This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

More for:
timeline

Ludwig van Beethoven

His Story

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December 1770. He was a serious little fellow, fascinated by music.

Vienna was Europe's cultural capital. When Ludwig was 17-years-old he made his first trip to this city. He went to study Classical music with Franz Joseph Haydn. While in Vienna, Beethoven played the piano for Mozart. Mozart told him, "You will make a big noise in the world".

That year his mother and baby sister died, and Ludwig's father lost his job. He returned to Bonn and supported his family for 5 years, until his father's death, then Beethoven brought his "bigger-than-life" personality back to Vienna for good.

He was an unkept, awkward, brash, and very, very self-confident young man. Ludwig easily made his place as both a performer and a composer. Sometimes he was rude and violent, other times he was kind and generous. He threw hot food at a waiter. He hit a choir boy. He swept candles off a piano during a bad performance. Ludwig van Beethoven's intensity caused a bitter custody battle over his nephew. To escape the fighting, the nephew actually tried to take his own life. Beethoven was kindhearted however, and he helped raise money for Johann Sebastian Bach's only surviving child, who was living in poverty. He donated new compositions for a benefit concert in aid of Ursuline nuns.

Ludwig van Beethoven was 25-years-old when he first performed as a piano virtuoso. He was supposed to play his own Second Piano Concerto. Two days before the performance Beethoven hadn't finished composing it. He was sick with an upset stomach. A friend fed him remedies while Ludwig wrote out the music. The copyists (people who made the orchestra's music copies) sat outside his bedroom waiting for each new sheet of music.

Beethoven seemed often to work down to the last minute. On the morning of the concert for the oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, a friend found Ludwig sitting in bed composing the trombone part. The trombonists rehearsed from Beethoven's handwritten music at 8 a.m. that day. The ink was barely dry.

Beethoven's Friends

Despite his difficult behaviour, Beethoven made friends easily. He was admired and respected for the wonderful music he created.

Franz Joseph Haydn was his piano teacher for a very short time. The student/teacher relationship didn't work for them, but friendship did.

Antonio Salieri was Mozart's rival, and Beethoven's friend. Ludwig dedicated 3 violin sonatas to Salieri. (Do you know about the rumour that Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart?)

Beethoven lived in the home of Prince Lichnowsky for awhile. Prince Lichnowsky was a musician who studied and played Ludwig's new piano sonatas. He paid for the publishing of Beethoven's Opus 1.

Johann Nepomuk Malzel, the "Court Mechanician", also became Ludwig's friend. Malzel invented the musical chronometer. It was refined to the metronome. (A metronome ticks at a specific pace to guide the musician's tempo or speed.) Beethoven loved the chronometer and even composed a little canon to the words "Ta ta ta lieber lieber Malzel."

Beethoven was very popular with the ladies. He never married, but he dedicated some of his music to the women in his life: Moonlight Sonata and Fur Elise, for example.

There is only one Beethoven.

To Ludwig van Beethoven, respect was more important than friendship. A person's position did not matter to him.

Composers and musicians were considered the servants of nobility. Beethoven's fiercely independent spirit challenged that thinking. He said, "It is good to move among the aristocracy, but it is first necessary to make them respect."

Here are two incidents that show the strength of Ludwig's convictions.

A nobleman once talked during a performance. Beethoven stopped playing and declared, "For such pigs, I do not play!"

He would say to the face of a prince and benefactor,
"What you are, is by accident of birth;
What I am, I created myself.
There are, and have been, thousands, of princes;
There is only one Beethoven."

He lacked tact, but he argued a great truth.

There is also only one of you.
What are you creating with yourself?

Beethoven's Heartache

At only 28 years old, just before writing his very first symphony, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He tried every treatment he could find to fix this problem. Sometimes he could hear just fine. The last 10 years of Beethoven's life, he heard nothing. Beethoven sadly and bitterly mourned the loss of his hearing.

He continued to lead rehearsals and play the piano until he was 44 years old. Ludwig may have "heard" music by feeling its vibrations. He knew music so well he could probably hear it in his head.

The older Ludwig got, the more absorbed he became in his music. He was so focused that he didn't care at all about how he looked. He would pour water over his head instead of actually washing. In his rooms sat 4 pianos without legs and piles of manuscripts that no one was allowed to touch.. To feel the vibrations better, Beethoven composed music seated on the floor at a legless piano. He often worked in his underwear, or even naked. If friends came to visit him when he was composing, he completely ignored them.

Beethoven, Human Rights and the Arts

The arts of the Classical period were restrained and rational. They were very formal and had set structures and forms.

Ludwig van Beethoven lived through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It was a time of huge social and political change in Europe and the world. All this change was reflected in his music.

Ludwig's opera, Fidelio, is set in Spain and is based on the story of a nobleman unjustly imprisoned for threatening to reveal the crimes of a politician.

Do you remember why Beethoven first moved to Vienna? He went to learn from the great, Classical musician, Haydn. Right?

Well, Beethoven learned what he needed from Haydn and then created a whole new sound. This new sound was emotional, intense, energetic, and revolutionary. It magnified all the rules and focused on the senses. This new power in the arts became known as the era of Romanticism.

Much of the Romantic period of music had light, sweet tones, almost like songs. Ludwig's Romance no.1 for Violin in G, Opus 40 and Romance no.2 for Violin in F, Opus 50 are good examples of this type of music. One of Beethoven's most popular compositions is the Moonlight Sonata. It was really the second of two sonatas that made up Opus 27, It got its name after Beethoven's death, from the poet Ludwig Rellstab.

Beethoven's Romantic symphonies pushed back all Classical confines. They became large, epic structures that passionately told a story. Instead of the 3 movements of the Classical symphony, that lasted only 10-12 minutes, Ludwig's symphonies were bolder, had more instruments, more emotion and lasted longer. His Third Symphony lasts about 50 minutes. The Ninth Symphony lasts well over 60 minutes. Beethoven needed to make things bigger and better.

His symphonies are masterpieces!
Listen to Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 9 sometime.

Everything Beethoven wrote had something new, sensational or strange about it.

Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica")

Beethoven first dedicated Eroica to Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul of France. He thought Napoleon represented all that was good about the human race. Napolean was a daring young man.

In May 1804, Napolean proclaimed himself France's Emperor, Beethoven was furious with Napolean when he heard the news. He ran to the table where this symphony was laying, ripped off the title page and cried,

"Is he then too nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant."

When Beethoven had calmed down, he reworded the title of Symphony No. 3. "Sinfonia Eroica, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man."

It was no longer dedicated "to" a great man, but to the "memory" of a great man.

This symphony celebrates the hope for liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Wellington's Victory

Wellington's Victory is sometimes called the "Battle" Symphony, but it isn't really a symphony. It is a short, single-movement for orchestra. It has special effects to simulate battle sounds. Beethoven wrote Wellington's Victory for a gala benefit concert. The benefit was held in Vienna for wounded soldiers. Wellington was a British officer. His triumph in the Peninsular War helped defeat Napolean.

Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5 is Beethoven's most popular symphony.

Beethoven just took a 4-note pattern and made it famous. The impact of the energy in that repeated da-da-da-daaah! is unforgettable!

Violin Concerto

Beethoven only wrote one violin concerto. He wrote it for the virtuoso violin soloist, Franz Clement. It is still considered one of the most wonderful of all concertos for any instrument.

Symphony No. 9

In this, Beethoven combines chorus and vocal soloists and an orchestra. He was the first composer to ever do anything like this. He borrowed and changed some of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" for the lyrics. The words and music yearn for peace, joy, and the brotherhood of man. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony still sings that yearning for people today. It was played at the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and at the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990.

The main theme is heard in the final movement, where the chorus sings. It is known to most people in the western world. It sounds so simple, yet Beethoven went through nearly 20 versions of it. He kept changing a note here, repeating one there, making another longer. He didn't stop until it sounded perfect to him.

Creating is always hard work, but it's also sweet.

Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale)

Beethoven poured all his love for the countryside into this symphony. His personal life was full of turmoil, stormy relationships and growing deafness. He found peace in the woods outside Vienna.

    "How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do. My bad hearing does not trouble me here."

In this symphony we hear one of the most famous storms depicted by music. First you will hear a few raindrops, then the wind picks up, and suddenly there is a downpour. Torrents of rain, lashing wind and flashes of lightning are heard. You'll hear trombones, a shrill piccolo and thundering timpani in this exciting movement.

Did you know that Beethoven didn't use trombones very much. You'll hear them in this symphony and in Symphony No. 9.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125

By the time the Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, Beethoven was deaf. He insisted on conducting the orchestra anyway. Beethoven continued conducting even when the piece had ended. He couldn't hear that the orchestra had stopped playing. One of the sopranos tugged at his sleeve to get him to turn to the applauding audience.

Many of his listeners are moved to tears by Beethoven's music. He responded: "Composers do not cry. Composers are made of fire."

Beethoven's Last Words

When Beethoven was 56, returning in an open wagon from his brother's estate, he caught pneumonia and never fully recovered.

Late in the afternoon on March 26, 1827, Ludwig lay ill in his bed. A storm was forming outside. The sky darkened. Lightning lit up Beethoven's room and a loud thunder-clap filled the air. Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his fist, and fell back dead.

Ludwig van Beethoven's funeral was enormous. 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna on March 29, 1827. Soldiers were needed to control the grief stricken crowds. Nine priests blessed his body. He was buried in a grave marked by a simple pyramid that held one word, "Beethoven".

Today his remains are in Vienna's Central Cemetery, beside those of Austria's composer Franz Schubert.

The last words Beethoven spoke were, “I shall hear in Heaven.”

Listen to Beethoven's "Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Opus 21" performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra.