Ludwig van Beethoven
b. 1770 – d. 1827
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Ludwig van Beethoven is remembered as more than a composer; his is one of the notable cultural names in the western world. Of all composers, Beethoven is the one that is elevated to such a heroic status by posterity. His music had a profound influence on later music and his popularity continues unwaveringly in the present day.
Beethoven was born into a family that had consisted of musicians for three generations. He was one of three brothers to survive into adulthood. The family lived in reasonable financial circumstances until the mid-1780s, however young Beethoven’s formal education ended after elementary school, as was customary at the time for many middle class children, a fact which accounts for his lack of care in handwriting, spelling, punctuation and his inability to carry out simple sums.
He became an assistant to his first important keyboard teacher, court musician Christian Gottlob Neefe, at the tender age of 11, from which he grew a considerable reputation as a young prodigy. The first ever printed evidence of Beethoven’s existence as a musician was in theMagazin der Muzik dated 2 March 1783 in which he is declared as'a boy of 11 years and of most promising talent…. He would surely become a secondWolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.'Neefe was a very enthusiastic mentor for Beethoven. Working as his assistant (as ‘cembalist in the orchestra’) not only gave Beethoven responsibility and exposure, but it also allowed him to regularly listen to the most popular operas of the day.
Beethoven became officially employed as a court musician in Bonn in his teens and life was quite agreeable during this period. The elector was often absent, which gave Beethoven a lot of freedom for musical activities that did not involve the court. A lot of Beethoven’s compositions from this time were dedicated to members of his intellectual and aristocratic circle of friends whom he frequently met in his social and political clubs.
Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, aged 21 to study with Joseph Haydn. Although this arrangement lasted no more than a year, Vienna was to be his home for the rest of his life. Beethoven briefly studied withSalieri, which gained him experience in setting words to music, lending itself to Beethoven’s skill in his opera writing. Besides studying, Beethoven was rapidly establishing himself as a hugely successful virtuoso pianist and composer.
Beethoven’s life as a composer can be divided into three main periods. In the early Vienna style, Beethoven took matters into his own hands in becoming part of the essence of Vienna, whist asserting his own individuality within it. In 1798 and 1799, his piano sonatas seem impressively visionary, while his very first string quartets (op.18) from the same time is still conservative. By 1800 the first of his symphonies comes across as conservative, but by this time, his string quartets have evolved into something more innovative than his earlier ones. His Septet, one of Beethoven’s most popular works during his lifetime, comes from this era, in which he experiments with woodwind and string dialogue, something that he went on to epically master in his symphonies.
Beethoven’s middle period begins in 1803 with his third symphony, the ‘Eroica’ and his sole opera,Fidelio. A period from which most of his orchestral music is derived, he writes more experimentally yet in an effortless manner. Beethoven’s late period is by far the most impressive and complex one. His works became more serious in nature, conveying new ideas.
Although he was notoriously impatient, disagreeable and mistrustful and was neither handsome nor well-read, he was known to be incredibly endearing and maintained many deep and caring friendships throughout his life. Later on in life when he was plagued by debilitating illness and losing his hearing, his loyal friends were always never far off in offering their help and companionship.
For years to come, many mainstream symphonic composers were effectively dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of Beethoven’s works; asSchubert put it, ‘who would be able to do anything after Beethoven?’