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Beethoven: life and work
This Wikipedia article is a detailed account of the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven. For more on this composer, see the main Wikipedia article Ludwig van Beethoven.
Role of Musical Biography
It is common for listeners to perceive an echo of Beethoven's life in his music, which often depicts struggle followed by triumph; this description is often applied to Beethoven's creation of masterpieces in the face of his severe personal difficulties. Indeed, this way of thinking of Beethoven grew up even during his life time, for example in the reviews of his music by ETA Hoffman, and was cemented by the burst of eulogies and writings shortly after his death. For this reason, more than almost any other composer, musicological descriptions of Beethoven's music are linked to details of his personal and professional life.
Beethoven's most significant ancestor was his grandfather (1712-1773), also named Ludwig van Beethoven. The elder Ludwig was Flemish (hence "van", not "von"), and came from Mechelen (French: Malines), now in Belgium. This Ludwig emigrated to Germany in 1733 to work as a bass singer and ultimately settled in Bonn, which at the time was the seat of the Archbishopric of Cologne. The elder Ludwig rose through the ranks at the court of the reigning prince (called the Elector), and ultimately reached the highest rank of Kapellmeister.
The name Beethoven comes from seventeenth century Dutch. The Dutch word "beet" means, not surprisingly, "beet". The Dutch word "hoven" (singular "hof") means "garden", not only the grounds, but also the buildings. Some researchers point to a part of the Netherlands, called the "Betuwe", where a long time ago a (German?) family had found "better meadows" (the prefix "bet" meaning "better") and later on travelled southwards to Flanders where they settled down. In Flanders there was a locality called Betouwe and in the sixteenth century it's mentioned in the archives as Bethove or Bethoven. Anyway, the use of the Dutch "van" (in English "from") does suggests that the name points to a particular place, be it the original "better meadow" or the later one developed "beetgarden". In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the name was also spelled as "Piethoff(en)," "Betthoff(en)," and "Biethof(en)."
The elder Ludwig also ran a wineselling business. This was thought by some to have been a contributing factor in both his wife and his son Johann (the composer's father) becoming alcoholics. Although Ludwig the elder died when the composer was only three, Beethoven nevertheless remembered him fondly, and later in life asked to have his grandfather's portrait forwarded to him in Vienna.
Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770. We have no record of his birth date, only that he was baptized on December 17th. The composer's birthday is often celebrated, based on the usual custom of rapidly baptizing infants at that time, as December 16th.
His parents were Johann van Beethoven (1740-1792), and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744-1787). Johann worked as a tenor singer in the Electoral court, that is, in the musical establishment presided over by the grandfather. Beethoven's parents had a total of seven children, of whom only three survived infancy. These were Beethoven and his two younger brothers, Caspar Anton Carl, born 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, born 1776.
Beethoven began his musical education under the tutorship of his alcoholic father, who is believed to have beaten him in the course of his lessons. The child's musical talent manifested itself early--apparently he was advanced enough to perform at the age of seven. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart's successes in this area, attempted unsuccessfully to exploit his son as a child prodigy.
In 1779 Beethoven became the protegé of Christian Gottlob Neefe, who taught him composition. Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as assistant organist, first on an unpaid basis (1791), and then as paid employee of the court (1784). His first three piano sonatas, the so-called "Kurfürst" ("Elector") sonatas, were published in 1783. During this time, Beethoven's talent was noticed and appreciated by the Elector, Maximilian Franz (1756-1801), who subsidized his musical studies.
In 1787, Beethoven traveled to Vienna hoping to study with Mozart. Scholars disagree on the authenticity of a story whereby Beethoven is said to have played for Mozart and impressed him. After just two weeks in Vienna, Beethoven learned that his mother was severely ill, and he was forced to return home. His mother died shortly thereafter, and the father lapsed deeper into alcoholism. As a result, Beethoven became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers, and he spent the next five years in Bonn.
In 1789, he succeeded in obtaining a legal order by which half of his father's salary was paid directly to him for support of the family. Another source of income was payment for Beethoven's service as a violist in the court orchestra. This familiarized Beethoven with three of Mozart's operas performed at court in this period.
Establishing his career in Vienna
With the Elector's help, Beethoven moved again to Vienna in 1792. Beethoven did not immediately set out to establish himself as a composer, but rather devoted himself to study and to piano performance. Working under the direction of Joseph Haydn, he sought to master counterpoint, and he also took violin lessons. At the same time, he established a reputation as a piano virtuoso and improviser in the salons of the nobility, often playing the preludes and fugues of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
With Haydn's departure for England in 1794, Beethoven was expected by the Elector to return home. He chose instead to remain in Vienna, continuing the instruction in counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and other teachers. Although his stipend from the Elector expired, a number of Viennese noblemen had already recognized his talent and offered him financial support, among them Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowicz, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and Baron Gottfried van Swieten.
Beethoven's first public performance in Vienna was in 1795, with his Second (or perhaps First) Piano Concerto; and in the same year were published the first of his compositions to which he assigned an opus number, the piano trios of Opus 1. By 1800, with the premiere of his First Symphony, Beethoven was considered one of the most important of a generation of young composers who followed after Haydn and Mozart.
During his early career as a composer, Beethoven concentrated first on works for piano solo, then string quartets, symphonies, and other genres. This was a pattern he was to repeat in the "late" period of his career (see below). Thus, 12 of Beethoven's famous series of 32 piano sonatas date from before 1802, and could be considered early-period works; of these, the most celebrated today is probably the "Pathétique", Op. 13. The first six quartets were published as a set (Op. 18) in 1800, and the First and Second Symphonies premiered in 1800 and 1802.
All musical authorities agree that Beethoven's early work was closely modeled on that of Haydn and Mozart. However, Beethoven's own musical personality is still very much evident even at this stage. This is seen, for instance, in his frequent use of the musical dynamic sforzando, found even in the "Elector" sonatas for piano that Beethoven wrote as a child. Some of the longer piano sonatas of the 1790's are written in a rather discursive style quite unlike their models, making use of the so-called "three-key exposition".
Loss of hearing
Around 1801, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a "roar" in his ears that made it hard for him to appreciate music and he would avoid conversation. The cause of Beethoven's deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The oldest explanation, from the autopsy of the time, is that he had a distended inner ear which developed lesions over time. This theory is outlined in Beethoven et les malentendus by Maurice Porot et Jacques Miermont.
Russell Martin argued, from analysis done by Walsh and McCrone on a sample of Beethoven's hair, that there were alarmingly high levels of lead in Beethoven's system. And that high concentrations of lead can lead to bizarre & erratic behaviour, including rages. Another symptom of lead poisoning is deafness. In Beethoven's era, lead was used widely without true understanding of the damage it could lead to: in sweetening wine, finishes on porcelain, and even medicine. The investigation of this link was detailed in the book, "Beethoven's Hair : An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved". While the likelihood of lead poisoning is very high, the deafness associated with it seldom takes the form that Beethoven exhibited. It is more likely that his generally bad health as he grew older was related to plumbism rather than his hearing loss.
Over time, his hearing loss became acute: there is a well-attested story that, at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned round to see the tumultuous applause of the audience, hearing nothing. In 1802, he became depressed, and considered committing suicide. He left Vienna for a time for small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament ", in which he resolved to continue living through his art. He continued composing even as his hearing deteriorated. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own "Emperor" Concerto, he never performed in public again.
As a result of Beethoven's hearing loss, a unique historical record has been preserved: he kept conversation books discussing music and other issues, and giving an insight into his thought. Even today, the conversation books form the basis for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed, and his relationship to art - which he took very seriously.
Beethoven is believed to have said on his deathbed, "I will hear in heaven."
The Middle period
Around 1802 he declared "I am but lately little satisfied with my works, I shall take a new way." The first major work of this new way was the "Eroica" Symphony in E flat. While other composers had written symphonies with implied programs, or stories, this symphony was also longer and larger in scope than any other written. It made huge demands on the players, because at that time there were few orchestras devoted to concert music that were independent of royal or aristocratic patrons, and hence performance standards at concerts were often haphazard. Nevertheless, it was a success.
The Eroica was one of the first works of Beethoven's so-called "middle period", or "Heroic Period", a time when Beethoven composed highly ambitious works, often heroic in tone, that extended the scope of the classical musical language Beethoven had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The Middle period work includes the Third through Eighth Symphonies, the string quartets 7-11, the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto and many other compositions. During this time Beethoven earned his living partly from the sale and performance of his work, and partly from subsidies granted by various wealthy nobles who recognized his talent.
The work of the Middle period established Beethoven's reputation as a great and daring composer. In a review from 1810, he was enshrined by E. T. A. Hoffman as one of the three great "Romantic" composers; Hoffman called Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "one of the most important works of the age".
A particular trauma for Beethoven occurred during this period in 1809, when the attacking forces of Napoleon bombarded Vienna. Beethoven, very worried that the noise would destroy what remained of his hearing, hid in the basement of his brother's house, covering his ears with pillows. He was composing the "Emperor" Concerto at the time.
The Middle period ended with a flourish around 1812, with the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the third--and at last, successful--version of Fidelio. It was around this time that Beethoven's popularity with the contemporary public reached its apogee, and he was almost universally regarded as the greatest of living composers.
However, there soon followed a deep crisis in Beethoven's personal life, possibly in his artistic life as well. His output dropped, and one critic even wrote that "the composing of great works seems behind him". The few works that date from this period are often of an experimental character. They include the song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte " and the piano sonata Opus 90, works which inspired later generations of Romantic composers. This period also produced the extraordinarily expressive, almost incoherent, song "An die Hoffnung " (Opus 94).
Then Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel, then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed "The Consecration of the House" overture, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate his new influences. But it is when he returned to the keyboard to compose his first new piano sonatas in almost a decade, that a new style, now called his "late period", emerged.
The works of the late period are commonly held to include the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two sonatas for cello and piano, the late quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, perhaps Beethoven's best known work.
Beethoven then turned to writing string quartets - the war between Austria and France had devastated his finances - on a commission from Prince Nikolay Golitsin of St. Petersburg (the Prince was to pay an honorarium of 50 gold ducats per quartet). This series of quartets - the "late quartets" - would go far beyond what either musicians or audiences were ready for at that time. One musician commented that "we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is." Composer Louis Spohr called them "indecipherable, uncorrected horrors," though that opinion has changed considerably from the time of their first bewildered reception. They would continue to inspire musicians - from Richard Wagner to Béla Bartók - for their unique forms and ideas. Of the late quartets, Beethoven's favourite was the Fourteenth Quartet, op. 131 in C# minor, upon hearing which Schubert is said to have remarked, "After this, what is left for us to write?"
Beethoven wrote the last quartets amidst episodes of failing health. In 1821, a bad case of jaundice afflicted him, a sign his liver was failing. In April 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. The illness--or more precisely, Beethoven's recovery from it--is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called "Holy song of thanks ('Heiliger dankgesang') to the divinity, from one made well". Beethoven went on to complete the (misnumbered) Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth Quartets.
Final illness and death
The last work completed by Beethoven was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet, deemed necessary to replace the difficult Grosse Fugue . Shortly thereafter (December 1826), illness struck again, with episodes of vomiting and diarrhea that nearly ended his life. As it became apparent that Beethoven would not recover, his friends gathered to help and to pay their final respects. Beethoven's doctors conducted four minor operations to relieve ascites (abdominal swelling), of which the first resulted in infection, the others not. On March 24th, he was given his last rites, and two days later slipped into an unconscious state and then died the same day, March 26th, 1827.
His last words recorded were "Pity, pity-too late!", as the composer was told of a gift of twelve bottles of wine. Some sources even listed his last words as "I shall hear in heaven", but this is almost certainly apocryphal.
Autopsy revealed a severely damaged and shrunken liver, of which ascites is a common consequence. Scholars are disagreed on whether Beethoven's liver damage was the result of heavy alcohol consumption.
The "fist" tale
Beethoven's biographer A. W. Thayer , in his Life of Beethoven (1866), wrote the following concerning the moment of Beethoven's death:
- "According to Huttenbrenner , who was in the room, there was a sudden flash of lightning which garishly illuminated the death-chamber--snow lay outside--and a violent thunderclap. At this startling, awful peal of thunder, the dying man suddenly raised his head and stretched out his right arm majestically, 'like a general giving orders to an army.' This was but for an instant; the arm sank down; he fell back. Beethoven was dead."
The tale is sometime retold to imply that Beethoven "shook his fist at the heavens" in the moment before death.
The story sounds very much like the sort of romantic legend that would be likely to arise around a famous figure like Beethoven, and it has met with skepticism from other scholars. An interesting speculation, which takes a far less romantic and perhaps more scientific view, is the following, offered by an anonymous web contributor:
- "Surprisingly, it is an accurate clinical observation: people who die of hepatic failure often react in an exaggerated way to sudden stimuli such as bright light. This is due to the accumulation of toxic waste products normally excreted by the liver. Beethoven's gesture may be seen as having been due to the cerebral irritation which accompanies hepatic failure, not as a conscious act."
Funeral and burial
- List of works by Beethoven is a listing of most of Beethoven's works, including links to all of the works discussed in their own Wikipedia article.
- Three-key exposition
- Victoria Conservatory of Music; gives the tale of Beethoven during the 1809 bombardment of Vienna
-  source of material above on the physiological explanation of the shaken fist (www.lucare.com)
-  "Deafness and liver disease in a 57-year-old man: a medical history of Beethoven," by A. C. F. Hui and S. M. Wong. Hong Kong Medical Journal 6:433-8 (2000). A careful discussion, including many diagnostic possibilities, of the causes of Beethoven's deafness and death.
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