Ludwig van Beethoven was a German pianist and composer widely considered to be one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. His innovative compositions combined vocals and instruments, widening the scope of sonata, symphony, concerto and quartet. He is the crucial transitional figure connecting the Classical and Romantic ages of Western music.
Beethoven’s personal life was marked by a struggle against deafness, and some of his most important works were composed during the last 10 years of his life, when he was quite unable to hear. He died at the age of 56.
Beethoven had two younger brothers who survived into adulthood: Caspar, born in 1774, and Johann, born in 1776. Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, was a slender, genteel, and deeply moralistic woman.
His father, Johann van Beethoven, was a mediocre court singer better known for his alcoholism than any musical ability. However, Beethoven’s grandfather, godfather and namesake, Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, was Bonn’s most prosperous and eminent musician, a source of endless pride for young Beethoven.
Sometime between the births of his two younger brothers, Beethoven’s father began teaching him music with an extraordinary rigor and brutality that affected him for the rest of his life.
Neighbors provided accounts of the small boy weeping while he played the clavier, standing atop a footstool to reach the keys, his father beating him for each hesitation or mistake.
On a near daily basis, Beethoven was flogged, locked in the cellar and deprived of sleep for extra hours of practice. He studied the violin and clavier with his father as well as taking additional lessons from organists around town. Whether in spite of or because of his father’s draconian methods, Beethoven was a prodigiously talented musician from his earliest days.
Hoping that his young son would be recognized as a musical prodigy à la Wolfgang Mozart, Beethoven’s father arranged his first public recital for March 26, 1778. Billed as a “little son of 6 years,” (Mozart’s age when he debuted for Empress Maria Theresia) although he was in fact 7, Beethoven played impressively, but his recital received no press whatsoever.
Meanwhile, the musical prodigy attended a Latin grade school named Tirocinium, where a classmate said, “Not a sign was to be discovered of that spark of genius which glowed so brilliantly in him afterwards.”
Beethoven, who struggled with sums and spelling his entire life, was at best an average student, and some biographers have hypothesized that he may have had mild dyslexia. As he put it himself, “Music comes to me more readily than words.”
In 1781, at the age of 10, Beethoven withdrew from school to study music full time with Christian Gottlob Neefe, the newly appointed Court Organist, and at the age of 12, Beethoven published his first composition, a set of piano variations on a theme by an obscure classical composer named Dressler.
By 1784, his alcoholism worsening and his voice decaying, Beethoven’s father was no longer able to support his family, and Beethoven formally requested an official appointment as Assistant Court Organist. Despite his youth, his request was accepted, and Beethoven was put on the court payroll with a modest annual salary of 150 florins.
Early Career as a Composer
When the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II died in 1790, a 19-year-old Beethoven received the immense honor of composing a musical memorial in his honor. For reasons that remain unclear, Beethoven’s composition was never performed, and most assumed the young musician had proven unequal to the task.
However, more than a century later, Johannes Brahms discovered that Beethoven had in fact composed a “beautiful and noble” piece of music entitled Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. It is now considered his earliest masterpiece.
Beethoven and Haydn
In 1792, with French revolutionary forces sweeping across the Rhineland into the Electorate of Cologne, Beethoven decided to leave his hometown for Vienna once again. Mozart had passed away a year earlier, leaving Joseph Haydn as the unquestioned greatest composer alive.
Haydn was living in Vienna at the time, and it was with Haydn that the young Beethoven now intended to study. As his friend and patron Count Waldstein wrote in a farewell letter, “Mozart’s genius mourns and weeps over the death of his disciple. It found refuge, but no release with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him, now, it seeks to unite with another. By means of assiduous labor you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”
In Vienna, Beethoven dedicated himself wholeheartedly to musical study with the most eminent musicians of the age. He studied piano with Haydn, vocal composition with Antonio Salieri and counterpoint with Johann Albrechtsberger. Not yet known as a composer, Beethoven quickly established a reputation as a virtuoso pianist who was especially adept at improvisation.
Beethoven won many patrons among the leading citizens of the Viennese aristocracy, who provided him with lodging and funds, allowing Beethoven, in 1794, to sever ties with the Electorate of Cologne. Beethoven made his long-awaited public debut in Vienna on March 29, 1795.
Although there is considerable debate over which of his early piano concerti he performed that night, most scholars believe he played what is known as his “first” piano concerto in C Major. Shortly thereafter, Beethoven decided to publish a series of three piano trios as his Opus 1, which were an enormous critical and financial success.
In the first spring of the new century, on April 2, 1800, Beethoven debuted his Symphony No. 1 in C major at the Royal Imperial Theater in Vienna. Although Beethoven would grow to detest the piece — “In those days I did not know how to compose,” he later remarked — the graceful and melodious symphony nevertheless established him as one of Europe’s most celebrated composers.
As the new century progressed, Beethoven composed piece after piece that marked him as a masterful composer reaching his musical maturity. His Six String Quartets, published in 1801, demonstrate complete mastery of that most difficult and cherished of Viennese forms developed by Mozart and Haydn.
Beethoven also composed The Creatures of Prometheus in 1801, a wildly popular ballet that received 27 performances at the Imperial Court Theater. It was around the same time that Beethoven discovered he was losing his hearing.
For a variety of reasons that included his crippling shyness and unfortunate physical appearance, Beethoven never married or had children. He was, however, desperately in love with a married woman named Antonie Brentano.
Over the course of two days in July of 1812, Beethoven wrote her a long and beautiful love letter that he never sent. Addressed “to you, my Immortal Beloved,” the letter said in part, “My heart is full of so many things to say to you — ah — there are moments when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all — Cheer up — remain my true, my only love, my all as I am yours.”
Despite his extraordinary output of beautiful music, Beethoven was lonely and frequently miserable throughout his adult life. Short-tempered, absent-minded, greedy and suspicious to the point of paranoia, Beethoven feuded with his brothers, his publishers, his housekeepers, his pupils and his patrons.
Was Beethoven Deaf?
At the same time as Beethoven was composing some of his most immortal works, he was struggling to come to terms with a shocking and terrible fact, one that he tried desperately to conceal: he was going deaf.
By the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven struggled to make out the words spoken to him in conversation.
Beethoven revealed in a heart-wrenching 1801 letter to his friend Franz Wegeler, “I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity; but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.”
Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, at the age of 56, of post-hepatitic cirrhosis of the liver. The autopsy also provided clues to the origins of his deafness: While his quick temper, chronic diarrhea and deafness are consistent with arterial disease, a competing theory traces Beethoven’s deafness to contracting typhus in the summer of 1796.
Beethoven is widely considered one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, composer of all time. Beethoven’s body of musical compositions stands with William Shakespeare’s plays at the outer limits of human brilliance.
And the fact Beethoven composed his most beautiful and extraordinary music while deaf is an almost superhuman feat of creative genius, perhaps only paralleled in the history of artistic achievement by John Milton writing Paradise Lost while blind.