Ludwig van Beethoven

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Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770–1827), was a German composer and virtuoso pianist. He is universally recognized as one of the greatest composers of the Western European music tradition. Beethoven's work crowned the classical period and also effectively initiated the romantic era in music. He is one of the few artists who genuinely may be considered revolutionary.

Beethoven's musical output spanned multiple genres including symphonies, concerti, piano sonatas, other sonatas (including for violin), string quartets and other chamber music, masses, an opera, and Lieder.

Biographical notes

Born in Bonn, Germany, he showed remarkable musical talent at an early age. His father, a court musician, imposed a strict regime of musical training on the young Beethoven. In 1787, Beethoven first visited Vienna, the center of the musical world at the time. There he hoped to study with Mozart; whether or not he did is unclear.

In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna and studied with Haydn (among others), a year after the death of Mozart. By 1793, he had gained a reputation as a piano virtuoso. He composed his first works, 3 piano trios, in 1795.

Around 1796, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He started to hear a "ringing" in his ear witch made it hard for him to hear music. He also started to avoid conversation. For a while he lived in a small town called Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament in which he professed a desire to continue living for and through his art. During this time, his deafness worsened, and by 1814 Beethoven had completely lost his hearing.

On 15 November 1815, Beethoven's brother Karl van Beethoven died of tuberculosis, leaving his son Karl, who was Beethoven's nephew. Beethoven became obsessed with the custody of Karl, whom he had previously shown no interest in. The fight for custody brought out the very worst aspects of Beethoven's character, and also caused him to stop composing for long periods. Eventually, Beethoven was awarded sole guardianship of the child. Karl's mother, Johanna, was not only refused access to her son, except under exceptional circumstances, but Beethoven insisted that she pay for her son's education out of her pension. The case was transferred to the Magistracy on 18 December 1818, at which point Beethoven lost sole guardianship. He appealed, and regained custody of Karl. When Karl couldn't stand his tyrannical uncle any longer, he attempted suicide, and later asked to be taken to his mother's house. This desperate act finally freed Karl from the bonds of Beethoven.

After he lost custody of Karl, Beethoven's health went into decline. He died on March 26 1827 in Vienna, just as a thunderstorm and a blizzard broke out.

Beethoven's music

Beethoven's musical life is usually divided into the Early, Middle, and Late periods. In the Early period, he is seen as looking back to composers such as Haydn and Mozart. The Middle period is noted for including works that express heroism and struggle. The Late period's works are characterized by their intellectual depth, their formal innovations, and their intense, highly personal expression.

Beethoven and music architecture

Above all, his works distinguish themselves from those of any prior composer through his creation of large, extended architectonic structures characterized by the extensive development of musical material, themes, and motifs, usually by means of modulation through a variety of keys or harmonic regions. Although Haydn's later works often showed a greater fluidity between distant keys, Beethoven's innovation was the ability to rapidly establish a solidity in juxtaposing different keys and unexpected notes to join them. This expanded harmonic realm creates a sense of a vast musical and experiential space through which the music moves, and the development of musical material creates a sense of unfolding drama in this space.

In this way Beethoven's music parallels the simultaneous development of the novel in literature, a literary form focused on the life drama and development of one or more individuals through complex life circumstances, and of contemporaneous German idealism's philosophical notion of self, mind, or spirit that unfolds through a complex process of contradictions and tensions between the subjective and objective until a resolution or synthesis occurs in which all of these contradictions and developmental phases have been resolved or encompassed in a higher unity.

Development sections

Beethoven continued to expand the "development" section of works, extending a trend in the works of Haydn and Mozart, who had dramatically expanded both the length and substance of instrumental music. As Beethoven's major immediate predecessors and influences, he looked to their harmonic and formal models for his own works. However, while both Mozart and Haydn placed the great weight of a musical movement in the statement of ideas called the exposition, for Beethoven the development section of a sonata form became the heart of the work. Beethoven was able to do this by making the development section not merely longer, but also more structured. The very long development section of his third symphony, for example, is divided into four roughly equal sections. The first movement alone of this symphony is as long as an entire typical Italian-style Mozart symphony from the 1770s.


Although Beethoven wrote many beautiful and lyrical melodies, another radical innovation of his music, compared especially to that of Mozart and Haydn, is his extensive use of forceful, marked, and even stark rhythmic patterns throughout his compositions and, in particular, in his themes and motifs, some of which are primarily rhythmic rather than melodic. Some of his most famous themes, such as those of the first movements of the third, fifth, and ninth symphonies, are primarily non-melodic rhythmic figures consisting of notes of a single chord, and the themes of the last movements of the third and seventh symphonies could more accurately be described as rhythms rather than as melodies. This use of rhythm was particularly well suited to the primacy of development in Beethoven's music, since a single rhythmic pattern can more easily than a melody be taken through a succession of different, even remote, keys and harmonic regions while retaining and conveying an underlying unity. This allowed him to combine different features of his themes in a wide variety of ways, extending the techniques of Haydn in development.

Size of the orchestra

He also continued another trend—towards larger orchestras—that went on until the first decade of the 20th century, and moved the center of the sound downwards in the orchestra, to the violas and the lower register of the violins and cellos, giving his music a heavier and darker feel than Haydn or Mozart. Gustav Mahler modified the orchestration of some of Beethoven's music—most notably the 3rd and 9th symphonies—with the idea of more accurately expressing Beethoven's intent in an orchestra that had grown so much larger than the one Beethoven used: for example, doubling woodwind parts to compensate for the fact that a modern orchestra has so many more strings than Beethoven's orchestra did. Needless to say, these efforts remain controversial.

Beethoven's mode of composition

Beethoven labored heavily over his work, leaving intermediate drafts that provide considerable insight into his creative process. Early drafts of his Ninth Symphony used rough vertical marks on the score in place of actual notes, to indicate the structure he had in mind for the melody. Studies of his sketch books show the working out of dozens of variations on a particular theme, changing themes to fit with an overall structure that evolved over time, and extensive sketching of counter-melodies.

Beethoven and romanticism

Beethoven's place as a transitional figure between the neo-classical period in the arts, called the "classical" period in music, and the Romantic period was a conscious intention of the many 19th century writers and composers, who pointed to his work as the radical departure from the past. As a result, a great deal of literature, including writing by ETA Hoffman, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, placed his work at the pinnacle of what they were trying to achieve in music.

Because of his central importance, methods of conducting and playing, as well as music theory, were centered around his most important works, particularly his symphonies, concerti, string quartets, piano trios and sonatas for piano or piano and other instrument. Beginning from his pupil Carl Czerny and moving forward, basic terms such as tonality, sonata form and tempo were defined or redefined in reference to his musical practice.

As importantly Beethoven's life was seen as the model for the "heroic artist", who cast his personal experiences, perceptions and biography into works, which would then be experienced by the audience members who would be transported to the emotional state of the artist, and thus participate in a "sublime" experience. That Beethoven had great difficulties in his life was joined to the sense of struggle and difficulty in his music, and used as the basis for an entire mythology of the role of the artist in society, and the difficulties of artistic creation. A biography by Anton Schindler was in accordance with this sense of Beethoven as Romantic, constantly putting direct emotional symbols into his work, such as saying "Thus Fate Knocks at the Door!" for the opening of the C Minor Symphony, number 5. Beethoven as icon can be seen in the efforts to erect a monument to him, led by Franz Liszt, and in the arguments over whether Johannes Brahms or Richard Wagner better represented the tradition of music that Beethoven was thought to have created.

With the 20th century a reaction against this "cult of the Romantic artist" began to be seen. In a sense it was a continuation of the Romantic cult in a different form: a new generation of artists wanted to claim Beethoven as their own, and place him in the context as the pinnacle figure of musical enlightenment and rationality. The emphasis on harmonic practice led to arguments that Beethoven was not "really" a romantic because of his general rejection of chromaticism in melodies, and his structural practices in preparing modulations. By the 1950's it was common to deny that Beethoven was a Romantic at all.

In the late 20th century, the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction, in some measure because of a revival of interest in Romanticism, and in part because of a change in the status of musical technique. With the falling out of favor of the idea that music was about "progress", the need to see Beethoven in technical terms diminished. The differences between his work and Mozart's became accentuated, in part because of the rise of neo-classical styles of playing or historically informed performance. Beethoven came to many to be seen in relation to contemporaries such as Goethe and Jacques-Louis David - having both neo-classical and Romantic elements to their work.