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Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized December 17, 1770 - March 26, 1827) was a classical composer. Many people believe he was the single greatest composer of all time. He is undoubtedly one of the best known and most loved. His most famous works include his Fifth Symphony, Ninth Symphony, the piano piece "Für Elise", the "Pathétique" Sonata and the "Moonlight" Sonata.

Table of contents
1 Biography
2 Musical style and innovations
3 Personal beliefs and their musical influence
4 Symphonies
5 Works


Beethoven was born in Bonn in the Holy Roman Empire (and now in Germany). His mother was Magdalena Keverich and his father was Johann Beethoven. They named their son after his grandfather. Beethoven's musical talent manifested itself early, and his father attempted, unsuccessfully, to exploit the boy as a prodigy.

Beethoven moved to Vienna when he was 22, where he studied under Joseph Haydn. In Vienna he earned a reputation as a piano virtuoso and improviser, and began publishing his own compositions soon after. By 1800, he was considered one of the most important of a generation of young composers who followed after Haydn and Mozart. By the early 1800s he had established his reputation as a great and daring composer, enshrined by E. T. A. Hoffman as one of the three great "Romantic" composers in a review from 1810, which called the Fifth Symphony, in the key of C minor, "one of the most important works of the age".

Beethoven began to lose his hearing by 1801 at the latest. There was an increasing "roar" in his ears. This severe form of tinnitus would result, after a short time, in his being unable to appreciate music, or even converse with others. The cause of his deafness is not known for certain, but has been variously attributed to syphilis, lead poisoning, a chill he caught in 1796 which led to a disease believed to be typhus, or possibly even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. Over time, he came to be able to hear little or nothing through it. In 1802, he became depressed, and considered committing suicide - he left Vienna for a time, but while in a small German town, he wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament", where he resolved to continue living through his art. He continued composing, even as his ability to hear deteriorated. After a failed attempt to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat - called "The Emperor" - he never performed in public again as a musician.

His medical condition, however, has indirectly provided a unique historical record, because he kept conversation books discussing music and other issues, and giving an insight into his thought. Even today, the conversation books form the basis for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed, and his relationship to art - which he took very seriously.

Despite his deafness, beginning in 1803 he declared that "I am but lately little satisfied with my works, I shall take a new way." The first major work of this new way was the "Eroica" Symphony, in E flat. While other composers had written symphonies with implied programs, or stories, this symphony was also longer and larger in scope than any other written. It made huge demands on the players, because at that time there were few orchestras devoted to concert music that were independent of royal or aristocratic patrons, and hence playing standards at concerts were often haphazard. But it was a success. Over the following decade, his compositions included five string quartets, five symphonies, the opera Fidelio, three piano trios, a series of piano sonatas, and music written for home musicians, from which he made much of his income.

However, around 1814, Beethoven experienced a period of crisis in his personal life, and quite possibly in his artistic life as well. One critic wrote "the composing of great works seems behind him", and other people lamented that he was no longer creative. The few works that date from this period are often of an experimental character, including the song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte" and the piano sonata Opus 90: these works served as inspirations to the later generation of Romantic composers. This period also produced the extraordinarily expressive, almost incoherent, song "An die Hoffnung", Opus 94.

Then Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel, then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed "The Consecration of the House" overture, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate his new influences. But it is when he returned to the keyboard to compose his first new piano sonatas in almost a decade, that a new style, now called his "late period", emerged.

The works of the late period are commonly held to include the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two sonatas for cello and piano, the late quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony ("Choral"), perhaps Beethoven's best known work. The Ninth Symphony is the first to use a chorus, and its dimensions were, again, larger than any previous work.

Beethoven then turned to writing string quartets - the war between Austria and France had devastated his finances - for 100 gold ducats each. This series of quartets - the "late quartets" - would go far beyond what either musicians or audiences were ready for at that time. They would continue to inspire musicians - from Richard Wagner to Béla Bartók - for their unique forms and ideas.

Beethoven, even as he composed these last works, became ill, and on March 26th, 1827, he died, after several operations failed to stem the tide of an infection.

Musical style and innovations

Beethoven is viewed as a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history. Above all, his works distinguish themselves from those of any prior composer through his creation of large, extended architectonic structures characterized by the extensive development of musical material, themes, and motifs, usually by means of "modulation" (key change) through a variety of keys or harmonic regions. This expanded harmonic realm creates a sense of a vast musical and experiential space through which the music moves, and the development of musical material creates a sense of unfolding drama in this space. In this way Beethoven's music parallels the simultaneous development of the novel in literature, a literary form focused on the life drama and development of one or more individuals through complex life circumstances, and of contemporaneous German idealism's philosophical notion of self, mind, or spirit that unfolds through a complex process of contradictions and tensions between the subjective and objective until a resolution or synthesis occurs in which all of these contradictions and developmental phases have been resolved or encompassed in a higher unity.

Beethoven continued to expand the "development" section of works, whereas in the early works of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven's major immediate predecessors and influences, the development section of a sonata form was quite brief (though over time they enlarged it). Beethoven continued this trend, by making the development section not merely longer, but also more structured. The very long development section of the Eroica Symphony, for example, is divided into four roughly equal sections, making it, in effect, a sonata form within a sonata form. The first movement alone of this symphony is as long as an entire typical Italian-style Mozart symphony from the 1770s. His focus on the development would, like others of his innovations, set a trend that later composers would follow.

Although Beethoven wrote many beautiful and lyrical melodies, another radical innovation of his music, compared especially to that of Mozart and Haydn, is his extensive use of forceful, marked, and even stark rhythmic patterns throughout his compositions and, in particular, in his themes and motifs, some of which are primarily rhythmic rather than melodic. Some of his most famous themes, such as those of the first movements of the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, are primarily non-melodic rhythmic figures consisting of notes of a single chord, and the themes of the last movements of the Third and Seventh symphonies could more accurately be described as rhythms rather than as melodies. This use of rhythm was particularly well suited to the primacy of development in Beethoven's music, since a single rhythmic pattern can more easily than a melody be taken through a succession of different, even remote, keys and harmonic regions while retaining and conveying an underlying unity. This allowed him to combine different features of his themes in a wide variety of ways, extending the techniques of Haydn in development (see Sonata Form).

He also continued another trend - towards larger orchestras - that went on until the first decade of the 20th century, and moved the center of the sound downwards in the orchestra, to the violas and the lower register of the violins and cellos, giving his music a heavier and darker feel than Haydn or Mozart. In his Fifth Symphony he introduced a striking motif, drawn from a late Haydn symphony, in the very opening bar, which he echoed in various forms in all four movements of the symphony. This is the first important occurrence of cyclical form.

He was also fond of making usual what had previously been unusual: in the Fifth Symphony, instead of using a stately minuet, as had been the norm for the "dance" movement of a four-movement work, he created a dark march, which he used as the third movement and ran into the fourth without interruption. While one can point to previous works which had one or more of these individual features, his music, combined with the use of operatic scoring that he learned from Mehul and Cherubini, created a work which was altogether novel in effect - too novel, in fact, for some critics of the time. On the other hand, his contemporary Spohr found the finale "too baroque", though he praised the second movement as being in "good Romantic style".

His Ninth Symphony included a chorus and solo voices in the 4th movement for the first time, and made extensive use of fugues, which were generally considered to be a different form of music, and again unusual in symphonies.

He wrote one opera, Fidelio. It has been said that he wrote beautiful vocal music without regard for the limitations of human singers, treating the voice as if it were a symphonic instrument - even though his conversation books note his desire to try and make his music singable, and include references which indicate that he had remembered the singing lessons of his father.

Beethoven's development and works are typically divided into three periods: an early, youthful period in which his works show especially the influence of Mozart and Haydn; a middle, mature period in which he developed his distinctive individual style, sometimes characterized as "heroic"; and a late period, in which he wrote works of a highly evolved, individuated, sometimes fragmented and unorthodox style sometimes characterized as "transcendent" and "sublime", where he tried to combine the baroque ideas of Handel and Bach with his icons Mozart and Haydn. In his late years he called Handel "my grand master".

In contrast to Mozart, he labored heavily over his work, leaving intermediate drafts that provide considerable insight into his creative process. Early drafts of his Ninth Symphony used rough vertical marks on the score in place of actual notes, to indicate the structure he had in mind for the melody. Studies of his sketch books show the working out of dozens of variations on a particular theme, changing themes to fit with an overall structure that evolved over time, and extensive sketching of counter-melodies.

Personal beliefs and their musical influence

Beethoven was much taken by the ideals of the Enlightenment. He initially dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon in the belief that the general would sustain the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, but later crossed out the dedication as Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear. The fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony is a setting of Schiller's ode An die Freude ("To Joy"), an optimistic hymn championing the brotherhood of humanity.


Beethoven completed nine numbered symphonies. His first symphony, in C, is reliant upon Haydn models. His Symphony No. 2 in D extends Beethoven's understanding of the symphony. His first famous symphony was No. 3 in E-flat, better known as the Eroica. As mentioned, although this was originally dedicated to the French First Consul, Napoleon, Beethoven angrily ripped off the dedication after the Frenchman declared himself emperor.

The Symphony No. 4 in B-flat is a remarkable example of good humor. Even more famous is Symphony No. 5 in C minor, which starts with a well-known theme which people say sounds like fate knocking at the door. The Sixth Symphony, in F, is better known as the Pastoral. It is based on country life, and made up of five movements, of which the most famous are the second movement, Scene by the Brook, and the third, Merry Gathering of Country Folk.

The Seventh and Eighth symphonies are more rhythmic, the second movement of the eighth being based on the metronome, an invention by Beethoven's friend Johann Maelzel. The final complete symphony is Symphony No. 9 in D minor, composed in 1823 (and occasionally referred to as Choral), whose last movement, as mentioned, was a setting of Schiller's poem celebrating joy. A choir and four vocal soloists appear in this movement.

Beethoven also made sketches for a tenth symphony (Barry Cooper later made a performing version of its first movement, though it is mainly conjecture). He also composed the so-called "Battle Symphony", Wellington's Victory, a work in two movements commemorating the Duke of Wellington's defeat of Napoleon in Spain. It is considered to be something of a pot-boiler, and less than satisfactory.


For a complete list, see List of works by Beethoven.