Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven
Author: Karl Joseph Stieler
Medium: oil on canvas
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, to Johann van Beethoven (1740-1792), of Flemish origins, and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744-1787). Until relatively recently 16 December was shown in many reference works as Beethoven’s ‘date of birth’, since we know he was baptised on 17 December and children at that time were generally baptised the day after their birth. However modern scholarship declines to rely on such assumptions.
Beethoven’s first music teacher was his father, who worked as a musician in the Electoral court at Bonn, but was also an alcoholic who beat him and unsuccessfully attempted to exhibit him as a child prodigy. However, Beethoven’s talent was soon noticed by others. He was given instruction and employment by Christian Gottlob Neefe, as well as financial sponsorship by the Prince-Elector. Beethoven’s mother died when he was 17, and for several years he was responsible for raising his two younger brothers.
Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, where he studied with Joseph Haydn and other teachers. He quickly established a reputation as a piano virtuoso, and more slowly as a composer. He settled into the career pattern he would follow for the remainder of his life: rather than working for the church or a noble court (as most composers before him had done), he was a freelancer, supporting himself with public performances, sales of his works, and stipends from noblemen who recognized his ability.
Beethoven’s career as a composer is usually divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods.
In the Early period, he is seen as emulating his great predecessors Haydn and Mozart, at the same time exploring new directions and gradually expanding the scope and ambition of his work. Some important pieces from the Early period are the first and second symphonies, the first six string quartets, the first two piano concertos, and about a dozen piano sonatas, including the famous ‘Pathétique’.
The Middle period began shortly after Beethoven’s personal crisis centering around deafness, and is noted for large-scale works expressing heroism and struggle; these include many of the most famous works of classical music. The Middle period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3 – 8), the last three piano concertos and his only violin concerto, six string quartets (Nos. 7 – 11), many piano sonatas (including the ‘Moonlight’, ‘Waldstein’, and ‘Appassionata’), and Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio.
Beethoven’s Late period began around 1816 and lasted until Beethoven ceased to compose in 1826. The late works are greatly admired for their intellectual depth and their intense, highly personal expression. They include the Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’), the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets and the last five piano sonatas.
Beethoven’s personal life was troubled. Around age 28 he started to become deaf, a calamity which led him for some time to contemplate suicide. He was attracted to unattainable (married or aristocratic) women, whom he idealized; he never married. A period of low productivity from about 1812 to 1816 is thought by some scholars to have been the result of depression, resulting from Beethoven’s realization that he would never marry. Beethoven quarreled, often bitterly, with his relatives and others, and frequently behaved badly to other people. He moved often from dwelling to dwelling, and had strange personal habits such as wearing filthy clothing while washing compulsively. He often had financial troubles.
It is common for listeners to perceive an echo of Beethoven’s life in his music, which often depicts struggle followed by triumph. This description is often applied to Beethoven’s creation of masterpieces in the face of his severe personal difficulties.
Beethoven was often in poor health, and in 1826 his health took a drastic turn for the worse. His death in the following year is usually attributed to liver disease.