Ludwig van Beethoven,
born December 16, 1770; died 5:45 pm, March 26, 1827
Ludwig van Beethoven - The Early Years
Beethoven was the eldest surviving child of Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. Beethoven's grandfather settled in Bonn
when he became a singer in the choir of the archbishop-elector of Cologne, rising to become Kappellmeister. His father, Johann, was also a
singer in the electoral choir. Like most 18th-century musicians, Ludwig was born into the profession. Though at first quite
prosperous, the Beethoven family grew poorer with the death of his grandfather in 1773 and the decline of his father
into alcoholism. By age 11, Beethoven had to leave school. At age 18 he became the breadwinner of the family.
The Birth of the Romantic Age
In 1780, Joseph II became ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and appointed his brother Maximilian Francis to the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne.
Under Maximilian's rule, Bonn was transformed from a minor provincial town into a thriving and cultured capital city. He endowed Bonn with a
university and opened the city to the German literary renaissance associated with the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and
Friedrich von Schiller.
Beethoven was widely read and intimately familiar with the works of the German writers and the new ideas that were shaping intellectual, artistic,
and political events across Europe and the world. Schiller had written of the French Revolution, "A great moment has found a little people."
He believed that it was necessary to first elevate the moral character of a people by touching their souls with beauty. "Only through Beauty's
morning-gate, dost thou penetrate the land of knowledge." Goethe's novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (1774), is regarded as the spark
which ignited the Romantic movement that swept us into and through the first half of the 19th-century.
The Power of Music
Into this energized and fecund intellectual and artistic environment emerged young Ludwig van Beethoven. In his lifetime, more than any other man, he
carried Western culture from the Classical period into the Romantic Age. Beethoven revealed more vividly than any before him the power of music to
convey a philosophy of life without the aid of words.
In Beethoven's compositions are found the strongest assertions of the human Will in all music, if not in all art. Beethoven became
the fountainhead of inspiration for the work of the later Romantics. Beethoven defined his times and rose to the imperative of a new Age - a
time of great political, scientific and intellectual change (and revolution). Americans had won independence from their former king while the French
had killed their own and launched the continent into an abyss of war that left millions dead. It was an age in which men stopped wearing wigs and
people began to demand freedom from oppressive class-based hierarchies. Beethoven gave voice to the era with music that changed the world.
The Bonn Years
In Bonn, court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe became Beethoven's teacher. In 1783, the thirteen-year-old Ludwig was appointed continuo
player to the Bonn opera. By 1787 Maximilian Francis, archbishop-elector, sent him to Vienna to study with Mozart. The visit was cut short
when Beethoven received the news of his mother's death. Mozart was highly impressed with Beethoven's powers of improvisation and told
friends that “this young man will make a great name for himself in the world.”
For the next five years Beethoven remained at Bonn, making valuable acquaintances including the widow Mme von Breuning through whom he
acquired many wealthy pupils. His most useful social contact came in 1788 with the arrival in Bonn of Graf (Count) von Waldstein,
a member of the highest Viennese aristocracy. Waldstein heard Beethoven play and at once became his devoted admirer.
In 1790, the renowned composer Franz Joseph Haydn saw and admired Beethoven's scores. Haydn was so impressed that he offered to
take him as a pupil. Beethoven accepted Haydn's offer and in the autumn of 1792, while the armies of the French Revolution
were storming into the Rhineland provinces, Beethoven left Bonn never to return.
Beethoven in Vienna
By the time Beethoven arrived in Vienna he had already acquired a considerable reputation as a piano virtuoso with a particular talent for
extemporization. Mozart had been one of the finest improvisers of his age, but by all accounts Beethoven far surpassed him. In the age of
sensibility, Ludwig van Beethoven could move an audience to tears. He was taken up by the Viennese aristocracy immediately. Graf Waldstein
prepared the way and Beethoven's earliest patrons in Vienna were the aristocracy who had remained Mozart's supporters until his death. In
Beethoven they saw Mozart's musical heir. Beethoven was in command of his art and coming of age.
Beethoven traded on the “van” in his name - which was widely, if wrongly, understood to denote noble lineage - to gain easier access to
aristocratic circles. In the Vienna of the 1790s, music had become the favorite pastime of a cultured aristocracy.
Many aristocrats played instruments themselves well enough to be able to take their place beside professionals. At no other time and
in no other city was there such a high standard of music-making as in the Vienna of Beethoven's day.
In 1801, ten-year-old Carl Czerny was brought before Beethoven. Beethoven became his teacher and Czerny became the authorative
expert on performance of Beethoven's piano works. Carl Czerny later wrote an autobiography and included much information about Beethoven of
whom he retained the greatest respect and fondness. After Beethoven's death, Czerny arranged all nine Beethoven symphonies for the piano.
Loss of Hearing But Not of Spirit
The turn of the 19th century concluded what is referred to as Beethoven's first period. Prior to 1800, his art stayed mainly within the
bounds of 18th-century ideas. Most of his works were for the piano, alone or with other instruments, important exceptions being his early
string trios and quartets and the First Symphony.
Beethoven's days as a virtuoso were numbered. He was slowly going deaf. By 1802, Beethoven could no longer be in doubt that his encroaching deafness
was permanent and progressive. His demeanor changed and he was accused of being aloof and rude. In fact, he simply couldn't hear other people and yet
he was afraid to admit to anyone that he was losing his hearing. It was a great burden to bear.
After about 1819 his deafness became essentially total, necessitating the use of "conversation books" in which friends wrote their questions while
he replied orally. His playing degenerated as he became able to hear less and less. He appeared in public less frequently. Most of his energies were
absorbed in composing. He would spend the months from May to October in the little villages near Vienna. Many of his musical ideas came to him on
long country walks and were noted in sketchbooks.
During a summer spent at the village of Heiligenstadt in 1802, Ludwig wrote what has become to be known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament”. Obstentiously
addressed to his two brothers, he kept the letter hidden among his private papers and probably never showed it to anyone. It was discovered
and published after his death.
The letter begins: "O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do
not know the cause of my seeming so. From childhood my heart and mind was disposed to the gentle feeling of good will. I was ever eager to
accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, made worse by ignorant doctors, yearly betrayed
in the hope of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a permanent malady whose cure will take years or even prove impossible."
He was tempted to take his own life, "But only Art held back; for, ah, it seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world forever before I
had produced all that I felt called upon to produce."
The Greatest Musical Genius
Nine symphonies that changed the world! A gift to the world that all educated and cultured peoples should be familiar with.
Beethoven wrote thirty-two piano sonatas which contain a depth of expression, emotion and vitality and beauty that serve as
an inspiration for all musicians who have followed him. His fifty variations and bagatelles include "Fur Elise".
He wrote extensively for strings as well, but it was in symphonic form that Beethoven gave to the world the greatest testament of
the Human Will.
His Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognizable works in all music. His Seventh Symphony lifts the soul of the listener to
new heights. His Ninth Symphony is a crowning achievement that dispels forever the notion that Man cannot be heavenly inspired,
for surely Beethoven was.
The premiere in 1805 of the massive Third Symphony, known as the Eroica (composed 1803-4), was a landmark in cultural history. It
signaled a definitive break with the past and heralded the dawning of a new Age. The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, who at first
symbolized to Beethoven the nobler spirit of the French Revolution and the liberation of mankind; however, when Napoleon proclaimed
himself emperor, the disillusioned composer renamed his work the "Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man."
Beethoven's Enduring Legacy
Beethoven was the first musician to be accepted as almost a peer by the aristocracy. He did not have to scrounge for commissions as did Mozart.
Beethoven's pupils included Archduke Rudolf, youngest brother of the Emperor. Beethoven accepted no restraints on his creativity. He drove
a far more favorable bargain with the publishing firms than Haydn and Mozart before him or Schubert after him. Despite the restrictions
on Viennese musical life imposed by the war with France, Beethoven had no difficulty in getting his most ambitious works performed largely
because of the generosity of such patrons as Prince Lichnowsky. Patrons paid him handsomely for a dedication in his works.
Before his deafness led him to withdraw from social life, Beethoven had seriously entertained the prospect of marriage with more than
a few aristocratic ladies, but ultimately, he withdrew into his art and dedicated his life to producing music unlike the world had ever
heard. A supportive wife might have had a mollifying effect on his moods, but we will never know. What is certain is that Beethoven's
life is a monument to true genius.
Beethoven elevated the musician and composer to the ranks of the exalted poet and beyond. He expanded the role of the individual man into someone
who could literally change the world around him. His drive and Will propelled him to superstardom. The world is richer in spirit today
because of Beethoven's unfaltering dedication to beauty.
Franz Liszt met Beethoven when he was eleven years old: "I was about eleven years old when my highly esteemed teacher Czerny introduced me
to Beethoven. He had long before told him about me and had asked him to hear me play. But Beethoven had aversions against prodigies and for
a long time refused to hear me. Finally though he was persuaded by my indefatigable teacher Czerny and said, 'Then for God's sake – bring the
"As they were walking together, Beethoven and Goethe crossed paths with the empress, the dukes and their cortege. Beethoven said to
Goethe, 'Keep walking as you did until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around.' Goethe thought
differently. He drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes
and their cortege. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him, 'I have waited for you because I respect
you and I admire your work, but you have shown too great an esteem to those people.' " - Bettina Brettano
* * * * *
Daniel Steibelt, a pianist virtuoso in Vienna, challenged Beethoven to a piano dual when Beethoven was becoming famous. Steibelt
played first, then it was Beethoven’s turn. Ludwig acted very bored and put Steibelt’s score on the stand upside down.
He then started improvising in such an inspiring way that Steibelt got pale and left the building not waiting till the end. From
that time onwards, whenever Steibelt was invited to play somewhere he agreed only upon condition that Beethoven wouldn't be there.
* * * * *
"I have heard him play; but to bring him so far required some management, so great is his horror of being anything like exhibited. Had he been
plainly asked to do the company that favour, he would have flatly refused; he had to be cheated into it. Every person left the room, except Beethoven
and the master of the house, one of his most intimate acquaintances. The gentleman, as if by chance, struck the keys of the open piano, beside which
they were sitting, gradually began to run over one of Beethoven's own compositions, made a thousand errors, and speedily blundered one passage so
thoroughly, that the composer condescended to stretch out his hand and put him right. It was enough; the hand was on the piano; his companion
immediately left him, on some pretext, and joined the rest of the company, who in the next room, from which they could see and hear everything,
were patiently waiting the issue of this tiresome conjuration.
"Beethoven, left alone, seated himself at the piano. At first he only struck now and then a few hurried notes, as if afraid of being detected
in a crime; but gradually he forgot everything else, and ran on during half an hour in a fantasy, in a style extremely varied, and marked,
above all, by the most abrupt transitions. The amateurs were enraptured; to the uninitiated it was more interesting to observe how the music
of the man's soul passed over his countenance. He seems to feel the bold, the commanding, and the impetuous, more than what is soothing or
gentle. The muscles of the face swell, and its veins start out; the wild eye rolls doubly wild, the mouth quivers, and Beethoven looks like
a wizard, overpowered by the demons whom he himself has called up." - John Russell
* * * * *
"It was one morning about ten o'clock when we entered the two small rooms where Beethoven lived. I was somewhat embarrassed – but Czerny kindly
encouraged me. Beethoven was sitting by the window at a long narrow table working. For a moment he looked at us with a serious face, said a
couple of quick words to Czerny but turned silent as my dear teacher signaled to me to go to the piano. First I played a small piece of Ries.
When I had finished Beethoven asked if I could play a fugue by Bach. I chose the C minor fugue from Wohltemperiertes Klavier. 'Can you
transpose this fugue?' Beethoven asked. Fortunately I could. After the finishing chord I looked up. Beethoven's deep glowing eyes rested
upon me — but suddenly a light smile flew over his otherwise serious face. He approached me and stroked me several times over my head with
"He whispered, 'such a little devil'. Suddenly my courage rose. 'May I play one of your pieces?' I asked. Beethoven nodded with a smile.
I played the first movement of his C major piano concerto. When I had finished Beethoven stretched out his arms, kissed me on my forehead and
said in a soft voice, 'You go on ahead. You are one of the lucky ones! It will be your destiny to bring joy and delight to many people and that
is the greatest happiness one can achieve'.
"This was the proudest moment in my life – the inauguration to my life as artist. I tell this very rarely – and only to special
friends." - Franz Liszt