Beethoven, Ludwig van

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Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827): German, Composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven is known for having extended the Viennese Classical tradition of Haydn, Franz Joseph and Mozart. His later works, particularly when considered in the context of the emotional turmoil under which they were conceived, have granted him the reputation of the most dominant musical figure of the nineteenth century. Although his position as a precursor to the Romantic movement in music is heavily contended, his influence on future generations of composers is unquestionable.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, the son and grandson of musicians in the service of the Elector of Cologne. His formal education seems to have been brief; like many children of his rank, Beethoven did not attend school beyond the elementary level. He seems to have received an early music education at the piano and violin from his father. In 1779 he was introduced to one of his most important music teachers, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who exposed him to the music of Bach and employed him as harpsichordist in the court orchestra. In 1787 Beethoven spent a brief time in Vienna, where he is said to have been introduced to Mozart. Encouraged by a number of influential friends in Bonn, Beethoven returned to Vienna in 1792, where he was to spend the rest of his life. There, he undertook composition classes with Joseph Haydn, among others. Beethoven’s lessons with Haydn did not prove to be a success, although the numerous public concerts which he gave at the time (1795) served to establish his reputation in Vienna. By 1800, publishers were competing for the composer’s works. By 1806, Beethoven had achieved fame throughout Europe with the performances of the Appassionata Sonata, the string quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, the Fourth Symphony, and the Violin Concerto.

Beethoven’s reputation as a composer was only equalled by his popularity as a pianist and improviser, and he supported himself economically primarily through his playing and teaching. By 1806, however, Beethoven was forced to give up regular public performance due to an increasing deafness which had been getting progressively worse since 1795. By 1818, Beethoven was almost entirely deaf, although by 1822, he was beginning composition on his enthusiastically-received Ninth Symphony (perf.1823). The famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” of 1802, a letter addressed to his two brothers, expresses Beethoven’s increasing despair at the effect of deafness upon his professional and social life.

The despair and introspection occasioned by Beethoven’s deafness is often credited for the strength of emotion which now marked his musical compositions. During this same period, Beethoven also expressed a marked interest in politics; his grief at the death of the reformist Emperor Joseph II in 1789 had been shared by many of his contemporaries sympathetic to Enlightenment ideals, and in 1803 he entitled the symphony upon which he was working Bonaparte in honour of Bonaparte, Napoleon. Following Napoleon’s self-proclamation as emperor in 1804, Beethoven reputedly tore the title-page in two; the published symphony was given the title of “heroic symphony” and described as having been composed “to celebrate the memory of a great man.” His only opera, Fidelio (1805, rev. 1806 and 1814) tells the tale of an unjustly imprisoned political prisoner. Beethoven thus implicitly articulated political convictions in his music, a fact not lost to his nationalist successors. Although Beethoven never married, he was enamoured of a number of women throughout his life. In 1812, he wrote what is now termed the “Immortal Beloved” letter, a love-letter addressed to a beloved whose identity is unknown. Along with the Heiligenstadt testament, the numerous personal dedications and emotional subtitles of Beethoven’s musical compositions and their declared affiliations to progressive political and artistic figures, this letter has ensured for Beethoven a reputation as a tormented, Romantic artist.

1815 marked the beginning of a profound depression for Beethoven. His brother Caspar Carl died, stipulating in his will that Beethoven be given guardianship of his son, Karl. Just before his death, however, Caspar appended a codicil which requested that the boy’s mother, Johanna, be made co-guardian. Beethoven was unwilling to assume anything other than entire control over Karl’s guardianship, and the ensuing legal battles lasted for four years, by the end of which time Beethoven was made sole guardian. In 1826, Karl seems to have succumbed to frustration at the increasing possessiveness of his uncle, and attempted suicide. Although Karl eventually recovered and took a post in the army, the effect of the suicide is thought to have considerably weakened Beethoven, who developed jaundice and dropsy. Despite the close ministrations of doctors, friends, and admirers, Beethoven succumbed on March 26, 1827, three days after having bequeathed his entire estate to Karl. The funeral was a public event in Vienna; 10, 000 people are estimated to have attended.

Beethoven’s compositions are conventionally divided into three main periods. The first period dates to 1802, during which time Beethoven composed his first piano sonatas (including the Sonata pathetique and the Sonata quasi una fantasia), chamber music, two symphonies, three piano concertos, and violin sonatas. The second period (1802-1816) is marked by the “Emperor” piano concerto, more violin sonatas, six string quartets, the Violin Concerto in D, piano sonatas including the Waldstein, the Appassionata and Les Adieux, and six symphonies, including the Third, Fifth, and Sixth. The final period is marked by five more piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis in D, and the last five string quartets. The first period is generally seen to represent Beethoven’s perfection of the Classical style, while the second and third are perceived as having expanded musical forms and intensified emotional expressivity. Beethoven’s musical innovation is notable particularly in his symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and string quartets; some pieces were regarded as “bizarre” in his own day. No matter whether Beethoven’s style can be deemed Romantic, it profoundly influenced Romantic musicians by encouraging a consideration of the formal and emotional potential of the symphony, the possibilities of program music, and the potential for individual emotional expression offered by solo instrumental works. Beethoven’s reputation as an Enlightenment thinker was achieved primarily through the rededication of the Third Symphony, and served to emphasize the political expressive potential of the artist. His setting of Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von’s “Ode to Joy” in the choral movement to the Ninth Symphony reinforced his later reputation as a Romantic musical poet. Beethoven publicized a contempt for those dependent upon aristocratic courts (Goethe, Johann Wolfgang was one of the artists whom he deemed too enthused by court life). He asserted that he obtained his income through public performance and publication despite the fact that the majority of his income came through aristocratic patronage. In so doing, he is seen to have asserted the individual autonomy of the composer and his creative independence from ruling authority. Beethoven’s emotional turmoil inspired a greater interest in the life of the composer, and the enormity of his public reputation encouraged the later development in the 19th century of the “Cult of the Composer”.

Further Reading:

Joseph Kerman, Alan Tyson, The New Grove Beethoven, 1983.

H.C. Robbins Landon, ed., Beethoven: A Documentary Study, 1974.

Maynard Solomon, Beethoven, 1977, 2nd.ed. 1998.

Irene Morra