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Ludwig van Beethoven picture, image, poster
Ludwig Van Beethoven

Date of birth : 1770-12-16
Date of death : 1827-03-26
Birthplace : Bonn, Germany
Nationality : German
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-07-29

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven is considered one of the most important figures in the history of music. He continued to compose even while losing his hearing and created some of his greatest works after becoming totally deaf.

Early years in Bonn

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, on December 16, 1770. He was the eldest of three children of Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. His father, a musician who liked to drink, taught him to play piano and violin. Young Ludwig was often pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and ordered to perform for his father's drinking companions, suffering beatings if he protested. As Beethoven developed, it became clear that to reach artistic maturity he would have to leave Bonn for a major musical center.

At the age of twelve Beethoven was a promising keyboard player and a talented pupil in composition of the court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748–1798). He even filled in as church organist when Neefe was out of town. In 1783 Beethoven's first published work, a set of keyboard pieces, appeared, and in the 1780s he produced portions of a number of later works. In 1787 he traveled to Vienna, Austria, apparently to seek out Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) as a teacher. He was forced to return to Bonn to care for his ailing mother, who died several months later. His father died in 1792.

Years in Vienna

In 1792 Beethoven went back to Vienna to study with the famous composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). Beethoven was not totally satisfied with Haydn's teaching, though, and he turned to musicians of lesser talent for extra instruction. Beethoven rapidly proceeded to make his mark as a brilliant keyboard performer and as a gifted young composer with a number of works to his credit. In 1795 his first mature published works appeared, and his career was officially launched.

Beethoven lived in Vienna from 1792 to his death in 1827, unmarried, among a circle of friends, independent of any kind of official position or private service. He rarely traveled, apart from summers in the countryside. In 1796 he made a trip to northern Germany, where his schedule included a visit to the court of King Frederick William of Prussia, an amateur cellist. Later Beethoven made several trips to Budapest, Hungary. In 1808 Beethoven received an invitation to become music director at Kassel, Germany. This alarmed several of his wealthy Viennese friends, who formed a group of backers and agreed to guarantee Beethoven an annual salary of 1,400 florins to keep him in Vienna. He thus became one of the first musicians in history to be able to live independently on his music salary.

Personal and professional problems

Although publishers sought out Beethoven and he was an able manager of his own business affairs, he was at the mercy of the crooked publishing practices of his time. Publishers paid a fee to composers for rights to their works, but there was no system of copyrights (the exclusive right to sell and copy a published work) or royalties (profits based on public performances of the material) at the time. As each new work appeared, Beethoven sold it to one or more of the best and most reliable publishers. But this initial payment was all he would receive, and both he and his publisher had to contend with rival publishers who brought out editions of their own. As a result Beethoven saw his works published in many different versions that were unauthorized, unchecked, and often inaccurate. Several times during his life in Vienna Beethoven started plans for a complete, authorized edition of his works, but these plans were never realized.

Beethoven's two main personal problems, especially in later life, were his deafness and his relationship with his nephew, Karl. Beethoven began to lose his hearing during his early years in Vienna, and the condition gradually grew worse. So severe was the problem that as early as 1802 he actually considered suicide. In 1815 he gave up hope of performing publicly as a pianist. After 1818 he was no longer able to carry on conversations with visitors, who were forced to communicate with him in writing. The second problem arose when he became Karl's guardian upon the death of his brother in 1815. Karl proved to be unstable and a continuing source of worry to an already troubled man.

Beethoven's deafness and his temper contributed to his reputation as an unpleasant personality. But reliable accounts and a careful reading of Beethoven's letters reveal him to be a powerful and self-conscious man, totally involved in his creative work but alert to its practical side as well, and one who is sometimes willing to change to meet current demands. For example, he wrote some works on commission, such as his cantata (a narrative poem set to music) for the Congress of Vienna, 1814.

Examining Beethoven

Beethoven's deafness affected his social life, and it must have changed his personality deeply. In any event, his development as an artist would probably have caused a crisis in his relationship to the musical and social life of the time sooner or later. In his early years he wrote as a pianist-composer for an immediate and receptive public; in his last years he wrote for himself. Common in Beethoven biographies is the focus on Beethoven's awareness of current events and ideas, especially his attachment to the ideals of the French Revolution (1789–99; the revolt of the French middle class to end absolute power by French kings) and his faith in the brotherhood of men, as expressed in his lifelong goal of composing a version of "Ode to Joy," by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), realized at last in the Ninth Symphony. Also frequently mentioned is his genuine love of nature and outdoor life.

No one had ever heard anything like Beethoven's last works; they were too advanced for audiences and even professional musicians for some time after his death in 1827. Beethoven was aware of this. It seems, however, he expected later audiences to have a greater understanding of and appreciation for them. Beethoven reportedly told a visitor who was confused by some of his later pieces, "They are not for you but for a later age."

Beethoven is acknowledged as one of the giants of classical music; occasionally he is referred to as one of the "three Bs" (along with Bach and Brahms) who epitomize that tradition. He was also a pivotal figure in the transition from 18th century musical classicism to 19th century romanticism, and his influence on subsequent generations of composers was profound.

Beethoven composed in several musical genres, and for a variety of instrument combinations. His works for symphony orchestra include nine symphonies (the Ninth Symphony includes a chorus), and about a dozen pieces of "occasional" music. He wrote nine concerti for one or more soloists and orchestra, as well as four shorter works that include soloists accompanied by orchestra. His only opera is Fidelio; other vocal works with orchestral accompaniment include two masses and a number of shorter works.

His large body of compositions for piano includes 32 piano sonatas and numerous shorter pieces, including arrangements of some of his other works. Works with piano accompaniment include 10 violin sonatas, 5 cello sonatas, and a sonata for French horn, as well as numerous lieder.

Beethoven also wrote a significant quantity of chamber music. In addition to 16 string quartets, he wrote five works for string quintet, seven for piano trio, five for string trio, and more than a dozen works for a variety of combinations of wind instruments.

The three periods

Beethoven's compositional career is usually divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. In this scheme, his early period is taken to last until about 1802, the middle period from about 1803 to about 1814, and the late period from about 1815.

In his Early period, Beethoven's work was strongly influenced by his predecessors Haydn and Mozart. He also explored new directions and gradually expanded the scope and ambition of his work. Some important pieces from the Early period are the first and second symphonies, the set of six string quartets Opus 18, the first two piano concertos, and the first dozen or so piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique sonata, Op. 13.

His Middle (Heroic) period began shortly after Beethoven's personal crisis brought on by his recognition of encroaching deafness. It includes large-scale works that express heroism and struggle. Middle-period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3–8), the last three piano concertos, the Triple Concerto and violin concerto, five string quartets (Nos. 7–11), several piano sonatas (including the Moonlight, Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas), the Kreutzer violin sonata and Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.

Beethoven's Late period began around 1815. Works from this period are characterized by their intellectual depth, their formal innovations, and their intense, highly personal expression. The String Quartet, Op. 131 has seven linked movements, and the Ninth Symphony adds choral forces to the orchestra in the last movement. Other compositions from this period include the Missa Solemnis, the last five string quartets (including the massive Große Fuge) and the last five piano sonatas.

Beethoven on screen

Eroica is a 1949 Austrian film depicting life and works of Beethoven (Ewald Balser), which also entered into the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. The film is directed by Walter Kolm-Veltée, produced by Guido Bagier with Walter Kolm-Veltée and written by Walter Kolm-Veltée with Franz Tassié.

In 1962, Walt Disney produced a made-for-television and extremely fictionalized life of Beethoven entitled The Magnificent Rebel. The film was given a two-part premiere on the Walt Disney anthology television series and released to theatres in Europe. It starred Karlheinz Bohm as Beethoven.

In 1994 a film about Beethoven (Gary Oldman) titled Immortal Beloved was written and directed by Bernard Rose. The story follows Beethoven's secretary and first biographer, Anton Schindler (portrayed by Jeroen Krabbé), as he attempts to ascertain the true identity of the Unsterbliche Geliebte (Immortal Beloved) addressed in three letters found in the late composer's private papers. Schindler journeys throughout the Austrian Empire, interviewing women who might be potential candidates, as well as through Beethoven's own tumultuous life. Filming took place in the Czech cities of Prague and Kromeriz and the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, Austria, between 23 May and 29 July 1994.

In 2003 a BBC/Opus Arte film Eroica was released, with Ian Hart as Beethoven and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner performing the Eroica Symphony in its entirety. The subject of the film is the first performance of the Eroica Symphony in 1804 at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz (played by Jack Davenport). In a 2005 three-part BBC miniseries, Beethoven was played by Paul Rhys.

A movie titled Copying Beethoven was released in 2006, starring Ed Harris as Beethoven. This film was a fictionalized account of Beethoven's last days, and his struggle to produce his Ninth Symphony before he died.


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