Ludwig van Beethoven (English ;, 16 December 1770 - 26 March 1827) was a German composer and pianist. He was a crucial figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western classical music, and remains one of the most acclaimed and influential composers of all time.
Born in Bonn, then in the Electorate of Cologne in western Germany, he moved to Vienna in his early twenties and settled there, studying with Joseph Haydn and quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. Beethoven's hearing gradually deteriorated beginning in his twenties, yet he continued to compose, and to conduct and perform, even after he was completely deaf.
Beethoven was the grandson of a musician of Flemish origin who was also named Ludwig van Beethoven (1712–1773). As of 1733 the elder Ludwig had served as a bass singer in the court of the Elector of Cologne. He rose through the ranks of the musical establishment, eventually becoming Kapellmeister (music director). The elder Ludwig had one son, Johann van Beethoven (1740–1792), who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment, also giving lessons on piano and violin to supplement his income.
Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn in December 1770, and was baptized on 17 December 1770. Children of that era were usually baptized the day after birth, but there is no documentary evidence that this occurred in Beethoven's case. It is known that his family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on 16 December. Thus, while the evidence supports the probability that 16 December 1770 was Beethoven's date of birth, this cannot be stated with certainty.  Of the seven children born to Johann Beethoven, only second-born Ludwig and two younger brothers survived infancy. Caspar Anton Carl was born in 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, the youngest, was born in 1776.
Beethoven's first music teacher was his father. A traditional belief concerning Johann is that he was a harsh instructor, and that the child Beethoven, "made to stand at the keyboard, was often in tears." Concerning this, the New Grove indicates that there is no solid documentation to support it, and asserts that "speculation and myth-making have both been productive." Beethoven had other local teachers as well: the court organist van den Eeden, Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer (a family friend, who taught Beethoven piano), and a relative, Franz Rovantini (violin and viola). His musical talent manifested itself early—apparently he was advanced enough to perform at the age of nine, not seven as popularly believed. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart's successes in this area, attempted unsuccessfully to exploit his son as a child prodigy. It was Johann who falsified Beethoven's actual age (which was seven) for six 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, first on an unpaid basis (1781), and then as 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, were published in 1783. Maximilian Frederick, who died in 1784, not long after Beethoven's appointment as assistant organist, had noticed Beethoven's talent early, and had subsidized and encouraged the young Beethoven's musical studies.
In 1787 another of Beethoven's early patrons, Count Waldstein, enabled him to travel to Vienna for the first time, hoping to study with Mozart. Scholars disagree on the authenticity of a story whereby Beethoven is said to have played for Mozart and impressed him; see Mozart and Beethoven. After just two months in Vienna, Beethoven learned that his mother was severely ill, and he was forced to return home. His mother died shortly thereafter, and the 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.
In 1789, he succeeded in obtaining a legal order by which half of his father's salary was paid directly to him for support of the family. Another source of income was payment for Beethoven's service as a violist in the court orchestra. This familiarized Beethoven with three of Mozart's operas performed at court in this period.
With the Elector's help, Beethoven moved again to Vienna in 1792. Beethoven did not immediately set out to establish himself as a composer, but rather devoted himself to study and to piano performance. Working under the direction of Joseph Haydn, he sought to master counterpoint, and he also took violin lessons.
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 the instruction in counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and other teachers. Although his stipend from the Elector expired, a number of Viennese noblemen had already recognized his ability and offered him financial support, among them Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowicz, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and Baron Gottfried van Swieten.
By 1793, Beethoven established a reputation in Vienna as a piano virtuoso and improviser in the salons of the nobility, often playing the preludes and fugues of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Beethoven's first public performance in Vienna was in 1795, with his Second (or perhaps First) Piano Concerto. In the same year he saw the publication of the first of his compositions to which he assigned an opus number, the piano trios of Opus 1.
During his early career as a composer, Beethoven concentrated first on works for piano solo, then string quartets, symphonies, and other genres. This was a pattern he was to repeat in the "late" period of his career. Twelve of Beethoven's famous series of 32 piano sonatas date from before 1802, and could be considered early-period works; of these, the most celebrated today is probably the "Pathétique", Op. 13. The first six quartets were published as a set (Op. 18) in 1800, and the First and Second Symphonies premiered in 1800 and 1802. By 1800, with the premiere of his First Symphony, Beethoven was already considered one of the most important of a generation of young composers who followed after Haydn and Mozart.
All musical authorities agree that Beethoven's early work was closely modeled on that of Haydn and Mozart. However, Beethoven's own musical personality is still very much evident even at this stage. This is seen, for instance, in his frequent use of the musical dynamic sforzando, found even in the early "Kurfürst" sonatas for piano that Beethoven wrote as a child. Some of the longer piano sonatas of the 1790s are written in a rather discursive style quite unlike their models, making use of the so-called "three-key exposition".
In this time he settled into a career pattern he would follow for the remainder of his life: rather than working for the church or a noble court (as most composers before him had done), he supported himself through a combination of annual stipends or single gifts from members of the aristocracy; income from subscription concerts, concerts, and lessons; and proceeds from sales of his works.
Beethoven had few students. From 1801 to 1805, he tutored Ferdinand Ries, who would go on to become a composer and later published Beethoven remembered, a book about their encounters.
Carl Czerny studied with Beethoven from 1801 to 1803. He went on to become a renowned music teacher himself, taking on Franz Liszt as one of his students. He also gave the Vienna premiere of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" in 1812.
Perhaps Beethoven's most important aristocratic patron was Archduke Rudolph, youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, who in 1803 or 1804 began to study piano and composition with Beethoven. The two became friends, and their meetings continued until 1824. Beethoven dedicated 14 compositions to Rudolph, including the Archduke Trio (1811) and his great Missa Solemnis (1823). Rudolph, in turn, dedicated one of his own compositions to Beethoven. The letters Beethoven wrote to Rudolph are today kept at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.
Other important patrons were Prince Lichnowsky, with whom Beethoven had a falling out in 1806, Count Franz Joseph Kinsky, and Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz.
In the fall 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 Rudolf, Count Kinsky and Prince Lobkowitz, after receiving representations from the composer's friends, pledged to pay Beethoven a pension of 4000 florins a year. Only Archduke Rudolf paid his share of the pension on the agreed date. Kinsky, immediately called to duty as an officer, did not contribute and soon died after falling from his horse. Lobkowitz stopped paying in September 1811. No successors came forward to continue the patronage, and Beethoven relied mostly on selling composition rights and a smaller pension after 1815.
Around 1796, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a "ringing" in his ears that made it hard for him to perceive and appreciate music; he also avoided conversation. The cause of Beethoven's deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The oldest explanation, from the autopsy of the time, is that he had a "distended inner ear" which developed lesions over time.
Russell Martin has shown from analysis done on a sample of Beethoven's hair that there were alarmingly high levels of lead in Beethoven's system. High concentrations of lead can lead to bizarre and erratic behaviour, including rages. Another symptom of lead poisoning is deafness. In Beethoven's time, lead was used widely without an understanding of the damage it could lead to: for sweetening wine, in finishes on porcelain, and even in medicines. The investigation of this link was detailed in the book, Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved. However, while the likelihood of lead poisoning is very high, the deafness associated with it seldom takes the form that Beethoven exhibited.
He lived for a time in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. Here he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, which records his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Over time, his hearing loss became profound: 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 began to weep. Beethoven's hearing loss did not prevent his composing music, but it made concerts - lucrative sources of income - increasingly hard. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 (the "Emperor"), he never performed in public again.
Beethoven used a special rod attached to the soundboard on a piano that he could bite - the vibrations would then transfer from the piano to his jaw to increase his perception of the sound. A large collection of his hearing aids such as special ear horns can be viewed at the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, Germany. Despite his obvious distress, however, Carl Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. By 1814 however, Beethoven was almost totally deaf, and when a group of visitors saw him play a loud arpeggio or thundering bass notes at his piano remarking, "Ist es nicht schön?" (Isn't that beautiful?), they felt deep sympathy considering his courage and sense of humor.
As a result of Beethoven's hearing loss, a unique historical record has been preserved: his conversation books. His friends wrote in the book 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 issues, and give insights into his thinking; they are a source for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed, and also his perception of his relationship to art. Unfortunately, 264 out of a total of 400 conversation books were destroyed (and others were altered) after Beethoven's death by Anton Schindler, in his attempt to paint an idealized picture of the composer.
Around 1802 Beethoven declared "I am but lately little satisfied with my works, I shall take a new way." The first major work of this new way was the "Eroica" Symphony No. 3 in E flat. While other composers had written symphonies with implied programs, or stories, this symphony was longer and larger in scope than any other written. It made huge demands on the players, because at that time there were few orchestras devoted to concert music that were independent of royal or aristocratic patrons, and hence performance standards at concerts were often haphazard. Nevertheless, it was a success.
The Eroica was one of the first works of Beethoven's so-called "Middle period", or "Heroic Period", a time when Beethoven composed highly ambitious works, often heroic in tone, that extended the scope of the classical musical language Beethoven had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The Middle period work includes the Third through Eighth Symphonies, the string quartets 7–11, the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, his only oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto and many other compositions. During this time Beethoven earned his living partly from the sale and performance of his work, and partly from subsidies granted by various wealthy nobles who recognized his ability.
The work of the Middle period established Beethoven's reputation as a great composer. In a review from 1810, he was enshrined by E. T. A. Hoffman as one of the three great "Romantic" composers; Hoffman called Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "one of the most important works of the age".A particular trauma for Beethoven occurred during this period in 1809, when the attacking forces of Napoleon bombarded Vienna. 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. He was composing the "Emperor" Concerto at the time.
The Middle period ended with a flourish around 1812, with the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the third—and at last, successful—version of Fidelio. It was around this time that Beethoven's popularity with the contemporary public reached its apogee, and he was almost universally regarded as the greatest of living composers.
Beethoven never married, although he was engaged to Giulietta Guiccardi. Her father was the main obstacle to their marriage. Giulietta's marriage to a nobleman was unhappy, and when it ended in 1822, she attempted unsuccessfully to return to Beethoven.
His only other documented love affair with an identified woman began in 1805 with Josephine von Brunswick, young widow of the Graf von Deym. It is believed the relationship ended by 1807 because of Beethoven's indecisiveness and the disapproval of Josephine's aristocratic family.
On 15 November 1815 Beethoven's brother Karl van Beethoven died of consumption leaving a son, Karl, Beethoven's nephew. Although Beethoven had apparently shown little interest in the boy up to this point, he now became obsessed with obtaining custody of this nine-year old child from his mother, Johanna — whom Beethoven despised and considered an unfit parent. The fight for custody of his nephew brought out the very worst aspects of Beethoven's character. In the lengthy court cases Beethoven stopped at nothing to ensure that he achieved this goal. During this time Beethoven stopped composing for long periods.
The Austrian court system had one court for the nobility, The R&I Landrechte, and another for commoners, The Civil Court of the Magistrate. Beethoven disguised the fact that the Dutch "van" in his name did not denote nobility as does the German "von", and his case was tried in the Landrechte. Owing to his influence with the court, Beethoven felt assured of a favorable outcome. Beethoven was awarded sole guardianship. While giving evidence to the Landrechte, however, Beethoven inadvertently admitted that he was not nobly born. The case was transferred to the Magistracy on 18 December 1818, where he lost sole guardianship.
Beethoven appealed, and regained custody of Karl. Johanna's appeal for justice to the Emperor was not successful: the Emperor "washed his hands of the matter". Beethoven stopped at nothing to blacken her name, as can be read in surviving court papers. When Karl could stand his tyrannical uncle no longer, he attempted suicide on 31 July 1826 by shooting himself in the head. He survived, and later asked to be taken to his mother's house.
There soon followed a deep crisis in Beethoven's personal life, and possibly in his artistic life as well. His output dropped, and one critic even wrote that "the composing of great works seems behind him". The few works that date from this period are often of an experimental character. They include the song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte" and the piano sonata Opus 90, works which inspired later generations of Romantic composers. This period also produced the extraordinarily expressive, but almost incoherent, song "An die Hoffnung" (Opus 94).
Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel, then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed "The Consecration of the House" overture, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate his new influences. But it is when he returned to the keyboard to compose his first new piano sonatas in almost a decade, that a new style, now called his "late period", emerged.
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 quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, perhaps Beethoven's best known work.
Beethoven then turned to writing string quartets on a commission from Prince Nikolay Golitsin of St. Petersburg. The war between Austria and France had devastated his finances, and the Prince was to pay an honorarium of 50 gold ducats per quartet. This series of quartets, known as the "Late Quartets", would go far beyond what either musicians or audiences were ready for at that time. One musician commented that "we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is." Composer Louis Spohr called them "indecipherable, uncorrected horrors," though that opinion has changed considerably from the time of their first bewildered reception. They would continue to inspire musicians and composers, from Richard Wagner to Béla Bartók, for their unique forms and ideas.Of the late quartets, Beethoven's favourite was the Fourteenth Quartet, op. 131 in C# minor, upon hearing which Schubert is said to have remarked, "After this, what is left for us to write?"
Beethoven wrote the last quartets amidst failing health. In 1821, a bad case of jaundice afflicted him, a sign of his impending liver failure. In April 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. The illness—or more precisely, Beethoven's 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". Beethoven went on to complete the (misnumbered) Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth Quartets.
The last work completed by Beethoven was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet, deemed necessary to replace the difficult Grosse Fuge. Shortly thereafter (December 1826), illness struck again, with episodes of vomiting and diarrhea that nearly ended his life.
See main article: Death of Beethoven.
After Beethoven lost custody of his nephew, he went into a decline that led to his death on Monday 26 March 1827 during a thunderstorm.
Viennese pathologist and forensic expert Christian Reiter (head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Vienna Medical University) claimed that Beethoven's physician, Andreas Wawruch, inadvertently hastened Beethoven's death. According to Reiter, Wawruch worsened Beethoven's already lead poisoned condition with lead poultices applied after repeated surgical draining of his bloated abdomen. Reiter's hypothesis, however, is at odds with Wawruch's written instruction "that the wound was kept dry all the time". Furthermore human hair is a very bad biomarker for lead contamination and Reiter's hypothesis must be considered dubious, because of the lack of proper scholarly documentation in his article.
Unlike Mozart, who was buried in a common grave (as was the custom at the time), 20,000 Viennese citizens lined the streets at Beethoven's funeral on 29 March 1827. Franz Schubert was a torch bearer. Beethoven was buried in the Währing cemetery, west of Vienna. His remains were moved in 1888 to Vienna's Zentralfriedhof.
Beethoven's personal life was troubled due to his encroaching deafness which led him to contemplate suicide (documented in his Heiligenstadt Testament). Beethoven was often irascible and may have suffered from bipolar disorder and irritability brought on by chronic abdominal pain beginning in his twenties that has been attributed to his lead poisoning. Nevertheless, he had a close and devoted circle of friends all his life, thought to have been attracted by his reputed strength of personality. Towards the end of his life, Beethoven's friends competed in their efforts to help him cope with his incapacities.
Sources show Beethoven's disdain for authority, and for social rank. He stopped performing at the piano if the audience chatted among themselves, or afforded him less than their full attention. At soirées, he refused to perform if suddenly called upon to do so. Eventually, after many confrontations, the Archduke Rudolph decreed that the usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven.
Beethoven was attracted to the ideals of the Enlightenment. In 1804, when Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear, Beethoven took hold of the title-page of his Third Symphony and scratched the name Bonaparte out so violently that he made a hole in the paper. He later changed the work's title to "Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uom" ("Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man"), and he rededicated it to his patron, Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, at whose palace it was first performed.
Scholars disagree about Beethoven's religious beliefs, and about the role they played in his work: see Ludwig van Beethoven's religious beliefs. It has been asserted, but not proven, that Beethoven was a Freemason.
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 18th century musical classicism to 19th century romanticism, and his influence on subsequent generations of composers was profound.
Beethoven composed in a fairly wide variety of musical genres, and for a fairly wide variety of instrument combinations. His works for symphony orchestra include nine symphonies (of which the Ninth includes a chorus), and about a dozen pieces of "occasional" music. He wrote nine concerti for one or more soloists and orchestra, as well as four shorter works that include soloists accompanied by orchestra. Fidelio is the only opera he wrote; vocal works including orchestral accompaniment include two masses and a number of shorter works.
His work for piano was extensive; 32 piano sonatas, and numerous shorter works, including arrangements (for piano solo or piano duet) 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.
The amount of chamber music produced by Beethoven was notable. In addition to the 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 a variety of combinations of wind instruments.
Beethoven's compositional career is usually divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. In this scheme, his early period is taken to last until about 1802, the middle period from about 1803 to about 1814, and the late period from about 1815.
In his Early period, Beethoven's work was strongly influenced by his predecessors Haydn and Mozart, but he also explored new directions and gradually expanded the scope and ambition of his work. Some important pieces from the Early period are the first and second symphonies, the set of six string quartets Opus 18, the first two piano concertos, and the first dozen or so piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique sonata, Op. 13
His Middle (Heroic) period began shortly after Beethoven's personal crisis brought on by his recognition of encroaching deafness. It is noted for large-scale works that express heroism and struggle. Middle-period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3 - 8), the last three piano concertos, the Triple Concerto and violin concerto, five string quartets (Nos. 7 - 11), several piano sonatas (including the Moonlight, Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas), the Kreutzer violin sonata and Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.
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. The String Quartet, Op. 131 has seven linked movements, and the Ninth Symphony adds choral forces to the orchestra in the last movement. Other compositions from this period include the Missa Solemnis, the last five string quartets (including the massive Grosse Fuge) and the last five piano sonatas.
. Maynard Solomon. Beethoven. 2nd revised. New York. Schirmer Books. 2001. 0-8256-7268-6.