It is common for listeners to perceive an echo of Beethoven's life in his music, which often depicts struggle followed by triumph; this description is often applied to Beethoven's creation of masterpieces in the face of his severe personal adversities. For this reason, more than almost any other composer, musicological descriptions of Beethoven's music are linked to details of his personal life.
Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770. He was baptized on December 17th. The composer's birthday is often celebrated, based on the usual custom of rapidly baptizing infants at that time, as December 17th.
Beethoven was the eldest surviving child of Johann van Beethoven (1740–1792), and Magdalena Keverich (1744–1787). Johann worked as a tenor singer in the Electoral court, that is, in the musical establishment presided over by the grandfather. Beethoven's parents had a total of seven children, of whom only three survived infancy. These were Beethoven and his two younger brothers, Caspar Anton Carl, born 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, born 1776.
Beethoven began his musical education under the tutorship of his alcoholic father, who is believed to have beaten him in the course of his lessons. The child's 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 nine) for seven on the posters for Beethoven's first public performance.
In 1779 Beethoven became the protegé of Christian Gottlob Neefe, who taught him composition. 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, the so-called "Kurfürst Sonaten" ("Elector sonatas"), were published in 1783. During this time, Beethoven's talent was noticed and appreciated by the Elector, Maximilian Franz (1756-1801), who subsidized his musical studies.
In 1787 another of Beethoven's early patrons, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von 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. After just two weeks 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. At the same time, he established a reputation 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.
With Haydn's departure for Wales in 1795, 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.
Beethoven's first public performance in Vienna was in 1795, with his Second (or perhaps First) Piano Concerto, and in the same year were published the first of his compositions to which he assigned an opus number, the piano trios of Opus 1. By 1800, with the premiere of his First Symphony, Beethoven was considered one of the most important of a generation of young composers who followed after Haydn and Mozart.
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 (see below). Thus, 12 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.
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 "Elector" 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".
Beethoven had few students. From 1801 to 1805, he tutored Ferdinand Ries, who would go on to become a composer and later published a book about their encounters, Beethoven remembered.
Carl Czerny was taught by 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.
In 1803 or 1804, Archduke Rudolph, youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, 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.
In 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 musical director at the court in Cassel. He was about to accept, but then three Viennese aristocrat patrons, Archduke Rudolph being one of them, joined to top the offer with an annual "working scholarship", and so he stayed in Vienna.
Around 1801, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a "roar" in his ears that made it hard for him to appreciate music; he would avoid 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.
Over time, his hearing loss became acute: there is a well-attested story that, at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned round to see the tumultuous applause of the audience, hearing nothing. In 1802, he became depressed, and considered committing suicide. He left Vienna for a time for the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt (see the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament), where he resolved to continue living through his art. Beethoven's hearing loss did not affect his ability to compose music, but it made concerts — lucrative sources of income — increasingly difficult. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor", he never performed in public again.
As a result of Beethoven's hearing loss, a unique historical record has been preserved: he kept conversation books discussing music and other issues, and giving an insight into his thought. Even today, the conversation books form the basis for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed and his relationship to art, which he took very seriously.
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 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, 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.
However, 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 — the war between Austria and France had devastated his finances — on a commission from Prince Nikolay Golitsin of St. Petersburg (the Prince was to pay an honorarium of 50 gold ducats per quartet). This series of quartets — 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 — 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.
As it became apparent that Beethoven would not recover, his friends gathered to help and to pay their final respects. Beethoven's doctors conducted four minor operations to relieve ascites (abdominal swelling), of which the first resulted in infection, the others not. On March 24, he was given his last rites, and two days later slipped into an unconscious state and then died the same day, March 26, 1827.
Beethoven's last recorded words were "Pity, pity — too late!", as the dying composer was told of a gift of twelve bottles of wine. Some sources have listed his last words as, "I shall hear in heaven", but this is almost certainly apocryphal. Likewise, the popular belief that his last words were: "Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est" ("Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over"), the typical conclusion to performances of Italian Commedia dell'Arte. Autopsy revealed a severely damaged and shrunken liver, of which ascites is a common consequence. Scholars disagree over whether Beethoven's liver damage was the result of heavy alcohol consumption.
Austrian pathologist Christian Reiter asserts that Beethoven's doctor, Andreas Wawruch, accidentally killed the composer by giving him an overdose of a lead-based cure. According to Reiter, Wawruch used the cure to alleviate fluid in the abdomen; the lead penetrated Beethoven's liver and killed him. Reiter's hypothesis however is at odds with Dr. 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 as long as proper scholarly documentation remains unpublished.
In 1863 Beethoven's body was exhumed, studied and reburied. Fragments from the back of his skull were acquired by the Austrian doctor Romeo Seligmann. The fragments are now in the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, CA.
Huttenbrenner's eye-witness report is sometimes recast to imply that Beethoven "shook his fist at the heavens" in the moment before death. Since any imputations as to the dying man's emotional state are impossible to verify, they tend to be glossed over or ignored as irrelevant by modern-day Beethoven scholars.
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 March 29, 1827. Schubert was a torch bearer. Beethoven was buried in the Währinger cemetery, west of Vienna. His remains were moved in 1888 to the Zentralfriedhof.
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