Ludwig van Beethoven is a name that is common to most people and is synonymies with great classical music. He is known, quite loosely, as the German composer who created beautiful pieces with an incredible disability. Despite an unhappy family setting and the deafness that struck soon after, the man appeared to rise from his misfortunes and follow his passion. Mr. Beethoven created some of the most wonderful music and is considered one of the greatest musicians of all time. Ludwig, at a very young age, began his career as a marvelous piano player and composer of piano music. Beethoven continued his work expanding to string quartets and other kinds of chamber music, songs, two masses, an opera, and nine symphonies. The German musical genius made amazing new strides at the end of the Classical era and paved the way for the up and coming Romantic style. Ludwig van Beethoven’s work can best be summed up by the words of Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney. “ Beethoven belonged to the generation that felt the full impact of the French Revolution. He created the music of a heroic age and, in sounds never to be forgotten, proclaimed a faith in the power of people to shape their own destinies.” (Machlis 231)
Beethoven was born in Bonn Germany on 17 December 1770. At a very young age he lived in the attic of an apartment raised by his mother, alcoholic father and two younger brothers. His life began with not only the unhappiness that follows an alcoholic parent, but was forced into following the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Both were well established, and quite good, singers at the court of the local prince Max Friedrich. (Machlis 232) Young Ludwig admired his more talented grandfather, but grew ill of his father’s menacing lessons. The boy began his music lessons with the piano at the age of only four. “ Beethoven’s Bonn friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, recalled watching ‘ the doings and sufferings of our Louis’ from the window of a friend’s house. The stout, stocky little boy with unruly black hair and expressive grayish eyes would stand on a stool so that his fingers could reach the piano and would thus go through the exercises his father had given him, sometimes crying in the process.” (Schwaegermann ) Apparently, the goal that Beethoven’s father wanted to accomplish was to train his son to be the next Mozart, or WunderKinder (Wonder Child).
Beethoven’s passion for music was not extinguished by his father’s behavior. Even throughout his boyhood schooling the young Ludwig slacked in his liberal arts studies, but was always enthusiastic for musical lessons. He carried on with his father’s musical instruction until the age of eight. At which time, his father planned for him to begin lessons with an old Court organist, the Fleming van den Eeden. (Schwaegermann) After this point Beethoven began to study with a plethora of mentors, who ranged from friends of the family to other family members themselves. At the age of ten the boy quit school and became an apprentice musician at the Bonn court under the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe. Throughout the 1780’s the young Beethoven studied under Neefe who used Johann Sebastian Bach as a “ cornerstone of instruction”. From this time period spanning to the 1802 is labeled as Ludwig’s “ early” period of composition. (Encarta Online)
The time period labeled as the “ early” works of Beethoven was quite dynamic. During this time frame Beethoven achieved great musical works, but also suffered severe losses. One of the most impacting years on the artist was 1787. The year began with a wonderful gift. Beethoven was able to perform for his idol , Mozart, in Vienna. Unfortunately, his spirits didn’t remain too high as his loving mother died several months later. Beethoven continued his compositions and studies in Bonn through 1792. By the age of 22 the prodigy had “ composed numerous songs: three piano sonatas, piano variations, chamber music for various ensembles, several concertos, and the cantatas.” (Stanley 8) In 1792 Beethoven made his final journey to Vienna to study with Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. Unknown to Beethoven at that time, he was to live out his life in Vienna.
“ Hailed as a genius and a master of improvisation at the piano, Beethoven soon made a name for himself, and by 1794 was known throughout Europe. He faithfully learned the Classical Viennese styles and traditions in music, and then proceeded throughout his career to completely revolutionize them. His earliest compositions reflect the classical restraint of Haydn and Mozart.” (Sherrane) At this point, Beethoven was surrounded by a vast number of wealthy and influential people. Funny enough, Ludwig van Beethoven was aided by the ‘ van’ in his name. Many people of the aristocratic society mistook the ‘ van’ to represent nobility (as with the German ‘ Von’). (Harrison)
In 1795 Beethoven was pleased with his brother’s decision to take up residency in Vienna. Also in this year, Beethoven began to play in public concerts. This concert was organized by his mentor Haydn. His music selections included Mozart, Haydn, as well as his own. Amazingly, Ludwig was not keen on performing publicly. As a matter of fact, Beethoven only gave one more public appearance in the “ early” period and declined numerous other offers to share with the audience his musical skills. It has been postulated that the composer may have already suffered minor hearing loss, as well as having an “ overly suspicious” personality that caused him to hide from the public eye. (Stanley 17) Beethoven’s “ early” composition years ended in the start of the 1800’s. The time period that ranged from the young prodigies’ early lessons with his father through his studies with great composers, such as Neefe and Haydn, resulted in very fruitful years. “ The combination of forceful, dramatic power with dreamy introspection in Beethoven’s music had made a strong impression in Viennese aristocratic circles and helped win him generous patrons. Yet just as his success seemed assured, he was confronted with the loss of that sense on which he so depended, his hearing.” (Encarta Online)
The next ten years would later be described by historians as the “ Middle Period” of Beethoven’s compositional years. This period, is described as introducing “ the characteristics more closely associated with the nineteenth century: strong dynamic contrasts, explosive accents, and longer movements.” (Machlis 233) “ Now, having assimilated the Classical style, Beethoven forges his own more dramatic and monumental one, while concentrating more on the symphony and concerto, and large scale choral and dramatic works.” (Stanley 4) The work that begins the start of the middle period (in 1803) is the Symphony number 3, Eroica. The following symphonies up to and including number 8, which was finished in 1812, all belong to the middle period. This era also includes: the Piano Concerto number 4 and 5, the Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky quartets, as well as more chamber works and piano sonatas (to include the Waldstein and the Appassionata). (Stanley 10-11)
As mentioned above, the year 1802 ended with a crisis for Beethoven. With the realization that his hearing was ever so worsening and the acceptance that his most valued instrument, his ears, would eventually fail him completely; Beethoven plotted drastic measures. The autumn of 1802, at a village outside Vienna he wrote a will-like document coined the “ Heiligenstadt testament”. In this letter, addressed to his two brothers, he describing his bitter unhappiness over his hearing loss in terms that suggested he wished death. This death would be from his own hands. (Harrison). He described in this letter how “ he was torn between the destructive forces of his soul and his desire to live and create: ‘ But little more and I would have put an end to my life. Only art…withheld me. Ah, it seems impossible to leave the world until I have produced all that I felt called upon to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence.’” (Machlis 232) As it turns out, the letter was never sent to his family and was only discovered after his death. Fortunately, Ludwig’s passion for music swayed his inner turmoil into choosing life over suicide.
Falling into the “ Middle Period” is a piece of work entitled the Symphony number 5. This dramatic piece is perhaps the best known of all symphonies. “ Symphony number 5 in C minor op. 67 from 1808 is the most thematically concentrated of Beethoven’s works. Variants of the four-note motif that begins this symphony drive all four movements. The dramatic turning point in the symphony–where a sense of foreboding, struggle, or mystery yields to a triumphant breakthrough–comes at the transition to the final movement, where the music is reinforced by the entrance of the trombones. Beethoven uses here a large-scale polarity between the darker sound of C minor and the brighter, more radiant effect of C major, which is held largely in reserve until the finale.” (Encarta Online)
The “ Late” period began in 1812, followed by several years in which Ludwig is struck with the preoccupation of multiple personal issues. The first of which became evident with a discovered love poem letter. Antonia Brentano appears to be the intended receiver of Beethoven’s famous letter. The letter dates from July 1812 and apparently marks the collapse of Beethoven’s hopes to seek happiness through marriage. As like many of his love affairs it turned up becoming a failed attempt. It was proven time-and-again that Beethoven fell in love with many aristocratic women, but always suffered rejection. Following this last blow, Beethoven’s work declined dramatically, and during the “ Late” period he was generally depressed and unproductive.
1815 saw the death of Beethoven’s beloved brother. But the tragedy did not end there. Another burden that the artist was burdened with was his nephew Karl, the son of his deceased brother. For five years Beethoven was plagued with legal disputes against Karl’s mother for sole custody of the boy. Even after Ludwig won custody over his nephew, Karl continuously provided anxiety to Beethoven from then on. One of which was Karl’s failed suicide attempt of July 1826. “ About 1813 there is a marked slowing in Beethoven’s output of major works, and for the next 6 years or so, he produced mainly smaller pieces, songs and song arrangements. There are many reasons for this; his deafness by now was quite advanced (he had ceased giving public performances as a pianist) and this isolation was producing an inner transformation (spiritually). He was also taking more time over his works, with major compositions taking sometimes many years to perfect.” (Harrison)
Though the “ Late Period” proved to be a slower period for Beethoven, he still produced many wonderful pieces. His works include the last 6 Piano sonatas, Symphony no. 9 ‘ Choral’, last 5 String quartets, and the ‘ Missa Solemnis’. This time period also included the production of his only opera “ Fedelio”. During these final years “ Beethoven used more chromatic harmonies and developed a skeletal language from which all nonessentials were rigidly pared away. It was a language that transcended his time.” (Machlis 233) While in the works of his tenth symphony Beethoven would take on one more struggle that he would fail to overcome. During an open carriage ride through severe weather Ludwig contracted an illness that proved fatal. On March 26, 1827 at the age of only 57 Ludwig von Beethoven died. “ Some 10, 000 people lined the streets of Vienna at his funeral to pay homage to the composer who had forever changed the musical climate of Western Europe. With Beethoven’s passing, the stage was set for the onslaught of Romanticism in western music.” (Sherrane)
Encarta Online. Beethoven. February 5, 2003.
Harrison, Peter. The Beethoven Reference Site. February 2000.
Machlis, Joseph and Forney, Kristine. The Enjoyment of Music. New York:
W. W. Norton and Company, 1998.
Sadie, Stanley. Classical Music Pages Homepage. October 10, 2000.
Schwaegermann, Ingrid. Raptus Association for Music Appreciation. February 10, 2003.
Sherrane, Robert. Music History 102. February 1, 2003.
Stanley, Glenn. Beethoven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.