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Ludwig van Beethoven is generally considered among musicians to be the greatest composer that ever lived. This opinion would have been shared by the concert-going public up to about 1960. Times change, and Bach and Mozart are probably more popular at the moment (at the time of writing, anyhow!).
Beethoven produced a huge amount of music, most of it ground-breaking, including piano sonatas, concertos, symphonies and string quartets.
Born in 1770, in Bonn, Germany, he always fancied that he was of noble blood, because he took the 'van' in his name to be a corruption of 'von', the normal prefix in Germany for the nobility. In fact, his ancestors were Flemish, where 'van' just means 'from the family of' and does not indicate nobility.
Beethoven's father was an alcoholic who was determined to bring up his child as a musical prodigy, like Mozart. Young Ludwig studied piano at an early age but showed no special talent, for which he was beaten by his father. With adolescence, his musical abilities came to the fore. He studied under Christian Neefe, the court organist in Bonn, and got the job of Deputy Court Organist at the age of 12. When he was 18, his mother died. His father started drinking heavily and became unable to support the family. It was up to Ludwig to provide an income, which he did by playing the piano and the viola, giving music lessons and various other jobs associated with music. He also composed a few small pieces.
One of his compositions impressed the composer Haydn so much that he offered to teach Beethoven. In 1792, at the age of 22, Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna, Austria, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Vienna, Beethoven had lessons from Haydn and Salieri. He supported himself with the help of aristocratic patrons. He made his performing debut in 1795, playing one of his own compositions, the Piano Concerto No 2, as well as a piano concerto by Mozart. The Viennese public loved him and he never had any problems with money as a result. His compositions from this time are nearly all piano pieces.
Before he was even 30, Beethoven started to notice that he was losing his hearing, surely the greatest tragedy for a performer and composer. By the time he was 32, it was obvious he would not be able to continue as a virtuoso performer. He started to devote all his time to composition; with his wonderful musical memory, he could still hear the music in his head. By the age of 49, he was totally deaf, and all conversations had to be written down for him.
Beethoven developed a reputation for having a furious temper and being an unlikable character. He apologises for this in his personal writings, saying it was due to the torment of his deafness. Nevertheless, the poet and dramatist Goethe described him as:
... an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude.
Beethoven never married, although he appears to have been engaged on three separate occasions. Without the need to support a family, he was reasonably successful financially, at times very much so.
He died in Vienna in 1827, at the age of 56.
As a world-class pianist, Beethoven particularly favoured the piano in his compositions. He wrote 36 piano sonatas (large works for unaccompanied piano) and five piano concertos (large works for piano and orchestra) as well as a huge range of other piano music. Most famous is his Bagatelle in A Minor, which bears the title Für Elise ('For Elise'). In fact, Beethoven's writing was so messy that no one is sure whether it was for Elise or for someone else entirely different that the piece was intended. The opening movement of his Moonlight sonata is equally famous.
Starting small, Beethoven pushed the form of symphony in new directions; with his introduction of the 'scherzo' movement (a musical joke) in place of the staid minuet; with the lengthening of the symphony from the 20 minutes of Haydn to the 75 minutes of his final symphony; and with the increase in size of the orchestra and the complexity of orchestral colour by the use of many different instruments. In his final symphony, he introduced the human voice.
It is often said that Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies were the ground-breaking ones, while the even-numbered ones were the pot boilers. This is somewhat unfair to his 6th and 8th symphonies. If anyone else had written them, they would be instant celebrities.
Here are some details about the most important symphonies.
Symphony 3 - Eroica
This was supposed to be dedicated to Napoleon, but when he declared himself Emperor, Beethoven was disgusted. He changed the dedication to 'the memory of a great man'. This symphony is unlike anything that had been written before; it was big and bold and was an instant hit.
The four-note opening theme of this symphony ('da da da dum') must be the most famous four notes in the history of music. They are often said to represent fate knocking on the door, as a reference to the composer's impending deafness. Beethoven himself never suggested such a thing. This symphony is not supposed to represent anything at all. It is absolute music, beautiful or interesting for its own sake, not in what it represents. The 5th symphony is very highly regarded despite the totally over-the-top ending.
Symphony 6 - the Pastoral Symphony
In complete contrast to the 5th, this symphony is 'programme music'. Each movement represents a scene in a trip into the countryside and bears a fanciful title such as 'cheerful thoughts on arriving in the country'. Other movements represent a peasant dance, a thunderstorm and the shepherd's song. You can hear the cuckoos singing in the last one. This symphony was used in Disney's Fantasia, although the pastoral scenes of Greek myth were used instead of Beethoven's more civilised countryside.
This symphony is probably Beethoven's cleverest, combining all the elements to make a great piece of music. It is probably not as well known as it should be.
This is often considered the greatest symphony ever written. Others regard it as a fearful mish-mash of musical styles. It is certainly unusual, in that it included singers, a practice unheard of in Beethoven's day. The symphony has the traditional four movements. The first three are wonderful, but not exactly ground-breaking. Unusually, the scherzo comes second and the slow movement third, rather than the more normal arrangement of the other way round.
The fourth and final movement is where the fireworks start. A dramatic chaotic chord strikes out, which is answered by quotations from each of the first three movements. The chaos returns, then the famous 'ode to joy' theme is introduced, first on instruments, later being sung by the singers. The text is the poem 'Ode to Joy' by the German poet Schiller. This is so popular that it has become the unofficial European national anthem.
Beethoven's string quartets are the thinking man's music. Stereotypically, when music lovers turn 40, they start wearing cardigans and slippers around the house and start listening to string quartets. The string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. It is music stripped down to the essentials. Beethoven was a master of the form, producing 17 different quartets.
Beethoven tried hard but only succeeded in producing one opera, Fidelio, which had only moderate success. The plot concerns a woman who disguises herself as a man to rescue her imprisoned husband. Such 'rescue operas' were very popular at the time. It is uneven in quality, perhaps due to Beethoven being rather inexperienced in love and relationships. Nevertheless, the message about freedom from tyranny is still deeply moving.
Since everything Beethoven wrote was started, crossed out, changed, retried and so on, he ended up producing four separate overtures for this one opera. Unwilling to let them go to waste, he published one as the 'genuine' overture and the other three under the name of Leonora. They are known as the Leonora Overtures No 1, No 2 and No 3.
Beethoven produced all sorts of different music, including settings of Irish melodies, a Violin concerto, a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello, and even a mock battle between French and English troops. This last one was known as Wellington's Victory and commemorated the Battle of Vitoria. Originally written to be performed by a mechanical musical instrument called a panharmonicon, it is a woefully awful piece of music, but might be fun for a school orchestra to perform.