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Biography: Ludwig van Beethoven

Stieler, Joseph Karl: Beethoven mit der Missa solemnis Ölgemälde, 18191770–1827 •  German composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the greatest composers in history – perhaps the greatest. Standing at the crossroads between the classical and Romantic eras, he created music that belongs not just to its period but to all time. He excelled in virtually every genre of his day, and had enormous influence on the composers who succeeded him.

His music possesses tremendous emotional and intellectual depth. Its impact on the listener is often so immediate and direct that no prior knowledge of music is needed to appreciate its power. On the other hand, some of the procedures he uses are so sophisticated and complex that even the most learned experts are continually finding new things to admire in it. Its range is vast: from the despair of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata to the ecstasy of the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the Ninth Symphony; from the wit and frivolity of one of his many scherzos to the profound mysticism of the Missa solemnis; and from the tiniest bagatelles and canons to the awesome size of the Grosse Fuge and the ‘Diabelli’ Variations. Beethoven’s originality is equally astounding. Each major work explores some new concept or device, and he was forever stretching the boundaries of what was possible, without straying beyond them into lawlessness and unmusicality.

Beethoven’s Childhood

Beethoven’s father Johann (c. 1740–92) was a professional singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, whose seat was in Bonn. There was a long tradition of music-making at this court, although the size of the establishment fluctuated, depending on what funds were available. Johann’s own father, Ludwig, or Louis, van Beethoven (1712–73), had been appointed as Kapellmeister at the court in 1761, and Beethoven always revered his grandfather, even though the latter died when Beethoven was only three years old.

Beethoven began showing musical interest from about the age of four, and his father was soon teaching him the piano. Under Johann’s strict régime, Beethoven made such rapid progress that eventually a new teacher had to be found. Luckily there arrived in Bonn in 1779 a very able musician called Christian Neefe (1748–98), who taught Beethoven the rudiments of composition. Again Beethoven made rapid progress, and Neefe arranged for publication of some of his earliest compositions, including a set of variations in 1782 and a set of three piano sonatas in 1783. All of these show considerable originality.

The Young Courtier

Beethoven had been deputizing as a musician at court for some years by the time he was officially appointed as court organist alongside Neefe. By 1787 it had been decided to send him to Mozart in Vienna to improve his skills still further, since there was little in music that he could still learn from anyone in Bonn. His visit to Vienna proved short-lived, however, for almost immediately after arriving he heard that his mother was terminally ill. He hurried back to Bonn, and she died shortly after his return. He resumed his duties at court, taking part in many operatic productions (probably often as a viola player). His father, meanwhile, was rapidly descending into alcoholism and had to be pensioned off. Beethoven thus assumed responsibility as head of his household, which included his two brothers Carl (1774–1815) and Johann (1776–1848); four other siblings had died in infancy.

Hardly any compositions by Beethoven survive from the late 1780s, but in 1790 he wrote two large-scale cantatas – on the death of Emperor Joseph II and on the accession of Emperor Leopold II. These evidently proved so difficult for the performers, however, that neither of the works progressed beyond the rehearsal stage.

Beethoven’s Sketches

Beethoven’s approach to composition was strikingly different from that of his predecessors, in that he made a vast amount of rough drafting and sketching for each work. Although many of these sketches were discarded or lost, a large number survive – probably about 10,000 pages altogether, with nearly all his works represented.

These sketches provide fascinating insights into exactly how he composed individual masterpieces – what problems he had, how else he might have written them, and in what order the bits were put together. They reveal, for example, that he normally composed successive movements of a work in the order in which they finally appeared, but that during work on one movement he was repeatedly jotting down possible ideas for later ones.

Despite their fascination, many of these sketches have still not been studied in detail; this is partly because there are so many, but also because they are generally very difficult to decipher. In addition, sketches for several works are often jumbled up on one page, while those for a single work may now be scattered around several libraries in different parts of the world.

Some of the sketches were written in ink in actual manuscript books known as sketchbooks, but until 1798 they were all simply jotted on loose sheets of paper. Later in his life Beethoven wrote many in pencil in pocket-sized sketchbooks which he used on long walks, while others were still being written on loose sheets or in full-sized sketchbooks.

The Move to Vienna

During Christmas 1790, Haydn arrived in Bonn en route from Vienna to London, and met some of the musicians who lived there. He visited them again on his way back in July 1792, and was almost certainly shown some of Beethoven’s compositions, including one of the cantatas and probably other recent works such as concertos, arias, piano music and chamber music. It must have been at the second meeting that he agreed to give Beethoven tuition in Vienna. Mozart had died suddenly the previous year and Haydn possibly hoped that Beethoven might be able to fill the void felt in Vienna. During the summer Beethoven made final preparations for his departure, and in October his friends began writing farewell messages in a little album. The message from Count Waldstein, one of Beethoven’s leading supporters in Bonn, was the most prophetic, predicting that Beethoven would receive ‘Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands’: Beethoven’s early works in Vienna do show much of Mozart’s influence, although this never completely eclipses his own personal style. Beethoven finally set out in early November, arriving in Vienna about a week later.

Vienna: The Early Period

Contrary to some accounts, Beethoven seems to have struck up a warm and friendly relationship with Haydn, and instruction continued for over a year. Haydn then left Vienna for his second trip to England, and Beethoven transferred to Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1809). Albrechtsberger was the leading composer in the old, learned style of fugal counterpoint, and his instruction of Beethoven appears to have been much more rigorous than Haydn’s easygoing manner. Beethoven systematically followed through Albrechtsberger’s course for 18 months, and the teacher’s markings on Beethoven’s exercises – most of which still survive – reveal much about Albrechtsberger’s diligence and skill.

During his year with Haydn, Beethoven composed several works, including a wind octet and a now-lost oboe concerto. The following year he produced less (he was probably too busy completing Albrechtsberger’s numerous exercises), but in 1795 he was ready to burst into the limelight. At his public debut in March that year he performed a new piano concerto (probably No. 1 in C), and a few months later published what he now designated as his op. 1, a set of piano trios. These were shortly followed by op. 2, a set of sonatas which he dedicated to Haydn.

‘Friends and Renown’

By the end of 1795 Beethoven had won both ‘friends and renown’, as he put it, and had settled in Vienna, where he had been joined by his two brothers. The following year he set off on a tour to Prague, Dresden and Berlin. He performed at the piano in each of these cities, and composed several works for the musicians of Prague and Berlin. These included his Cello Sonatas op. 5 (1796) for the Berlin court cellist Jean-Louis Duport (1749–1818). Beethoven visited Prague again in 1798, by which time he had composed many more works, including several piano sonatas, and had also begun work on a symphony and a set of string quartets. The symphony that eventually emerged in 1800 was No. 1 in C, which was performed on 2 April that year, along with his Septet, at a benefit concert that he gave in Vienna. The concert also included works by Haydn and Mozart, and an extemporization on the piano – a skill at which Beethoven greatly excelled. Also completed that year, after several revisions, was his set of six string quartets op. 18, which he dedicated to Prince Franz Lobkowitz one of several aristocratic patrons who supported him at this time.

The Deafness Crisis

Soon after completing his First Symphony, Beethoven began work on his Second, and in 1801 he wrote a highly successful ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (‘The Creatures of Prometheus’). He was by now greatly admired as a composer and was generally prospering, but unfortunately his hearing was becoming seriously impaired. First signs of deafness had appeared in about 1797 and the condition gradually became worse over many years, although it fluctuated somewhat. At first Beethoven tried to keep it secret, but he consulted various doctors in an attempt to find a cure, and confided his problems in letters to close friends in 1801. In 1802, as a final attempt at a cure, he moved to the quiet village of Heiligenstadt, just north of Vienna, for six months. This plan, too, proved unsuccessful, and in October Beethoven wrote a moving account of his despairing mental state in a document which became known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’. Addressed primarily to his brothers, but also to the world at large, it begins: ‘O you men who think or say I am hostile, peevish, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause that makes me seem so to you.’

The Shadow of Napoleon

Beethoven’s life and work are customarily divided into three periods – early, middle and late; although such divisions are obviously an over-simplification, they do to some extent reflect the nature of his personal develop-ment. In 1802 he overcame his deafness crisis by plunging himself into composition with renewed vigour, and began a series of works of great power and originality. The first of these was his oratorio Christus am Oelberge (‘Christ on the Mount of Olives’, 1803–04), a profound depiction of Christ’s suffering, evidently written in response to Beethoven’s own. More famous was his next major work, the enormous ‘Eroica’ Symphony No. 3. This was originally intended for Napoleon, whom Beethoven greatly admired as a champion of liberty; but when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven tore up the dedication.

Beethoven was a vociferous opponent of all forms of tyranny and in 1804–05 he wrote an opera on the subject. Known at first as Leonore but later as Fidelio, it deals with a man’s wrongful imprisonment and rescue by his wife. It was first performed in November 1805, but Napoleon had just invaded Vienna, and the theatre was almost empty.

Beethoven’s Repertory

Despite the disastrous première of Leonore in 1805, Beethoven revised it a few months later, and during the next three years he wrote many works that have become cornerstones of the orchestral, chamber or solo repertory, including three symphonies (Nos. 4–6), three string quartets for Count Razumovsky, two concertos, his Mass in C, the Coriolan Overture, the Cello Sonata in A, two piano trios (op. 70) and the Choral Fantasia. Many of these, like the ‘Eroica’, were on an unusually large scale. His style was continually advancing, and although some musicians felt his music to be too learned, complex, elevated or simply bizarre, he always had plenty of supporters who recognized his genius and appreciated the outstanding originality and ingenuity of his works.

By now he was performing on the piano less frequently, partly because of his deafness. In December 1808, however, he was permitted a benefit concert at which he directed several of his latest works, including his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and his Fourth Piano Concerto (in which he played the solo part). It was a huge programme that lasted four hours with the audience enduring freezing temperatures, but the music itself was greatly admired.

The Symphonies

Of all Beethoven’s works, however, it is his symphonies that have become the greatest cornerstones of the repertory. Since they were first composed, they have played a key role in orchestral programme. Building on Haydn’s example, Beethoven turned the symphony as a genre into what it has remained for almost all subsequent composers: a grand, unified structure to be regarded with awe by composer and audience alike. Whereas Haydn’s symphonies often came in batches of three or six, Beethoven’s were produced singly or, at most, in a pair. Moreover, each of his symphonies is highly individual and original, while retaining many traditional elements and typically Beet-hovenian features.

Beethoven’s originality is evident right from the first chord of No. 1 – an out-of-key discord with unusual scoring. His Third Symphony, the ‘Eroica’ (1803), embodies the concept of heroism and dwarfs all previous symphonies. Its massive first movement builds up to a ferocious climax during the development section, and its second movement is a slow, lengthy funeral march. The finale borrows its main theme from his heroic ballet Prometheus.

The Fifth (1807) is perhaps the most celebrated, with its compressed intensity built out of the famous opening motto: three short notes and a long one, the rhythm used (‘V’ for victory, in Morse Code) for broadcasts to occupied Europe in World War II. This rhythmic, fateful figure builds up into an extensive paragraph and not only introduces, but also underpins the gentle second theme. In the development section, it is reduced first to pairs of chords played by the wind and brass alternating with the strings; then it is refined still further to single chords, the music getting quieter and quieter until, eventually, a fortissimo outburst leads to the recapitulation.

The Sixth (1808), the Pastoral, could not be more different. It combines symphonic breadth with the pastoral idiom, in which each of its five movements evokes some particular aspect of the countryside which Beethoven loved so much. The Seventh (1812) is different again, with its emphasis on strong repeated rhythmic cells giving it a dance-like character.

Beethoven’s last completed symphony, the Ninth (1823), surpasses all previous ones in power and scale. Like the Fifth, it progresses from minor to major; but whereas the Fifth added trombones and piccolo for the finale, the Ninth adds solo and choral voices – never previously used in a standard symphony. As for the Tenth, it was apparently to have been a much more intimate work; but how it would have turned out, we shall never know.

A Regular Income

Since the lapsing of his salary from Bonn in 1794, Beethoven had supported himself mainly by selling compositions to publishers. He also received intermittent support from various patrons, and Prince Karl Lichnowsky granted him a small but regular payment for a few years from 1800. Beethoven would have preferred a regular position, however, and he was offered one at Kassel in 1808. His supporters in Vienna, realizing they might lose him, quickly arranged a deal whereby he would remain in the capital, supported by a regular annuity of 4,000 florins for life. Funds were provided by three aristocrats – Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Kinsky and Archduke Rudolph – and the annuity should have been sufficient to provide for all his basic needs, although its value was soon diminished somewhat by inflation. Beethoven continued with further major works during the next few years, including the ‘Emperor’ Concerto (No. 5), incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont and two more symphonies. He also embarked on a series of settings of British and continental folksong melodies, at the request of George Thomson of Edinburgh, making 179 settings altogether over a 10-year period.

Archduke Rudolph

Of all Beethoven’s aristocratic patrons, Archduke Rudolph (1788–1831) seems to have been the most devoted and enduring. Rudolph’s poor health made him unsuitable for military training and instead he entered the church. He developed a great love of music in general, and of Beethoven’s music in particular, and from about 1808 was a close friend of the composer, despite their difference in status.

In the same year that he and two other patrons granted Beethoven a lifetime annuity, Rudolph began taking composition lessons from him. Beethoven had previously refused to teach anyone composition, but it says much for Rudolph’s gentle nature and skilled arts of persuasion that Beethoven made this single exception.

Beethoven dedicated more works to Rudolph than to anyone else. Particularly noteworthy are the sonata op. 81a, ‘Les adieux’ (‘The Farewell’, 1809), written to mark his patron’s departure from and return to Vienna; the ‘Archduke’ Trio; the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata (1818), written specially for him; and the Missa solemnis, which was intended for his enthronement as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820, but was not completed in time.

The Immortal Beloved

Beethoven never married, but he was often in love in his younger days. He may have proposed to Countess Josephine Deym in 1805, and to Therese Malfatti in 1810, but if so he was refused in both cases. In 1812 he fell in love again, with a woman whose identity has never been confirmed. While on holiday in Teplitz, Bohemia, he wrote a passionate letter to her in which he does not mention her name but simply refers to her by such phrases as ‘my angel’ and ‘immortal beloved’. She was probably Antonie Brentano, a married woman with several children, who is known to have been in close contact with him that year.

In 1813 Beethoven’s productivity declined markedly, but towards the end of the year he composed Wellingtons Sieg (‘Wellington’s Victory’, often known as the ‘Battle Symphony’), which celebrated the defeat of the French army by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Vitoria. The work was originally suggested by Johann Maelzel (1772–1838), the inventor of the metronome. Beethoven later fell out with Maelzel, but was the first major composer to use metronome marks, and even provided some retro-spectively for symphonies composed several years earlier.

Family Obligations

Beethoven reached the heights of popular acclaim in 1814 with a series of politically inspired works that are little known nowadays. The following year, however, his personal life was thrown into turmoil with the death of his brother Carl. Beethoven at once attempted to become guardian to his nine-year-old nephew Karl, claiming that the boy’s mother Johanna was an unsuitable protector and role model for the boy. His claims had some justification, since she was known to be dishonest, badly educated and of poor reputation, whereas Beethoven himself always had high moral values. The result was a series of legal battles that lasted until 1820 and absorbed much of his energy, but he was eventually successful in excluding Johanna from the guardianship and Karl went to live with his famous uncle.

Meanwhile, however, his thinking was becoming increasingly profound. He displayed growing interest in religious matters, including the writings of Indian mystics. He also turned to the music of Bach for inspiration, and adopted a more complex contrapuntal style in which every instrumental line developed thematic mat-erial. His last two cello sonatas are the first works in which this late style is clearly apparent, and the final movement of No. 2 consists of a fugue, as do several other movements in his late period.

Declining Powers?

For the next few years Beethoven was plagued by frequent bouts of ill health. This was probably the main cause of a substantial fall in the number of new works produced, although other factors, such as his legal disputes, his changing domestic circumstances and his efforts to provide for his nephew, also contributed. During 1817 he composed virtually nothing, and there was to be a similar creative silence for much of 1821. He may also have been searching for a way forward in the development of his music, for he jotted down many ideas that were not brought to fruition – most notably a piano concerto in D (1815) and a piano trio in F minor (1816).

The key to progress was found in expansion. Just as his ‘Eroica’ and several works written shortly afterwards had exhibited unprecedented length, so now he embarked on a series of works in which the size and scale were expanded still further. These included the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata of 1818; the Ninth Symphony, begun in earnest about the same time; and the ‘Diabelli’ Variations and the Missa solemnis, both begun in 1819.

Resurgence

The symphony, the variations and the Mass were all set aside for a time, but were taken up again in 1822–23. Beethoven’s output, which had for some years been rather meagre, showed a sudden resurgence, as he completed his last three piano sonatas, various minor pieces, and then the three gigantic works begun earlier. For the Missa solemnis, Beethoven made a careful study of the text and then set it in a way that embodied its grandeur and depth of meaning, drawing out its implications in every possible way. The ‘Diabelli’ Variations were based on a trivial waltz tune by Anton Diabelli, who had invited all Vienna’s composers to write a single variation. While 50 other composers duly wrote their variation, Beethoven responded with 33, each developing some aspect of the theme in an unexpected way. The Ninth Symphony, besides its unprecedented length, introduces solo and choral voices in its finale, in a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s ode An die Freude (‘To Joy’). Beethoven, by now almost completely deaf, directed its première as best he could on 7 May 1824, at a concert that also included movements from his Missa solemnis.

The Late Quartets

By May 1824 Beethoven was under pressure to return to the medium of the string quartet, and he spent his next two and a half years almost entirely occupied by this genre, producing works of extraordinary originality. Three were sent to the Russian Prince Galitzin (1794–1866) – op. 127 in E flat, op. 132 in A minor, and op. 130 in B flat – and two more followed (op. 131 in C sharp minor and op. 135 in F). Here Beethoven employed what he called ‘a new kind of part­writing’, in which all the instruments have melodic interest and the motivic material is shared out in novel and unexpected ways.

Beethoven also explored structural and formal innovations: the finale of op. 130, for example, was a massive fugue that rather dwarfed the rest of the quartet, and he eventually replaced it by a new finale of more normal size, publishing the original one separately as Grosse Fuge (‘Great Fugue’). He then embarked on a string quintet, but by now his health was failing. A strained relationship with his nephew had led to the latter attempting suicide in August 1826, and he left to join the army the following January. Beethoven remained in bed, suffering from dropsy and liver failure, and finally died on 26 March 1827.

Continuity and Ending

Beethoven was the first composer to realize the full implications of the fact that a piece of music, like a good story, should have a good ending and a sense of narrative continuity. First, his music tends to have a great sense of rhythmic drive and momentum. Secondly, although movements in Beethoven’s day customarily were divided into sections, he was constantly seeking ways of smoothing over the joins. This striving for continuity increasingly resulted in links between whole movements: many of his slow movements lack a full termination but run straight on into the finale, and in his later works he sometimes linked other movements.

Even where movements were kept separate, Beethoven often created subtle motivic relationships between them. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Fifth Symphony, where the opening four-note motif not only generates most of the thematic material for the first movement, but is echoed in various ways in each of the subsequent movements. The Fifth Symphony is also a prime example of an overall trajectory that spans the entire work, progressing from minor to major, from darkness to light, from the anguish of the opening movement to the triumph of the finale.

Beethoven was the first composer to be fully aware of, and to solve, the ‘finale problem’ that plagued so many of his predecessors, where the last movement needs to create a sense of satisfactory completion and achievement. He also treated endings of individual movements as particularly important, often writing a lengthy coda to provide a kind of summing up, in which unstable elements heard earlier were somehow rounded off: a rhythmic pattern would perhaps be reversed, or an incomplete melodic shape finally extended to its natural conclusion. Whatever the means, the last bar always possesses an unmistakable air of finality.

Vocal Music

There is a widespread misconception that Beethoven did not write much for the voice, that what he did produce is not very good, and that much of it is virtually unsingable. In view of the enormous amount of attention that has been given to his instrumental music, such notions are understandable, but they are far from the truth. Beethoven composed vocal music at every stage of his life, and the total amount is considerable.

Among his larger works are two Masses, an oratorio, an opera, two Singspiels, three large-scale cantatas, several smaller cantatas such as the beautiful Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’, 1815), and some individual concert arias such as Ah! Perfido (‘Ah! Treacherous One’, 1796). There are also about 90 songs, including the first proper song cycle for voice and piano, An die ferne Geliebte (‘To the Distant Beloved’, 1816), and nearly all were written before any of Schubert’s. To these can be added numerous folksong settings, and about 40 short canons for two or more voices.

Many of these works are extremely fine. The Missa solemnis was described by Beethoven himself, with some justification, as his greatest work, and its combination of profundity and directness is unsurpassed. Even his folksong settings, which were neglected or disparaged for many years, have proved on closer inspection to be outstandingly innovative and well crafted.

Beethoven always made great efforts to capture both the rhythm and the meaning of the words. This sometimes prompted him to extreme solutions – hence the allegations of difficulty; but his instrumental music is equally challenging for performers. In both instrumental and vocal music, the difficulties are not there for their own sake, but because he wanted to stretch his ideas to the limits of human capability.

Beethoven’s Inspiration

One of the most significant early influences on Beethoven’s music was his teacher Christian Neefe, who gave him instruction in theory and composition. Neefe was probably responsible for some of the loftiness of aim that permeates Beethoven’s music. So, too, was J. S. Bach, whose Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) Beethoven learned under Neefe’s instruction. The Bachian ideal re-emerged perhaps even more profoundly during Beethoven’s late period, when he even contemplated writing an overture on the notes B-A-C-H (H is the German for b natural; B denotes b flat).

The two main composers in whose footsteps Beethoven followed, however, were those other classical greats Mozart and Haydn. Much of Beethoven’s vocal and wind writing is indebted to Mozart, while his ingenious manipulation and development of small motifs is based on Haydn’s example. In general Mozart’s influence is clearer in opera and concerto, Haydn’s in symphony and string quartet. Beethoven also became a great admirer of Handel – especially his ability to create great movements out of the simplest materials, a skill that is evident in many of Beethoven’s works.

Beethoven in turn became an enormous in­fluence on many succeeding composers. Poetic works such as his Pastoral Symphony (No. 6, 1808) were to inspire Hector Berlioz (1803–69) and Franz Liszt (1811–86) among others, while the grandeur of the ‘Choral’ Symphony (No. 9, 1823) paved the way for Gustav Mahler (1860–1911). His song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (‘To the Distant Beloved’, 1816) was the first of many written by the composer in this genre.

Meanwhile Beethoven’s ‘pure’ music, such as his beautiful string quartets and most of his dramatic and enduring symphonies, provided models for such composers as Robert Schumann (1810–56) and Johannes Brahms (1833–97) and for twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Michael Tippett (1905–98) and Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943). There can be no doubt that without Beethoven, the history of music in the last two centuries would have been very different.

Recommended Recording

Symphonies Nos 5 & 7, Vienna PO (cond) Carlos Kleiber (Deutsche Grammophon)

Pronunciation

Ludwig van Beethoven (Bat’-ho-fan, Lood’-wig Van)

Links

(Updated extract from The Classical Music Encyclopedia, Edited by Stanley Sadie, Foreword by Vladimir Ashekenazy), Flame Tree Publishing, new edition 2014). Available in all good bookstores, on Amazon and our own website (with free shipping) here.

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2013 by in Beethoven, Biography.

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