Beethoven born in December 17 1770 at Bonn. His family originated from Brabant, in Belgium. His father was a musician at the court of Bonn, with a definite weakness for alcohol. His mother was always described as a gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart. Beethoven referred to her as his “best friend.” The Beethoven family consisted of seven children, but only the three boys survived, of whom Ludwig was the eldest.
At an early age, van Beethoven, took an interest in music and his father taught him day and night, on returning to the house from music practice or the tavern. Without a doubt, the child was gifted and his father Johann envisioned creating a new Mozart, a child prodigy.
On March 26 1778, at the age of 7 ½, Ludwig Van Beethoven gave his first public performance at Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years-old. Because of this Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was. Even much later, when he received a copy of his baptism certificate, he thought it belonged to his brother Ludwig Maria, who was born two years before him and died as a child.
The musical and teaching talents of Johann were limited. Soon Ludwig learned music, notably the organ and composition by renowned musicians such as Gottlob Neefe. Neefe recognized how extraordinarily talented Beethoven was and not only did Neefe teach him music, but he made the works of philosophers, ancient and modern, known to Beethoven as well.
In 1782, before the age of 12, Beethoven published his first work, 9 Variations in C Minor for piano on a march by Earnst Christoph Dressler (WoO 63). The following year, in 1783, Neefe wrote in the Magazine of Music, about his student. “If he continues like this, he will be, without a doubt, the new Mozart.”
In June 1784, on Neefe’s recommendations Ludwig Van Beethoven was appointed organist of the court of Maximillian Franz, the Elector of Cologne. Beethoven was 14 years old. This post enabled him to frequent new social circles, other than those of his father and family. Here he met people who were to remain his friends for the rest of his life: The Ries family, the Von Breuning family, and the charming Elenore, Karl Amenda, the violinist, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a doctor, and a dear friend who also went to Vienna.
At home, little by little, Ludwig replaced his father. First of all financially, because Johann, who was often under the influence of alcohol, was less and less capable of keeping up his role at the court. The young Beethoven felt responsible for his two younger brothers, an idea he kept for the rest of his life, sometimes to the extent of being excessive.
Prince Maximillian Franz was also aware of Beethoven’s music and so he sent Beethoven to Vienna, in 1787, to meet Mozart and further his musical education. Vienna was, after all, the capital city in terms of culture and music. There exist only texts of disputable authenticity on the subject of this meeting between Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart is thought to have said “don’t forget his name – you will hear it spoken often!”
A letter called Beethoven back to Bonn, his mother was dying. The only person in his family with whom he had developed a strong and loving relationship with, passed away on July 17 1787.
Five years later, in 1792, Ludwig Van Beethoven went back to Vienna, benefiting from another grant, for two years, by the Prince Elector, again to pursue his musical education. He never went back to the town of his birth. His friend Waldstein, wrote to him, “you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands…”
At Vienna, the young musician took lessons with Haydyn, then with Albrechtsberger and Salieri. He captured the attention of, and astonished Vienna with his virtuosity and his improvisations on piano. In 1794, Beethoven composed Opus 1, the Trios for Piano. The following year, Ludwig Van Beethoven made his first public performance at Vienna (an “Academy”) where each musician played his own work. Then followed a tour: Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin, before leaving for a concert in Budapest.
Beethoven made numerous acquaintances at Vienna. Everybody in the musical and aristocratic world admired the young composer. These music-lovers were Beethoven’s greatest supporters. He became angry regularly with one or another of them, often making honorable amends soon afterwards. His talent excused his excessive, impulsive behavior.
In 1800, Beethoven organized a new concert at Vienna including, notably, the presentation of his first symphony. Although today we find this work classical, and close to the works of Mozart and Haydn, at the time certain listeners found the symphony strange, overly extravagant, and even risqué’. This genius, Beethoven, who was still a young, new composer, was already pushing the established boundaries of music.
In 1801 Beethoven confessed to his friends at Bonn that he was afraid he was slowly going deaf. At Heiligenstadt in 1802 he wrote a famous text expressing his disgust at the unfairness of life: that he, a musician, could become deaf was something he did not want to live through. However, music made him carry on and he wrote that he knew that he still had many other musical domains to explore, discover, and to pass on. Beethoven did not commit suicide. Knowing that his handicap was getting worse and worse, he threw himself into his greatest Beethoven music; Sonatas for Piano (notably The Storm, Opus 31), the second and the third symphonies– The Eroica and of course many more.
Beethoven wrote his third symphony in honor of a great man, Bonaparte. He was seen as the liberator of the people, opening a door to hope during the French Revolution. When the First Consul declared himself Emperor, Beethoven became enraged and scowled out Bonaparte’s name from the score.
On April 7 1805, the Eroica symphony was played for the first time.
Meanwhile, Beethoven had finally finished his opera, Leonore, the only opera he ever wrote. He wrote and re-wrote four different overtures. The name of the opera therefore, changed to Fidelio, against the wishes of the composer. November 20th 1805 was the date of the opening performance before a small audience of French officers. This was because Napoleon, head of the army, had captured Vienna for the first time. This happened again in 1809.
In the years that followed, the creative activity of the composer became intense. He composed many symphonies, amongst which were the Pastoral, the Coriolan Overture, and the famous Letter for Elise. He took on many students that he found young and attractive, and he therefore fell in love with several of them. The Archbishop, Rudolph, brother of the emperor, also became his student, his friend, and eventually one of his benefactors.
In 1809, Beethoven wanted to leave Vienna, at the invitation of Jerome Bonaparte. His long-standing friend, the Countess Anna Marie Erdody, kept him at Vienna with the help of his wealthiest admirers: the Archbishop Rudolph, the Prince Lobkowitz, and the Prince Kinsky. These men gave Beethoven and annual grant of 4000 florins, allowing him to live without financial constraint. The only condition was that Beethoven was not to leave Vienna. Beethoven accepted. This grant made him the world’s first independent composer. Before this contract musicians and composers alike (even Bach, Mozart, and Haydn), became servants in the houses of wealthy aristocratic families. They were thus part of the domestic staff, with no more rights than any other, but with the added task of composition and performance. Thus, for the musician of the day, Beethoven had outstanding circumstances and he was free to write what he wanted, when he wanted, under command or not, as he pleased.
In 1812, Beethoven went for hydrotherapy at Teplitz, where he wrote his ardent letter to “The Immortal Beloved.” This letter was found in a secret drawer with the Heiligenstadt Testament, and has led to theories and speculation by researchers and biographers ever since. Numerous women amongst his students and friends have been proposed as the recipient of this letter. Unless a new document is discovered (perhaps within the possessions of a private collector) it is likely that the truth about this mysterious woman will remain unknown. See the movie about Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved.
At the end of July 1812, Beethoven was introduced to Goethe by Bettina Brentano. These two great men admired each other, but didn’t understand each other. The composer found the poet too servile, and the poet thought that Beethoven was “completely untamed.” Beethoven admired Goethe; he put music to several of his poems. There will always be regret that Beethoven was not better understood by Goethe.
Then one of his benefactors, the Prince Lobkowitz, fell into financial difficulty and the Prince Kinski died from falling off his horse. Kinski’s descendant decided to put an end to the financial obligations towards Beethoven. This started one of the composer’s many attempts at saving his financial independence.
The Czech, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, contacted Beethoven. Genius inventor and probable inventor of the metronome, Maelzel had already met Beethoven and had created various devices to help Beethoven with his hearing: acoustic cornets, a listening system linking up to the piano, etc. In 1813, Beethoven composed “The Victory of Wellington,” a work written for a mechanical instrument made by Maelzel, the “pan harmonica” (or “pan harmonicon”). But it was above all the metronome, which helped evolve music and Beethoven, who had taken interest straight away, noted scrupulously the markings on his scores, so that his music could be played how he wished.
The academy of 1814 regrouped his work, as well as the seventh and eighth symphonies. This was also the time of the re-writing of Lenore as Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera. This work eventually became successful with the public.
Then the Congress of Vienna met, which brought together all the heads of state to decide the future of Europe after Napoleon. This was one of Beethoven’s moments of glory. He was invited to play many times, bringing him recognition and admiration which made him very proud.
On November 15 1815, Kaspar Karl, Beethoven’s brother, died. He left behind his wife, whom Ludwig referred to as “The queen of the night” due to her activities, as well as a 9 year old son, Karl. Here Beethoven’s life was to change dramatically. His brother had written that he wished Karl’s guardianship to be exercised by both his wife and his brother, Ludwig. Beethoven took this role very seriously, but the 45 year-old celibate, who could no longer hear, found it difficult to live with and understand a child and then a young man. This cohabitation was the cause of a new trial against the mother of the child, a generation conflict and numerous troubles.
In 1816, Carl Czerny (future teacher of Franz Liszt and once Beethoven’s student) became Karl’s music teacher, but didn’t find as much talent in the boy as Beethoven hoped he would possess. At this time he ended his cycle of lieder “To the distant loved one, and drafted the first theme for his ninth symphony.
Two years later, the Archduke Rudolph became Cardinal and Beethoven began composing his mass in D. It was never ready for the intonation, but the work was rich beyond compare.
Gioachino Rossini triumphed in Vienna in 1822, where he met Beethoven again. The language barrier and Beethoven’s deafness meant that they could only exchange brief words. The Viennese composer tolerated Italian opera only in moderation, he found it lacked seriousness.
The ninth symphony was practically finished in 1823, the same year as the Missa Solemnis. Liszt, who was 11, met Beethoven who came to his concerto on April 13th. He congratulated the young virtuoso heartily who, years later, transcribed the entirety of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano.
May 7 1824 was the date of the first playing of the ninth symphony and despite the musical difficulties, and problems in the sung parts, it was a success. Unfortunately it was not financially rewarding. Financial problems constantly undermined the composer. He always had money saved, but he was keeping it for his nephew.
Then began the period of the last quartets of Beethoven music, which are still difficult even for today’s audience, who knows how to interpret his other works. He started to compose his tenth symphony.
In 1826, Beethoven caught a cold coming back from his brother’s place, with whom he had argued again. The illness complicated other health problems that Beethoven had suffered from all his life. He passed away surrounded by his closest friends on March 26 1827, just as a storm broke out.
The funeral rites took place at the church of the Holy Trinity. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people attended. Franz Schubert, timid and a huge admirer of Beethoven, without ever having become close to him, was one of the coffin bearers, along with other musicians. Schubert died the next year and was buried next to Beethoven.
The actor, Heinrich Anschutz, read the funeral prayer written by Franz Grillparzer, a great writer, in front of the doors of the Wahring cemetery, now Schubert Park.
– Famous Works
1st Symphony (1800)
2nd Symphony (1803)
3rd Symphony – Eroica (1805)
4th Symphony (1807)
5th Symphony | 6th Symphony – Pastoral (1808)
7th Symphony (1813)
8th Symphony – 3rd and final version of Fidelio (1814)
9th Symphony – Choral (1824)