Composer Profile: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

“Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.”
– Count Waldstein’s farewell note to Beethoven, 1792

Although his talent had been obvious since childhood, and developed (often with what would today be regarded as excessive harshness) from his early years, Beethoven’s career didn’t really get started until 1792, when he left his hometown of Bonn in Cologne to study with Haydn in Vienna. By that time Mozart was already dead, and those who were familiar with his work viewed Beethoven as his natural successor. Although Beethoven certainly honoured this expectation stylistically in the early part of his career, it is clear that he was possessed of a confidence and determination unknown to his more self-effacing predecessor. Beethoven knew his worth and was unwilling to accept anything less than his due.

Beethoven as a young man by Carl Traugott
Beethoven as a young man by Charles Traugott.

Beethoven is famous for being deaf, and based on his surviving letters his hearing had already begun to decline by 1801 (Beethoven himself blamed it on a fit of rage he suffered after being interrupted in his work sometime in 1798 – he fell over, and when he got up he was deaf. While he initially regained partial hearing he was afflicted with tinnitus from that point onwards). He ceased performing publically in 1811, was almost completely deaf by 1814, and in 1824, at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, had to be turned around to see the applause of the public, which he could not hear any more than he could hear the music which he had just conducted.

In other words, his hearing declined as his reputation grew and his distinct style emerged. The period from roughly 1803 to 1812 or 1814 marked his ‘heroic’ period, when he composed music on a grand scale, including his Third Symphony, Eroica. It is towards the end of this period that Beethoven seems to have reached an emotional crisis point, perhaps caused by a combination of his declining hearing, his inability to marry the woman he loved (Josephine Brunsvick, a member of the aristocracy), and family problems. This was when he ‘let himself go’, resulting, among other things, in the disheveled appearance and wild hair which today is an integral part of any visual impression we have of him. These problems, along with a decline in physical health, would dog him for the next few years.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler 1820
Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

The final decade of Beethoven’s life is referred to as the ‘late period’. At this time he returned his attention to the work of the Baroque composers, such as Bach, but also developed what today is identified as an increasingly Romantic style: music filled with passion and emotion, including his final Ninth Symphony. His audience was both intrigued and confused, and in a few cases repelled, by this new sound.

Beethoven fell ill again in late 1826, and died in March 1827. Around 20,000 people attended his funeral.

Beethoven is most famous today for his symphonies and piano music, particularly Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise. He also composed chamber music, concertos, several masses, and an opera, Fidelio, as well as a number of other works.

Everyone’s heard of Beethoven, but do you have a favourite piece?

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