Ludwig van Beethoven
one of the greatest composers in history
1770 - 1827
Beethoven was one of the greatest composers in history. His most famous works include the third (Eroica), fifth, sixth (Pastorale), and ninth symphonies; an opera, Fidelio; and his religious composition Missa solemnis.
Beethoven's life and work had had a great influence on music. He won for composers a new freedom to express themselves. Before his time, composers wrote works for religious services, to teach, and to entertain people at social functions. But people listened to Beethoven's music for its own sake. As a result, he made music more independent of social, religious, or teaching purposes.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 16, 1770. He showed musical talent at an early age and learned to play the violin and piano from his father, Johann. Johann hoped to make Ludwig a gifted child like the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the age of 11, Ludwig became assistant to the organist of the local court. In 1783, he first accompanied opera rehearsals at the keyboard. From 1788 to 1792, Beethoven played viola in the local theater orchestra.
Beethoven's father developed a severe drinking problem. His mother died in 1787. Beethoven found relief from his difficult family life when he became the tutor of the two children of the von Breuning family. The children's mother was a kind, well-educated woman who introduced Beethoven to important people in Bonn.
Beethoven visited Vienna in 1787. There, he played for Mozart and probably took a few lessons from him. Mozart is quoted as saying: "He will give the world something worth listening to." Beethoven also met Count Ferdinand Waldstein, who became his lifelong friend and often helped his career. In 1792, the composer Joseph Haydn, who was in Bonn, praised one of Beethoven's compositions and encouraged him to visit Vienna. The Elector (ruler) of Cologne sent Beethoven to Vienna later that year. He was welcomed into the homes of many of Vienna's leading noblemen. Except for short trips, he stayed there the rest of his life.
Many great composers of the day, even Haydn and Mozart, were treated as employees by the people who bought their music. However, Beethoven associated as an equal with royalty and the nobility. They paid him for his works, but they knew and admired him as a friend rather than as an employee.
Beethoven began to lose his hearing in the late 1790's. From about 1800, this increasing deafness changed his personality. Beethoven had always been proud, independent, and somewhat odd. But as he lost his hearing, he became more suspicious and irritable. He became totally deaf during the last years of his life, but his deafness did not hinder his composing. However, it did reduce his normal social life.
Beethoven's life took on added bitterness because of his unhappy relationship with his brothers Johann and Karl. The two quarreled frequently with Beethoven. Some scholars blame the two brothers for the trouble, but Beethoven himself was very difficult to get along with. Karl died in 1815, leaving a 9-year-old son. The boy became Beethoven's ward, but this relationship also turned out badly. Beethoven did not have the disposition to be a father and the young man rebelled against him, causing Beethoven much grief. Beethoven caught a serious cold at the end of 1826, which developed into pneumonia and then dropsy. He died on March 26, 1827.
Beethoven's works for orchestra include nine symphonies, five piano concertos, a violin concerto, and several overtures. His chamber music consists largely of 16 string quartets; 5 string trios; 9 trios for piano, violin, and cello; 10 violin sonatas; and 5 cello sonatas. His piano works include about 35 sonatas, more than 20 sets of variations (musical themes repeated with changes), and several smaller pieces. His vocal works consist chiefly of the opera, Fidelio; a song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, and many other songs; several short pieces called cantatas; and the Mass in C major and the Mass in D major (Missa solemnis).
Throughout his life, Beethoven was guided by a basic optimism and a faith in moral values. These always dominated his music, although darker moods and a grim struggle usually preceded the joy typically found at the end of his compositions.
Beethoven's sketchbooks show that he worked out his compositions with great care, tirelessly revising his themes and altering the shapes in which they appeared. This process often went on for many years before he was satisfied with the details and the overall form of his ideas. This painstaking workmanship is evident in the first movement of the fifth symphony and in the Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106. Such compositions show Beethoven's belief in the serious nature of his mission and the immortality of his work--a novel belief at that time.
The first period of Beethoven's composing career extended from the late 1780's to about 1800. His works during this period also show some dependence on older composers, especially Haydn, Mozart, C. P. E. Bach, and Christian Neefe, one of his teachers in Bonn. These works, nevertheless, show individuality in the careful way they are written and their strong melodies.
The second period, from about 1800 to 1815, was Beethoven's most productive. He wrote his third through eighth symphonies, the last two piano concertos, his violin concerto, and many chamber pieces. He also wrote 14 piano sonatas, including the Moonlight Sonata, the Waldstein, and the Appassionata.
Beethoven's music has become familiar on most concert programs today, but early in his own career his works aroused much controversy. He greatly expanded and changed traditional music forms such as the symphony. The force and strength of these works confused some critics, who found many of Beethoven's compositions impossible to understand. In his third symphony, the Eroica, he revealed the ideal of heroism that he thought Napoleon symbolized. His audiences could not understand this work at first. However, the power and nobility of Beethoven's music came to be widely recognized and praised before he died.
In Fidelio, Beethoven was inspired by the story of a wife's devotion and courage in rescuing her husband from unjust imprisonment. In this opera, Beethoven praised the ideals of freedom, dignity of the individual, and heroism overcoming tyranny--ideals characterizing the French Revolution. Fidelio gave Beethoven more trouble than any of his other works. Beethoven revised it twice, and wrote four overtures before he was satisfied. He found himself restricted by the demands of composing for the stage and may have felt that writing operas was unsuited to his talents. Fidelio displays dramatic force, but its mood and meaning are expressed more by music than by action.
The third period includes several important works. The Missa solemnis is one of the most moving of religious compositions. The ninth symphony glorifies the ideal of human brotherhood that flourished in the late 1700's. In his last piano sonatas and string quartets, Beethoven created a new and personal world of expression. These works carry a feeling of great power and mysterious complexity. Yet Beethoven gave these works a lyrical quality expressed with touching simplicity.
The works of the second period had tremendous influence on the romantic composers of the early 1800's. But the works of the third period were not fully understood until later, partly because they were extremely difficult to perform. In his quartets and sonatas, Beethoven tried to include complicated musical structures and fugues--short themes imitated or repeated by different instruments according to strict musical rules. These works demanded entirely new qualities of sound from the string quartet and piano. His compositions of the last period had a vital influence on the composers of the 1900's, notably Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok.
Beethoven's place in music history
Beethoven belongs to both the classical and romantic eras of music history. In his skillful musical motives (brief themes), he was a master of classical techniques. Beethoven also explored the new and more mysterious qualities of tone that attracted the romantic composers. Beethoven's music suggests meanings without making them specific.
Because of this constant feeling of hidden significance, Beethoven was regarded in the 1800's as one of the founders of musical romanticism. It became fashionable to invent or "discover" stories that would explain the meaning of his instrumental works. Beethoven set this fashion by attaching descriptive titles such as Pastoral to some of his works. The ninth symphony in particular seems to endorse the notion that his instrumental music was striving for some definite meaning, since its final movement uses the words of an ode by the German writer Friedrich Schiller.
To the romantic composers of the first half of the 1800's, this suggestive but indefinite property was the most attractive feature of Beethoven's instrumental music. However, the more realistic composers of the later 1800's regarded this indefinite style as a fault. This style made them turn away from sonatas, quartets, and symphonies toward opera and program (descriptive) music.
To both romantic and realistic composers, however, Beethoven correctly appeared as the composer who had first realized the full potential of instrumental music. He had sustained large, independent works of art from beginning to end with a convincing and highly varied flow of emotion. Yet the unity of each musical work did not rely on this psychological development or on an external course of action. Such unity always rests on the organization and interrelationships of the music itself. This was the classical and major part of Beethoven's accomplishment. Like Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven expressed emotion without sacrificing formal balance.
Contributor: Darrell Matthews Berg, Ph.D., Visiting Associate Prof. of Music, Washington Univ.
Cooper, Barry, and others. The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven's Life and Music. Thames & Hudson, 1991.
Kerman, Joseph, and Tyson, Alan. The New Grove Beethoven. Norton, 1983.
Thompson, Wendy. Ludwig van Beethoven. Viking, 1991. For younger readers.
SOURCE: IBM 1999 WORLD BOOK
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