“Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman.”
—Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was born on this day in Vienna, Austria in 1770. Today is the 242nd anniversary of his birth.
He was the eldest of the three surviving Beethoven children. His father taught him the violin and clavier. The elder Beethoven was an alcoholic and a draconian teacher, “Beethoven was flogged, locked in the cellar” [Biography], beaten if he played a wrong note, and deprived of sleep so he could practice. The boy had his debut with a public performance in Cologne in March 1778. His father shaved a few years off his age so Ludwig’s talents made him seem more of a child prodigy.
Musically talented he was, but little Ludwig struggled at school. Math and spelling eluded him his entire life. “Music” he said “comes to me more readily than words.”
At 10 he left school and began to take lessons on the organ and in composition from Court Organist Christian Neefe. Neefe was a much better teacher than his father and he introduced the boy to a world outside the scope of music, including philosophy. By 12 he published his first musical piece, 9 Variations in C Minor for Piano.
When Beethoven was 14 Neefe recommended Beethoven as court organist for Maxcimmian Franz of Cologne.
At 17 Prince Maximilian sent him to Vienna to meet Mozart, but returned home two weeks later upon hearing that his beloved mother (who he called his best friend) had become severely ill. Heartbroken, he stayed in Bonn for several years. He took over the care of his younger brothers — his father had sunk further into alcoholism and was no longer contributing to the family.
In 1790 he wrote a musical memorial in honor of the death of Emperor Joseph II.
For reasons that remain unclear, Beethoven’s composition was never performed … more than a century later, Johannes Brahms discovered that Beethoven had in fact composed a “beautiful and noble” piece of music entitled Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. It is now considered his earliest masterpiece. [Biography]
Here’s the Soprano aria with Judith Howarth and the Corydon Orchestra.
He went back to Vienna at 22 and studied with Haydn, Salieri and Albrechtsberger. His skills as a virtuoso pianist helped him win patrons among the Viennese aristocracy. His composing allowed him to highlight his piano playing skills. In 1795 he performed and published his Opus number 1, three piano trios.
In April of 1800 “Beethoven debuted his Symphony No. 1 in C major” [Biography]. As he matured as a composer he found fault with the symphony saying “In those days I did not know how to compose.” But when it came out Symphony No. 1 was a hit. It…
established him as one of Europe’s most celebrated composers. As the new century progressed, Beethoven composed piece after piece that marked him as a masterful composer reaching his musical maturity. [Ibid]
His Sonata quasis un fantasia (aka Moonlight Sonata) and the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus came next. He was transitioning from Classical world to the Romantic world.
He followed the ballet with his Symphony No. 3, The “Eroica Symphony” which he originally wrote in Napoleon’s honor.
it was his grandest and most original work to date — so unlike anything heard before that through weeks of rehearsal, the musicians could not figure out how to play it. A prominent reviewer proclaimed Eroica, “one of the most original, most sublime, and most profound products that the entire genre of music has ever exhibited.” [Biography]
Here’s the first movement as played by New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
By 26 Beethoven had begun to loose his hearing. He could not hear from the persistent ringing in his ears. He stopped attending social functions and moved to Heiligenstadt, a small town outside of Vienna.
He was depressed and angry over the fate life had handed him. He confessed in the Helligenstadt Testament that he considered suicide, but …
it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. [Ibid]
Tenaciously he continued to compose, producing “an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, five string quartets, six string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets and seventy-two songs” [Ibid] in his heroic or Middle period.
He kept conversation books where friends would writing down what they were talking about to keep him in the loop, and he would respond orally (and sometimes would respond on paper.) He had about 400 of these books, but only 136 exist today.
The symphony’s famous choral finale, with four vocal soloists and a chorus singing the words of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” is perhaps the most famous piece of music in history. While connoisseurs delighted in the symphony’s contrapuntal and formal complexity, the masses found inspiration in the anthem-like vigor of the choral finale and the concluding invocation of “all humanity.” [Biography]
Beethoven died on March 26, 1827. He was 56 years old.
Here is the Kyrie Eleison from his Missa Solemnis performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Colin Davis conducting…