Beethoven's Life and Music 1770-1805

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn around December 16th 1770, the son of Johann, a tenor in the Elector's choir, and his wife Maria. He was the first of their children to survive long after birth. His early life is dominated by his father's attempts to force him into becoming a great musician and pianist, often in times of drunken excess. Johann was determined that the young Ludwig would emulate Mozart and demonstrate youthful prodigy. Ludwig, however, was not the sort of person to blindly follow direction and he started to demonstrate a stubbornness that was to be characteristic of him throughout his life. Nevertheless, he did start to show great promise as a performer, and by the age of 8 he gave his first public performance, and by 12 or 13 was already sufficiently gifted to be employed by as a court musician, earning almost as much as his father.

At the age of 17, he travelled to Vienna and there performed for Mozart, improvising on the piano upon a piece set by Mozart. Mozart (by then aged 30) was very impressed, and rushed into the next room saying "Watch that fellow - someday he'll really make a name for himself!" His mother's sudden death compelled him to return to Bonn, but he was back in Vienna by 1792, taking lessons from Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Schenck and Salieri. Haydn and he never really hit it off as master and pupil - Haydn was rather busy for much of the time, and Beethoven was too impetuous to be prepared to bide his time. Beethoven later claimed to have learnt nothing from Haydn - a somewhat unlikely claim, given the similarity of some of his output to some of Haydn's work. Beethoven's father died in 1792, but such was the antipathy between the two men, that its chief effect seems to have been to make Ludwig's life easier, since he was already effectively supporting his siblings.

During his early time in Vienna, Beethoven was known chiefly as a virtuoso pianist, and particularly as an improviser. It was a time when the top performers of the day would pit their skills against each other in improvisation contests, and it was rare indeed for Beethoven to be beaten. However, he could never have been described as a popular man, even in those early days of his life. He was small, thin and pockmarked. His clothing and hair were unkempt and his face morose-looking. He was often sullen, tempestuous and desperate, although occasionally given to fits of unmitigated humour and playfulness.

Around 1795, the first public performances of his compositions began to be given, the first noted performance of his work in Vienna being a concert of the Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat, (op. 19). After this, he started to publish works more frequently, including his first 3 piano sonatas (op. 2) in 1796, all of which were dedicated to Haydn, and his Piano Sonata in C minor (Pathetique) in 1798. It was these piano sonatas that started to distinguish Beethoven's work from the work of the earlier classical masters Haydn and Mozart. They were early indications that his work was to be on a much grander scale than his predecessors, employing more inventive variations in key and frequently showing a greater grasp of variation on theme, albeit at the expense of tune.

However, it was also at this same time that he began to realise that his hearing was beginning to fail him. It's not entirely clear when he began to realise that his hearing was failing - it may have been as early as 1792. However, he was well aware of it by 1798, although he kept it a closely guarded secret: it wasn't until 1801 that he admitted to some of his closest friends that he had been all but deaf for around 3 years, shunning company lest his failing be discovered. The following year, the depth of Beethoven's despair can be gauged from a letter he wrote, which is almost a cross between a will and a suicide note, and is generally called the Heiligenstadt Testament. However, the gloom of this letter was merely a passing mood, and he continued to write some of his greatest early works during this time, including the 1st (C major , op. 21) and 2nd (D major, op. 36) Symphonies. However, these 2 works were still more rooted in the past than in the future and were merely pointers to Beethoven's drive away from the Classical style towards the Romantic.

The period 1801 to 1802 also saw the composition of some of his best known piano sonatas - the "Moonlight" in C-sharp minor (op. 27 No 2) and the "Waldstein" in C major (op. 53). However, it was 1803 that saw him start work on the work that is widely regarded as a turning point in musical composition - the 3rd symphony ("Eroica") in E-flat major (op. 55). It was this piece that moved symphonic composition away from the classical approach adopted by Mozart and Haydn, with relatively short symphonies based heavily around transitions between tonic and dominant keys, to the romantic approach of greater length, huge variation on theme and increasing use of dissonance. It is widely regarded as the single piece of music that marks the end of the classical era and introduces the Romantic.

However, it was not so well received in its time. Indeed, up until the late 1840's the Third Symphony was banned at the Prague Conservatory as being Beethoven's most "morally corrupting" work. A critic of the time said "very often, though, the work seems to lose itself in musical anarchy...". The story of the dedication of the piece also reveals much of Beethoven's ideals and fiery temper. Initially inscribed to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven recognised as a hero of his time, for his liberation of the workers. However, soon after this Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, thus, in Beethoven's eyes, abandoning the ideals to which he had been so attracted. So acute was Beethoven's disgust that he scratched the dedication and title from the symphony and rededicated it "to the memory of a great man."

Thus ended one of the great eras of music and another began - with one of the greatest of composers of the period racked with his deafness and unable to hear what great new music he had written. One has to wonder whether his deafness contributed to his desire to experiment with new forms of harmonic variation, which others at the time found difficult to listen to. We shall never know.