Widely considered to be among the greatest, if not the greatest composer of Western music, he was also a pianist of legendary virtuosity who shaped the future course of piano technique. Despite his encroaching deafness, which began in early adulthood and left him completely deaf in his last decade, his compositions include some of the most famous and enduring music ever written. Coming at the peak of the Viennese Classical style, Beethoven set a high standard for the composers of the next two generations, especially in the genres of the piano sonata and the symphony.
Born in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven's early musical training was on the violin, and later in composition, keyboard, and organ. At first he was taught by his father, Johann, and then by C.G. Neefe, a court organist. At 11 he is recorded as filling in for Neefe as an organist. Neefe, a son of the Enlightenment who was also a member of the Bavarian Illuminati, also influenced the young genius's education, and Beethoven is known to have frequented lectures at the university. Having caught the attention of Maximilian Frederick, the Elector of Bonn, he published his first works in 1783. In 1787 he travelled to Vienna in the hope of studying with Mozart, but quickly returned on hearing that his mother was dying. He continued to produce ever larger compositions for the Bonn court, culminating in the grand Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, written when Beethoven was 20. His father having turned to alcoholism after his mother's death, Beethoven was in charge of caring for his younger brothers, and was not able to return to Vienna until 1792, after which he was to settle for life.
Newly-arrived in the bustling musical capital, Beethoven made his mark almost immediately as a pianist, and pursued his studies in composition, first with Joseph Haydn, and later with contemporaries Johann Schenk, Johann-Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri. To all appearances, the first years in Vienna were marked by creative fits and starts: Beethoven's Opus 1 (published in 1795), a set of three piano trios, was already mostly finished when he arrived in Vienna; and while many of his first great works were begun in these first five years, Beethoven had nothing new to send back to his benefactor in Bonn. Maximilian Franz, then the elector of Bonn, was still financing the young composer's education, corresponding frequently and impatiently with both Beethoven and Haydn, and threatening to cut off funding if he did not begin to show results. Finally, in 1797, Beethoven's Opus 2, a bold set of three piano sonatas written in an unprecedentedly original style, was published and dedicated to Haydn. Five more opuses were published that year, and a flood of finished compositions followed in 1798. By the time his first symphony was finished and performed in 1800, Beethoven had thoroughly made his mark as a composer of powerful orginiality.
Beethoven's Deafness and the "Heilgenstadt Testament"
Already by the late 18th century, Beethoven had begun to recognize his loss of hearing. It had become so advanced by 1802 that he had considered suicide. At the advice of doctors, he spent the middle months of that year in Heiligenstadt, where he was to pen a moving testament in which he vented his despair at his deafness and expressed his fortitude to continue composing out of "the love of mankind and the will to do good."
Although the music of Beethoven is remarkable in its own right, it is perhaps most amazing in light of the fact that much of it was written when he was near or totally deaf. The most stirring example of this is the Ninth Symphony, written in 1824 when he had lost all hearing. At the end of the performance, one of the performers had to turn the composer to see the ovations which he could not hear.
Critics and music historians disagree on the extent to which Beethoven's deafness affected his music. Many of his later works, especially the late string quartets, were considered unintelligible when they were written, and this difficulty was attributed to his deafness. Others argue that his deafness had little to no ultimate effect on the quality of his music: he had a profound ability to "hear" the music even when deaf. There can be little doubt, however, that the loss of hearing had a profound personal effect on the composer, which undoubtedly bled into his highly personal music.
Beethoven's works include nine symphonies, sixteen string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, five piano concertos, a violin concerto, an opera (Fidelio), the Missa Solemnis, and numerous other pieces, including chamber music, overtures, incidental music, and songs.
The composer's works are often divided into three periods: the Early, Middle, and Late Periods. The Early Period music shows a strong affinity for the music of Mozart and Haydn, the latter of whom was Beethoven's instructor, and is firmly in the realm of the Classical style. The Middle Period produced some of the most famous works, including the Fifth Symphony. The The Third Symphony, also called "Eroica" is considered to be the first movement of the Romantic period. Beethoven's Late Period is characterized by a highly romantic and introspective nature. His most enduring works, including the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets, come from this period.
Many of his compositions remain popular with the general public, such as the piano bagatelle "Für Elise", the Moonlight Sonata. (a title not actually attributed to Beethoven), opus 27 no. 2, and many of the symphonies. The late string quartets are still considered "difficult" music, though they still have a strong following among devoted followers of classical music.
Beethoven and Religion
There is some dispute among scholars over Beethoven's religious beliefs, as his letters and the accounts of friends provide conflicting evidence. While he was raised a Roman Catholic and made several well-documented references to his faith, it is known that he never attended religious services. His teacher, the great composer Franz Joseph Haydn, thought Beethoven was an atheist. His friend and biographer Anton Schindler considered Beethoven a deist, especially due to the Enlightenment's strong influence in Bonn as Beethoven came of age. Furthermore, Beethoven's choice of text in the choral movement of his ninth symphony indicates at least an interest (if not a belief) in Pantheism.
The most convincing evidence for Beethoven's spirituality can be found in his late music. The String Quartet No. 15 contains a slow movement which Beethoven himself gave the title "Holy Song of Thanksgiving to God from a Convalescent" ("Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenes an die Gottheit"), after his recovery from serious illness. Perhaps most convincing, though, is the fervent nature of the Missa Solemnis, Op. 123. The sincerity found in this work could only have come from a deeply-rooted faith in God.
- Beethoven was the teacher of Carl Czerny, who in turn taught Franz Liszt, commonly considered to be the greatest pianist of all time.
- The first recording of all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas was made by pianist Artur Schnabel, a herculean accomplishment since repeated by several elite pianists, including Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel (3 times), Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andras Schiff, and Ursula Oppens.
- Beethoven described the piano as "the god of all instruments" and wrote more for piano than for any other instrument, including 5 piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas, 3 sets of piano bagatelles, 10 sonatas with violin and piano, 5 sonatas with cello and piano, many piano variations, and a number of miscellaneous short pieces, such as "Für Elise."
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica, Op. 55
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
Symphony No. 6 in F Major Pastoral, Op. 68
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor Choral, Op. 125
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, The Emperor, Op. 73
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Triple Concerto in C Major for piano, violin, cello, and orchestra, Op. 56
Piano Sonata in C Minor, Pathétique, Op. 13
Piano Sonata in C# Minor Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Op. 27/2
Piano Sonata in C Major, Waldstein, Op. 53
Piano Sonata in F Minor, Appassionata, Op. 57
Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Lebewohl or Les Adieux, Op. 81a
Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Hammerklavier, Op. 106
Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 109
Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Spring, Op 24
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Minor, Kreutzer, Op. 47
Fidelio, Op. 72
Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberg), oratorio, Op. 85
Mass in C Major, Op. 86
Missa Solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
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- Popularly known as "Moonlight Sonata," though the title does not come from Beethoven
- The last three sonatas, often considered (and played) as a trilogy.