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Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Fact Sheet

Musical genre:Classical  
Birthday16 December 1770
Birthplace  Bonn, Germany
Date of deathMarch 26, 1827 (age 56)
Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized December 17, 1770 d. March 26, 1827) was a German composer, the predominant musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.


Beethoven was born in Bonn in the archbishopric of Cologne in northwest Germany, to Johann van Beethoven (1740-92), a court musician and alcoholic, and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744-87). The family was Flemish in origin (hence "van", not "von") and can be traced back to Mechelen, now in Belgium. They named their son after his grandfather.

Beethoven's musical talent manifested itself early, and his father attempted, unsuccessfully, to exploit the boy as a child prodigy. Beethoven became the young protegé of Christian Gottlob Neefe who taught him composition and found him work in the musical establishment of the Bonn court. The reigning prince, Elector Maximilian Franz (1756-1801), appreciated Beethoven's talent and subsidized his musical studies.

At age 17, Beethoven traveled to Vienna hoping to study with Mozart, whom he did meet and evidently impressed. But after just two weeks in Vienna, Beethoven learned that his mother was severely ill, and he was forced to return home, where she died shortly thereafter. Beethoven thus became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers, and he spent the next five years in Bonn.

Establishing his career in Vienna

With the Elector's help, Beethoven moved again to Vienna at the age of 22, where he studied under Joseph Haydn. He soon earned a reputation as a piano virtuoso and improviser, and began publishing his own compositions shortly after. By 1800, he was considered one of the most important of a generation of young composers who followed after Haydn and Mozart.

In his early career as a composer, Beethoven concentrated first on works for piano solo, then string quartets, symphonies, and other genres. This was a pattern he was to repeat in the "late" period of his career (see below). Thus, 12 of Beethoven's famous series of 32 piano sonatas date from before 1802, and could be considered early-period works; of these, the most celebrated today is probably the "Pathétique", Op. 13. The first six quartets were published as a set (Op. 18) in 1800, and the First and Second Symphonies premiered in 1800 and 1802.

All musical authorities agree that Beethoven's early work was closely modeled on that of Haydn and Mozart. However, Beethoven's own musical personality is still very much evident even at this stage. This is seen, for instance, in his frequent use of the musical dynamic sforzando, found even in the "Elector" sonatas for piano that Beethoven wrote as a child. Some of the longer piano sonatas of the 1790's are written in a rather discursive style quite unlike their models, making use of the so-called "three-key exposition".

Loss of hearing

Around 1801, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a "roar" in his ears that made it hard for him to appreciate music and he would avoid conversation. The cause of Beethoven's deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. Over time, his hearing loss became acute: there is a well-attested story that, at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned round to see the tumultuous applause of the audience, hearing nothing. In 1802, he became depressed, and considered committing suicide. He left Vienna for a time for small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament", in which he resolved to continue living through his art. He continued composing even as his hearing deteriorated. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own "Emperor" Concerto, he never performed in public again.

As a result of Beethoven's hearing loss, a unique historical record has been preserved: he kept conversation books discussing music and other issues, and giving an insight into his thought. Even today, the conversation books form the basis for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed, and his relationship to art - which he took very seriously.

The Middle Period

Around 1802 he declared "I am but lately little satisfied with my works, I shall take a new way." The first major work of this new way was the "Eroica" Symphony in E flat. While other composers had written symphonies with implied programs, or stories, this symphony was also longer and larger in scope than any other written. It made huge demands on the players, because at that time there were few orchestras devoted to concert music that were independent of royal or aristocratic patrons, and hence playing standards at concerts were often haphazard. But it was a success.

The Eroica was one of the first works of Beethoven's so-called "middle period", a time when Beethoven composed highly ambitious works, often heroic in tone, that extended the scope of the classical musical language Beethoven had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The middle period work includes Symphonies 3-8, the string quartets 7-11, the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the opera Fidelio, and many other compositions. During this time Beethoven earned his living partly from the sale and performance of his work, and partly from subsidies granted by various wealthy nobles who recognized his talent.

The work of the middle period established Beethoven's reputation as a great and daring composer. In a review from 1810, he was enshrined by E. T. A. Hoffman as one of the three great "Romantic" composers; Hoffman called Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "one of the most important works of the age".

The middle period ended with a flourish around 1814, with the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the third--and at last, successful--version of Fidelio. It was around this time that Beethoven's popularity with the contemporary public reached its apogee, and he was almost universally regarded as the greatest of living composers.

Late Beethoven

However, there soon followed a deep crisis in Beethoven's personal life, possibly in his artistic life as well. His output dropped, and one critic even wrote that "the composing of great works seems behind him". The few works that date from this period are often of an experimental character. They include the song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte" and the piano sonata Opus 90, works which inspired later generations of Romantic composers. This period also produced the extraordinarily expressive, almost incoherent, song "An die Hoffnung" (Opus 94).

Then Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel, then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed "The Consecration of the House" overture, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate his new influences. But it is when he returned to the keyboard to compose his first new piano sonatas in almost a decade, that a new style, now called his "late period", emerged.

The works of the late period are commonly held to include the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two sonatas for cello and piano, the late quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony ("Choral"), perhaps Beethoven's best known work. The Ninth Symphony is the first to use a chorus, and its dimensions were, again, larger than any previous work.

Beethoven then turned to writing string quartets - the war between Austria and France had devastated his finances - for 100 gold ducats each. This series of quartets - the "late quartets" - would go far beyond what either musicians or audiences were ready for at that time. They would continue to inspire musicians - from Richard Wagner to Béla Bartók - for their unique forms and ideas.

Beethoven's health had been bad for most of his life, worsening even as he composed these last works; in his last months he became seriously ill. He died on March 26th, 1827, after several operations to relieve abdominal swelling, and a subsequent infection. Unlike in the case of Mozart, who was buried in a pauper's grave, 20,000 Viennese citizens lined the streets at Beethoven's funeral.

Musical style and innovations

Beethoven is viewed as a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history. Above all, his works distinguish themselves from those of any prior composer through his creation of large, extended architectonic structures characterized by the extensive development of musical material, themes, and motifs, usually by means of "modulation", that is, a change in the feeling of the home key, through a variety of keys or harmonic regions. Although Haydn's later works often showed a greater fluidity between distant keys, Beethoven's innovation was the ability to rapidly establish a solidity in juxtaposing different keys and unexpected notes to join them. This expanded harmonic realm creates a sense of a vast musical and experiential space through which the music moves, and the development of musical material creates a sense of unfolding drama in this space. In this way Beethoven's music parallels the simultaneous development of the novel in literature, a literary form focused on the life drama and development of one or more individuals through complex life circumstances, and of contemporaneous German idealism's philosophical notion of self, mind, or spirit that unfolds through a complex process of contradictions and tensions between the subjective and objective until a resolution or synthesis occurs in which all of these contradictions and developmental phases have been resolved or encompassed in a higher unity.

Beethoven continued to expand the "development" section of works, extending a trend in the works of Haydn and Mozart, who had dramatically expanded both the length and substance of instrumental music. As Beethoven's major immediate predecessors and influences, he looked to their harmonic and formal models for his own works. However, both Mozart and Haydn placed the great weight of a musical movement in the statement of ideas called the exposition, for Beethoven the development section of a sonata form became the heart of the work. Beethoven was able to do this by making the development section not merely longer, but also more structured. The very long development section of the Eroica Symphony, for example, is divided into four roughly equal sections, making it, in effect, a sonata form within a sonata form. The first movement alone of this symphony is as long as an entire typical Italian-style Mozart symphony from the 1770s. His focus on the development would, like others of his innovations, set a trend that later composers would follow.

Although Beethoven wrote many beautiful and lyrical melodies, another radical innovation of his music, compared especially to that of Mozart and Haydn, is his extensive use of forceful, marked, and even stark rhythmic patterns throughout his compositions and, in particular, in his themes and motifs, some of which are primarily rhythmic rather than melodic. Some of his most famous themes, such as those of the first movements of the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, are primarily non-melodic rhythmic figures consisting of notes of a single chord, and the themes of the last movements of the Third and Seventh symphonies could more accurately be described as rhythms rather than as melodies. This use of rhythm was particularly well suited to the primacy of development in Beethoven's music, since a single rhythmic pattern can more easily than a melody be taken through a succession of different, even remote, keys and harmonic regions while retaining and conveying an underlying unity. This allowed him to combine different features of his themes in a wide variety of ways, extending the techniques of Haydn in development (see Sonata Form).

He also continued another trend - towards larger orchestras - that went on until the first decade of the 20th century, and moved the center of the sound downwards in the orchestra, to the violas and the lower register of the violins and cellos, giving his music a heavier and darker feel than Haydn or Mozart. Gustav Mahler modified the orchestration of some of Beethoven's music -- most notably the 3d and 9th symphonies -- with the idea of more accurately expressing Beethoven's intent in an orchestra that had grown so much larger than the one Beethoven used: for example, doubling woodwind parts to compensate for the fact that a modern orchestra has so many more strings than Beethoven's orchestra did. Needless to say, these efforts remain controversial.

In his Fifth Symphony Beethoven introduced a striking motif, drawn from a late Haydn symphony, in the very opening bar, which he echoed in various forms in all four movements of the symphony. This is the first important occurrence of cyclical form.

He was also fond of making usual what had previously been unusual: in the Fifth Symphony, instead of using a stately minuet, as had been the norm for the "dance" movement of a four-movement work, he created a dark march, which he used as the third movement and ran into the fourth without interruption. While one can point to previous works which had one or more of these individual features, his music, combined with the use of operatic scoring that he learned from Mehul and Cherubini, created a work which was altogether novel in effect - too novel, in fact, for some critics of the time. On the other hand, his contemporary Spohr found the finale "too baroque", though he praised the second movement as being in "good Romantic style".

His Ninth Symphony included a chorus and solo voices in the 4th movement for the first time, and made extensive use of fugues, which were generally considered to be a different form of music, and again unusual in symphonies.

He wrote one opera, Fidelio. It has been said that he wrote beautiful vocal music without regard for the limitations of human singers, treating the voice as if it were a symphonic instrument - even though his conversation books note his desire to make his music singable and include references that indicate that he had remembered his father's singing lessons.

Beethoven's development and works are typically divided into three periods: an early period in which his works show especially the influence of Mozart and Haydn; a middle, mature period in which he developed his distinctive individual style, sometimes characterized as "heroic"; and a late period, in which he wrote works of a highly evolved, individuated, sometimes fragmented and unorthodox style sometimes characterized as "transcendent" and "sublime", where he tried to combine the baroque ideas of Handel and Bach with his icons Mozart and Haydn. In his late years he called Handel "my grand master".

In contrast to Mozart, he labored heavily over his work, leaving intermediate drafts that provide considerable insight into his creative process. Early drafts of his Ninth Symphony used rough vertical marks on the score in place of actual notes, to indicate the structure he had in mind for the melody. Studies of his sketch books show the working out of dozens of variations on a particular theme, changing themes to fit with an overall structure that evolved over time, and extensive sketching of counter-melodies.