Composer. Born in Bonn, Germany, the son and grandson of musicians at the Bonn court, his family ancestry was Flemish. He was baptized on December 17, 1770, and based on practices of the day it is commonly assumed he was born the day before. His father Johann was an abusive alcoholic, bitter at being consigned to singing in the choir. When young Ludwig showed precocious abilities in music, Johann hoped to exploit him as a child prodigy and subjected him to a brutal course of training in piano and violin. Sometimes he would drag the boy out of bed at night and force him to practice until dawn, beating him when he made mistakes. Isolated from other children, his only comfort was his mother Maria, a timid, unsmiling woman he would later call "My best friend". Beethoven's debut as a pianist at age eight (his father advertised he was only six) aroused no great enthusiasm from the audience, but he did gain the interest of the Elector of Bonn and the local aristocracy. From 1779 he received instruction from court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe; his first piano pieces were published in 1782 and at 14 he was installed in the Bonn court as Neefe's deputy and a musician in the opera orchestra. In 1787 he visited Vienna, where he created a stir. Mozart was impressed with his playing; miles away in Eisenstadt, Joseph Haydn wanted to know what the commotion over one "Ludwig" was about. News that his mother was gravely ill with tuberculosis brought Beethoven back to Bonn after two months. Her death exacerbated Johann's drinking to the point he was dismissed from the choir. The 17-year-old Beethoven assumed responsibility for his family, keeping his father out of trouble and making sure his younger brothers Karl and Johann were provided for. Fortunately he had powerful friends, notably Count Ferdinand Waldstein and the Breuning family, who gave him moral and financial support. In 1792 Beethoven returned to Vienna with an invitation to study with Haydn; his father died soon after his arrival and he sent for his brothers to join him. Apart from summers in the country he would live in the Austrian capital the rest of his life. Through 1793 Beethoven took lessons with Haydn, but the two failed to get along and he sought further tutoring from Johann Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri (who gave him pointers in opera technique). During that time he became the darling of the Viennese nobility; he lived as a guest in their homes and gave recitals in their private salons. He was no lapdog, however. An avid reader of Rousseau and fired by the ideals of the French Revolution, he considered himself the equal of the upper classes and told them so. He refused to perform on command and would slam down the piano lid in a rage if listeners gave him less than their full attention. Wealthy patrons tolerated his insolence because they admired his art and seriousness of purpose. In 1795 Beethoven gave his first public concert in Vienna, performing a new concerto (the Piano Concerto No. 2) and dazzling the audience with his brilliance in improvisation. One critic called him "a giant among pianoforte players". His early music also met with popular acclaim, especially the song "Adelaïde" (1796), and he was soon swamped with commissions. "I have more orders than I can execute", he boasted. "I have six or seven publishers for each of my works, and could have more if I choose. No more bargaining! I name my terms and they pay". His exuberance did not last long. At age 27, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. At first he tried to conceal it, but his pride and feelings of vulnerability led him to gradually withdraw from the active social life he loved. Progressive deafness turned the already headstrong composer into the "totally untamed personality" Goethe would later describe - he grew suspicious, irascible, eccentric. In October 1802, Beethoven addressed to his brothers a remarkable will-like document, known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament", in which he expressed a despair over his predicament that drove him to the brink of suicide. "It was only my art that held me back", he wrote. "It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had given all that I felt was within me". The landmark Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" (1805) heralded Beethoven's second, "heroic" phase and a series of masterpieces in all genres, including his only opera, "Fidelio" (first performed in 1805). In the character of Leonore, "Fidelio" presented Beethoven's idealized vision of married womanhood, something he never came close to finding in life. He yearned for marriage but had a self-defeating habit of falling in love with women who were above his station, already married, or both. The identity of his "Immortal Beloved", the addressee of a passionate 1812 letter Beethoven drafted but probably never sent, still inspires speculation. He remained a bachelor. In 1809, with Austria's fortunes in the Napoleonic Wars at a low ebb, Beethoven announced his interest in taking a music directorship in Germany. To prevent this from happening, three of his aristocratic friends - Princes Lichnowsky and Kinsky, and the Archduke Rudolph - arranged an annual pension for him on condition he remain in Vienna. In effect he became the first major composer who was able to live fairly well as an independent artist, free from servitude in church or court positions. The Congress of Vienna (1814 to 1815), in which the future of post-Napoleonic Europe was decided, also marked the apogee of Beethoven's life as a public figure. Heads of state lined up to meet him and he was acknowledged as the greatest living composer. But the mid-1810s were also a creatively barren time as he dealt with a host of personal issues. The crowd-pleasing potboiler "Wellington's Victory" (1813) brought him a lot of money, but his only worthy compositions were the Piano Sonatas op. 90 (1814) and op. 101 (1816), and the song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte" ("To the Distant Beloved", 1816). Many believe the latter is autobiographical and suggests the composer had abandoned all hopes of marriage by then. His hearing loss continued; he had ceased playing piano professionally in 1808 and his appearance at an 1814 charity concert was a humiliating disaster. By 1818 he was stone deaf. And there was the added bitterness of his contentious relations with his siblings. In 1815 Beethoven's brother Karl died, leaving a 9-year old son, also named Karl. Beethoven initiated a long, sordid court battle to gain custody of the child from his sister-in-law, whom he detested; when he finally succeeded in 1820, it was hardly worth the effort. Beethoven was not cut out to be a father, and Karl, who loved his mother, grew up resentful and rebellious. He would give his ward grief (including an 1826 suicide attempt) until shortly before Beethoven's death, when he joined the army. These experiences left Beethoven prematurely aged and sickly, while rumors spread that he was finished as a composer and had even gone insane. In the streets of Vienna people gave him a wide berth as he passed by, cursing and singing to himself or stopping to jot down musical ideas in a notebook he carried with him. His rooms were filthy and he allowed his personal appearance to become so unkempt that he was once mistakenly arrested as a tramp. Out of this wretchedness he found the inner strength to produce the extraordinary creations of his final years: the "Missa Solemnis" (1824), the Ninth Symphony (1824), the late piano works and string quartets. In late 1826 Beethoven's health began to fail. He contracted pneumonia in December and afterwards was confined to bed with liver disease and abdominal edema. As he lay dying, friends and admirers came to pay their respects; gifts from well-wishers arrived from all over Europe. He died on March 26, 1827. His funeral on March 29 was Vienna's biggest public event since the fall of Napoleon. Schools and theatres were closed, and an estimated 20,000 people witnessed the procession that brought his coffin to the Währinger Friedhof, on the outskirts of the city. Franz Schubert was one of the 36 torchbearers; he would be buried near his idol a year and a half later. The cemetery was closed in the 1870s and on September 22, 1888, the remains of Beethoven and Schubert were transferred to the new Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. The Währinger Friedhof was demolished in the 1890's but the original graves of the two composers were preserved as a gesture of respect. The memorials are still there; the site is now called Schubert Park. Beethoven is one of the great transitional figures in Western art. His music represents both the culmination of the Classical style and the first profound rumblings of the Romantic movement. A supreme master of form, he struggled arduously to achieve what Leonard Bernstein called "the principle of inevitability" in his music; the logic of his arguments unfolds with a sense of absolute rightness, as if the notes could not have been written any other way. At the same time there is a constant feeling of hidden significance in the emotional quality of his expression and occasional use of descriptive titles. Most importantly, Beethoven won for instrumental music the right to be considered as serious art and not merely as entertainment. His influence on 19th Century musicmaking was ubiquitous. Beethoven published 135 opuses; the nine symphonies, seven concertos, 17 string quartets and 32 piano sonatas are cornerstones of their respective repertories. His development is traditionally divided into three phases. The early years, from the student efforts of the 1780s to around 1803, show the influences of Haydn, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach and Neefe, though his impetuous voice is already recognizable. In the Symphony No. 1 (1800) and Symphony No. 2 (1802) there are signs of Beethoven's impatience with standard forms. The First begins tentatively in three foreign keys before settling into its designated key of C, an unorthodox (and humorous) start that shocked Viennese audiences of the time. In the Second he replaced the usual minuet with a high-spirited scherzo, setting a precedent not only for his own symphonies but for the rest of symphonic literature of the 1800s. The piano dominates this period, reflecting his dual careers as composer and concert virtuoso; it accounts for the first three Piano Concertos (1795, 1798, 1800) and more than half of his sonatas, including the "Pathetique" (1798), the popular "Moonlight" (1801), and the "Pastoral" (1801). Other important works are the first six string quartets (1800), eight violin sonatas (1798 to 1802), the overture and ballet for "The Creatures of Prometheus" (1801), and the oratorio "Christ on the Mount of Olives" (1803). Beethoven's middle years, until 1812, were his most productive. He emerged from the Heiligenstadt crisis not only a greater composer but a revolutionary one, triumphing over adversity. "Let your deafness be no secret, even in music" he scribbled on one of his scores. With one work, the "Eroica" Symphony, Beethoven radically redefined the nature of instrumental music. Conceived as a tribute to Napoleon, it was without precedent in its epic length (twice as long as a Haydn or Mozart symphony), grandeur, wealth of emotion, and implied philosophical program. The opening motto of the Symphony No. 5 (1808) - those three short notes and one long note - has a life of its own in world culture; the Symphony No. 6, the "Pastoral" (1808) is programmatic, inspired by Beethoven's love of the countryside. The rhythmic vitality of the Symphony No. 7 (1812) led Wagner to famously declare it "the apotheosis of the dance". "Fidelio" was based on a French play ("Leonore") about a woman who risks her life to rescue her husband from unjust imprisonment. Beethoven turned this melodrama into an explicit statement of his ideals: for him the character of the jailed Florestan symbolized oppressed men everywhere, Leonore was the spirit of Liberty that sets them free. With the exception of the "Missa Solemnis", no composition cost him greater effort. After its tepid 1805 premiere he had the libretto overhauled, revised the score twice, rewrote one aria 18 times, and provided three new overtures; he told a friend "this work will win me a martyr's crown". "Fidelio" was finally acclaimed in an 1814 revival but by then Beethoven felt he had only "saved what was best from the shipwreck" and never tackled the genre again. Other major works of this period include the Symphony No. 4 (1806) and Symphony No. 8 (1812), the Piano Concertos No. 4 (1806) and No. 5 (the "Emperor", 1809), the Violin Concerto (1806), the Mass in C (1807), the "Kreutzer" Sonata for violin and piano (1803), the String Quartets Op. 59 ("Razumovsky", 1806), Op. 74 (1809) and Op. 95 (1810), the "Archduke" Piano Trio (1811), the "Waldstein", "Apassionata" and "Les Adieux" Piano Sonatas (1804, 1805, 1810), the "Coriolanus Overture" (1807), the incidental music for "Egmont" (1810), "The Ruins of Athens" (including the "Turkish March", 1811), and "King Stephen" (1811), and the much loved piano bagatelle "Für Elise" (1810). Beethoven managed to leave an indelible mark even in the grim "twilight years" between his middle and late periods. "An die ferne Geliebte", through-composed to a single theme, was the prototype of the great German song cycles developed by Schubert and Schumann all the way to Hugo Wolf. With the monumental Op. 106 Piano Sonata, the "Hammerklavier" (1818), Beethoven launched his final and most iconoclastic phase. The isolation of total deafness turned Beethoven inward and from then on he wrote purely for himself, breaking and discarding traditional forms as the spirit dictated. His output fell while the compositions themselves became more complex and grandiose in scope. The composition of the "Missa Solemnis" occupied him for the better part of four years (1819 to 1823). It is quite an unorthodox sacred work, an impassioned, very personal appeal from a humanist to his God. He inscribed a copy to the Archduke Rudolph (its dedicatee), "From the heart - may it go to the heart". In the Ninth Symphony he outdid the vast expanses of the "Eroica" and capped it with a choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" proclaiming universal brotherhood, a bold stroke that effectively opened the doors to the Romantic era in music. His valedictory thoughts for the piano were conveyed in the two-movement Op. 111 Piano Sonata (1822) and the "Diabelli Variations" (1823). The six String Quartets Beethoven composed between 1825 and 1826 - the Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135, and the "Grosse Fugue" Op. 133 - occupy their own mystical plane. So unique and visionary are these works that nearly a century passed before they were fully understood. In the late 1960s composer Igor Stravinsky called the "Grosse Fugue" "that absolutely contemporary work that will remain contemporary forever", and audiences still find the late quartets challenging. Today Beethoven is probably the most famous classical composer in history, not only for the universal appeal of his music but for his stormy life and image as artist-as-hero. Wagner said of him, "He was a titan, wrestling with the gods".
Bio by: Bobb Edwards