Ludwig van Beethoven

Category: Composer Introduction
Writer: Frankie Chan

Ludwig van Beethoven, German composer, the predominant musical figure during the transition between the Classical to Romantic eras. He occupies an unprecedented dominance in the history of Western music history, and has been widely regarded as the greatest, most influential and most popular musician who ever lived.

Beethoven's music inherited the artistic atmosphere of Haydn and Mozart, penetrated the desire for dignity, vented the anger tortured by fate, and demonstrated his determination to fight with fate.

Compared to other musicians, Beethoven is effectively to interact the philosophy of life with audience through music. Although he was not a romantic, he had become the object followed by other romantics.

As a musician, Beethoven suffered from ear diseases. However, he was unwilling to succumb to fate, vowing to take fate by the throat, and continue to complete his career. In the last ten years of his life, without hearing any sound, his compositions influenced the development of music for nearly two hundred years.


Childhood (1770-1781)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), German composer, was born in a family of musicians in Bonn, baptized on 17 December, 1770. In the eighteenth century, Europe, the baptism was usually arranged one day after the baby was born, therefore it is believed that Beethoven's birth date was 16 December, 1770.

Beethoven's grandfather, worked as a bass vocalist in court when he was young, and supervised court and music-related projects when he was old. He was the breadwinner of Beethoven’s family. Beethoven's father, a tenor vocalist, also worked in the court. He was proficient in violin and clavier (piano). He would increase his income by teaching singing and musical instruments. Although Beethoven’s family was quite prosperous when he was born, his grandfather, who was the breadwinner, died when Beethoven was 3 years old. His father later became an alcoholic. As a result, Beethoven’s childhood was not very happy, which indirectly created Beethoven’s stubborn personality and musical style when he grew up.

Beethoven learned piano and violin from his father since he was a child. In order to train Beethoven to become an outstanding musician, and even hope Beethoven to become a child prodigy like Mozart, Beethoven's father conducted extremely strict training on Beethoven. His neighbor described that young Beethoven was often forced to practice. He would be scolded or whipped for a hesitation or mistake, and even be deprived of sleeping time for extra practice. Beethoven often cried during practice. Although his father may be too harsh, Beethoven did show his performing talent when he was young.

Six Years Old Little Boy

In 1778, Beethoven’s father arranged the first public performance for Beethoven, and advertised Beethoven as a "6-year-old little boy" who had actually passed his 7th birthday (because "6-year-old" was the age when Mozart debuted for Empress Maria Theresia. However, Beethoven’s debut did not receive the attention of media. Soon, Beethoven was arranged to take various music lessons from musicians of the court, including music theory, organ, piano, violin, and viola.

Since Beethoven spent most of his time in music during his childhood, he received a relatively short period of formal education. He felt handicapped in writing and was unable to conduct complex arithmetic. Beethoven himself described himself, as following:

“Music comes to me more readily than words.” – Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Early Composer (1781-1792)

In 1781, with the decline of the family's economy, his father's alcoholism became more and more serious, the 10-year-old Beethoven was forced to withdrew his school-study to invest all the time and money in his music development. Two years later, the 12-year-old Beethoven published his first composition Dressler Variations. Beethoven later published several piano works, including a set of three Piano Sonata.

In 1784, at the age of 13, Beethoven began to work as an assistant organist at the court with a meager salary. His performance activities quickly attracted people’s attention. Perhaps the performances consumed his energy and time, Beethoven did not have any significant compositions other than the Piano Concerto No. 0 during this time.

In 1787, Beethoven's teacher advised 16-year-old Beethoven to visit Vienna, hoping Beethoven could meet Mozart and accept Mozart’s guidance. Although there has no enough evidences to show Beethoven met with Mozart, many scholars believe that there was a brief exchange between Beethoven and Mozart. However, when Beethoven stayed in Vienna not more than two weeks, he received the news of his mother's death so he immediately returned to Bonn. Later, between wrote to his friends describing his depression. As for work, Beethoven was not only an organist in the court, but also a viola in the court orchestra.

Met Haydn

In 1790, at the age of 19, Beethoven was commissioned to compose Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. However, this cantata did not have completed before the funeral of Joseph II, so this work was not performed at that time. Later, Beethoven met Haydn, who was passing through Bonn, and hoped that Haydn could give guidance to his Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. After reading Beethoven's music, Haydn admired Beethoven's compositional techniques, encouraged Beethoven to visit Vienna, and promised to provide more guidance.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Life Changes (1792-1803)

In 1792, with the attack of the French army, the 21-year-old Beethoven left Bonn and moved to Vienna to learn from Haydn. However, Beethoven found that Haydn was not the best teacher to give him guidance. On the surface, the relationship between Beethoven and Haydn seems to be very harmonious. In fact, Beethoven was following other teachers privately. On the other hand, Beethoven's performance talent won the favor of Vienna nobles. These nobles later became Beethoven's patrons and provided free accommodation for Beethoven. In addition, Beethoven would increase his income through performing and teaching.

In 1795, at the age of 24, Beethoven made his public debut in Vienna, playing his Piano Concerto No. 1. Later, Beethoven published a series of Piano Trios. These works had achieved a great success in music critics and have brought him considerable benefits. Subsequently, Beethoven followed his patrons to perform in Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Library of Congress

The Orgin of Deaf

In 1797, at the age of 26, Beethoven was seriously ill, reportedly typhus. Fortunately, this disease did not take Beethoven's life, but to a certain extent, it was the orgin of his deaf.

In 1800, with the popularization and secularization of music. The 29-year-old Beethoven held a large-scale public concert in Vienna and played his Piano Concerto No. 2, Septet in E-flat Major and Symphony No. 1. This concert greatly promoted Beethoven’s reputation, and even spread widely outside Vienna.

Piano Sonata, "Moonlight"

In 1801, at the age of 30, Beethoven wrote Piano Sonata No. 14, dedicated to his lover who was 15 years younger. However, this relationship was strongly opposed by the lady’s father, who prohibited her to marry someone "without wealth and social status". Afterwards, the relationship ended. As for the work, Piano Sonata No. 14", a critic wrote an article with emotion saying that this music reminded him of "The reflection of moonlight in Lake Lucerne." Since then, this work has been called Moonlight Sonata.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Lucerne Moonlight. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Heiligenstadt Testament

Just as Beethoven was about to become famous and create more immortal works, he was facing with a shocking and terrifying fact. Beethoven wrote to his friends, he mentioned, his hearing was getting worse.

In 1802, the age of 31, Beethoven wrote an article in Heiligenstadt. This article is considered to be a profound testimony of Beethoven's overwhelming despair. It is later called the Heiligenstadt Testament, part of the content is as following:

“O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.” – Heiligenstadt Testament by Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Heiligenstadt Testament. Credit:

Heroic Period (1803-1814)

Although Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament when he was extremely depressed, he quickly recovered from the trough and composed many large-scale works at a rapid pace in the following years.

In 1803, at the age of 32, Beethoven held a charity concert in Vienna, played the Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3, and performed the solo part himself.

“I will take fate by the throat; it will never bend me completely to its will.” – Beethoven

Symphony No. 3, "Eroica"

In 1804, at the age of 33, Beethoven completed the Symphony No. 3. This work was originally dedicated to Napoleon, the consul of French. When Beethoven knew Napoleon claim to be the emperor, Beethoven tore up the dedication on the score and renamed the piece as Eroica Symphony. Many scholars believe that Eroica Symphony is Beethoven's most magnificent, unique and original work, and it serves as a milestone in the development of Beethoven's compositional techniques to the mature stage.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Violin Concerto in D Major

In 1806, the age of 35, Beethoven wrote Violin Concerto in D Major. However, Beethoven completed the solo part just before the concert, the solo violinists had to sight-read some sections. The violinist was dissatisfied, and added some of his own works on the stage to express his dissatisfaction. The critics severely criticized the Violin Concerto after the premiere. Subsequently, the Violin Concerto was rarely played during Beethoven's alive. Until 1844, this piece was revived under the performance of Mendelssohn and Joachim. Now, it is regarded as one of the greatest violin concertos in music eras.

Symphony No. 5, "Destiny"

In 1808, the age of 37, Beethoven held a large-scale concert, conducted by Beethoven himself. This concert premiered a number of works, including the Symphony No. 5, which took four years to compose. Beethoven later described it is the sound of Fate that knocking at the door, so it has been known as Destiny Symphony. This symphony has received wide acclaim since the premiere. It was regarded as "one of the most important works contemporary" by a group of romantics. However, because Beethoven's ear disease became more and more serious, and Beethoven often offended the orchestral players, the relationship between Beethoven and the musicians was deteriorated day by day, and even occurred serious quarrels. Beethoven planned to leave Vienna, but his patron hoped that Beethoven could continue to work locally, and promised to let Beethoven live without financial constraints. Beethoven accepted their offer and stayed in Vienna while his public appearances became less and less.

"This is the sound of Fate knocking at the door." - Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Piano Work, "Für Elise"

In 1810, Beethoven wrote the piano work Für Elise. Scholars believe that Beethoven dedicated this piece to his student to express his love. This work had never been published by Beethoven. In 1867, nearly 40 years after Beethoven's death, the manuscript of Für Elise was found in the relicts of one of Beethoven's students, afterwards, it was widely circulated.

The Last Years (1814-1827)

From 1814 to 1820, Beethoven gradually became completely deaf. He was more isolated than ever before. The rate of his compositions has declined. Compared with the previous periods, the number of his compositions in his later years accounted only a small part of the total. He tried to invest, such as bank stocks, but never got a satisfactory result. In addition, Beethoven went to court frequently because of the death of his younger brother, and competed with his younger brother's wife for the custody of his nephew.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Symphony No. 9, "Ode to Joy"

From 1818 to 1824, Beethoven spent almost six years to compose the Symphony No. 9. Compared with any music before, this piece is obviously grand. It takes nearly an hour to perform. Beethoven added vocals to the symphony. The lyric is taken from the German poet Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy", therefore this piece uses its title as an alias. Reportedly, the premiere of Ode to Joy was a huge success. Beethoven was the conductor. He conducted the orchestra by the help of his assistant. When the Ode to Joy ended, the concert hall was filled with thunderous applause while Beethoven did not notice. The contralto pulled Beethoven's sleeve and pointed the audiences behind him, he finally knew that people liked this work very much.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Library of Congress

The Final Works

From 1825 to 1826, no one expected that Beethoven would delve into the String Quartet because the last of such works was composed in 1810. Beethoven composed six string quartets within two years. These were also his final major works. Although musicians and audiences at the time did not make positive comments on them, these works inspired many composers after Beethoven's death, and later widely regarded as an indispensable part of classical music.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: Library of Congress

Beethoven's Funeral

In 1827, Beethoven contracted hepatitis. He was bedridden. On 26 March, 1827, Beethoven died in Vienna, at the age of 56.

Three days later, Vienna held a public funeral for him. It is estimated that 20,000 people attended, to mourn Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven Funeral. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The content is writing for the purpose of sharing only, and conducted by the following tutor(s). Please correct us if there are any deficiencies.

Contributing Writer(s)

Frankie Chan

Frankie Chan

California Baptist University (US), Hong Kong Baptist University


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