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 respected and influential composers of all time.
Born in Bonn, then in the Electorate of Cologne (now in modern-day 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's parents were Johann van Beethoven (1740 in Bonn–1792) and Maria Magdalena Keverich (1744 in Ehrenbreitstein–1787). Magdalena's father Johann Heinrich Keverich had been Chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier at Festung Ehrenbreitstein fortress opposite to Koblenz. Beethoven was, like their first child Ludwig Maria, named after his grandfather Ludwig (1712–1773), a musician of Roman Catholic Flemish ancestry who was at one time Kapellmeister at the court of Clemens August of Bavaria, the Prince-Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, and who married Beethoven's grandmother Maria Josepha Ball (1714–1775) in 1733.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Electorate of Cologne, in 1770. Of the seven children born to Johann Beethoven, himself the only survivor of three, only second-born Ludwig and two younger brothers survived infancy. Beethoven was baptized on 17 December 1770. Although his birth date is not known for certain, his family celebrated his birthday on 16 December.
Beethoven's first music teacher was his father, who was a tenor in the service of the Electoral court at Bonn. He was reportedly a harsh instructor. Johann later engaged a friend, Tobias Pfeiffer, to preside over his son's musical training, and it is said Johann and his friend would at times come home late from a night of drinking to pull young Ludwig out of bed to practice until morning. Beethoven's talent was recognized at a very early age, and by 1778 he was studying the organ and viola in addition to the piano. His most important teacher in Bonn was Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was the Court's Organist. Neefe helped Beethoven publish his first composition: a set of keyboard variations.
The young Beethoven's talent was spotted in Bonn by Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein, who became one of his early patrons and, in 1787, enabled him to travel to Vienna for the first time, in hopes of studying with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is not clear whether he succeeded in meeting Mozart or, if he did, whether Mozart was willing to accept him as a pupil; see Mozart and Beethoven. In any event, the declining health of Beethoven's mother, dying of tuberculosis, forced him to return home after only about two weeks in Vienna. Beethoven's mother died on 17 July 1787, when Beethoven was 16.
Due to his father's worsening alcohol addiction, Beethoven became responsible for raising his two younger brothers.
Beethoven’s patrons loved his music but were not quick to support him. He eventually came to rely more on patrons such as Count Franz Joseph Kinsky, (d. 1811), Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz (1772–1816) and Karl Alois Johann-Nepomuk Vinzenz, Fürst Lichnowsky, and as these patrons died or reneged on their pledges, Beethoven fell into debt. In 1807, Prince Lobkowitz advised Beethoven to apply for the position of composer of the Imperial Theatres, but the nobility who had newly been placed in charge of the post did not respond. Beethoven considered leaving Vienna: in the fall of 1808, he was offered a position as chapel maestro at the court of Jerome Bonaparte, the king of Westphalia, which he accepted. 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. 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.
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, 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 verbally 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.
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.
In 1812, Beethoven wrote a long love letter to a woman he identified only as "Immortal Beloved". Several candidates have been suggested, including Antonie Brentano, but the identity of the woman to whom the letter was written has never been proven.
On 15 November 1815 Beethoven's brother Karl van Beethoven died of tuberculosis 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 its 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 Germanic "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. Johanna, a commoner and a widow with little money, was not only refused access to her son, except under exceptional circumstances, but Beethoven insisted that she pay for her son's education out of her inadequate pension. 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 and human rights 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. This desperate action finally freed Karl from the clutches 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.
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.
Like the earlier composer Handel, Beethoven worked freelance—arranging subscription concerts, selling his compositions to publishers, and gaining financial support from a number of wealthy patrons—rather than seeking out permanent employment by the church or by an aristocratic court.
Beethoven composed in various genres, including symphonies, concerti, piano sonatas, other sonatas (including for violin), string quartets and other chamber music, masses, an opera, and lieder. He is viewed as one of the most important transitional figures between the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history.
Working with the traditions of the classical sonata forms, he continued the work of Haydn and Mozart in expanding and loosening the structures and becoming increasingly reliant on motivic development.
In his Early (Classical) period, while starting out under the influence of his great predecessors Haydn and Mozart, he 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 first six string quartets, the first three piano concertos, and the first twenty piano sonatas, including the famous "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" sonatas.
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, many of which have become very famous. Middle-period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3–8), the fourth and fifth piano concertos, the triple concerto and violin concerto, five string quartets (Nos. 7–11), the next seven piano sonatas (including the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata"), the "Kreutzer" Violin Sonata and Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.
Beethoven's Late (Romantic) period began around 1815. Works from this period are characterized by their intellectual depth, their formal innovations, and their intense, highly personal expression. For example, 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, of which the "Hammerklavier" Sonata is the best known.
Beethoven's music has been used in the soundtracks of over 250 films and television programs. In 2007 the critically acclaimed play 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman was first produced at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The play depicts a modern-day researcher struggling to understand the process of creativity as she delves into how Beethoven composed his Diabelli Variations. In September 2008 the dance play Ward 9, set to an all-Beethoven score, will be performed at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.