say it has a melody - it just keeps building to a climactic explosion in the finale. It does,
however, have a connection to something else - the 4th Piano Concerto in G major, op. 58.
Beethoven personally performed his 4th Piano Concerto at the concert. In the piece, we can hear bits of
the 5th Symphony. In a way, it's like the two works are having a conversation (albeit, with pieces of discord
between them). Perhaps that is the reason why Beethoven performed the works back-to-back (separated
by an intermission) during that famous 1808 concert.
Although the evening was a success, Beethoven never played the piano, with an orchestra, in public again.
* (See Beethoven, the Man and the Artist: As Revealed in His Own Words, By Ludwig van Beethoven,
Compiled and annotated by Friedrich Kerst; Translated into English, and edited with additional notes, by
Henry Edward Krehbiel, page 73.)
The December 22, 1808 concert was a great success - in everything but money.
Beethoven's financial situation was becoming precarious, and he considered leaving Vienna. Before that
happened, a group of patrons agreed to sponsor him - on the condition that Ludwig stay in the city. It was
the best of all possible solutions - while it lasted.
Although his “money problems” were resolved, for the time being, Beethoven was still missing an
important part of life - love. He wanted a wife, with whom he could share his world. It seems he'd found
someone - whom he called his "Immortal Beloved" - but historians cannot be positive who she was. Many
think it was Antonie Brentano.
Ludwig, however, was a close friend of both Antonie and her husband, and some biographers doubt the
mystery woman was Antonie. Since letters to his “Immortal Beloved” did not surface until after Beethoven
died, even his closest friends could not identify the object of his affections.
In the end, marriage remained a dream. Some music-lovers think Beethoven’s compositions benefitted
from this deprivation.
Meanwhile ... as French rule over Austria continued ...Ludwig’s patrons (or their heirs) were unable (or
unwilling) to make the annuity payments once promised. Not only did malaise engulf Beethoven, his
hearing loss dramatically worsened.
To pull himself out of his deteriorating situation, the maestro visited the spa town of Teplitz. While there,
he began work on his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. He completed the work (with its extremely
popular second movement) in April of 1812 and premiered it - to great acclaim - on December 8th, the
following year.
As Beethoven battled back, he had a chance encounter with his brother Karl whom he saw on a Vienna
street. Very ill, likely with consumption (tuberculosis), Karl was in the last stage of his life.
Following this unexpected meeting, Beethoven worked his way back into the family. Still believing
Johanna was a bad wife and mother, Ludwig had his very-ill brother sign a document giving him control
over his young nephew in the event Karl died. It was an act Karl would have regretted, had he lived.
Johanna could not comprehend why her husband (if he died) would allow their son to live with his mostly
unknown uncle. Ludwig, after all, knew nothing about children and needed to keep working.
Things improved professionally, for Beethoven, when his opera Leonore (by then renamed Fidelio) was
selected for a performance. Excruciatingly difficult for the tenor soloist to sing, the words focused on
peace and freedom. It was a kind of respite following the end of Napoleon's reign.
Although Fidelio made Beethoven the most sought-after composer in Europe, there was no respite for the
maestro. His brother's illness, not to mention his own physical ailments, were taking an adverse toll on
No longer a brilliant pianist, he sometimes played so loudly the notes were unintelligble. Other times he
played so softly, it seemed as though notes were missed. Humiliated by this - when he tried to privately
perform with a trio - Beethoven gave up. His inability to hear had eliminated one of his life’s joys.
Karl removed another joy when he changed his mind and appointed his wife, Johanna, as young Karl’s
guardian. By thus amending his Will, he meant to do what was best for his son. Ludwig vehemently
disagreed and, after his brother’s death, filed custody litigation.
Engaged in a long legal battle, to win sole custody for himself, Beethoven focused less on composing and
more on fighting for his nephew.
Yet ... the maestro was not finished. Some of his most extraordinary works were not yet written.
Karl van Beethoven died in 1815. Thereafter, a great deal of Ludwig's emotional life was spent in a custody
battle with his sister-in-law. He was forty-five years old when the fight began.
For nearly two years, Beethoven - then Europe's greatest composer - wrote nothing. Directing his
attention toward his nine-year-old nephew simply consumed too much time.
Deafness in his ears was not Beethoven’s only deafness. He was also deaf to the pleas of others to stop
fighting Johanna over the care of her child. He would hear nothing of sharing custody, however. He was
completely obsessed with becoming a “father” to young Karl.
The odds were stacked against Johanna. In January of 1816, the Austrian court gave Beethoven sole
custody of his nephew. Ludwig seemed the only person happy with the result.
If adults were never able to measure-up to Beethoven’s high standards, what chance did Karl have? How
could he live-up to the expectations of a perfectionist uncle?
Despite his strong desire to provide the best for Karl, Beethoven could not effectively raise the young boy.
He often sought advice from his friend, Nannette Streicher, but some of his actions made the child believe
his uncle disapproved of him.
Initially, Beethoven transferred his intensity for creating music to caring for his nephew. He would tell his
staff that without Johanna's influence, Karl would be a better man. Yet, he deprived the child from seeing
his mother and, when he skipped school to be with her, Beethoven exploded with anger. He did much, in
other words, to drive the child away from him.
After a time, Beethoven dealt with his nephew crisis as he had dealt with other troubling situations in his
life. He threw himself into his music, filling more of his sketchbooks.
Johanna took Ludwig back to court after Karl ran away from Beethoven's home. She argued that her
brother-in-law was disregarding her son’s best interests.
Forced to abide by legal rules - as he battled for control over his nephew in court - Beethoven composed by
breaking rules. During the second custody battle, Beethoven worked on his extremely complicated piano
solo, the Hammerklavier. Its music is unrelenting, difficult-to-play and emotionally explosive. One can
almost hear its creator’s pain.
Yet, when the court battle was over, Johanna lost all control of her son. Karl soon went back to boarding
school. He must have wondered, time and again, what all the fighting was about.
When Beethoven’s royal patron, Archduke Rudolph, was appointed Archbishop, the maestro was given a
unique opportunity. Thinking he would create something profound to commemorate the inauguration,
Beethoven composed the Missa Solemnis (the Solemn Mass).
As he worked on his composition, Beethoven examined ancient music. He wanted to produce a major
work that was different and memorable. To achieve that objective, he used an aspect of ancient music known as the Dorian mode - in his Missa Solemnis.
Virtually unknown in Beethoven's day, except to scholars, the Dorian mode was oft-used by ancient
monks. Beethoven's study of their compositional techniques helped him greatly as he worked hard to
bring something different to his new mass.
Once again, however, Beethoven created a work which was nearly unsingable. Pushing both choir and
soloists, he had also pushed himself. In a way, given the scope of Missa Solemnis (which the maestro
considered his greatest work), Beethoven had risen above the physical limitations of his life to transcend
even his own musical and compositional ability.
Despite health problems, Beethoven continued to compose. Because he was deaf, Ludwig spoke loudly in
restaurants and other public places. People in Vienna gave the eccentric composer wide latitude. Some
people thought him mad. Once he was nearly arrested for being a tramp.
In 1822, the London (now the Royal) Philharmonic Society commissioned Beethoven to compose a new
symphony. It had been a decade since the last one - the Eighth. Ludwig had in mind two symphonies, not
just one. The tenth, however, was never finished.
As the 9th Symphony took shape in Beethoven's head, the composer had another idea. He would premiere
the work at a public concert. The metronome would help the musicians to play the work at exactly the
speed required by its deaf creator.
And ... this time ... a symphony would include human voices - something which had never been done
before. Beethoven decided to use the words of Frederick Schiller's poem, An Freude (commonly translated
"Ode to Joy").
Although he attended the premiere of his 9th Symphony - on May 7, 1824 - Beethoven heard not a note.
Sitting on a stage for the first time in twelve years - with his back to the audience - his gaze was on the
orchestra, choir and soloists.
History tells us that Beethoven, who was beating time to the conductor’s movements, did not know how
the people responded to his Ninth Symphony. Taking his arm, the alto soloist (Caroline Unger) turned him
round to face the crowd.
Although he could not hear their roaring approval, Beethoven saw their clapping hands and smiling faces.
Bowing deeply to the premiere's concert-goers, he began to cry.
This concert closed a chapter in Beethoven's life. Most of the people who first heard one of the world's
greatest symphonies performed - at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater - would not see Beethoven alive again.
The concert was his last public appearance in Vienna.
Reviews for the Ninth were spectacular, but the concert didn't make Beethoven much money. Foultempered because of it, Beethoven was annoyed with his secretary, Anton Schindler, and dismissed him
for a time. He thought - without evidence - that his assistant had swindled him.
Karl, Ludwig's nephew, attempted to take Schindler's place for a time. That arrangement, however, did
not always work out well for Karl. The young man had to endure emotional tirades ... and worse ... from an
uncle who, despite not always showing it, loved him deeply.
After such extraordinary turmoil in his young life, Beethoven's nephew Karl bought two pistols and shot
himself on the 29th of July, 1826. He did not die and, after the lad was found, he asked for his Mother.
Questioned why he'd tried to end his life, Karl said he could no longer endure his Uncle's efforts to make
him a better person. The young man felt tormented and unable to cope with the constant emotional
After spending two months in the hospital, Karl went home with his Uncle. This time, however, Beethoven
did not interfere as his nephew planned his own future - a career in the army.
During early December of 1826, after a two-day trip in an open milk cart, Beethoven developed pneumonia.
Thereafter, he rarely left his bed. He was afflicted, among other things, with fluid collecting in his body.
Following an operation, to drain some of the fluid from his patient's abdomen, Beethoven's doctor kept
the surgical site open (to allow continued drainage). Then ... the wound became infected, causing
Beethoven to suffer greatly.
Unable to handle another surgery - he’d had several during his last illness - the maestro grew weaker.
Advancing liver disease, and failing kidneys, were ending the life of Europe's most celebrated composer.
On the 14th of March, 1827 - while confronting a fifth operation (without anesthesia, in those days) - he
wrote a letter to his friend, Ignaz Moscheles, in London:
Truly, a hard lot has befallen me! Yet I accept the decree of Fate, and continually pray to God to grant that
as long as I must endure this death in life, I may be preserved from want. (See Beethoven's Letters, by
Ludwig van Beethoven, edited by Alfred Christlieb Kalischer, et al, page 388.)
Knowing he was near death, Beethoven signed a Codicil to his Will which modified how his nephew, Karl,
would inherit his uncle’s estate. At the time of the signing, Beethoven reportedly said - in Latin - "Applaud
my friends. The comedy is over."
By the 24th of March, 1827, Ludwig was in a coma. Two days later, as some of the maestro's closest friends
gathered round him, Joseph Teltscher made a drawing of the dying man. At about 5:45 p.m., in the middle
of a thunderstorm, he died.
Within hours of his last breath, a Beethoven mythology began to develop. Two days after his death,
Beethoven's famously wild hair was considerably thinned-out by souvenir-takers. (A lock of that hair,
which ultimately reached a laboratory in California, reveals the maestro had lead poisoning.)
Perhaps because Beethoven himself wanted his family to know what was wrong with him, Dr. Johann
Wagner conducted an autopsy. He also opened Beethoven's skull - bits of which have survived all these
years - since everyone was curious about the cause of the maestro's deafness.
Joseph Danhauser sketched Beethoven’s head and hands and also made a death mask. Reports differ
whether Danhauser completed his drawings before, or after, the autopsy.
Given the condition of Beethoven’s face, depicted in the drawing, most scholars believe the autopsy came
first and the drawings came second. Alexander Wheelock Thayer - assessing primary sources in his highly
respected, multi-volume biography - tells us the autopsy was performed first.
More than 20,000 people attended Beethoven’s funeral in Vienna. It was the largest the city had ever seen.
Karl, who was stationed in Moravia, was not there.
Beyond his own compositions (only one of which - the Cavatina from String Quartet in B-flat major, Opus
130 - reportedly made him cry), Beethoven gave a monumental gift to the music world. Composers who
followed him would no longer have to create in a specific style or follow a prescribed format.
Beethoven had flung open the door to musical freedom. (This PDF link coordinates the animation's colors
and instruments.) Walking through that door, future composers could follow their own path. And that, for
many, is Beethoven's greatest legacy.