Ludwig van Beethoven

By: Victoria Yates

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on the 16th of December 1770 to Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, the second of their seven children, in Bonn, Germany. The family had, only the generation before, emigrated from Belgium where his grandfather, Lodewijk van Beethoven, was employed as a bass singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, later rising to become the Kapellmeister (or music director). Beethoven’s father was similarly musical, working as a tenor in the same establishment as Lodewijk and teaching piano and violin on the side.

At a young age Johann took to instructing Beethoven in music. While Beethoven’s mother was always described as a warm, loving, and moralistic woman (he himself proclaimed her to be his ‘best friend’) his father has been portrayed as a far stricter influence, more noted in the court as an alcoholic than a gifted musician. Recognizing his son’s potential, and acutely aware of Leopold Mozart’s success with his children, Johann began teaching the young boy with a rigor and brutality that many neighbors attested left the boy weeping while he played the clavier, standing on a footstool so as to reach the keys and being beaten for each mistake or hesitation. He was instructed in both clavier and violin, flogged on a daily basis, and often deprived of sleep in order to get in extra hours of practice.

Johann was not Beethoven’s only teacher; he was also tutored by the court organist Gilles van den Eden, taught piano by Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, and instructed in violin and viola by a relative Franz Rovantini. His father set up a public performance for his “little son of six years”, the age Mozart debuted, when Beethoven was seven. Although his recital was impressive it received no press whatsoever. As with other boys his age, Beethoven attended school at a Latin establishment where he seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, struggling throughout his life with sums and spelling some scholars have suggested he may have been dyslexic. In 1781, at ten years old, Beethoven withdrew from school to study music exclusively with the newly appointed Court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe. Two years later he published his first composition, a selection of piano variations on a theme.

By 1784 his father’s alcoholism had caused his health to rapidly deteriorate to the point where he could no longer support the family. The young Beethoven applied to become the Assistant Court Organist and, despite his age, he was accepted. In order to help Beethoven further grow as a musician, he was sent to study under Mozart in Vienna in 1787. It was not to last however. A few days into his time there, Beethoven received word that his mother was ill and immediately rushed home to be at her side. She died a few months later, and Beethoven spiraled into a deep depression. He nevertheless took on the care of his two younger brothers.

Despite his personal tragedy, Beethoven continued to work tirelessly, cultivating a strong reputation as a rising star of music and, at 19, he was asked to write a musical memorial in honor of the late Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, now considered his earliest masterpiece.  As rumours mounted of a war spilling out of France, Beethoven moved to Vienna in November 1792 to study under Haydn who, since the death of Mozart, was seen as the greatest living composer of the time. His initial work focused around intense study and performance rather than composition, honing his technical skills on various instruments. When Haydn left for England in 1794, those back in Bonn who had funded his journey expected him to return to court. Instead, and with the financial backing of several Viennese noblemen who saw a unique talent, he remained in Vienna where he was known as a piano virtuoso. His first public performance in his new city was not until March 1795 where he performed one of his piano concertos. He shortly after published his first collection of works, which became a financial success, proving profitable enough to pay for most of a year’s living expenses.

His first six string quartets were written between 1798 and 1800, to be published in 1801, whilst his First and Second Symphonies premiered in 1800 and 1803. These works cemented Beethoven as the most important new composer of his generation. While widely seen today as a classical work similar to his predecessors Haydn and Mozart, his First Symphony was received at the time as something different, overtly extravagant and even risqué, an early sign of Beethoven’s shifting of established musical boundaries. His most original work came in 1804, weeks after Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor. Beethoven premiered Symphony No.3 in his honor (it would later be renamed Eroica Symphony when Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon). The piece was so groundbreaking that the musicians struggled to know how to play it in rehearsals.

During this same time frame Beethoven was facing yet another personal trial, the terrible reality that he was going deaf. Since around 1800 his hearing had deteriorated such that he could hardly make out the words spoken to him in conversation, and he largely stopped attending social gatherings. Despite this impediment Beethoven continued to churn out new compositions, producing an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, four overtures, four trios, six string sonatas, five sets of piano variations, seven piano sonatas, two sextets and seventy-two songs between 1803-1812. These original and astoundingly beautiful works belied his personal life which was intensely lonely. His paranoia and short-temper led him to fight with his brothers, his publishers, his patrons and his pupils in equal measure.

The combination of his awkward shyness and physical appearance meant that he had never married, although he expressed his infatuation with the married Antonie Brentano in a long un-sent love letter in 1812. After his brother Caspar’s death in 1815 a lengthy legal battle was sparked over the custody of his nephew Karl with the boy’s mother Johanna. After seven years of acrimonious and public dispute, Beethoven was awarded guardianship.

For many, Beethoven’s greatest period of work was that towards the end of his life. This included his Ninth and final symphony, completed in 1824. It featured arguably one of the most famous pieces of music in history in its choral finale in which the words to Ode to Joy are sung by four soloists. Beethoven died from cirrhosis of the liver on March 26th 1827 when he was 56. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people attended his funeral.

Beethoven is widely considered the most important composer of all time, moving Western music out of the Classical and into the Romantic age. His innovations within music represent one of the most fundamental catalysts of this new age that he pioneered, and make him one of the singularly most influential musical leaders in history. The genius of his works are further illuminated by the realities of Beethoven’s personal and physical life in which he was never without crippling adversity. He was a remarkable man whose uniquely influential legacy continues to be the subject of enjoyment, scholarship, and a source of considerable inspiration.