Biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, German Composer

Ludwig van Beethoven

 no_limit_pictures / Getty Images

Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) was a German composer and musician. His work embraced a range of musical styles, from the classical to the romantic; although Beethoven composed music for a variety of settings, he is best known for his nine symphonies. His final symphony—featuring the "Ode to Joy" chorus—is one of the most famous works in Western music.

Fast Facts: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Known For: Beethoven is one of the most celebrated composers in the history of classical music; his symphonies are still performed throughout the world.
  • Born: December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Electorate of Cologne
  • Parents: Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich
  • Died: March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

Early Life

Beethoven's father Johann van Beethoven sang soprano in the electoral chapel where his father was Kapellmeister (chapel master). Johann eventually became proficient enough to teach violin, piano, and voice to earn a living. He married Maria Magdalena Keverich in 1767. Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770. Most scholars believe he was born the day before, as Catholic baptisms traditionally took place the day after birth. Maria later gave birth to five other children, but only two survived, Kaspar Anton Karl and Nikolaus Johann.

At a very early age, Beethoven received violin and piano lessons from his father. At the age of 8, he studied theory and keyboard with Gilles van den Eeden (a former chapel organist). He also studied with several local organists and received piano lessons from Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer and violin and viola lessons from Franz Rovantini. Although Beethoven’s musical genius is often compared to that of Mozart, his education never exceeded the elementary level.

Teenage Years

As a teenager, Beethoven was the assistant and formal student of Christian Gottlob Neefe, the court organist of the city of Bonn. Beethoven performed more than he composed. In 1787, Neefe sent Beethoven to Vienna for reasons unknown, but many historians agree that while he was there he met and briefly studied with Mozart. Two weeks later, he returned home because his mother was ill with tuberculosis. She died in July. His father took to drink, and Beethoven, only 19 years old, petitioned to be recognized as the head of the house; he received half of his father's salary to support his family.

Music Career

In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna. His father died in December that same year. Beethoven studied with Austrian composer Joseph Haydn for less than a year; their personalities were evidently not a match for each other. Beethoven then studied with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, the most famous teacher of counterpoint in Vienna. He studied counterpoint and contrapuntal exercises in free writing, in imitation, in two to four-part fugues, choral fugues, double counterpoint at different intervals, double fugue, triple counterpoint, and canon.

After establishing himself as a composer, Beethoven began writing more complex works. In 1800, he performed his first symphony and a septet. Publishers soon began to compete for the rights to his newest compositions. While still in his 20s, however, Beethoven began to suffer from hearing loss after a fall. His attitude and social life changed dramatically, as the composer wanted to hide his impairment from the world. Determined to overcome his disability, he wrote his second, third, and fourth symphonies before 1806. Symphony 3, ("Eroica"), was originally titled "Bonaparte" as a tribute to Napoleon.

Middle Period

In 1808, Beethoven completed his fifth symphony, whose opening notes are some of the most famous in all of classical music. This success was followed by several additional symphonies as well as string quartets and piano sonatas. During this time, Beethoven also premiered an early version of his opera "Fidelio." The production received poor reviews, and the composer continued to revise the work until 1814.

Beethoven's newfound fame began to pay off, and he soon found himself prosperous. His symphonic works were celebrated as masterpieces; critics cited Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven as the greatest composers of their era. Nevertheless, Beethoven faced personal challenges during this time. He fell in love with a young countess, Julie Guicciardi, but could not marry her because he was from a lower social station. He later dedicated his "Moonlight Sonata" to her.

Beethoven's output suffered during the next decade, the result of several serious illnesses and the death of his brother Kaspar, whom Beethoven had cared for during his sickness. This was followed by a custody battle with his brother's wife over his nephew Karl. The case was eventually resolved in Beethoven's favor, and the composer became the guardian of his nephew. However, the two had a troubled relationship.

Late Period

During the last 15 years of his life, Beethoven's hearing continued to decline. Nevertheless, he did not cease work on his compositions, and in the years before his death, he finished two of his most ambitious pieces—the Missa Solemnis, a mass written for a small orchestra and mixed choir, and the Ninth Symphony, one of the earliest examples of a choral symphony. The latter features what is perhaps Beethoven's most enduring piece of music—a chorus set to words from Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy." Beethoven also wrote several additional string quartets, even as his health began to decline.

Death

In 1827, Beethoven died of dropsy. In a will written several days before his death, he left his estate to his nephew Karl, of whom he was the legal guardian after his brother Kaspar's death.

Legacy

Beethoven remains one of the most popular classical composers of all time, and his major works are frequently performed throughout the world. By introducing new musical ideas, he inspired countless composers after him; indeed, his influence is so great that it is difficult to summarize. The Voyager Golden Record—a recording placed onboard the Voyager spacecraft—contains two pieces of music by Beethoven: the opening of the Fifth Symphony and String Quartet No. 13 in B flat.

Sources

  • Grove, George. "Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies." Franklin Classics, 2018.
  • Lockwood, Lewis. "Beethoven: the Music and the Life." Norton, 2003.
  • Swafford, Jan. "Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph." Faber and Faber, 2014.