Island of Freedom
To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher. -- Blaise Pascal
The Tao
Confucius Corner
Bhagavad Gita

Ludwig van Beethoven


" misfortune pains me doubly, in as much as it leads to my being misjudged. For me there can be no relaxation in human society; no refined conversations, no mutual confidences. I must live quite alone and may creep into society only as often as sheer necessity demands; I must live like an outcast. If I appear in company I am overcome by a burning anxiety, a fear that I am running the risk of letting people notice my condition...such experiences almost made me despair, and I was on the point of putting an end to my life - the only thing that held me back was my art. For indeed it seemed to me impossible to leave this world before I had produced all the works that I felt the urge to compose, and thus I have dragged on this miserable existence..."

- from Emily Anderson, The Letters of Beethoven, Vol. 3


Beethoven the Immortal
Beethoven Depot
Beethoven: The Magnificent Master

MIDI Files:

Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 'Pathetique' - 2nd Movt.
Symphony No.6 in F 'Pastoral', Op.68 1.Allegro ma non troppo (93k)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92 - 2.Allegretto (65k)

Beethoven was born in the provincial court city of Bonn, Germany, probably on Dec. 16, 1770. His grandfather, also Ludwig, and his father, Johann, were both musicians in the service of, successively, the prince electors Max Friedrich and Max Franz. Beethoven's own talent was such that at the age of 12 he was already an assistant to the organist Christian Gottlob Neefe, with whom he studied. Attempts to establish him as a prodigy in the mold of Mozart had little success, however.

In 1787 Beethoven was sent to Vienna, but his mother fell ill, and he had to return to Bonn almost immediately. She died a few months later, and in 1789 Beethoven himself requested that his alcoholic father be retired, a move that left him responsible for his younger brothers Caspar Carl and Nikolaus Johann. Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna a second time in November of 1792, in order to study with Franz Josef Haydn.

In 1794 French forces occupied the Rhineland; consequently, Beethoven's ties with and support from the Bonn court came to an end. His father had died a month after his departure from Bonn, and in 1794 and 1795 his two brothers joined him in Vienna. He remained there the rest of his life, leaving only for long summer holidays in the surrounding countryside and, in his early years, for occasional concerts in nearby cities. His only extended journey was to Prague, Dresden, and Berlin in 1796.

The last 30 years of Beethoven's life were shaped by a series of personal crises, the first of which was the onset of deafness. The early symptoms, noticeable to the composer already before 1800, affected him socially more than musically. His reactions--despair, resignation, and defiance--are conveyed in letters to two friends in 1801 and in a document--half letter and half will--addressed to his brothers in late 1802 and now known as the "Heiligenstadt testament." Resolving finally to "seize fate by the throat," he emerged from the crisis with a series of triumphant works that mark the beginning of a new period in his stylistic development.

A second crisis a decade later was the breaking off of a relationship with an unnamed lady (probably Antonie Brentano, the wife of a friend) known to us as the "Immortal Beloved," as Beethoven addressed her in a series of letters in July 1812. This was apparently the most serious of several such relationships with women who were in some way out of his reach, and its traumatic conclusion was followed by a lengthy period of resignation and reduced musical activity.

During this time Beethoven's deafness advanced to the stage that he could no longer perform publicly, and he required a slate or little notebooks (now known as "conversation books") to communicate with visitors. The death of his brother Caspar Carl in 1815 led to a 5-year legal struggle for custody of Caspar's son Karl, then 9 years old, in whom Beethoven saw a last chance for the domestic life that had otherwise eluded him. His possessiveness of Karl provoked a final crisis in the summer of 1826, when the young man attempted suicide. Shortly thereafter, Beethoven's health began to fail, and he died on Mar. 26, 1827 in Vienna.

Traditionally Beethoven's works are grouped into early, middle, and late periods. The early works, up to about 1802, show a progressive mastery of the high classical style of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven's formal studies in counterpoint (with Haydn and Johann Albrechtsberger), beginning in 1792, and his private study of the best new music of the time, particularly Haydn's symphonies, improved his treatment of both form and texture. During this period he wrote primarily for the piano and for chamber ensembles dominated by the piano. He approached the less familiar genres of quartet, symphony, oratorio, and opera with great caution, perhaps fearing comparison with Haydn and Mozart in these areas. His first six string quartets, op. 18, date from 1798-1800, the first symphony from 1800 and the second from 1801-02. He wrote a ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, in 1800-01 and an oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, in 1802-03.

A general growth in the proportions and rhetorical power of Beethoven's works in the period 1798-1802 culminates in the highly dramatic compositions that mark the beginning of the middle period in 1803. The earliest of these--the Third Symphony (Eroica, 1803), the opera Fidelio (1803-05), and the Waldstein (1804) and Appassionata (1804) sonatas--have a heroic cast that seems to respond to the initial fears provoked by Beethoven's deafness. In the works composed from about 1806 until 1812, this heroic character alternates with an Olympian serenity. The characteristic symphonic and chamber works from this period are the Fourth (1806), Fifth (1805-07), and Sixth (1807-08) Symphonies; the Fourth (1805-06) and Fifth (Emperor, 1809) Piano Concertos; the Violin Concerto (1806); the Rasumovsky Quartets (1806); the piano trios, op. 70 (1808) and op. 97 (Archduke, 1811); the Coriolanus Overture (1807); and the incidental music for Goethe's drama Egmont (1810).

This monumental middle-period style began to lose its attraction for Beethoven after 1812, the year of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The years 1813 and 1814 are not rich in impressive new works, and beginning in 1815 his music became generally less dramatic and more introspective. The first group of works in this new, late-period style includes the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98 (To the Distant Beloved, 1816); the piano sonata, op. 101 (1816); and the two sonatas for cello and piano, op. 102 (1815). In these works and in a larger group of late sonatas, op. 109, 110, and 111 (1820-22), and string quartets, op. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135 (1824-26), Beethoven relied less on the classical three- or four-movement format, dominated by a dramatic first movement in sonata form, and more on the juxtaposition of movements (from two to seven) of widely differing style and character. In particular, he favored variation and fugal procedures in which the hidden implications of his themes emerge gradually. Occasionally he reverted to elements of the heroic middle-period style, as, for example, in the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106 (1817-18); the Missa Solemnis (1818-23); and the Ninth (Choral) Symphony (completed 1823). Even these works, however, are colored by a new immediacy of expression. As Beethoven grew more isolated, from both his physical surroundings and the popular stylistic tendencies of the day, his music tended increasingly to expressive extremes. Passages of sublime contemplation join with simple folk melodies, impassioned recitatives, and abstract archaisms in a wholly personal synthesis.

Beethoven's music has never lost its central place in the concert repertory. Some works had an immediate and specific impact on the next generation of composers. The influence of the popular Seventh Symphony, for example, can be heard in Schubert's Great Symphony in C Major, Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, and Wagner's Symphony in C. The influence of the Ninth Symphony was even more far-reaching; its special character had a profound effect on Bruckner and Brahms, and its combination of instrumental and choral forces prompted a series of hybrid symphonic works, from Berlioz to Mahler. The highly expressive quality of all Beethoven's music inspired poetic interpretations and encouraged a century of romantic instrumental works with programmatic overtones. Beethoven himself became a powerful symbol, the prototype of the modern artist-hero as opposed to the artist-craftsman of prerevolutionary Europe. His fierce independence and his painfully achieved artistic triumph over personal adversity, especially in the dramatic works of the middle period, made him a model for those later composers such as Wagner who sought to teach or preach through art. At the same time, his fidelity to classical principles of composition, that is, his use of large-scale structure rather than local thematic events to achieve his most profound effects, has made his works the single most important source for the various systems of analysis developed by modern theorists and teachers.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.