Ludwig van Beethoven - Biography


Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16th 1770 in Bonn Germany and died in Vienna on March 26TH 1827 he is generally considered along with Mozart and Bach the greatest of composers. Beethoven was of Dutch extraction on his father Johann’s side. His father was a musician his mother Maria Magdalena Leym a cook. Beethoven received a rudimentary music education in Bonn. By his early teen years Beethoven was a court musician in Bonn which was at the time a provincial capital of one of the smaller German Kingdoms. Beethoven was promising enough to be sent as a sixteen year old to Vienna to get further musical instruction but was sent back to Bonn after his mother became gravely ill. Beethoven’s father was a severe alcoholic; upon the death of his mother he became primarily responsible for the support of his younger brothers. In his late teens Beethoven became a fashionable composer in Bonn writing choral pieces for royal events and took on aristocratic music students. It is ironic that Beethoven who more than any other composer is associated with Democratic ideals has these beginnings. In 1790 Haydn on his way to London evidently met Beethoven was impressed with him and suggested he come to Vienna to study with him upon his return from England. In any event Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 and embarked upon his mature career as a composer.


His teaching regimen with Haydn was interrupted by Haydn’s second tour of England and continued with others the most prominent of which was Salieri of Amadeus fame. His first published opus are three Piano Trios opus 1 (all the earlier Juvenilia written before these works were not published during his life time and were compiled with the designation WoO without opus number and HESS BY 20th Century German musicologists) This is the formal beginning of the first of Beethoven’s compositional periods Early. During the early phase of this period we have works which encompass the latter half of the 1790’s the first two Piano Concertos in B flat op. 18 and C Major Op 15, The First Ten Piano Sonatas including the celebrated Pathetique #8 in C minor and the set of Six String Quartet OP 18.During this period he started to experience hearing loss along with malfunction of other internal organs consistent with an advanced syphilitic infection that during that time was incurable. The loss of hearing first manifested itself as a high pitched buzzing that started occurring as his auditory nerves started to shrivel. The origin of Beethoven’s illness was not revealed or discussed in biographies for many decades. As the 19th Century opened Beethoven composed his high spirited First Symphony in C Op 21, Septet op. 20, the Ballet Creatures of Prometheus, Pianos Sonatas #8 to 14 including the so called Moonlight in c sharp minor. The first period is rounded out with the Second Symphony in D Major Op. 36. At the end of this period while in the small Austrian village of Heiligenstat he wrote a testament to his brothers that was to be open upon what he suspected was to be his premature death where he expressed his despair that with the loss of his hearing and his health he would no longer was able to be an artist and that any hope for a normal life within society was lost. It was due to Beethoven’s iron will that he was to get over this phase and persevere.


The Second Period starts with his powerful Piano Concerto # 3 in C minor Op. 37 , more Piano and Violin sonatas including the Kreutzer Violin Sonata and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. The work that moves Beethoven to an unheard of level was his Symphony # 3 Erioca in E Flat that was initially to have been dedicated to Napoleon. Beethoven was as noted a fervent democrat Napoleon initially to the liberal minded was a great hero who was to bring an end to European autocracies when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France he tore off the dedication page. Whatever the extra musical circumstances, this Symphony is without precedent in terms of length and complexity of musical language. The work with its long funeral march Adagio and fierce dissonances in movement #1 shocked listeners at the time. Its equivalent in the realm of chamber music is the three Razumovsky Quartets op. 59 which similarly burst the form of the Quartet. The flow of masterworks from this period is unabated and includes the lyrical Fourth Piano Concerto and Fourth Symphony, Piano Sonatas # 21 Waldstein, # 23 Appassionata ,his only Violin Concerto in D Major and the first version of his only opera Fidelio which in this version is entitled Leonore, with its three overtures including the tremendous Leonore # 3 . In 1807 comes what is the most famous of his works the Symphony #5 in C Minor (yes, duh, duh, duh, duhh). The Symphony throughout the years has had extra musical significance the first four notes were the Allies motto V for victory during the Second World War. Even during Beethoven’s lifetime the motto of the first movement was supposed to represent “fate knocks on the door” though he vehemently denied this or any other program. The Fifth’s sister work the Sixth Pastoral Symphony in D is mildly programmatic representing impressions of the country side, includes a storm, bird calls and peasant music making(while always popular it became especially popular after it was used as an episode of Disney’s Fantasia).


Beethoven’s hearing as we get to the 1810’s was getting worse as was his general health and irascibility. He found it difficult to perform as a pianist in concerts that was one of his main sources of income. He also exaggerated the importance of friendships he developed with young aristocratic ladies who became confidents and students conflating them into romantic relationships. One of these ladies was the inspiration for the “Immortal Beloved” a letter he wrote confessing his unrequited love for an unknown lady, the letter was never delivered and was found in a locked compartment in his desk after his death. In all probability this momentary flaring up of pent up passion doesn’t represent a key to Beethoven’s whole life as some sentimental historians lead us to believe.


Beethoven was deeply effected by the Napoleonic Wars which by 1809 had engulfed Austria. During this period he wrote his Piano Concerto #5 in E flat ‘Emperor’, the incidental music to Goethe’s play Egmont also the 10th and 11th String Quartet, Archduke Piano Trio, and the Piano Sonata # 26 Les Adieux. Napoleon in starting in 1812 had a series of defeats which buoyed Beethoven’s spirit .During this period he composed his Seventh Symphony in A Major a work of overwhelming power whose rhythmic fury led Wagner to call it ‘The Apotheosis of the Dance’ and his Eighth Symphony an un buttoned humorous romp. These symphonies were introduced in a concert in the University of Vienna that was a great personal success for Beethoven. During this period diplomats from all over Europe were in Vienna hammering out the piece in the post Napoleonic world. Beethoven wrote a piece for this occasion Wellingtons Victory with musketry and other unmusical noises representing the defeat of the French by the British in the Battle of Vittoria, probably the least distinguished music he ever wrote. (A music critic noted it as such and Beethoven replied his excrement is better anything he ever will write). The second period is rounded out with the revision of his opera Leonore as Fidelio with a new overture and a triumphant finale scene which anticipates the Ninth’s Symphony Ode to Joy.


Beethoven’s Third Period which starts around 1815 starts with a musical drought. He becomes involved with a long and bitter custody fight with his sister in law for the custody of his brothers son. He charges his sister in law with being virtually a prostitute, the judge eventually rules in his favor not taking into account what it would be like for a ten year old boy to brought into a disorderly household of a misanthropic man. Beethoven’s temper and unkempt ways further isolate him from society. A series of five great Piano Sonatas #28 through 32 including the gigantic 29th the Hammerklavier puts him back on his path. In 1820 he starts work on his monumental Mass Missa Solemnis that will take him four years to complete. His last piano works were an epigrammatic series of Bagattelles and the massive Diabelli Variations. These works were to reach their pinnacle with the composition of Symphony #9 Choral. Beethoven wrote the three orchestral movements and after numerous sketches for the finale he decided to set Schiller’s Ode to Joy for chorus and soloists. This is generally thought to be the greatest Symphony ever written and the first performance in Vienna was a triumph. Beethoven now can no longer hear anything. The relationship with his nephew Karl now twenty became more and more difficult and Karl attempted suicide with a pistol a criminal offence in Catholic Austria. The worry set Beethoven’s fragile health into a final tail spin. Beethoven concludes his career with his late String Quartets that consists of the String Quartet #12 in E Flat, 13 in B Flat, 14 in C sharp minor, 15 in A Minor and 16 in F. The 13th Quartet initially concluded with an immensely difficult sixteen minute fugue which was thought to be difficult to perform or absorb and was published separately as the Grosse (Great) Fugue. A simpler lighted hearted finale was substituted, his last completed work. These Quartets are of great complexity and take many hours of concentrated listening before they can be comprehended. The slow movements in particular are of an unearthly quality which is unmatched by any other work of art. Toward the end of 1826 Beethoven’s developed pleurisy ,jaundice and dropsy massive amounts of fluid had to be surgically removed from his organs, he continued to suffer but and died on March 26th 1827 during a thunderstorm. His funeral cortege in Vienna had thousands of people line the streets. An old women was overheard asking her friend what was going on and she replied that ‘that the Field Marshal of musicians had died’


Beethoven from the moment his full stride in the turn of the 19th century was recognized as one of the great figures of the arts. The loss of his hearing and increasingly difficult personality caused him to become a social pariah. After his death he was became a demigod to the Romantic Movement throughout Europe. The flesh and blood man gave way to a bust of marble statuary that adorned public parks and meeting halls. The real Beethoven’s thoughts were registered in conversation books that he used to have dialogues with visitors and were preserved by his assistant Anton Schindler. Thanks to modern scholarship we have a fuller picture of Beethoven who despite all his faults and suffering emerges as an even more awe inspiring figure.

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