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Classical Composers A-Z: Beethoven

Peter Wintersgill presents a resume of the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827), one of the greatest of the great classical composers.


17th December 1770 in Bonn.


Johann, tenor and violinist at the court of the Elector of Cologne at Bonn.


Maria Magdalena, very kind, "my best friend".


Had 2 younger brothers, Kaspar, who died at 41 and Nikolous Johann, an apothecary. Paternal grandfather, Ludwig, moved from Belgium to Bonn in his youth, became a court violinist. Though he died when the boy was young they were close friends.


Taught music by father from the age of 4 in a heavy handed way. Father had hopes of showing him off as an infant prodigy like Mozart, but soon realised this was not possible. The boy was sensitive and obstinate, often refusing his music lessons. Father used to take 2 years off his age, so he often did not know how old he really was. He was an accomplished musician at 7, when he went to school, gave his first public concert at 8. Took lessons from Christian Gottlieb Neefe, court organist at Bonn, from whom he learnt much about music in general and the piano in particular. Appointed Neefe's assistant at 14 by the new elector Maximilian Franz and wrote the unnumbered piano concerto in Eb major.


Met Mozart in Vienna at 17, who was impressed by his playing and said he should be watched. He returned home from Vienna when his mother was ill, just in time to see her die in 1787. His father's drinking increased and he became more irresponsible. Part of his salary was paid direct to the boy in recognition of his being effective head of the household. Father died in 1792 when the boy was 22.


Went to live there after father's death, met Haydn, who was passing through on his way to London. He later had lessons from him, but they were not a great success. Haydn found Beethoven arrogant and temperamental, while he found the old man rather a stick in the mud. He met many influential people, including Count von Waldstein, to whom he dedicated a sonata and Frau von Breuning, who introduced him to the world of theatre, poetry and art. He gave lessons to her two young daughters. He lived for a time at the court of Prince Lichnowsky, but was later to fight shy of noble patrons. This was, as it turned out, to be a turning point in the lives of composers as a whole. He had lessons in counterpoint from Albrechtsberger and Schenk.

Early Period

At this time (1795) he wrote two piano concertos, with himself as soloist, three piano trios and three piano sonatas. Many works showed the influence of Haydn and Mozart, including the first symphony and the first six string quartets. In 1796 he toured Germany and also visited Prague and Budapest. About 1800, aged 30, he noticed the first signs of deafness, but was unwilling to admit it. He imagined that people were talking about him, so tended to avoid company. He first admitted to it in a letter to a friend in 1801, but by the next year it became common knowledge. He soon realised that he would soon have to give up piano playing, which was his main source of income. The deafness gradually increased to become total in 1815; he noticed tinnitus (buzzing in the ears) which decreased as the deafness grew worse. He was sent by his doctor to the village of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote a 'Testament", partly a will, partly a statement of his feelings; he briefly considered suicide, only to dismiss it. His stubborn nature saw it as a challenge to be overcome. After writing the statement he became reconciled to his deafness and plunged into composition.

Middle Period

He established his own style after the start of his deafness; his compositions included a violin sonata dedicated to Kreutzer, the 2nd and 3rd symphonies, the Waldstein Sonata, and his only opera, Fidelio, with its 4 (Leonora) overtures. The Moonlight Sonata was dedicated to a young countess with whom he was in love. He gave lessons to many young ladies of high rank and fell in love with them. However, he never married, he was probably more in love with love than with any particular girl. Other works of this period included the 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies, the passionata sonata, the Emperor piano concerto, the violin concerto and the sonata called "Farewell absence and return", dedicated to Archduke Rudolph. He played for King Frederick William II of Prussia, who gave him a snuff box full of gold coins.

Finding himself estranged from his aristocratic friends, he decided to accept the post of Kappelmeister to the King of Westphalia. He arranged a farewell concert in 1808, to include the 5th and 6th symphonies. Meantime his friends rallied round and persuaded three nobles; Archduke Rudolph, Prince von Lobkowitz and Princess Kinsky to join together and give him a salary (totalling 6,000 florins) to stay in Vienna, which he did.


Formed partly by the times, the Renaissance, French Revolution, etc., partly by early assumption of family responsibility, when his father's drunkenness and death made him head of the family. Became surly, arrogant, moody and quick tempered; would fall out with friends for some real or imagined slight, but all would be soon over, forget and forgive; allowances were made for a genius.
While working on Eroica Symphony, heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor; furious, he crossed out dedication to Bonaparte, substituted 'To a great man". Wrote a letter to "The Immortal Beloved", but it is not known to whom this was addressed.

Family Troubles

Brother Kaspar died in 1815, aged 41, leaving son Karl aged 9, whom Ludwig had undertaken to care for. He thought the boy's mother was immoral and unfit to care for the boy, so started a law suit to gain sole guardianship. The case was prolonged, but eventually successful. The boy was the source of much worry and was put in a home for a time; he attempted suicide at the age of 20.

Third Period

His works at this time included the last piano sonatas, 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, the last 5 string quartets and the Missa Solennis (Mass in D). The 7th Symphony was written in 1812, the 8th Symphony in 1814, called by Beethoven "The Little Symphony", it parodied the metronome, invented by his friend Malzel. The 9th Symphony (the Choral), written in 1824, was a real magnum opus; at the premiere there was terrific applause, but Beethoven had to be turned round to see it as he was unable to hear it. He lost much of his income about this time, due to the deaths of Princess Kinsky and Prince von Lobkowitz and the elevation of Archduke Rudolph to Archbishop. He gave a big concert in 1814, attended by all the nobility, which included the 7th symphony. He gave a further concert in 1815 for the Russian Empresses Birthday, attended by all the royalty and nobility, who were gathered in Vienna for the famous Congress to redraw the frontiers of Europe. This was definitely Beethoven's final appearance as soloist, but the concert earned him a great deal of money.

Missa Solennis

He started this in 1819, intended for the enthronement of Archduke Rudolph as Archbishop of Olmutz and Moravia the next year, but it was not ready in time. He was always slow with religious music, an added factor being the law suit about his nephew Karl, which lasted five years. It eventually had its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1824, along with the 9th Symphony. He met Rossini in 1822, who was concerned about his financial plight; Rossini tried to raise some money for him, but without success. The next year he met the 11 year old List and was very impressed; shortly after he wrote the 33 Variations on a theme of Diabelli and then went to Baden for a rest and wrote his last five string quartets, a sort of intimate farewell to the world.

Last Days

Relations with his nephew Karl deteriorated, the boy was ashamed of being seen about with his uncle, looking as he did so shabby and unkempt; eventually the boy tried to commit suicide. His uncle was very upset about this and sat for long periods at the boy's bedside. He later took him to stay with his other brother Johann, now a successful apothecary. Ludwig returned home after two months, ill with pneumonia, while his nephew went off to join the army. He was very weak when he got home and slow to recover; this gradually merged into his final illness. He developed dropsy, fluid in the abdominal cavity, which he had removed three times by tapping. Stephen von Breuning sat with him for long periods, also his son Gerhard, the only person whose visits Beethoven really looked forward to. He was sent 100 by the London Philharmonic Society, which gave him fleeting pleasure, but arrived too late to do more. He got gradually worse and finally died on 26th March 1827 in Vienna of cirrhosis of the liver, in a thunderstorm, aged 57, surrounded by friends. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people, including Schubert and other musicians. Karl arrived next day to find he was the sole heir.

Precis of Medical History

He had a possible attack of smallpox in childhood. In his teens he suffered from asthma, associated with recurrent chest infections, but no TB. In adult life he had recurrent abdominal pain, associated with diarrhoea. This was probably due to pancreatitis, caused by excess alcohol. He had a high consumption for 26 years, starting at about the same time as his deafness. The cause of his deafness was probably otosclerosis, bearing in mind the associated tinnitus. He had been suspected of having syphilis, but there was no sign of this at Post Mortem and no record of a rash. He had signs at Post Mortem of damage to the external ears, most likely the effect of various medicaments prescribed by his doctors. The final illness was cirrhosis of the liver, caused by chronic alcoholism, associated with oedema, jaundice, dropsy and enlargement of the spleen, all confirmed at Post Mortem.


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