Ludwig van Beethoven was a complex man consumed by a towering
genius – all the more remarkable for the deafness with which he
struggled. He lived a life driven by an unquenchable need to make
music. His legacy is music that still delights, challenges, and moves us.
Born in Bonn, Germany on December 17, 1770 (or perhaps a day
earlier according to some records), Beethoven had a miserable
childhood. He was one of seven children, only three of whom survived
to adulthood. Although he loved his gentle mother, Maria, he feared
his hard-drinking, demanding father, Johann. His father had no great
talent, but he gave music lessons to the children of the nobility. From
the time Ludwig was a small boy, turning the iron handle of window
shutters to hear the musical noise, the child had been absorbed by
music. His father recognized the boy’s ability and nurtured it, possibly
because he saw it as a source of income.
In 1787, when he was seventeen, Beethoven made his first trip to
Vienna, the city that would become his home. There, he was quickly
immersed in the life of Europe’s cultural capital, even playing the piano
for Mozart. Mozart’s prediction was: “You will make a big noise in the
Beethoven’s stay was cut short by a series of family tragedies. He
returned to Bonn to his dying mother. Shortly after, his infant sister
died. When his father lost his job, Beethoven had to take responsibility
for the family.
After his father’s death in 1792, Beethoven returned to Vienna for
good. The serious boy had grown into a man who was by turns rude
and violent, kind and generous. He helped raise money for the only
surviving child of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was living in poverty,
and he donated new compositions for a benefit concert in aid of
Despite his temper, Beethoven attracted friends easily. He studied
piano with composer Franz Joseph Haydn. And even though the
student-teacher relationship failed the two remained friends. In
Vienna, Beethoven also met Mozart’s rival, Antonio Salieri – the man
rumored to have poisoned Mozart. Salieri was kind to Beethoven and,
in return, Beethoven dedicated three violin sonatas to him.
Beethoven’s struggle to hear…
At the age of twenty-eight, just before writing his first symphony,
Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He tried every available
treatment and, at first, there were periods when he could hear. But in
the last decade of his life he lost his hearing completely. Nevertheless,
he continued to lead rehearsals and play the piano as late as 1814.
Possibly he “heard” music by feeling its vibrations.
As time passed, Beethoven became more and more absorbed in his
music. He began to ignore his grooming, pouring water over his head
instead of washing in a basin. On one of his beloved country walks, a
local policeman who assumed he was a tramp arrested Beethoven. His
rooms were piled high with manuscripts that nobody was allowed to
touch. He had four pianos without legs so that he could feel their
vibrations. He often worked in his underwear, or even naked, ignoring
the friends that came to visit him if they interrupted his composing.
Watch out for that temper!
The stories about Beethoven’s temper became legend: he threw hot
food at a waiter; he swept candles off a piano during a bad
performance; he may even have hit a choirboy. His intensity spilled
over into his family life. He became embroiled in a bitter custody battle
for a nephew who attempted suicide to escape the family animosity.
Perhaps he was terrified and furious about losing the world of sound.
Perhaps he was completely preoccupied by the need to create. Despite
his behaviour, he was admired and respected for the music that
poured from him. He knew that it moved his listeners to tears, but he
responded, “Composers do not cry. Composers are made of fire.”
What about the women in Beethoven’s life?
With his talent and his larger-than-life personality, Beethoven was
popular among women. Although he never married, he dedicated such
pieces as the Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise to the women in his life.
Beethoven, Thunder and Death
In November 1826 Beethoven returned from his brother’s estate to
Vienna in an open wagon. By the time he got home he was ill with
pneumonia, from which he never fully recovered.
Late in the afternoon of March 26, 1827, the sky became dark.
Suddenly a flash of lightning lighted Beethoven’s room. A great clap of
thunder followed. Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his fist, and fell
back dead. He was fifty-seven years old.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s funeral was the final demonstration of the
esteem in which he was held. On March 29, 1827, twenty thousand
people lined the streets, while soldiers controlled the grieving crowd.
Nine priests blessed the composer’s body.
He was buried in a grave marked by a simple pyramid on which was
written one word: “Beethoven.” Today his remains lie beside those of
the Austrian composer Franz Schubert, in Vienna’s Central Cemetery.
“I shall hear in Heaven” – Beethoven’s last words
Artists Who Have Also Faced Challenges
We are haunted by the idea of Beethoven, the composer of some of
the most beautiful music the world has known, losing the sense that
must have mattered the most to him – his hearing. He was not the
only artist to have confronted, and risen to, such a challenge.
Francisco José de Goya (1746–1828), one of the great Spanish
masters, became deaf in 1792 as the result of an illness. He continued
to paint, but his work reflected his sadness.
The great French Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840–1926)
found his eyesight failing him late in his life. He continued to paint,
studying his subjects so closely that the paintings appeared
fragmented like abstract art.
Edgar Degas (1834–1917), another French artist began to lose his
eyesight when he was in his fifties. He began working in sculpture and
in pastels, choosing subjects that did not require careful attention to
One of the finest artists to come out of Mexico was Frida Kahlo
(1907–1954). She began painting in 1925 while recovering from a
streetcar accident. Many of her paintings reflect the physical pain she
The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) suffered from
seizures and depression. After quarrelling with fellow artist Paul
Gauguin (1848–1903), he sliced off a piece of his ear lobe. Van Gogh
committed suicide in 1890.
Itzhak Perlman (1945–), the wonderful Israeli violinist, became ill with
polio at the age of four. As a result of the disease, Perlman performs
and conducts from a seated position.
Beethoven’s Turbulent Times
Beethoven lived in a period of great turmoil. The French Revolution,
which began on July 14, 1789, rocked Europe. The ideals of the French
Revolution included equality and free speech for all. Within four years
those fine ideals devolved into the Reign of Terror that overtook
France and affected the rest of Europe. In 1798, Napoleon conquered
Egypt, beginning his rise to power. Against the political upheaval,
every aspect of human life seemed to shift. It was an age of change in
ideas, the arts, science, and the structure of society itself.
An age of the musician: Earlier in the 18th century, the Church
dominated the world of music. As time went on, the nobility began to
enjoy music and even learned to play musical instruments. Composers
and musicians were their servants. With his fiercely independent spirit,
Beethoven challenged this notion. “It is good to move among the
aristocracy,” he said, “but it is first necessary to make them respect.”
When a nobleman talked while he was performing, Beethoven stopped
playing to declare, “For such pigs I do not play!”
Literature and art also flourished during Beethoven’s lifetime. The
first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica appeared in three volumes.
An age of exploration: In 1770 Captain James Cook circumnavigated
the globe, charting the coast of New Zealand and eastern Australia as
well as the Bering Strait. James Bruce traced the Blue Nile to its
confluence with the White Nile in 1771.
An age of invention: John Kay patented the fly shuttle in 1733,
making it possible to weave wide cloth. James Hargreaves invented
the spinning jenny in 1765, which spun many threads at the same
time. James Watt invented the steam engine, patented in 1769, and
Robert Fulton initiated steamship travel. The first railroad in England
began operation early in the eighteenth century.
Beethoven became a friend of Johann Nepomuk Malzel, the “Court
Mechanician.” He invented the musical chronometer, which in time was
refined to the metronome, a device that can be set to a specific pace
to guide the musician. Beethoven loved the chronometer and even
composed a little canon to the words “Ta ta ta (suggesting the beat of
the chronometer) lieber lieber Malzel.”
An age of science and mathematics: Joseph-Louis Lagrange
formulated the metric system and explained the satellites of Jupiter
and the phases of the moon. Benjamin Franklin conducted his
experiments with electricity. Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen.
Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine. Musician and
astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus.
An age of new pastimes: Coffee drinking – which Beethoven loved –
became a part of social life. Gambling, lotteries, card-playing, chess,
checkers, dominoes, and billiards all entertained people.
Human Rights and the Arts
Throughout history, artists have used their talents to comment on
social issues. Beethoven – who lived through the French Revolution
and the Napoleonic Wars, a time of immense social and political
change in Europe and the world – responded through his music. His
only opera, Fidelio, is set in Spain and is based on the story of a
nobleman who is unjustly imprisoned for threatening to reveal the
crimes of a politician.
Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica, was originally dedicated to
Napoleon Bonaparte. The finale of his magnificent Ninth Symphony is
based on a poem written by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller,
with words and music that yearn for peace, joy, and the brotherhood
Like Beethoven, we have lived through enormous social and political
upheaval: world conflicts, the rise and collapse of nations, and
devastating political oppression around the world. We have also seen
hopeful changes, such as the creation of the United Nations as the
principal international organization committed to building peace and
In Beethoven’s time, as in ours, the arts have been a voice to rail
against political oppression and to make us aware of the plight of
those in the greatest need.
All the world over, ordinary men, women, and children have been
moved to action through music. “We Shall Overcome” and “Nkosi
sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) are two songs that carried a
tremendous amount of influence for Blacks in the US and in South
Africa in their struggle against racism, inequality and injustice in the
last half of the 20th century. And Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rang
out at the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 and at the collapse of
the Berlin Wall in 1990.
Beethoven’s Famous Peers
Beethoven was not the only composer writing music in this period.
Beethoven influenced Richard Wagner’s (-1813–1883) early
instrumental works. Franz Liszt (1811–1886) “invented” the solo piano
recital. Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed great operas. Frédéric
Chopin (1810–1849) and Robert Schumann (1810–1856) also
belonged to this era.
British poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), along with Samuel
Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), began the English Romantic Movement
in literature. Like Beethoven in music and Turner in painting,
Wordsworth used nature as a theme in much of his writing. Here is an
example of one of his best known poems:
I Wandered Lonely as A Cloud
by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay;
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
The shift from the Classic to the Romantic tradition was also reflected
in the work of painters and sculptors such as the Spanish master
Francisco José de Goya and Swiss-born Angelica Kauffmann, who
produced more than five hundred paintings in her lifetime.
The painter who most closely paralleled Beethoven’s move to
Romanticism was Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875). Early in
his career he painted structured landscapes, but as he matured in
works like Ville d’Avray and Memory of Mortefontaine, he showed a
more imaginative style, creating a filmy aura.
Beethoven the Musician
Beethoven’s initial purpose in coming to Vienna was to study with
Haydn and to learn from the great master the style of Viennese
classicism – a structured worldview where the form of things was more
important than their content. Poetry, literature, painting and music of
this Classic period were restrained and rational.
This formal, disciplined study, however, had little appeal to
Beethoven’s unruly, irrepressible, revolutionary spirit. He absorbed
just what suited him, and proceeded on his own course. Thus, we
find, even in his first published compositions, a bold new voice in
music. Formally, these early works still hark back to traditional
classical forms. But the emotional intensity, rough humor, burning
energy and bold modulations reveal a creator who has struck out on a
By the 1800s, Classicism was giving way to Romanticism and this shift
was evident in Beethoven’s music.
Beethoven and Romanticism
Romanticism valued imagination and emotion over intellect and
reason. It was based on a belief that people are naturally good, that
physical passion is splendid, and that political authority and rigid
conventions should be overthrown.
Beethoven’s Romanticism transformed every kind of music he
composed. One of his most popular compositions is the Moonlight
Sonata, the second of two sonatas making up Opus 27. It became
known as the Moonlight Sonata well after Beethoven’s death, when
poet Ludwig Rellstab said that it reminded him of moonlight rippling on
the waves of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Like all Romantic art, it
appeals to the senses more than the mind.
Beethoven’s Romance no.1 for Violin in G, Opus 40 and his Romance
no. 2 for Violin in F, Opus 50, written between 1798 and 1802, were
called romances for their light, sweet tone, almost like a song. This is
typical of the Romantic period in music: many pieces lend themselves
to being sung as well as played.
Beethoven’s movement away from Classicism and toward Romanticism
is clearest in his symphonies. Before Beethoven, symphonies,
originating in courtly dances like the minuet, had conformed to the
ideals of Classicism with rigid structure and rational form. Beethoven’s
Romantic symphonies broke out of those confines and became large,
sometimes epic structures that told a story and plumbed emotional
Beethoven the Artist
Beethoven’s first public appearance as a piano virtuoso took place
when he was twenty-five years old. He was to play his Second Piano
Concerto, but two days before the performance it was still not finished
and Beethoven was suffering from an upset stomach. He continued to
write while a friend fed him remedies and, just outside his chamber,
copyists sat waiting for the music as the composer finished writing
His career would be full of such last-minute scrambles. On the morning
of the concert to present an oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, a
friend found Beethoven sitting in bed, composing the part for the
trombones. The piece had its first rehearsal at 8:00 a.m., with the
trombone players reading from the original sheets of music.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
By the time the Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824,
Beethoven was almost completely deaf. Nevertheless, he insisted on
conducting the orchestra himself. He continued conducting even when
the piece had ended because he could not hear that the orchestra had
stopped playing. One of the sopranos tugged at his sleeve so that he
would turn around to face the audience – an audience wild with
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony continues to move the hearts of people
everywhere. It was played during the Beijing student protests in China
in 1989 and at the dismantling of Germany’s Berlin Wall in 1990. It
has become a symbol of unity, of love, and of the overwhelming power
of music to change those who hear it forever.
Ode to Joy from Symphony No.9 in D minor, Opus 125
Praise and joy, immortal gladness
Gift to all eternally.
We give thanks for joy unbounding,
Celebrate life’s harmony.
Music’s magic boldly sounding,
Bring together friend and foe.
All unite as sisters, brothers.
Sing with joy in lustrous glow.
What to Listen for
The “three periods”
The historian William Drabkin notes that as early as 1818 a writer had proposed a three-period division of Beethoven’s works and that such a division (albeit often adopting different dates or works to denote changes in period) eventually became a convention adopted by all of Beethoven’s biographers, starting with Schindler, F.-J. Fétis and Wilhelm von Lenz. Later writers sought to identify sub-periods within this generally accepted structure. Its drawbacks include that it generally omits a fourth period, that is, the early years in Bonn, whose works are less often considered; and that it ignores the differential development of Beethoven’s composing styles over the years for different categories of work. The piano sonatas, for example, were written throughout Beethoven’s life in a progression that can be interpreted as continuous development; the symphonies do not all demonstrate linear progress; of all of the types of composition, perhaps the quartets, which seem to group themselves in three periods (Op. 18 in 1801–1802, Opp. 59, 74 and 95 in 1806–1814, and the quartets, today known as ‘late’, from 1824 onwards) fit this categorization most neatly. Drabkin concludes that “now that we have lived with them so long … as long as there are programme notes, essays written to accompany recordings, and all-Beethoven recitals, it is hard to imagine us ever giving up the notion of discrete stylistic periods.”
Some forty compositions, including ten very early works written by Beethoven up to 1785, survive from the years that Beethoven lived in Bonn. It has been suggested that Beethoven largely abandoned composition between 1785 and 1790, possibly as a result of negative critical reaction to his first published works. A 1784 review in Johann Nikolaus Forkel‘s influential Musikalischer Almanack compared Beethoven’s efforts to those of rank beginners. The three early piano quartets of 1785 (WoO 36), closely modelled on violin sonatas of Mozart, show his dependency on the music of the period. Beethoven himself was not to give any of the Bonn works an opus number, save for those which he reworked for use later in his career, for example, some of the songs in his Op. 52 collection (1805) and the Wind Octet reworked in Vienna in 1793 to become his String Quintet, Op. 4. Charles Rosen points out that Bonn was something of a backwater compared to Vienna; Beethoven was unlikely to be acquainted with the mature works of Haydn or Mozart, and Rosen opines that his early style was closer to that of Hummel or Muzio Clementi. Kernan suggests that at this stage Beethoven was not especially notable for his works in sonata style, but more for his vocal music; his move to Vienna in 1792 set him on the path to develop the music in the genres he became known for.
The first period
The conventional “first period” begins after Beethoven’s arrival in Vienna in 1792. In the first few years he seems to have composed less than he did at Bonn, and his Piano Trios, op.1 were not published until 1795. From this point onward, he had mastered the ‘Viennese style’ (best known today from Haydn and Mozart) and was making the style his own. His works from 1795 to 1800 are larger in scale than was the norm (writing sonatas in four movements, not three, for instance); typically he uses a scherzo rather than a minuet and trio; and his music often includes dramatic, even sometimes over-the-top, uses of extreme dynamics and tempi and chromatic harmony. It was this that led Haydn to believe the third trio of Op.1 was too difficult for an audience to appreciate.
He also 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 set of six string quartets Opus 18, the first two piano concertos, and the first dozen or so piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique sonata, Op. 13.
The middle period
His middle (heroic) period began shortly after the personal crisis brought on by his recognition of encroaching deafness. It includes large-scale works that express heroism and struggle. Middle-period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3–8), the last two piano concertos, the Triple Concerto and violin concerto, five string quartets (Nos. 7–11), several piano sonatas (including the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas), the Kreutzer violin sonata and his only opera, Fidelio.
The “middle period” is sometimes associated with a “heroic” manner of composing, but the use of the term “heroic” has become increasingly controversial in Beethoven scholarship. The term is more frequently used as an alternative name for the middle period. The appropriateness of the term “heroic” to describe the whole middle period has been questioned as well: while some works, like the Third and Fifth Symphonies, are easy to describe as “heroic”, many others, like his Symphony No. 6, Pastoral or his Piano Sonata No. 24, are not.
The late period
Beethoven’s grave at Vienna Zentralfriedhof
Beethoven’s late period began in the decade 1810-1819. He began a renewed study of older music, including works by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, that were then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. Many of Beethoven’s late works include fugal material. The overture The Consecration of the House (1822) was an early work to attempt to incorporate these influences. A new style emerged, now called his “late period”. He returned to the keyboard to compose his first piano sonatas in almost a decade: the works of the late period include the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two sonatas for cello and piano, the late string quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Works from this period are characterised by their intellectual depth, their formal innovations, and their intense, highly personal expression. 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.
The Beethoven Monument in Bonn was unveiled in August 1845, in honour of the 75th anniversary of his birth. It was the first statue of a composer created in Germany, and the music festival that accompanied the unveiling was the impetus for the very hasty construction of the original Beethovenhalle in Bonn (it was designed and built within less than a month, on the urging of Franz Liszt). A statue to Mozart had been unveiled in Salzburg, Austria, in 1842. Vienna did not honour Beethoven with a statue until 1880.
There is a museum, the Beethoven House, the place of his birth, in central Bonn. The same city has hosted a musical festival, the Beethovenfest, since 1845. The festival was initially irregular but has been organised annually since 2007.
The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies serves as a museum, research center, and host of lectures and performances devoted solely to this life and works.
His music features twice on the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph record containing a broad sample of the images, common sounds, languages, and music of Earth, sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes.
A 7-foot cast bronze statue of Beethoven by sculptor Arnold Foerster was installed in 1932 in Pershing Square, Los Angeles; it was dedicated to William Andrews Clark Jr., founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
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