Personalities | Ludwig van Beethoven | Classical Era | Classical

(Lood’-wig van Bat’-ho-fan) 1770–1827
German composer

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the greatest composers in history – perhaps the greatest. Standing at the crossroads between the classical and Romantic eras, he created music that belongs not just to its period but to all time. He excelled in virtually every genre of his day, and had enormous influence on the composers who succeeded him.

His music possesses tremendous emotional and intellectual depth. Its impact on the listener is often so immediate and direct that no prior knowledge of music is needed to appreciate its power. On the other hand, some of the procedures he uses are so sophisticated and complex that even the most learned experts are continually finding new things to admire in it. Its range is vast: from the despair of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata to the ecstasy of the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the Ninth Symphony; from the wit and frivolity of one of his many scherzos to the profound mysticism of the Missa solemnis; and from the tiniest bagatelles and canons to the awesome size of the Grosse Fuge and the ‘Diabelli’ Variations. Beethoven’s originality is equally astounding. Each major work explores some new concept or device, and he was forever stretching the boundaries of what was possible, without straying beyond them into lawlessness and unmusicality.

Beethoven’s Childhood

Beethoven’s father Johann (c. 1740–92) was a professional singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, whose seat was in Bonn. There was a long tradition of music-making at this court, although the size of the establishment fluctuated, depending on what funds were available. Johann’s own father, Ludwig, or Louis, van Beethoven (1712–73), had been appointed as Kapellmeister at the court in 1761, and Beethoven always revered his grandfather, even though the latter died when Beethoven was only three years old.

Beethoven began showing musical interest from about the age of four, and his father was soon teaching him the piano. Under Johann’s strict regime, Beethoven made such rapid progress that eventually a new teacher had to be found. Luckily there arrived in Bonn in 1779 a very able musician called Christian Neefe (1748–98), who taught Beethoven the rudiments of composition. Again Beethoven made rapid progress, and Neefe arranged for publication of some of his earliest compositions, including a set of variations in 1782 and a set of three piano sonatas in 1783. All of these show considerable originality.

The Young Courtier

Beethoven had been deputizing as a musician at court for some years by the time he was officially appointed as court organist alongside Neefe. By 1787 it had been decided to send him to Mozart in Vienna to improve his skills still further, since there was little in music that he could still learn from anyone in Bonn. His visit to Vienna proved short-lived, however, for almost immediately after arriving he heard that his mother was terminally ill. He hurried back to Bonn, and she died shortly after his return. He...

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