Ludwig van Beethoven: a
Musical Titan

Portrait of Beethoven: J.K.Stieler 1819-20

by Charles K. Moss, M.M.Ed., M.Mus.

Although his name is a household word, myths and misconceptions about the personality and life of Ludwig van Beethoven are prevalent today. Beethoven was not the neurotic genius-lunatic portrayed in some novels and movies in recent years. But he was instead an offspring of a truly dysfunctional family. It is true that his mother died during his late teenage years and that his father, an accomplished violinist and tenor singer, had become an intolerable and abusive alcoholic long before his wife's death.

The circumstances of his family life may have had an effect on Beethoven's genuinely eccentric personal nature, but it is more likely that the demands he placed upon himself as a musical perfectionist were transferred to and expected from those around him. As an adult, Beethoven's moodiness, his brooding, his famous fits of temper were often due to the early deterioration of his hearing which made him shun crowds and seek peace in nature. His sensitivity to the beauties of the countryside led him to take long, solitary walks in the surroundings of Vienna. The composer drew inspiration from nature, but at the same time Beethoven was intolerant of the mediocre, the flawed, and the unexamined in himself and in others.

When one realizes that life itself to Beethoven was a search for perfection, personified in his music, then his personality becomes more easily understood. For most people, life is about compromise and accepting less-than-perfect results in negotiations. But in his music and largely in his life as well, Beethoven viewed things from an "all or nothing" perspective, refusing to accept anything other than absolute perfection, reworking his compositions for years on end, and finally accepting his own creations as the nearest thing to perfection that he could achieve.

Taking this perspective into account, it is no small wonder that Beethoven was viewed by his patrons, colleagues, and his students as a person difficult to know, communicate with, and understand. In the history of music, he is unique as a composer and as a person. His nine symphonies and thirty-two piano sonatas are essential study pieces for any serious student of music anywhere in the world today. These and other masterworks clearly place Beethoven's music as the culmination of Viennese Classical style. Today, Beethoven is regarded as the dominant musical figure during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence in some way.

Ludwig van Beethoven came from a family of musicians. His father and grandfather worked for the Electors of Cologne, whose residence was in Bonn, Germany. The grandfather, Lodewyk van Beethoven (1712-1773), came from Mechelen, Belgium and joined the court chapel choir in Bonn as a bass singer in 1733. In 1761 he became the conductor. His son Johann (1740-1792) entered the Elector's service, first as a boy soprano in 1752, and continuing after adolescence as a tenor. He also played piano and violin and supplemented his income as a private teacher of these instruments.

In November 1767, Johann married Maria Magdalena Leym, a twenty-one-year-old widow. On December 17, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was born. Only two of his five younger brothers and sisters survived infancy, Caspar Anton Carl (1774-1815) and Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848). They were very close to the composer throughout his life.

Ludwig's father discovered the outstanding talent of his son at an early age. He gave him piano and violin lessons and attempted to popularize the boy as a child prodigy after Mozart's example. On March 26, 1778, he presented his six-year-old son to the public. (But Ludwig was already seven years old.) In some of his early debut recitals, the advertisements stated his age as two years younger than he truly was. These "Mozartian" prodigy recitals were only marginally successful, and Johann eventually gave up trying to "market" his son as a child wonder.

In 1779, the composer and organist, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), came to Bonn as court organist, and Ludwig became his student. In addition to piano and organ lessons, Neefe also taught Ludwig composition and helped him to publish his first works. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. A set of nine variations for piano, on a march in C minor by Dressler, was published in 1782. This may be Beethoven's earliest preserved work, and it was the first of many sets of variations that Beethoven later composed in sonatas, symphonies, and other multi-movement genres, culminating in the great Diabelli Variations of 1823. Neefe engaged Beethoven as assistant organist in the court orchestra, and Beethoven often substituted for his teacher on the harpsichord. The sacred repertory that the young Beethoven came to know included the works of Caldara and Pergolesi. Also, he was exposed to the instrumental works of various Mannheim composers, and these pieces were "absorbed" into his experience.

Through the work for Sunday Masses and holy days and the taking part in concerts and at the theater, the young Beethoven came into contact with the music of Haydn and Mozart as well as the works of other composers from Vienna and Paris. Neefe acquainted him with the strict counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. And through his compositions and his virtuoso piano playing, Beethoven attracted much attention at court. In addition to the flourishing musical life at court, Beethoven took part in much informal music-making. In the home of the von Breuning family, Beethoven found a personal warmth that was sadly lacking in his own home, and here he met educated people from all walks of life. His friendship with Count Waldstein, who did so much for the young composer, in all likelihood also began in the von Breuning home. But it was his employer, The Elector Maximilian Franz (1756-1801), whose interest in Beethoven's musical progress was to bring about a new atmosphere for the young composer.

In 1787, the Elector granted the seventeen-year-old a leave of absence for a trip to Vienna to continue his studies with Mozart. But this project failed, because Beethoven was called back to Bonn after a fourteen-day stay in Vienna, informed of the serious illness of his mother. A short time after his return, his mother died in July 1787. Beethoven's father retired as a court musician in November 1789. After the death of his wife, Johann Beethoven became increasingly addicted to alcohol, and the care of Ludwig's younger brothers became the composer's responsibility. Beethoven obtained an order from the Elector that half the paternal salary was left to him for the maintenance of the brothers.

In December 1790, Joseph Haydn stopped in Bonn on his first journey to London. It is not certain that Beethoven met him at that time. But when Haydn went back to Vienna in 1792, he became Beethoven's teacher. Elector Maximilian Franz again granted Beethoven a leave of absence to study in Vienna, but this time with Haydn. Beethoven's lessons in counterpoint with Haydn continued intermittently until 1794, when Haydn started off on his second journey to London. Beethoven was not always satisfied with Haydn's teaching methods, and since Haydn had left Vienna, he began to study counterpoint, canon, and fugue composition with the well-known theorist, Johann Albrechtsberger (1736-1809). But Beethoven's relationship with Haydn lasted until Haydn's death in 1809. And their relations were supposedly quite friendly. Also, Beethoven undoubtedly owed his acquaintance with many influential patrons to Haydn.

Following his instruction with Haydn and Albrechtsberger, Beethoven took Italian vocal and opera style lessons with the court conductor, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825). Later, Beethoven had no more significant relations with the highly esteemed opera composer, and it seems that Salieri was rather prepossessed against him. Perhaps this was due to the simple reason that Beethoven was of German birth, whereas the Imperial Austrian court was directed and dominated by Italian musicians at the time.

In March 1794, Elector Maximilian of Bonn stopped payments of Beethoven's salary, since the composer had long overstayed his leave of absence. At that time, Beethoven no longer depended upon the allowances from Bonn. He was very popular as a piano teacher and gave lessons to several young ladies from wealthy noble families. A short time later, his brother Caspar Carl came to Vienna to live with him. The next year, Nikolaus Johann also moved to Vienna and worked there as an assistant pharmacist.

During his early years in Vienna, Beethoven appeared as a pianist only in private circles. But in March of 1795, he faced a large Viennese audience in his first public concert at the Burgtheater. Among the important works from this period are the Piano Trios, Op. 1 and several Piano Sonatas including Op. 13, the famous Pathetique Sonata. These works show obvious ties to the Classical models of Haydn and Mozart. For example, in the Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 1, the range of the piano part is conventional, and the violin and cello parts still lie fairly low in the range of the instruments. Beethoven gives them far less thematic material than that given to the piano. This had been the dominant model of such works in this genre prior to Beethoven. However, there are new elements here as well. Chromaticism is used for its own sake, for coloration rather than modulation. And from the beginning, Beethoven employs a wider range of dynamics with his characteristic sudden pianissimo following a fortissimo. Similarly, his early Piano Sonatas show the expressive character of his music very well, and often, changes in his compositional style are first demonstrated in his Piano Sonatas.

After intensive work on the String Quartets, Opus 18, Beethoven ventured for the first time into the composition of a symphony in 1799. In April 1800, his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 21 was performed as part of a public concert at the Burgtheater. The symphony was dedicated to Baron van Swieten, the arbiter of musical taste in Vienna. The program for what was in fact Beethoven's first benefit concert was a substantial one. A Mozart symphony was followed by an aria from Haydn's Creation. Then came a piano concerto by Beethoven, with the composer as soloist. The Schuppanzigh Quartet was joined by three wind-players to perform a septet by Beethoven. After this came the symphony.

As so often in Beethoven's career, the reviews of this concert were decidedly cool. Only his ballet music Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43, (The Creatures of Prometheus) achieved a breakthrough for him as a composer. It was a commissioned work of the famous dancer, choreographer and composer Salvatore Vigano (1769-1821). The première in March 1801 was very successful. The ballet was performed thirteen times that year and nine times the next year.

From 1800-1802, Beethoven composed the Piano Sonatas, Op. 27 and Op. 28, the Piano Quintet, Op. 29, and the violin Romance, Op. 40. In February 1802, he finished the composition of Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36, which was performed for the first time just one year later. The work is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums, with strings, the kind of forces that the Vienna Court Opera had for some years been able to provide. It was first performed privately in April 1803, under the composer's direction and is dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky, to whose patience and generosity Beethoven continued to be indebted.

Despite his frequent changes of residence, Beethoven's daily routine did not vary particularly. Usually, he spent the morning writing down his compositions and went for long walks in the afternoon. He always carried a notebook with him to write down new musical ideas. Either he spent the evenings with friends, or he stayed at home to read. During the summer months, the composer left Vienna and rented lodgings in the country. He was often invited to spend the summer at the country estates of his noble patrons.

In the early Nineteenth Century, it was not unusual for composers to tour, giving performances in different cities. But Beethoven undertook only three concert tours: in the spring of 1796 to Prague, Dresden, and Berlin, in the autumn of 1796 to Bratislava and Pest (Budapest), and in 1798 once more to Prague. His increasing deafness probably restrained him from making other tours.

In a letter, dated June 1801, to a friend from Bonn, Beethoven mentioned for the first time the failure of his hearing. The problem had already begun by 1797, but it was four years later before he entrusted this knowledge to some of his closest friends. He consulted several physicians, but no one could help him. From the descriptions of his symptoms there is a general agreement among modern otologists that his deafness was caused by otosclerosis of the 'mixed' type, that is, with the degeneration of the auditory nerve as well - by no means a rare condition. On the advice of a physician, he moved in the spring of 1802 to Heiligenstadt, hoping that the seclusion of the Viennese suburb would ease his illness. But the treatment had no success, and he had to accept his worsened deafness. On October 6, he wrote in a state of deepest despair the Heiligenstadt Testament addressed to his two brothers. He explained the reason for his recent unfriendly behavior and asked them and his circle of friends for understanding for his hopeless situation.

Obviously, Beethoven had seriously considered suicide as a way of solving his problem, because he requested that his brothers publish the letter after his death. But in writing it down, he seems to have gathered fresh hope, because he left Heiligenstadt not much later and returned to Vienna. It is not surprising that following this time of great personal trial, his next great work was a religious one, his only oratorio, Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives). From this work, published as his Opus 85 in 1803, comes the famous Hallelujah that remains one of his most popular choral pieces widely performed around the world.

From a personal perspective, his affliction with deafness and his undeniable inability to enter into happy personal relationships caused him to create a more inward music of an increasingly individual style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition, exploration, and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is perhaps the most admired composer in the history of Western art music.

After his return from Heiligenstadt, Beethoven's music deepened. He began creating a new musical world. In the summer of 1803 he began work on his Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 (The Eroica). It was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, and like its subject, it was revolutionary. It broke the symphonic mold, yet established new, logical and cogent forms. This was the miracle Beethoven was to work many times. Symphony No. 3 has several original features, including the substitution of a funeral march for the slow movement, a Scherzo for the Minuet, as in the D major symphony, and a set of variations for the finale. It is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and drums, with three French horns and the customary strings.

Stephan von Breuning with whom Beethoven shared rooms reported a thunderous episode in connection with the Eroica Symphony. In December 1804, the news arrived that Napoleon, that champion for the rights of the common people, had proclaimed himself Emperor. In a fury, Beethoven strode over to his copy of the Symphony, which bore a dedication to Napoleon, and crossed out the Bonaparte name in such violence that the pen tore in the paper. "Is he, too, nothing more than human?" he raged. "Now he will crush the rights of man. He will become a tyrant!"

For the next few years in Vienna, from 1804 to 1808, Beethoven lived in what might be described as a state of monotonous uproar. His relationships suffered elemental rifts, while his music and his reputation grew ever greater. Beethoven left an indelible impression on all those who encountered him, and even for his contemporaries there were certain features of his life - his idiosyncratic working methods, for example, his mournful isolation through deafness, and the nobility of his total dedication to his art - that endowed him as an almost mythical figure.

Beethoven was neither good-looking nor equipped with more than a very rudimentary education; it was by the force of his character that he produced such a powerful effect on those around him. This, notoriously, had its thorny side. As a young man he was already known to be difficult, impatient and mistrustful, an "unlocked bear." What his capricious and, at times, outrageous behavior could not dim was the enormous appeal of his personality. He fascinated and endeared himself to men and women of many sorts, who continued to value his friendship no matter how rough a ride he gave them. Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Opus 60, was completed by September 1806, when it was offered to the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf and Haertel. The proposal to Breitkopf came to nothing, and the symphony seems to have had its first performance in March 1807, at the estate of Prince Lobkowitz. It was played publicly in Vienna at a Liebhaber Concert in January, 1808, and it was presumably commissioned by and certainly dedicated to Count Franz von Oppersdorff. Symphony No. 4 is scored for flute and pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, drums, and strings.

Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were completed by the summer of 1808. Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 is perhaps his most famous work, and it indeed takes fate by the throat. This work is dedicated to Count Razumovsky, Prince Lichnowsky's brother- in-law, the Tzar's representative in Vienna and a patron of great munificence, while his money lasted, and to Prince Lobkowitz. It received its first performance at a concert on December 22, 1808. Through Beethoven's orchestration, the Fifth Symphony shows innovations in its inclusion of the piccolo, the double bassoon and the three trombones of the final movement.

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (The Pastoral) is a portrait of the countryside around Heiligenstadt. It was first performed at a concert in Vienna in December 1808. The occasion was an important one for the composer, since it was likely to be his only significant source of income for that year. In spite of a four-hour concert program at which The Pastoral Symphony was premiered, it was generally well received by the Viennese audience. The Sixth Symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums with the usual strings, along with piccolo and trombones.

Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92 was completed in the spring of 1812, but sketches for some of the material occur as early as 1809. Surmounting his deafness, Beethoven, in his forties, was at the height of his powers, but the new symphony was greeted by some contemporary critics as "the work of a drunkard." At the first performance in December 1813, the work was received with considerable enthusiasm. The occasion was a patriotic one, a concert organized by Maelzel, inventor of the new metronome, to raise money for the wounded at the battle of Hanau, and the program included Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, a program piece in which some of the most distinguished musicians of the day took part. Symphony No. 7 was popular with the Viennese public in spite of the critics' attacks. It is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and drums, with strings.

Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Opus 93 is scored for the usual orchestra of strings, with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. Of its four movements three are in sonata form, while the third movement is a traditional Minuet. Beethoven made his first sketches for his eighth symphony in 1811 and completed the work in October the following year, during the course of a visit to Linz. The summer had taken him to the spa-town of Teplitz, where he was to meet the great German poet, Goethe, while the subsequent journey to Linz was undertaken for the officious purpose of forcing his younger brother Johann, an apothecary in the town, to break off his irregular liaison with Therese Obermeyer, a woman that Johann married in November of the same year. Whatever anxieties he may have entertained in the time about his health or about members of his family, he created in Symphony No. 8 a work of clear optimism. Its first performance was given on February 27, 1814. To Beethoven's disappointment, it was greeted rather coolly, the audience favoring in particular the other works of Beethoven on the program.

Beethoven's brother Casper Carl died in November 1815. The consequences brought about something that neither the tragedy of deafness nor Napoleon's guns could achieve: they almost stopped Beethoven from composing. Beethoven was appointed guardian of his brother's nine-year-old son, Karl, a guardianship he shared with the boy's mother Johanna. Beethoven took the appointment most seriously and was certain that Johanna did not. He immediately began legal proceedings to get sole guardianship of his nephew. The lawsuit was painful and protracted and frequently abusive, with Johanna asserting, "How can a deaf, madman bachelor guard the boy's welfare?" Beethoven repeatedly fell ill because of the strain. He did not finally secure custody of Karl until 1822 when the boy was sixteen years old.

His final work in the symphonic genre, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (The Choral), was completed in 1823, by which time Beethoven has been completely deaf for years. The idea of introducing voices into a symphony was one that had been in Beethoven's mind for some time. He had written his Choral Fantasia, a kind of piano concerto with voices, in 1808, and Beethoven had always shown a considerable interest in the composition of songs, an element in his work that is often underestimated. By 1818 he was planning a choral symphony making use of what he described as a pious song in the ancient modes as an introduction to a fugue, a celebration of the feast of Bacchus. In the 1820's this was to become the recitative and the stirring setting of An die Freude in the last movement of the Choral Symphony. There was a poignant scene at the first performance of Symphony No. 9. Despite his deafness, Beethoven insisted on conducting, but unknown to him the real conductor sat out of his sight beating time. As the last movement ended, Beethoven, unaware even that the music had ceased, was also unaware of the tremendous burst of applause that greeted it. One of the singers took him by the arm and turned him around so that he might actually see the ovation.

The constant worries about his nephew overshadowed the last years of Beethoven's life. Diseases, too, plagued him increasingly. In 1826, he accepted an invitation of his brother Johann Nikolaus and spent a few weeks with his nephew at his brother's country estate near Krems. On December 1, he traveled back to Vienna in an open coach despite the biting cold, and he contracted pneumonia, which he survived fortunately, but which aggravated his other physical problems. On January 3, 1827, he wrote down his last will and testament. On March 26, he died in his apartment.

On March 29, he was buried at the cemetery of Währing. More than 20,000 people were present at the funeral. At the entrance to the cemetery the actor, Heinrich Anschütz, recited a commemorative address written by Grillparzer. In 1888, Beethoven's remains were transferred to the Central Cemetery of Vienna.

Whole books have been devoted to single aspects of Beethoven's posthumous reputation. The most striking fact about his legendary status is the great and enduring popularity of his music. During the last years of his life and the period after his death, the musical audience was changing, as a new bourgeois element replaced the typical Eighteenth Century aristocratic circles for which Beethoven himself had composed. Large public concert halls became the primary venues for musical performances, rather than the royal courts and aristocratic salons of earlier times.

To this new audience, Beethoven's music appealed with particular (and almost uncanny) force. His symphonies, overtures, and the more famous of his piano sonatas at once became central to the musical culture of the Nineteenth Century. And his music has remained so to the present. Beethoven remains a musician's musician. His influence on composers in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries has been immense, and his works are among the most popular available on recorded media today. His piano concerti and sonatas are the hallmarks by which performers are judged in our conservatories and universities. Beethoven is still very much with us today, and we can only hope that we may someday see his like again.
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