Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770 –March 26, 1827) was a German composer and pianist who is a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music and remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers. Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and part of the Holy Roman Empire, Beethoven was the grandson of Lodewijk van Beethoven (1712–73), a musician who came from Mechelen in present-day Belgium and moved at the age of twenty to Bonn. Lodewijk, the cognate of German Ludwig, was employed as a bass singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, eventually rising to become Kapellmeister or music director. Lodewijk had one son, Johann (1740–1792), who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment, and gave lessons on piano and violin to supplement his income. Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich in 1767; she was the daughter of Johann Heinrich Keverich, who had been the head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier.
Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn. There is no authentic record of the date of his birth; however, the registry of his baptism, in a Roman Catholic service at the Parish of St. Regius on December 17, 1770, survives. As children of that era were traditionally baptized the day after birth in the Catholic Rhine country, and it is known that Beethoven’s family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on December 16, most scholars accept December 16, 1770, as Beethoven’s date of birth. Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers, Caspar Anton Carl and Nikolaus Johann , survived infancy.
Beethoven displayed his musical talents at an early age. and his first music teacher was his father, but the boy had other local teachers: the court organist Gilles van den Eeden (d. 1782); Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, a family friend, who taught Beethoven the piano; and Franz Rovantini, a relative, who instructed him in playing the violin and viola. Beethoven’s musical talent was obvious at a young age. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart’s successes in this area with son Wolfgang and daughter Nannerl, attempted to exploit his son as a child prodigy, claiming that Beethoven was six when he was seven on the posters for Beethoven’s first public performance in March 1778.
Some time after 1779, Beethoven began his studies with his most important teacher in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was appointed the Court’s Organist in that year. Neefe taught Beethoven composition, and by March 1783 had helped him write his first published composition, a set of keyboard variations (WoO 63). Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as assistant organist, at first unpaid (1781), and then as a paid employee (1784) of the court chapel conducted by the Kapellmeister Andrea Luchesi. His first three piano sonatas, named “Kurfürst” (“Elector”) for their dedication to the Elector Maximilian Frederick (1708–1784), were published in 1783. Maximilian Frederick noticed Beethoven’s talent early, and subsidized and encouraged the young man’s musical studies.
In March 1787 Beethoven traveled to Vienna for the first time, apparently in the hope of studying with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The details of their relationship are uncertain, including whether or not they actually met. After just two weeks Beethoven learned that his mother was severely ill, and returned home. His mother died shortly thereafter, and his father lapsed deeper into alcoholism. As a result, Beethoven became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers, and he spent the next five years in Bonn. Beethoven was introduced to several people who became important in his life in these years, including Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who became a lifelong friend and financial supporter. In 1789 Beethoven obtained a legal order by which half of his father’s salary was paid directly to him for support of the family.
From 1790 to 1792, Beethoven composed a significant number of works (none were published at the time, and most are now listed as works without opus) that demonstrated his growing range and maturity. Beethoven was probably first introduced to Joseph Haydn in late 1790, when the latter was traveling to London and stopped in Bonn around Christmas time. They met in Bonn on Haydn’s return trip from London to Vienna in July 1792, and it is likely that arrangements were made at that time for Beethoven to study with the old master. With the Elector’s help, Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 and began studying with Haydn. Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in November 1792, amid rumors of war spilling out of France, and learned shortly after his arrival that his father had died.
Beethoven did not immediately set out to establish himself as a composer, but rather devoted himself to study and performance. Working under Haydn’s direction, he sought to master counterpoint. He also studied violin under Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Early in this period, he also began receiving occasional instruction from Antonio Salieri, primarily in Italian vocal composition style; this relationship persisted until at least 1802, and possibly 1809. By 1793, Beethoven established a reputation as an improviser in the salons of the nobility, often playing the preludes and fugues of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. With Haydn’s departure for England in 1794, Beethoven was expected by the Elector to return home. He chose instead to remain in Vienna, continuing his instruction in counterpoint with Johann Albrechtsberger and other teachers.
Although his stipend from the Elector expired, a number of Viennese noblemen had already recognised his ability and offered him financial support, among them Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Beethoven’s friend Nikolaus Simrock began publishing his compositions; the first are believed to be a set of variations (WoO 66). Establishing a reputation in Vienna as a piano virtuoso, Beethoven apparently withheld works from publication so that their publication in 1795 would have greater impact following his first public performance in Vienna in March 1795, a concert in which he first performed one of his piano concertos. Shortly after this performance, he arranged for the publication of the first of his compositions to which he assigned an opus number, the three piano trios, Opus 1. Around 1796, by the age of 26, Beethoven began to lose his hearing.
In May 1799, Beethoven taught piano to the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. He composed his first six string quartets (Op. 18) between 1798 and 1800, commissioned by, and dedicated to, Prince Lobkowitz. They were published in 1801. He also continued to write in other forms, turning out widely known piano sonatas like the “Pathétique” sonata (Op. 13). He also completed his Septet (Op. 20) in 1799, which was one of his most popular works during his lifetime. With premieres of his First and Second Symphonies in 1800 and 1803, Beethoven became regarded as one of the most important of a generation of young composers following Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven had few other students. From 1801 to 1805, he tutored Ferdinand Ries, who went on to become a composer. The young Carl Czerny studied with Beethoven from 1801 to 1803. In the spring of 1801 he completed The Creatures of Prometheus, a ballet.
As early as 1801, Beethoven wrote to friends describing his symptoms and the difficulties they caused in both professional and social settings. On the advice of his doctor, Beethoven lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, from April to October 1802 in an attempt to come to terms with his condition. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers which records his thoughts of suicide due to his growing deafness and records his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Perhaps Beethoven’s most important aristocratic patron was Archduke Rudolph, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, who in 1803 or 1804 began to study piano and composition with Beethoven. Over time, his hearing loss became profound. Beethoven’s hearing loss did not prevent his composing music, but it made playing at concerts—a lucrative source of income—increasingly difficult. His position at the Theater an der Wien was terminated when the theater changed management in early 1804, and he was forced to move temporarily to the suburbs of Vienna with his friend Stephan von Breuning.
Beethoven’s return to Vienna from Heiligenstadt was marked by a change in musical style, and is now designated as the start of his “Middle” or “Heroic” period. The first major work employing this new style was the Third Symphony in E flat, known as the “Eroica” (1805). The middle period work includes the Third through Eighth Symphonies, the Rasumovsky, Harp and Serioso string quartets, the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto and many other compositions. The French occupation of Vienna slowed work on Fidelio, his largest work to date, for a time. It was delayed again by the censors, and finally premiered in November 1805. In the Autumn of 1808, after having been rejected for a position at the royal theatre, Beethoven received an offer from Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte, then king of Westphalia, for a well-paid position as Kapellmeister at the court in Cassel. To persuade him to stay in Vienna, the Archduke Rudolph, Prince Kinsky and Prince Lobkowitz, after receiving representations from the composer’s friends, pledged to pay Beethoven a pension of 4000 florins a year.
During May 1809, when the attacking forces of Napoleon bombarded Vienna, according to Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven, very worried that the noise would destroy what remained of his hearing, hid in the basement of his brother’s house, covering his ears with pillows. In the spring of 1811 Beethoven became seriously ill, suffering headaches and high fever. On the advice of his doctor, he spent six weeks in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. The following winter, which was dominated by work on the Seventh symphony, he was again ill, and his doctor ordered him to spend the summer of 1812 at the spa Teplitz. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”), which was premiered by his student Carl Czerny, he never performed in public again. Despite his obvious distress, Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. In early 1813 Beethoven apparently went through a difficult emotional period, and his compositional output dropped, but was finally motivated to begin significant composition again in June 1813, when news arrived of the defeat of one of Napoleon’s armies at Vitoria, Spain, by a coalition of forces under the Duke of Wellington. This news stimulated him to write the battle symphony known as Wellington’s Victory which was performed in early 1814.
The following summer he composed a piano sonata for the first time in five years (No. 27, Opus 90). This work was in a markedly more Romantic style than his earlier sonatas. By 1814, Beethoven was almost totally deaf. As a result of Beethoven’s hearing loss, his conversation books are an unusually rich written resource. Used primarily in the last ten or so years of his life, his friends wrote in these books so that he could know what they were saying, and he then responded either orally or in the book. The books contain discussions about music and other matters, and give insights into Beethoven’s thinking; they are a source for investigations into how he intended his music should be performed, and also his perception of his relationship to art. Beethoven was also one of many composers who produced music in a patriotic vein to entertain the many heads of state and diplomats who came to the Congress of Vienna that began in November 1814. His output of songs included his only song cycle, “An die ferne Geliebte,” and the extraordinarily expressive second setting of the poem “An die Hoffnung” (Op. 94) in 1815.
Between 1815 and 1817 Beethoven’s output dropped again. Beethoven attributed part of this to a lengthy illness (he called it an “inflammatory fever”) that afflicted him for more than a year, starting in October 1816. About this time, Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel, that were then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed the overture The Consecration of the House, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate these influences. A new style emerged, now called his “Late period”. He returned to the keyboard to compose his first piano sonatas in almost a decade: 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 string quartets, and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony.
By early 1818 Beethoven’s health had improved, and his nephew moved in with him in January. On the downside, his hearing had deteriorated to the point that conversation became difficult, necessitating the use of conversation books. Two commissions in 1822 improved Beethoven’s financial prospects. The Philharmonic Society of London offered a commission for a symphony, and Prince Nikolas Golitsin of St. Petersburg offered to pay Beethoven’s price for three string quartets. The first of these commissions spurred Beethoven to finish the Ninth Symphony, which was first performed, along with the Missa Solemnis, on May 7, 1824, to great acclaim at the Kärntnertortheater. The fourth movement of this Ninth Symphony features an elaborate choral setting of Schiller’s Ode An die Freude (“Ode to Joy”), an optimistic hymn championing the brotherhood of humanity. There is a well-attested story that, at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience; hearing nothing, he wept.
Beethoven then turned to writing the string quartets for Golitsin. This series of quartets, known as the “Late Quartets,” went far beyond what musicians or audiences were ready for at that time. Beethoven wrote the last quartets amidst failing health. In April 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. The illness—or more precisely, his recovery from it—is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called “Holy song of thanks (‘Heiliger Dankgesang’) to the divinity, from one made well.” He went on to complete the quartets now numbered Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth. The last work completed by Beethoven was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet, which replaced the difficult Grosse Fuge. Shortly thereafter, in December 1826, illness struck again, with episodes of vomiting and diarrhea that nearly ended his life. Beethoven was bedridden for most of his remaining months, and many friends came to visit. He died on March 26, 1827, at the age of 56 during a thunderstorm.
Beethoven is acknowledged as one of the giants of classical music; occasionally he is referred to as one of the “three Bs,” along with Bach and Brahms, who epitomize that tradition. He was also a pivotal figure in the transition from the 18th century musical classicism to 19th century romanticism, and his influence on subsequent generations of composers was profound. Beethoven composed in several musical genres and for a variety of instrument combinations. His works for symphony orchestra include nine symphonies (the Ninth Symphony includes a chorus), and about a dozen pieces of “occasional” music. He wrote seven concerti for one or more soloists and orchestra, as well as four shorter works that include soloists accompanied by orchestra. His only opera is Fidelio; other vocal works with orchestral accompaniment include two masses and a number of shorter works.
His large body of compositions for piano includes 32 piano sonatas and numerous shorter pieces, including arrangements of some of his other works. Works with piano accompaniment include 10 violin sonatas, 5 cello sonatas, and a sonata for French horn, as well as numerous lieder. Beethoven also wrote a significant quantity of chamber music. In addition to 16 string quartets, he wrote five works for string quintet, seven for piano trio, five for string trio, and more than a dozen works for various combinations of wind instruments. In his Early period, Beethoven’s work was strongly influenced by his predecessors Haydn and Mozart. His Middle (Heroic) period began shortly after Beethoven’s personal crisis brought on by his recognition of encroaching deafness. Beethoven’s Late period began around 1815. Works from this period are characterized by their intellectual depth, their formal innovations, and their intense, highly personal expression.
My collection contains the following orchestral works by Beethoven:
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage cantata, op. 112.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in CM, op. 15.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Piano Concerto) No. 2 in BbM, op. 19.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in cm, op. 37.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Piano Concerto) No. 4 in GM, op. 58.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Piano Concerto) No. 5 in EbM, op. 73, “Emperor.”
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Piano Concerto) No. 6 in DM, op. 61a, version of Violin Concerto in DM.
Concerto in CM for violin, cello, and piano, op. 56, “Triple.”
Consecration of the House: Overture, Chorus.
Coriolan: Overture to in cm, op. 62.
The Creatures of Prometheus ballet, op. 43: Overture and Selections
Egmont Overture in fm, op. 84.
Fidelio Overture, op. 72b.
Lenore Overture No. 1, op. 138.
Lenore Overture No. 2, op. 72.
Lenore Overture No. 3, in CM, op. 72a.
Leonore Prohaska, Wo0 96: Funeral March.
Minuet of Congratulations, Wo0 3.
“Namensfeier” Overture, op. 115.
Romance for Violin No. 1 in GM, op. 40.
Romance for Violin and Orchestra (Violin Romance) No. 2 in FM, op. 50.
The Ruins of Athens: Overture, op. 113′ Turkish March, op. 113 no. 4; March and Chorus, op. 114.
St. Stephen, op. 117: Overture.
Symphony No. 1 in CM, op. 21.
Symphony No. 2 in DM, op. 36.
Symphony No. 3 in EbM, op. 55, “Eroica.”
Symphony No. 4 in BbM, op. 60.
Symphony No. 5 in cm, op. 67.
Symphony No. 6 in FM, op. 68, Pastoral.
Symphony No. 7 in AM, op. 92.
Symphony No. 8 in FM, op. 93.
Symphony No. 9 in dm, op. 125, “Choral.”
Tarpeja, Wo0 2: Triumphal March.
Violin Concerto in DM, op. 61.