December 16, 1770: Ludwig van Beethoven is born in Bonn, then part of Cologne and now Germany. His father was a tenor serving in the Electoral court in Bonn. He was his son’s first music teacher and was reported to be a harsh task master. Young Beethoven’s talent was appreciated at a tender age and he was studying the organ and viola in addition to the piano by the time he was 7 years old. Beethoven was tutored by the Court Organist and gained the sponsorship of a Count by the time he was 16.
Beethoven went to Vienna in the hopes of meeting Mozart, but there is no proof the two ever met. He was forced to return to Bonn after two weeks to care for two younger brothers. His mother was dying of tuberculosis and his father was an incapacitated alcoholic. His father died in 1792 and Beethoven moved to Vienna to study that same year. Unfortunately, Mozart had died the year before, but Beethoven was able to continue musical instruction with preeminent musicians of the era. His music was loved, but sponsorship was sketchy. He lived with constant money worries.
By his mid-20s, Beethoven’s health was failing. His hearing began to deteriorate and he had constant abdominal pain, now attributed to lead poisoning. He was often irascible and may have been bipolar. He was suicidal at times. His deafness was a source of a multitude of problems. He used various devices to help him compose but concerts became increasingly difficult. He never married although he was engaged. He struggled with his sister-in-law, trying to adopt his nephew away. The boy eventually fled from his uncle and tried to commit suicide. Beethoven’s own health worsened and he was dead within a year at the age of 56.
Beethoven’s musical career is divided into three periods. The Early or Classical period dated until 1802 and highlights include 2 symphonies, 3 piano concertos, and 20 piano sonatas. The Middle or Heroic period begins with his encroaching deafness and lasts until 1815. During this time he wrote 6 symphonies, 4 concertos, 5 string quartets, 7 piano sonatas, and his only opera. The Late or Romantic period includes his last symphony, 5 string quartets, and 5 piano concertos. More than 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to pay homage to one of the world’s greatest composers as his body was taken to be buried.
“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” – E. M. Forster
“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” – Albert Einstein
“I despise a world which does not feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” – Ludwig van Beethoven
“Nothing is more intolerable than to have to admit to yourself your own errors.” – Ludwig van Beethoven
This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Ludwig von Beethoven was introduced to Joseph Haydn in late 1790 when Haydn was traveling to London for Christmas. They again met in 1792 in Vienna. Between the two meetings, Beethoven was able to compose some significant music, but none was published and most are now listed as works without opus. His musical talent was growing. Count Waldstein in his farewell note to Beethoven wrote: “Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.” Beethoven’s original intent was to be a performer rather than a composer. When Haydn left Vienna in 1794, Beethoven was expected to return to Bonn, but instead he stayed on in Vienna. Already known as a piano virtuoso, he made the rounds of the salons of the time where he was able to improvise and entertain the crowds. His musical talent lay more in composition than in the performance.
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