There is no record of the birth date of Ludwig van Beethoven. He was born in Bonn, Germany, and was baptized on 17 December 1770. Both his father and grandfather worked as court musicians in Bonn. Beethoven’s father gave him his first musical training. Although he had only a little academic schooling, he studied piano, violin, and the French horn. Like Mozart, he began public performances at the age of six, and left school to tour full-time at the age of thirteen. Before he was twelve years old he became a court organist.
His first significant tutor of composition was Christian Gottlob Neefe and in 1787 he briefly studied with Mozart. Five years later he left Bonn permanently and settled in Vienna where he studied with Joseph Haydn and later with Antonio Salieri. Still in Bonn, he had developed a name for fine improvisatory performances. About the same time his first significant publications appeared – three piano trios op.1 and three piano sonatas op.2. As a pianist, it was reported that he had fire, brilliance and fantasy as well as depth of feeling.
Beethoven’s first public appearance in Vienna was on 29 March 1795 as a soloist in one of his piano concerti. In Vienna he soon had quite a selection of aristocratic patrons who loved music and were eager to help him.
After his 30th year Beethoven began to suffer from a loss of hearing. The cause of his deafness is still uncertain. By 1802 he was sure that his condition was not only permanent, but that it was getting worse gradually. He spent that summer in the country and wrote what has become known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” In the document, which was seemingly intended for his brothers, he expressed his humiliation and misery. He continually looked for a cure, but by 1819 he was completely deaf. In later years, in order to have meaningful conversations with his friends, he had them write down their questions and he replied orally.
Though he had many friends, he never got married, and he seemed to be a lonely man. He continued to appear in public but spent more time working on his compositions. He moved often and lived in various villages close to Vienna. He could always be seen carrying a sketchbook, which he took along on his long walks. In it he wrote down his musical ideas. To Beethoven the art composition had always been a struggle.
Scholars, who later studied the sketchbooks, discovered the agonizingly long process that Beethoven went through in order to perfect his melodies, harmonies, and instrumentations. The sense of agonizing effort is a part of his music. He composed entire symphonies “in his head”, hearing the part for every instrument before he set the first note on paper. Being deaf he composed completely in his mind, unable to listen to the music in any other way – it is one of the great miracles of art.
With the exception of Beethoven’s years of his apprenticeship in Bonn, his work can be divided into three general periods. There are of course a few exceptions to the rule where some pieces do not really form part of the scheme.
First period (1794 to 1800): Mainly music of which the most outstanding features are typical of the classical era. The influence of musicians such as Mozart and Haydn is clear in Beethoven’s early chamber music, and the same applies to his first two piano concertos, and his first symphony. He included his own subtleties, including sudden changes of dynamics, but in general the music is well constructed and not far from the sensibilities of the classical period.
Second period (1801 to 1814): Music includes much of his improvisatory work. His Symphony No. 3, (Eroica), and the Fourth Piano Concerto are fine examples of this period. During the years following 1812 he was somewhat unproductive. He seemed to have been seriously depressed by his deafness, which led to isolation, linked by his bachelorship. It was followed in 1815 by anxiety over the custodianship of the son of his late brother, which involved him in legal actions. Eventually came out of these trials to write his profoundest music reflecting something of what he had been through.
Third period (1814 to his death): The character of his work has an even wider range of harmony and counterpoint. The last string quartets include some of the Beethoven’s most vivid new ideas. He wrote longer and more complex forms of music. In his symphonies and string quartets, he often replaced the minuet movement with the livelier scherzo.
Many music lovers and critics consider Beethoven as the finest composer that ever lived. His music is unique and emotional and he succeeded in taking instrumental music to new heights. Beethoven made great strides with chamber music for piano, as well as for string quartets, trios, and sonatas. His works include nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, five piano concerti, 17 string quartets, ten sonatas for violin and piano, one opera (Fidelio), the Mass in C Major, Missa Solemnis, and other chamber pieces.
Beethoven was the composer of some of the most powerful pieces of music ever written. He formed a bridge between the 18th-century classical period and the new beginnings of Romanticism. His biggest breakthroughs in composition was in his instrumental work, and more so in his symphonies. Unlike the brilliant young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who wrote music very easily, the later Beethoven always seemed to struggle to perfect his work.
His reputation went far beyond Vienna. The late Mass was first heard in St. Petersburg, and the initial commission that produced the Choral Symphony had come from the Philharmonic Society of London.
Beethoven died in Vienna on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56 and thousands of mourners attended the funeral. He will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, composer to ever live. Most people are familiar with a few of his works, if nothing more than the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, the Finale of the Ninth Symphony and the “Moonlight” Sonata.
He wrote a great deal more than those well-known works. One catalogue of his compositions lists 849 separate items. While several hundred of these works have been recorded one way or the other, there still remain literally hundreds of other works which have never been recorded at all.