Ludwig van Beethoven (
; German: [ˈluːtvɪç fan ˈbeːthoːfn̩] (
); baptised 17 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) was a German composerand pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the classical and romantic eras in classical music, he is considered to be one of the greatest composers of all time.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, the capital of the Electorate of Cologne, and part of the Holy Roman Empire. He displayed his musical talents at an early age and was vigorously taught by his father Johann van Beethoven, and was later taught by composer and conductor Christian Gottlob Neefe. At age 21, he moved to Vienna and studied composition with Joseph Haydn. Beethoven then gained a reputation as a virtuoso pianist, and was soon courted by Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky for compositions, which resulted in Opus 1 in 1795.
The piece was a great critical and commercial success, and was followed by Symphony No. 1 in 1800. This composition was distinguished for its frequent use of sforzandi, as well as sudden shifts in tonal centers that were uncommon for traditional symphonic form, and the prominent, more independent use of wind instruments. In 1801, he also gained notoriety for his six String Quartetsand for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. During this period, his hearing began to deteriorate, but he continued to conduct, premiering his third and fifth symphonies in 1804 and 1808, respectively. His condition worsened to almost complete deafness by 1811, and he then gave up performing and appearing in public.
During this period of self exile, Beethoven composed many of his most admired works; his seventhsymphony premiered in 1813, with its second movement, Allegretto, achieving widespread critical acclaim. He composed the piece Missa Solemnis for a number of years until it premiered 1824, which preceded his ninth symphony, with the latter gaining fame for being among the first examples of a choral symphony. In 1826, his fourteenth String Quartet was noted for having seven linked movements played without a break, and is considered the final major piece performed before his death a year later.
His career is conventionally divided into early, middle, and late periods; the “early” period is typically seen to last until 1802, the “middle” period from 1802 to 1812, and the “late” period from 1812 to his death in 1827. During his life, he composed nine symphonies; five piano concertos; one violin concerto; thirty-two piano sonatas; sixteen string quartets; two masses; and the opera Fidelio. Other works, like Für Elise, were discovered after his death, and are also considered historical musical achievements. Beethoven’s legacy is characterized for his innovative compositions, namely through the combinations of vocals and instruments, and also for widening the scope of sonata, symphony, concerto, and quartet, while he is also noted for his troublesome relationship with his contemporaries.
Life and career
Background and early life
Beethoven was the grandson of Ludwig van Beethoven (1712–1773), a musician from the town of Mechelenin the Austrian Duchy of Brabant (in what is now the Flemish region of Belgium) who had moved to Bonn at the age of 21. Ludwig was employed as a bass singer at the court of Clemens August, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, eventually rising to become, in 1761, Kapellmeister (music director) and thereafter the pre-eminent musician in Bonn. The portrait he commissioned of himself towards the end of his life remained displayed in his grandson’s rooms as a talisman of his musical heritage.Ludwig had one son, Johann (1740–1792), who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment and gave keyboard and violin lessons to supplement his income. Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich in 1767; she was the daughter of Johann Heinrich Keverich (1701–1751), who had been the head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier.
Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn. There is no authentic record of the date of his birth; however, the registry of his baptism, in a Catholicservice at the Parish of St. Regius on 17 December 1770, survives. As children of that era were traditionally baptised the day after birth in the Catholic Rhine country, and it is known that Beethoven’s family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsbergercelebrated his birthday on 16 December, most scholars accept 16 December 1770 as his date of birth.
Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers survived infancy. Kaspar Anton Karl was born on 8 April 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, the youngest, was born on 2 October 1776.
Beethoven’s first music teacher was his father. He later had other local teachers: the court organist Gilles van den Eeden (d. 1782), Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer (a family friend, who provided keyboard tuition), and Franz Rovantini (a relative, who instructed him in playing the violin and viola). From the outset his tuition regime, which began in his fifth year, was harsh and intensive, often reducing him to tears; with the involvement of the insomniac Pfeiffer there were irregular late-night sessions with the young Beethoven being dragged from his bed to the keyboard. His musical talent was obvious at a young age. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart‘s successes in this area (with his son Wolfgangand daughter Nannerl), attempted to promote his son as a child prodigy, claiming that Beethoven was six (he was seven) on the posters for his first public performance in March 1778.
First published compositions
Some time after 1779, Beethoven began his studies with his most important teacher in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was appointed the Court’s Organist in that year. Neefe taught him composition, and by March 1783 had helped him write his first published composition: a set of keyboard variations (WoO 63).Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as assistant organist, at first unpaid (1781), and then as a paid employee (1784) of the court chapel conducted by the Kapellmeister Andrea Luchesi. His first three piano sonatas, named “Kurfürst” (“Elector”) for their dedication to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich (1708–1784), were published in 1783. Maximilian Frederick noticed his talent early, and subsidised and encouraged the young man’s musical studies.
A portrait of the 13-year-old Beethoven by an unknown Bonn master (c. 1783
Maximilian Frederick’s successor as the Elector of Bonn was Maximilian Francis, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and he brought notable changes to Bonn. Echoing changes made in Vienna by his brother Joseph, he introduced reforms based on Enlightenment philosophy, with increased support for education and the arts. The teenage Beethoven was almost certainly influenced by these changes. He may also have been influenced at this time by ideas prominent in freemasonry, as Neefe and others around Beethoven were members of the local chapter of the Order of the Illuminati.
In December 1786, Beethoven travelled to Vienna, at his employer’s expense, for the first time, apparently in the hope of studying with Mozart. The details of their relationship are uncertain, including whether they actually met. Having learned that his mother was ill, Beethoven returned quickly to Bonn in May 1787. His mother died shortly thereafter, and his father lapsed deeper into alcoholism. As a result, he became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers, and spent the next five years in Bonn.
He was introduced in these years to several people who became important in his life. Franz Wegeler, a young medical student, introduced him to the von Breuning family (one of whose daughters Wegeler eventually married). He often visited the von Breuning household, where he taught piano to some of the children. Here he encountered German and classical literature. The von Breuning family environment was less stressful than his own, which was increasingly dominated by his father’s decline.He also came to the attention of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who became a lifelong friend and financial supporter.
In 1789 Beethoven obtained a legal order by which half of his father’s salary was paid directly to him for support of the family.