The composer once wrote: “I live entirely in my music”
(qtd. in Solomon 149)
Revolutionary composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s life embraced many compositional genres and typically divides into three periods. The first includes all works written up to approximately 1802, the second continues until around 1812, and the last starts around 1813. In his first period, Beethoven mastered the Viennese style, using the Classical examples of Haydn (1732-1809) and Mozart (1756-1791). Called “Heroic,” the middle anticipates 19th-century Romanticism, with its many creative innovations — contrasts and movements that expanded in drama and length. Beethoven’s third and final period introduced a new way of composing. Described as unconventional, most of these works anticipate a future musical era in style. The New Grove Beethoven biography explains that “the late period is in every way the most complex” (91).
Described as a “tough, ugly, angry genius forcing out one deeply expressive masterpiece after another in the teeth of adversity,” Beethoven used many innovative ideas and made extensive revisions in his compositions (Kerman 190). A summary of his famous, most important works include: nine symphonies, 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, five piano concertos, nine piano trios, ten violin sonatas, five cello sonatas, a violin concerto, two Masses, an opera, and an oratorio (Grout 534). “The sense of heroic striving and inner conquest is what emerges so magnificently in Beethoven’s most famous compositions” (Kerman 191).
Beethoven is the bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods in music, and “he reigned as the undisputed master of the symphony, the sonata, and the string quartet” (Downs 553). Since he is a transitional figure, one might question to which of these periods he belongs, if not possibly to both. For many in the 19th century, Beethoven was considered the man who changed formal musical constraints and accepted rules. A composer whose works transcend time and change, Beethoven’s “symphonies, concertos, overtures and the more famous of his piano sonatas at once became central to the musical culture of the nineteenth century, and have remained so to the present” (Tyson and Kerman 149).
BEETHOVEN’S FAMILY AND EARLY YEARS
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, to a Catholic family of court musicians in 1827. His grandfather was a singer and kapellmeister; Ludwig’s father, Johann, was a singer and music teacher. They worked for the Elector Max Friedrich at the court of Bonn. The young Ludwig later dedicated three piano sonatas, WoO 47 (work without opus), to the Elector. Before Beethoven was born, Johann and his wife, Maria Magdalena Leym, had a son named Ludwig Maria. This child died as a newborn, creating doubts in Beethoven’s mind as to his own correct birthdate. The composer’s birth certificate reads 1770, but Ludwig believed himself to have been confused with his brother and actually born in December 1772. This skepticism, along with circulating rumors, led him to think that he was the illegitimate son of the King of Prussia (Frederick the Great). Beethoven’s first song reflects this belief, entitled “To an Infant.” Musical scholar and psychoanalyst Maynard Solomon asks: “What were the forces and events in Beethoven’s life that caused him thus to deny his father and to dishonor his mother’s memory? . . . In later years, Beethoven shrouded his first decade in a veil of silence. He rarely spoke of family, his school years, his early experiences” (Solomon 6 and 24).
Conflicts in Beethoven’s dysfunctional family affected him greatly as a child and later in his adult life. In the important collection of articles entitled Beethoven Essays, Solomon also suggests that some of the composer’s dreams may be interpreted as Beethoven’s subconscious expression of an unfulfilled paternal relationship. His father sought to exploit him as a child prodigy (like Mozart), and “Johann naturally viewed the boy’s talents both as a potentially significant source of extra income and as a means of self-glorification” (Solomon 23). Along with his father, Beethoven was taught by local musician Tobias Pfeiffer, who also treated him harshly. As a child, Ludwig was often seen by neighbors crying in front of the piano. Despite these odds, the young boy developed an intense appreciation for music. Although enrolled at the university in Bonn, Beethoven preferred self-education throughout his life. His father drank heavily and gradually became an alcoholic; eventually he was dismissed from the court choir for this reason. At the time of his death, the Elector wrote that “the revenues from the liquor excise have suffered a loss” (qtd. in Solomon 16).
Despite the severe treatment he received as a child, “the center of Beethoven’s fantasy life . . . was his music, which occupied virtually all waking hours” (Solomon 27). Possessing incredible improvisational skills at the keyboard, he began to develop as a serious musician during his teenage years. As a young composer and performer, he first traveled to Vienna in 1787, but didn’t have much success. Supposedly playing for Mozart during this time, Beethoven received encouraging comments from the older composer: “Keep an eye on him — he will make a noise in the world some day” (qtd. in Machlis & Forney 258). Beethoven returned home within two weeks of this trip, as his mother became ill and died. After her death, he became the guardian of and assumed responsibility for his two younger brothers.
While living in his native Bonn, Beethoven’s musical ability greatly developed through the help of his teacher, organist Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798). Neefe taught Beethoven composition and, in 1783, gave him the position of harpsichordist in the court orchestra. Beethoven was only twelve years old at the time. Neefe also assisted in seeing that Ludwig’s early works were published. In 1784, Archduke Maximilian Franz became the new Elector and Archbishop of Cologne. He created an orchestra in which Beethoven played the viola, an opportunity that connected the young composer with many important musicians. In 1788, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein came to Bonn and also encouraged Beethoven’s musical efforts. Waldstein was later dedicated the Piano Sonata, Op. 53, which bears his name. The Count wrote to the young composer on his last trip to Vienna: “you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands” (qtd. in Downs 558). This early period in Bonn was the beginning of Beethoven’s first compositional era, and the place where he adopted the ideals of the Enlightenment.
“A youthful exuberance pervades the first decade of his career [during the years up to 1800 in Vienna], an almost arrogant consciousness of his strength” (Machlis & Forney 258). Composing in the typical genres, Beethoven absorbed what others had to teach and adhered to the traditional Classical styles of Gluck (1714-1787), Mozart, and Haydn, as well as Baroque composers J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and Handel (1685-1759). He wrote piano music, chamber music, variations, and pieces for court entertainment. Important works from the early years in Bonn include sets of three piano sonatas and three piano quartets, variations for piano, and lieder. About half of Beethoven’s output from this time were vocal compositions. Two of these anticipating his middle, more heroic style, are the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87, and the Cantata on the Elevation of Leopold II to the Imperial Dignity, WoO 88. Also exploring his natural ability at the piano, Beethoven played private concerts in Bonn, both at the court and salons. Some of the money he received as gifts for performing he used to support the family.
EARLY VIENNA YEARS AND BEETHOVEN’S FIRST PERIOD
Though Beethoven’s career began in Bonn, his first period came to flourish in Vienna. As he became well known, Beethoven was recognized among the nobility and was assisted financially by many musical advocates. This was also a time for the rise of the middle class, which allowed for more exposure by way of public concerts and published music. Significant early works include Six String Quartets, Op. 18, dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz; the first ten Piano Sonatas; the first three Piano Concertos; and the first two Symphonies.
Arriving in Vienna in November, 1792, Beethoven studied with Franz Joseph Haydn until 1793 or 1794. A financial account remains of Beethoven’s expenses reading “coffee for Haidn and me” (qtd. in Grout 533). But they did not get along, and Beethoven sought help secretly from Johann Schenk (1753-1836). Solomon suggests that “there may have been some simple jealousies on Haydn’s part toward the pianist-composer who was so quickly accepted and adored by many among the Viennese nobility” (93). Later, Beethoven reluctantly admitted learning from Haydn’s example. Next he studied counterpoint from composer Johann Georg Albrechtsburger (1736-1809) and vocal composition from Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), an expert in opera. “All three thought very highly of Beethoven but were of one opinion of him as a student. Each said Beethoven was so stubborn and so bent on having his own way that he had to learn many things through hard experience which he refused earlier to accept through instruction” (qtd. by Ferdinand Ries in Solomon 98).
First works with opus number include the Three Trios for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 1, from 1795. By 1799, Beethoven’s compositions were being published by several different companies. Many generous patrons also supported him, such as musical advocates Prince Karl Lichnowsky and his wife, Princess Christiane. In fact, Ludwig later shared dwellings with the Lichnowskys. His student, pianist and composer Carl Czerny (1791-1857), claimed that the Prince regarded Beethoven “as a friend and brother, and induced the entire nobility to support him” (qtd. in Solomon 82). Lichnowsky received the dedication of many of Beethoven’s important early Vienna works, including the famous Op. 13 “Pathétique” Piano Sonata. Another important patron, Archduke Rudolph (Emperor Franz’s brother), was also a favorite piano student of Beethoven’s and received many compositional dedications in return from the composer. As a teacher, “we are told that wrong notes hardly excited comment from him but any failure to observe marks of expression would make him angry” (Downs 568).
BEETHOVEN AND THE PIANO
Central to Beethoven’s musical development as both composer and pianist was the keyboard instrument, which grew to be more expressive as it evolved. Offering more possibilities to the performer, some pianos had greater range, bigger tone, and more flexible pedals than earlier piano models. Before taken seriously as a composer, Beethoven was thought to be primarily a piano teacher and virtuoso performer. “Beethoven was a remarkable pianist; his historic importance is that he bridged the Classic and emergent Romantic styles of performance” (Solomon 78). Participating in many piano competitions, he also gave public performances as well as appeared in salons. Although giving charity and benefit concerts (sometimes for himself), after the onset of his deafness, “his aversion to playing for an audience had become so strong that every time he was urged to play he would fly into a rage” (Solomon 85).
Beethoven wrote a total of 32 piano sonatas, the first 20 composed between 1794 and 1802. Possessing the Sturm und Drang sentiment of heroism, drama, and intense emotion, they also contain abrupt changes in key areas, harmonies, rhythm, and dynamics. Well-known sonatas include the “Pathétique,” Op. 13, and the Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight” from the early period; the “Waldstein,” Op. 53, and the Op. 57 “Appassionata,” from the middle period; and the Hammerklavier, Op. 106, which helped to define the last era. The importance of the piano is also realized in the composer’s five piano concertos. Called “Emperor,” the last of these was premiered in Vienna by Beethoven’s piano student Carl Czerny. It has often been said that “some of Beethoven’s most enchanting melodies appear in his piano concertos and his violin concerto . . .” (Grout 554).
In 1817, the composer received a six-octave fortepiano by the English manufacturer Broadwood, a modern instrument that allowed for more expressive and dramatic possibilities. Carl Ludwig Junker noted that Beethoven’s “way of handling his instrument is so different from the usual that he gives the impression of having attained his present supremacy through a path that he discovered himself” (quoted in Grout 542).
BEETHOVEN IN TRANSITION
“Within a dozen years after coming to Vienna, Beethoven was acknowledged throughout Europe as the foremost pianist and composer for piano of his time and as a symphonist on a par with Haydn and Mozart” (Grout 541).
In 1800, Beethoven completed the first Symphony in C Major, Op. 21. “It is the year in which, cutting loose from the pianoforte, he asserted his claims . . . in the higher forms of chamber and orchestral composition — the quartet and the symphony” (Alexander Thayer qtd. in Solomon 99). After mastering the piano sonata, Beethoven now began composing in the symphony and quartet genres. Finished in 1802, the Second Symphony (Op. 36) employed conventional techniques as well as looking forward to the next period. “Beethoven had gained the high ground of the Viennese tradition; he was now faced with . . . casting out in an uncharted direction” (Solomon 141).
BEETHOVEN’S DEAFNESS AND HEILIGENSTADT TESTAMENT
During his late twenties and early thirties, Beethoven began to notice a loss in hearing ability. A progressive deafness of debatable causes, his symptoms began around 1796-1799. Writing in a letter, “my most prized possession, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated,” (qtd. in Solomon 148) Beethoven became depressed from his handicap due to overwhelming frustration expressed as “an infirmity in the one sense that should have been more perfect in me than in others” (qtd. in Machlis & Forney 258-259). At the urging of doctors, Beethoven went to Heiligenstadt outside Vienna for a rest in 1802. A product of this brief period of time, the Heiligenstadt Testament was written to his brothers that fall. After writing the Testament, Beethoven returned to Vienna in October 1802 and launched into his second, “Heroic” period with renewed energy. “Beethoven slowly realized that art must give him the happiness that life withheld. . . . The remainder of his career was spent in ceaseless effort to achieve his artistic goals” (Machlis & Forney 259). Eventually, however, Beethoven had to stop performing in public. Though still conducting at times, it was not easy to communicate with the players and audiences. By 1820, Beethoven was almost completely deaf.
BEETHOVEN’S SECOND PERIOD
In 1801 or 1802, Beethoven spoke to his friend Krumpholz (according to Czerny, writing many years later) about dissatisfaction with his previous compositional efforts and a forthcoming “new way” in his written approach. Direct results of this “new way” were most likely the Piano Sonatas of Op. 31, the Variations of Op. 34 and Op. 35, and the Eroica, with sketches begun on the Third Symphony at the end of 1802. Stylistically, the “Heroic” period is recognized for Beethoven’s use of greater contrasts in pitch, dynamics, accents, expression, tension, climax, and his expansion of compositional length and the size of the orchestra. Moods vary from gentle and lyrical to strong and heroic, and Beethoven often brought back previously heard material in later movements. Middle, slow movements progressed to a greater lyricism, such as the 1809 “Harp” String Quartet, the “Archduke” Trio from 1810-11, and the Fifth Piano Concerto of 1809.
Significant compositions from this era include Symphonies Nos. 3-8; Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (originally named Leonore); four concertos, including the Violin Concerto; the Piano Sonatas up through Op. 90; the Sonata, Op. 47, for violin and piano (dedicated to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer); the “Rasumovsky” String Quartets, Op. 59, dedicated to the Russian ambassador to Vienna; the Overture to “Egmont” by Goethe; and finally an oratorio, a Mass, and some lieder. Beethoven was greatly influenced by the French Revolution, which affected his works throughout this period: “The Revolution introduced an explicit ideological and ethical function into music, which was later to become one of the characteristics of Beethoven’s ‘public’ compositions” (Solomon 71). French music of revolutionary elements is seen in the rescue opera Fidelio.
“The forcefulness, expanded range and evident radical intent of these works sets them apart from symphonies in the eighteenth-century tradition . . .” (Tyson and Kerman 107). Symphonic style grew to include transcending themes, repeated themes, and extramusical ideas. Adjusting sonata form in this genre, Beethoven made the first movement’s middle, development section more important. The slow movement sometimes became “the essence of Beethovenian pathos,” the scherzo had driving motion, and the final movement was like the first in size and grandness (Machlis & Forney 260). Expanding the symphony influenced other genres, making piano sonatas and string quartets more technically challenging.
“His nine symphonies are spiritual dramas of universal appeal” (Machlis & Forney 260). Most well known, the Fifth Symphony’s theme depicts “fate knocking at the door” (qtd. in Kamien 277). Both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were performed for the first time in 1808 at the same concert. No. 6, “Pastoral,” portrays Beethoven’s memories of nature and the country, and the Ninth represents the culmination of his last period and the climax of his total output. The Third Symphony, Eroica, is an example of Beethoven’s mature style: “it expresses in music the ideal of heroic greatness” (Grout 542). In the style of a funeral march, the second movement represents the French Revolution. Initially dedicated to Napoleon, it is commonly thought that Beethoven renamed the work “Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man” after he heard that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. The title Eroica was probably not given until later. In essence, the work “was conceived as a tribute not to the idea of revolution but to the revolutionary hero, Napoleon, and really to Beethoven himself” (Tyson and Kerman 109). Musical scholar Scott Burnham in Beethoven Hero analyzes the Symphony as the battle of Napoleon and the psychology inside the hero’s mind. When Duke Wellington defeated Napoleon’s armies in 1813, Beethoven composed the “Battle” Symphony.
BEETHOVEN’S THIRD PERIOD
“More and more his compositions came to have a meditative character; the urgent sense of communication was replaced by a feeling of assured tranquillity, passionate outpouring by calm affirmation” (Grout 554-5). The composer’s final compositional period is represented by many imposing, prominent works transcending the history of music. They characteristically possess a new style and sound quality as well as increased attention on melody. Beethoven also made use of folksong material. Variations became more like a transformation of material, such as in the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata and the last Diabelli variation. Often described as sublime in nature, Beethoven’s compositions from the late period include landmark, tour-de-force works like the last five Piano Sonatas (1816-1822), the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (mostly written in 1823), the Missa solemnis (solemn Mass) completed in 1822, the Ninth Symphony (1824), and the String Quartets from 1825-6. “In all of this Beethoven appears to have been reaching for a more direct and intimate mode of communication” (Tyson and Kerman 122).
Of the last period, the most imposing works are the Mass in D (known as the Missa solemnis), and the Ninth Symphony. “Beethoven regarded this Mass as his greatest work. It is a deeply personal yet universal confession of faith” (Grout 558). Musical scholars Tyson and Kerman agree that in the composer’s religious testimony “Mass and Symphony stand together as the crowning statement about nonmusical ideas in Beethoven’s later life” (129). The premiere of this final Symphony occurred in the spring of 1824. Beethoven set the last movement to Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy” with themes of joy and brotherhood, making innovative use of both vocal soloists and chorus with an orchestra. Coinciding with his religious ideals, he chose stanzas that emphasiz joyful fellowship and a heavenly Father.
In 1824, Beethoven began to write only string quartets. Producing five total, three were commissioned by the Russian Prince Galitzin. Some of the late pieces had more than the traditional three or four movements, and Beethoven wrote a total of 16 quartets for strings in his lifetime. Particularly, “the string quartet for two violins, viola, and cello lies at the center of Beethoven’s musical legacy, and this inheritance comes to us from each period in his life” (Downs 587).
What remains of Beethoven’s physical appearance are pictures, drawings, and a life mask. He was a short man, heavy set, and looked shabby. However, it is known that “Beethoven’s character and personality were a mass of contradictions. A certain immaturity deprived him of tact and too often countered his basic kindheartedness, and his good intentions were frequently belied by his uncontrollable temper” (Cooper 104). Beethoven’s social skills were also insufficient, leading him to withdraw from society (Solomon 26).
Regarding Beethoven’s relations with women, Franz Gerhard Wegeler noted: “Beethoven was never out of love and was normally involved to a high degree” (qtd. in Cooper 106). Ferdinand Ries has also written that Beethoven “very much enjoyed looking at women; he was very frequently in love, but usually only for a short time” (qtd. in Cooper 106). Never married, the composer only had relations with women of higher class. Particularly of interest is Beethoven’s letter written to “my Immortal Beloved,” his “Angel.” “It is a passionate outpouring to a woman who evidently returned his love unequivocally” (Cooper 107). This document was supposedly written in 1812, found in a drawer of papers after his death, and addressed to a woman of questionable identity. Analysts have suggested that the Immortal Beloved may have been a married noblewoman named Antonie Brentano. Along with the Heiligenstadt Testament, “both these documents represent milestones in Beethoven’s life and both are testimony to his constant battle to find and accept the realities of his own character and of his own existence” (Downs 574).
After brother Caspar Carl’s death, Beethoven went through the process to get custody as coguardian of his nephew Karl. Eager to be a father, the composer smothered the boy to an extreme: “Beethoven’s love was tempered by possessiveness and jealousy which made him overstrict and suspicious. . . . He sought to limit Karl’s freedom in every way possible, and not surprisingly bitter quarrels occurred” (Cooper 109). Due to conflicting wills, Karl made a failed suicide attempt for which Beethoven never forgave himself.
BEETHOVEN’S DEATH AND BEYOND
“At his death in 1827 he had plans for a tenth symphony and many other new works” (Grout 554). Beethoven died of cirrhosis of the liver on March 26, 1827. It has been speculated that his sister-in-law, whom he publicly had not liked, was in the room. 20,000 people attended Beethoven’s funeral, mourning a composer who had “created the music of a heroic age and, in accents never to be forgotten, proclaimed its faith in the power of man to shape his destiny” (Machlis & Forney 258).
Beethoven influenced such significant Romantic composers as Franz Schubert, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856). His most well-known biographer was Anton Schindler (1795-1864), who is often criticized for trying to create a certain picture of Beethoven that was not always accurate. As described by St. Julius Benedict, Beethoven possessed “an expression which no painter could render. It was a feeling of sublimity and melancholy combined” (qtd. in Grout 534). Musical critic E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) also wrote: “Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lover of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and awakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism” (560).
Ludwig van Beethoven retained many elements of Classicism, anticipated the Romantic style, and invented a new, awe-inspiring way of composition. The combination of these qualities paradoxically has produced perhaps the most sublime creations and disruptive forces in the history of music.