Who was Ludwig van Beethoven? Information on Ludwig van Beethoven biography, life story, works and contributions to music.
Ludwig van Beethoven; (1770-1827), German composer, who brought about gigantic alterations in the nature and techniques of music—an achievement matched by few other artists. He found music a rococo-dramatic art, the orchestra a relatively small ensemble, and the piano a newly established successor to the harpsichord. By his aggressive, iconoclastic, even egoistic nature, and by his huge ability to manipulate and balance musical ideas and forces, Beethoven marked his later creations with his own stormy, tender, lyrical, and intellectual character. By employing textless music to communicate philosophical ideas and to serve as autobiography, he pushed music far along the road toward 19 th century romanticism and bequeathed to his successors the portrait of the great creator as culture hero.
He expanded the size of the orchestra and the possible length of orchestral compositions, preparing the way for Schubert, Berlioz, Bichard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. He went far toward establishing the piano as the foremost musical instrument. Not a great craftsman when handling the human voice, Beethoven excelled in all other branches of music. The taste of the 20th century inclines to call Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven the greatest of all musical creators.
Beethoven was born at Bonn, probably on Dec. 16, 1770, and was baptized on December 17. Of Flemish-German descent, he was the second of seven children of Johann van Beethoven, who sang tenor in the chorus of the elector of Cologne. Ludwig’s mother was Maria Magdalena Laym ( née Kewerich ). The boy demonstrated musical talent as early as his sixth year, and his father tried to develop him into a child prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At 10, Ludwig was sent to study with Christian Gottlob Neefe, the elector’s court organist. Neefe nourished him on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and wrote in 1783: “If he goes on as he has started, he will certainly become a second Mozart.”
In 1784, Beethoven was appointed assistant court organist to Elector Maximilian Fran2$ an enlightened young ruler. Beethoven visited Vienna for the first time in the spring of 1787, meeting Mozart, who was too much involved in the composition of Don Giovanni to do much more than listen to his playing and praise him. Beethoven was summoned back to Bonn by the illness of his mother, who died a few weeks later. His father had become a drunkard, and the family would have been poverty-stricken but for the help offered Ludwig by his friends.
In November 1789, Beethoven persuaded the elector to make him legal head of his family and to pay him half of Johann’s salary. In this way he succeeded in bringing some order into his home. The young man’s compositions began to circulate in manuscript. The great Joseph Haydn, visiting Bonn in July 1792, examined a cantata that the 21-year-old Beethoven submitted to him, and encouraged him to continue composing. Beethoven’s noble patrons persuaded the elector to finance a trip to Vienna and probable lessons with Haydn. Just ahead of the troops of revolutionary France, Beethoven left Bonn in November 1792, never to return, and installed himself at Vienna.
Johann van Beethoven died in December 1792, and for a time the monies arriving in Vienna from Bonn were often interrupted. Haydn gave Beethoven some lessons for almost nothing, even inviting the young man to join him on his second visit to England. Beethoven, armed with introductions from his Bonn patrons, was soon taken up by several wealthy Viennese families. He attracted pupils, became renowned for his astonishing ability to improvise at the keyboard, and generally began to savor life fully for the first time.” Continuing to study and to compose, he was soon widely famous as a virtuoso pianist.
At this period Beethoven traveled extensively in Austria, Bohemia, Germany, and Hungary, winning particular success in Prague.” In 1798 he began to suffer from incipient deafness, the resulting shock apparently being directly related to the increased power, even ferocity, of his compositions of the time, including the Pathétique Sonata, Opus 13, for piano. On April 2, 1800, he gave his own first public concert, which included pieces by Haydn and Mozart as well as his own septet for wind instruments and strings and his C Major (First) Symphony. The symphony shocked many Viennese, who were more favorably disposed toward the music Beethoven wrote for the ballet Die Geschópfe des Prometheus (The Creations of Prometheus). He himself became extremely displeased with his creative efforts and in 1802 said: “I am discontented with my works up to now; from here on I shall take a new path.” On Oct. 10, 1802, he dated at the village of Heiligenstadt the overwhelming document known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.
The testament is a nearly incoherent outpouring of grief and rage against the senseless cruelties of life. Part of Beethoven’s tragic intensity was the result of his increasing deafness, part resulted from his continued treatment for a physical condition that was very probably syphilitic. He became more and more an irascible, imperious, difficult, antisocial man. Though increasingly isolated inside himself, he fell in love numerous times, frequently with young girls of noble birth who were clearly beyond his reach. A document almost as shattering as the Heiligenstadt Testament is the so-called “Letter to the Immortal Beloved,” an unsent outpouring of passionate yearning for a girl who cannot be identified. Beethoven never married.
Beethoven’s personal eccentricities, his proud boorishness, and even his lack of personal cleanliness were accepted as the marks of the genius he was. A short, muscular, stocky man, he had a bush of wild hair and fierce, piercing black eyes in a notably ruddy face. His upper-class friends suffered at his hands but stubbornly remained faithful to him. They supported him by providing comfortable lodgings, by giving him money, and by patronizing his concerts and publications. On April 5, 1803, for example, his Second (D Major) Symphony and his Third (C Minor) Piano Concerto were first heard at a public concert. By 1804 he was composing such of his great piano sonatas as the Waldstein (Opus 53) and the Appassionato (Opus 57), and probably had embarked on his only opera, Fidelio. The opera was delayed, finally being performed on Nov. 20, 1805, when Vienna was under French occupation. It was given three times and was a failure. Beethoven’s friends persuaded him to revise it and to reduce its three acts to two. It was restaged on March 29, 1806, with more promise of success, but Beethoven quarreled with the impresario, and it was withdrawn after two performances. More than eight years later he again revised it; it was then produced with enormous success on May 23, 1814, and was chosen to open the Hooper’s 1815 season.
Meanwhile, by 1805, Beethoven had begun to sketch his Fifth (C Minor) Symphony, his Fourth (G Major) Piano Concerto, and the first of his Razumovsky ( Razumovski ) string quartets. In 1806, in the midst of the Napoleonic disorders, he composed his only violin concerto, first heard on December 23 of that year. While Beethoven worked on the concerto, his desk was littered with advanced sketches of his Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies. The Fourth (B Major) was first heard in the spring of 1807; the Fifth (C Minor) and Sixth (Pastoral, F Major) were played at a concert on Dec. 22, 1808, which included half a dozen others of his works (the premières of the Choral Fantasy and the Fourth Piano Concerto).
On completing his Third (Eroica) Symphony, in E Flat, in 1804, Beethoven had inscribed it to Napoleon, thinking of him as a democratic liberator; this inscription he later angrily struck out. Nevertheless, he seriously considered, as late as 1808-1809, an offer from Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, to become his Kapellmeister at Kassel. Hearing of this, three of Beethoven’s Viennese patrons, including the young Archduke Rudolf, joined to offer him a yearly income, and he decided not to emigrate. Although after Haydn’s death on May 31, 1809, Beethoven was unquestionably the most famous of living musicians, the years from 1809 to 1813 appear to have been relatively inactive for him.
He was by then almost totally deaf, but as one of the world’s most famous men he led a very active social life. In 1811 he encountered Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, with whom he formed a close, if passing, friendship. In 1812, visiting fashionable Teplitz (Teplice), he niet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said of him: “His talent amazed me; unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but not making it any more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude.” During this year Beethoven completed his Seventh (A Major) and Eighth (F Major) symphonies.
In May 1813, hearing of the duke of Wellington’s victory over Joseph Bonaparte’s troops at Vitoria, Spain, Beethoven agreed to compose for the panharmonicon, a music-playing machine invented by Maelzel, a piece to be played in England. Wellington’s Victory is rotten trash, yet Beethoven astonishingly orchestrated it for performance in Vienna, where its success was stupendous. Almost unnoticed in the din of its first performance on Dec. 8, 1813, was the première of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The Eighth Symphony was first heard on Feb. 27, 1814.
When the Congress of Vienna convened on Nov. 1, 1814, to rearrange the world disordered by Napoleon, Beethoven was the object of keen interest to the visiting sovereigns and their entourages. The Austrian government lent him the two halls of the Redoutensaal for a series of concerts, and he personally invited the sovereigns, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, and other visiting dignitaries. The first concert attracted 6,000 people, and the series earned Beethoven a large sum of money.
The year 1815 found him in comfortable circumstances, although his deafness had forced him to give up ensemble playing and to carry on all conversations by means of pencil and paper. In November his brother Karl died, leaving a widow, whom Beethoven detested, and a nine-year-old son, Karl, of whom he was goguardian with the widow. This boy was to be the cause of much unhappiness and ill-advised behavior on his uncle’s part. On Nov. 16, 1815, Beethoven was awarded the freedom of the city of Vienna, thus becoming tax exempt. The death of his patron Prince Lobkowitz in 1816, however, reduced his income, and for the first time in years he was pressed for money.
Between 1817 and 1823, Beethoven completed the last 5 of his 32 piano sonatas. In 1818 he began a mass intended for use at the installation of his friend Archduke Rudolf as archbishop of Olmutz (Olomouc ). He did not complete it until Feb. 27, 1823; the Missa solemnis was first sung at a private performance in St. Petersburg on April 6, 1824. As early as 1812, Beethoven had planned a symphony in D minor. He worked at it desultory until 1823, when he seriously set to work to complete it. He decided to make its last movement a choral setting of Friedrich von Schiller’s Ode to Joy and pronounced the Ninth Symphony complete on Sept. 5, 1823.
He had accepted £50 from the Philharmonic Society of London in return for a promise that it would receive his new symphony in manuscript. But he had also promised the première to Berlin and had dedicated the symphony to the king of Prussia. When his Viennese patrons insisted that it be heard in Vienna first, he yielded, salving his conscience by sending the actual autograph score to London. The first hearing of the Ninth Symphony occurred in Vienna on May 7, 1824. When the audience broke into frantic applause, the deaf Beethoven was unaware of the enthusiasm until someone turned him around so that he could see the demonstration.
From 1824 to 1826, Beethoven completed the five string quartets (Opus 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135) that many critics regard as the towering peak of his achievement. He also began to sketch a tenth symphony. He was increasingly ill during this period and worried unceasingly over the wastrel his nephew Karl had become. The boy’s attempted suicide in the summer of 1826 further unnerved him.
After a senseless and futile visit to the country in an attempt to persuade his prosperous brother Johann to name young Karl as his heir, Beethoven furiously rushed back to Vienna in an open carriage, arriving on December 2 and taking to his bed with a high fever. After his 56th birthday (Dec. 16, 1826) he also quarreled with his nephew, who shortly joined his regiment and never saw his famous uncle again. Johann van Beethoven and his wife arrived to take care of the invalid. Franz Schubert visited him. When a set of George Frideric Handel’s works arrived from London, Beethoven looked through it and said: “Handel is the greatest of us all.” During February 1827 he was five times tapped for dropsy. He was given the last sacrament on March 24. Two days later Vienna was beset by a late afternoon storm. The dying man opened his eyes, shook his fist at the sky, and died; it was March 26, 1827. His funeral three days later was an impressive public event watched by more than 20,000 people in the streets and by another multitude at the cemetery. For it was the funeral of one of the two or three most famous men in the world
Custom long has divided Beethoven’s numerous works into three periods. These inexact, overlapping categories represent actual changes in style. The first period shows Beethoven as the direct heir and imitator of Haydn and Mozart. Opening about 1800, the second period, far more idiosyncratic, includes the majority of his most popular works: symphonies Nos. 2 to 8 inclusive, Fidelio, the last three piano concertos, the violin concerto, the Leonore, Egmont, and -Coriolan overtures, the Razumovsky string quartets, other chamber music, and 14 of the piano sonatas. The third of the Beethoven periods, one of distillation and summation, encompasses the Ninth Symphony, the five final string quartets, and the Missa solemnis. Critics still discuss whether or not Beethoven’s deafness influenced the special character of his later works.
Symphonies and Other Works for Orchestra:
Nine symphonies—No. 1, C Major, Opus 21 (1795-1800); No. 2, D Major, Opus 36 (1802); No. 3, Eroica, E Flat Major, Opus 55 (1802-1804); No. 4, B Flat Major, Opus 60 (1806); No. 5, C Minor, Opus 67 (?-1807); No. 6, Pastoral, F Major, Opus 68 (1807-1808); No. 7, A Major, Opus 92 (?-1812); No 8. F Major, Opus 93 (P-1812); No. 9, Choral, D Minor, Opus 125 (1817-1823); Coriolan Overture, Opus 62 (1807}; Wellington’s Victory, Opus 91 (1813); overture, The Consecration of the House, Opus 124 (1822); pieces listed in section Music for the Stage.
Five piano concertos—No. 1, C Major, Opus 15 (1797); No. 2, B Flat Major, Opus 19 (1794); No. 3, C Minor, Opus 37 (1800); No. 4, G Major, Opus 58 (?1805); No. 5, Emperor, E Flat Major, Opus 73 (1809); Violin Concerto, D Major, Opus 61 (1806); two romances for violin and orchestra—G Major, Opus 40 (1803); F Major, Opus 50 (1802); Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Violoncello, C Major, Opus 56 (?— 1804).
Music for the Stage:
Opera, Fidelio, Opus 72 (1803-1805; rev. 1806, 1814); four overtures for Fidelio— Leonore Nos. 1, 2, and 3 and Fidelio; incidental music to the following—Goethe’s Egmont, Opus 84, overture and other music (1810); August von Kotzebue’s Ruins of Athens, Opus 113, overture and other music (1811); Kotzebue’s King Stephen, Opus 117, overture and other music (1811—1812); ballet, The Creations of Prometheus, Opus 43, overture and other music (1800).
Music for Voices with Orchestra:
Missa solemnis, D Major, Opus 123 (1818-1823); Fantasy, C Minor, for piano, chorus, and orchestra, Opus 80 (1808); oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, Opus 85 (?-1800); Mass, C Major, Opus 86 (1807); scene and aria, Ah, perfido!, for soprano and orchestra. Opus 65 (1796); songs with piano accompaniment and 149 folk songs arranged for solo, duet, and sometimes chorus with accompaniment of piano, violin, and violoncello. The most familiar songs are Adelaide, Opus 46 (?1797); the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, Opus 98 (1816); and In questa tomba oscura, no opus number (1807).
String quartets—six quartets. Opus 18 (?—1801); three quartets, Rasoumovsky, Opus 59 (?-1806); quartet, The Harp, E Flat Major, Opus 74 (?-1809); quartet, Serioso, F Minor, Opus 95.( ?-1810); quartet, E Flat Major, Opus 127 ( ?—1824 ) ; quartet, B Flat Major, Opus 130 (1825; new finale, 1826); Grosse Fuge, B Flat Major, Opus 133 (original finale of Opus 130); quartet, C Sharp Minor, Opus 131 (?-1826); quartet, A Minor, Opus 132 (?-1825); quartet, F Major, Opus 135 (1826); ten violin sonatas (1798-1812); five violoncello sonatas (1796—1815); six trios for piano, violin, and violoncello (1795-1811), the last (B Flat Major, Opus 97) being the renowned Archduke Trio; duos, trios, quartets, a quintet, sextets, a septet, and octets for varying combinations.
Music for Piano Solo:
Sonatas—No. 1, F Minor, No. 2, A Major, No. 3, C Major, Opus 2 (?-1796); No. 4, E Flat Major, Opus 7 (?-1797); No. 5, C Minor, No. 6, F Major, No. 7, D Major Opus 10 (?-1798); No 8, Pathétique, C Minor, Opus 13 (?-1799); No. 9, E Major, No. 10, G Major, Opus 14 (?-1799); No. 11, B Flat Major, Opus 22 (?-1802); No. 12, A Flat Major, Opus 26 (1801); No. 13, E Flat Major, No. 14, Moonlight, C Sharp Minor, Opus 27 (?-1801); No. 15, Pastoral, D Major, Opus 2.8 (1801); No. 16, G Major, No. 17, D Minor, No. 18, E Flat Major, Opus 31 (?1802); No. 19, G Minor No. 20, G Major, Opus 49 (?-1805); No. 21, Waldstein, C Major, Opus 53 (1804); No. 22, F Major, Opus 54 (1804); No. 23, Appassionato, F Minor, Opus 57 ( 1804?—1806 ) ; No. 24, F Sharp Major, Opus 78 (1809); No. 25, Sonatine, G Major, Opus 79 (?-1810); No. 26, Les adieux, E Flat Major, Opus 81A (1809); No. 27, E Minor, Opus 90 (?-1814); No. 28, A Major, Opus 101 ( 1815—P1816) ; No. 29, Hammerklavier, B Flat Major, Opus 106 (1818-1819); No. 30, E Major, Opus 109 (?-1820); No. 31, A Flat Major, Opus 110 (?-1821); No. 32, C Minor, Opus 111 (?-1822); three sonatas without opus number; variations—numerous sets, including the Prometheus (Eroica), Opus 35 (1802); the Diabelli Variations, Opus 120 (1821-1823); and the 32 Variations, C Minor, no opus number (1806-1807); numerous other brief piano pieces; works for the piano four hands.