Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) was born into a family of musicians in Bonn. At around 20 years old, he moved to Vienna, just after Mozart had died. This left a space for Beethoven to become the successor as europe’s leading musician. However, by his mid-thirties, his performing career had come to an end. This was due to the early onset of deafness. Therefore, he dedicated himself purely to the art of compositions. His Piano Sonatas, String Quartets and Symphonies are among the best in the entire canon of western music.

Childhood

Beethoven was born in December 1770 to a family of musicians. His grandfather, also called Ludwig Van Beethoven, was a singer and Kapellmeister in Bonn. His father, Joann, was a tenor in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne and worked teaching keyboard (harpsichord and clavichord). Johann also taught the young Ludwig to play the keyboard. It was later reported that Johann was an alcoholic, possibly caused by Ludwig senior owning his own wine distribution company.

In the year of 1887, Beethoven took a trip to Vienna. Here he hoped to meet and take lessons with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was known as the finest composer of his day. However, the trip was brief and he returned shortly after, possibly due to the illness of his mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich.

Due to Johann’s incapability of looking after Ludwig’s siblings, it was left to the young Ludwig to take control of the family. Half of all his father’s income was entrusted to him by way of court order. During these years, Beethoven was taught to play the Organ by Christian Neefe, who introduced him to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Beethoven in Vienna

5 years after his first visit, in 1792, Beethoven returned to Vienna. Mozart had died a year earlier, and the scene was set for Beethoven to become his musical heir. Beethoven’s first published compositions closely resembled not only Mozart’s style, but even some of his melodies. During these years, he made a name for himself as a performer and improviser, where he was known to have played in competitions styled as duels for the amusement of the aristocracy.

In Vienna, one of Beethoven’s most prominent teachers was Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). Haydn was an elder contemporary of Mozart and, at that time, one of the most widely respected composers in Europe. However, Beethoven later stated that he didn’t learn anything from Haydn. This probably had something to do with Beethoven’s rebellious temperament. Beethoven also studied counterpoint with Johann Albrechtsberger and, for several years, vocal composition with Anthonio Salieri (1750 – 1825).

Problems hearing

From around 1801, Beethoven’s hearing began to fade. In letters to his friends and family, he mentions his ailment, and states the humiliation he was feeling. He even talked of suicide. However, despite this personal tragedy, Beethoven could still compose with ease, and his professional life as a composer continued to flourish.

One famous story about his deafness is that during the premier of his 9th Symphony, where the performance was followed by a roaring standing ovation. Beethoven, heard none of it. Only when he was physically turned did he become aware of how much the audience loved his music.

Piano Works

Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, which are considered among the greatest collections of piano works in the classical music canon. They are also comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier both in significance and influence.

Beethoven inherited the sonata form from his musical predecessors Haydn and Mozart. As career progressed, he increasingly pushed the boundaries of this form. This results in some sections such as the coda or development section becoming far longer. The complexity of these later works make them some of the most virtuosic pieces, even in the 21st century.

Works

String Quartets

Beethoven’s early and middle period string quartets are generally considered to be of excellent quality, rivalling even the greatest string quartet composer of the day, Joseph Haydn. However, many of Beethoven’s later compositions, such as the Gross Fugue, are so complex that the audiences and musicians of the day didn’t understand them. This view changed after his death, when they gradually became known as masterpieces.

Symphonies

Compared to both Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven’s 9 symphonies appears very little (Mozart wrote over 50; Haydn over 100). However, his symphonies are larger (his works expanded the orchestra), longer (as with his piano sonatas), and more complex than those of the earlier generation. His 9th Symphony strayed so far from the traditional Classical Symphony that it can no longer be easily classified classical period pieces.

Final Years and Death

Death

During Beethoven’s Late Period, he suffered from declining health and illness. Despite various operations, he died on 27th March 1827. After his death, an autopsy was carried out, which showed that he had liver problems, as well as high levels of lead. This was possibly caused by the wine, which was fortified with lead-sugar and used as a sweetener and preservative – a process which dates all the way back to Roman times.

Funeral

Unlike his predecessor, Mozart, Beethoven was widely recognised as a great musician and composer within his own lifetime. Differing accounts show his funeral was attended by somewhere between 10 – 30 thousand people. Notable musicians attending were his friend and student Carl Czerny and Franz Schubert. Although Schubert was a torchbearer at the funeral, he doesn’t appear to have known Beethoven personally, despite living in Vienna for many years.

Legacy

Beethoven led the transition from the Classical to the Romantic Period. Many subsequent Romantic composers owed him a debt both in style and influence. Among these Romantics are Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner. Furthermore, Beethoven’s music has continued to influence musicians and composers well into the 21st century, where it is played and studied all over the world.

Full NameLudwig Van Beethoven
Born 1770 (Bonn, Germany)
Died1827 (Vienna, Austria)
Nationality German
PeriodClassical
Romantic
Main WorksPiano Sonatas
String Quartets
Symphonies
Who inspired him/herBach
Mozart
Haydn
(Possibly Salieri)
Whom he/she inspiredBrahms
Schumann
Schubert
Wagner
Liszt
Chopin

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