Ludwig van Beethoven | Biography


Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven wrote some of the most physically and spiritually exhilarating music in existence.  His work is the essence of classical music and despite suffering far reaching medical and emotional torments (he became completely deaf by the age of 40) his music is a testament to the human spirit in the face of cruel misfortune — there is the sheer joy in the finale of the Seventh Symphony and the slow movements of his late works seem to convey a serenity quite at odds with the troubled persona of a lonely individual. Beethoven issued a challenge to the future that is still felt whenever a composer sets out to write a new sonata, quartet or symphony. Even his name has acquired a monumental stature in our culture. Beethoven was born in the Rhinelands in western Germany. His father was a court musician who had hopes of making money by exploiting his son as a child prodigy. He was also an alcoholic, and by his mid-teens Beethoven junior had taken over as breadwinner and head of the household. Fortunately the child’s talent was great enough for teachers and members of the court circle to intervene. It was they who set him on a more secure career path. At the time, Vienna was the place where any German or Austrian musician had to go to acquire a reputation, and the inevitable move came in 1792, a year after Mozart’s death. Beethoven had previously visited Mozart in Vienna and had once hoped to study composition with him. Instead, he was taught by Haydn, whose tolerant nature would have been a considerable asset, though the two rarely saw eye to eye. Beethoven lacked the social graces that would have made life smoother for him, but he was tough enough to survive. He did his best to link up with wealthy and noble patrons, and also latched on to the virtuoso instrumentalists of the day, writing showpieces for them and acting as accompanist on their tours. Works such as the Horn Sonata and the sets of variations for cello and piano reflect the haste of their composition, but they were written for immediate effect, not posterity. The intentions of Beethoven’s Symphony no.1 were completely different. It was first heard at a concert arranged by the composer himself in Vienna in 1800. Built on the models of Haydn or Mozart, it is noticeably more robust in temperament and more sustained in intensity than either man’s work. Symphonies of this time began firmly and securely in the home key. Beethoven’s, however, opens with a sequence of dissonances. They resolve, but in doing so take us not towards home, but away from it. The rules aren’t completely broken, but they are stretched and thoroughly interrogated. It is a bold gesture, and serves as a metaphor for Beethoven’s entire attitude. His first and second symphonies teased convention, but the third, the ‘Eroica’ (1805), was truly revolutionary. The score was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, then leader of the French Revolution. The symphony begins with hammer blows and strenuous, determined aspiration. It progresses through funeral music for a single hero to the ennoblement of a country dance — the heroism of the masses, perhaps. Bonaparte himself was seen as a heroic liberator of the people until he anointed himself emperor of France. Beethoven expressed his disillusionment by angrily scrubbing the dedication from his symphony’s title page. Social concerns apart, the music of the ‘Eroica’ represents a massive leap from Classicism to Romanticism. The main melody of the first movement only falls into its expected Classical phrases in the very closing bars. First come the transformations and adventures of a massively expanded development and coda. Discords and buffeting accents abound. Wind and brass are often prominent. Two horns were normal for the time — Beethoven adds a third, greatly increasing the presence of the brass. It was not just in his orchestral music that Beethoven repeatedly broke new ground. The 32 piano sonatas, which he wrote in bursts throughout his career, experiment with form in all directions, using the full expressive range of an instrument that was itself changing rapidly, growing louder and with an ever greater range of notes. Despite this constant revolution, increasingly integrated melodic material holds the sonatas together. Beethoven’s most visionary music occurs in the string quartets that he wrote in his last decade. Their harmonic language lies at the outer reaches of their time. Their melodies are in a state of constant transformation — form and content are now inextricably linked. The Grosse Fuge, op.133, originally intended as the finale to the op.130 quartet, sees Beethoven’s passionate self-expression grappling with the rules of strict counterpoint. Neither side compromises and order is taken to the brink of chaos. Few contemporary listeners could comprehend music like this. Yet in his lifetime Beethoven was widely recognised as a genius. Although he resented the servitude that was the usual lot of musicians, his father included, he could not afford to be a total rebel. But instead of being his masters, the princes, countesses and archdukes who funded his career were his music pupils and very often his friends. From 1809 onwards, Beethoven was able to function as an independent artist, a mark of the value placed upon him by those with influence. He was given an annual financial grant by a group of his wealthy associates and patrons, on the condition that he remained in Vienna. The status quo hadn’t changed, but Beethoven was free to write according to his inspiration rather than for court or Church. In his maturity, he produced works in every genre that opened up new horizons and have remained at the heart of the repertoire. No one before had written concertos as spacious as the Violin Concerto or Fifth Piano Concerto. His single opera, Fidelio, dates from the heady days of revolutionary idealism, but its cry for freedom has echoed through the centuries. The Missa Solemnis continues to beguile listeners with its curious mixture of celestial and Earthly music, while the Ninth Symphony, with its audacious introduction of voices, remains the supreme work with which to commemorate and dedicate great events. Life never became easy for Beethoven. The annual grant of 4,000 florins was not sufficient to cover his losses on public concerts. His boorishness led to frequent quarrels and prevented any long-term relationship with a woman. His deafness became noticeable before he was 30 and was total within eight years. This was a deep psychological blow and an immense obstacle to his profession. But it was only one of a series of illnesses that led to his death at the age of 56. His influence can be heard in the music of composers from Schubert to Berlioz, Brahms to Mahler. No composer confronted difficulty with greater fortitude, or triumphed over it with more certainty and energy. At the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, fate knocks thunderously at the door. But who can doubt that the work will end defiantly in a blaze of affirmation?