Ludwig van Beethoven

Born 1770 in Bonn, Germany. Died 1827
Classical school(s).

Essential Listening

Biography

Ludwig van Beethoven Most people leave school music lessons knowing one thing about Beethoven – that he was deaf.

He is portrayed in the musical history books as having been something of a tempestuous, moody, creative genius, and this really isn't far off the mark.

He was born in Bonn in 1770, again from a musical family, and showed an enormous talent very early on.

Like Mozart's father, Herr Beethoven senior was quick to spot this talent and sought to exploit his son's gifts at every possible opportunity.

Family life was not without its troubles –- Beethoven's mother was for a time an alcoholic, and his father also suffered with the same problem for the whole of the latter part of his life.

This made its mark on the young man and undoubtedly played a part in developing his own highly charged, emotionally dramatic style of music; it may have had some bearing on the fact that he, too, later developed a drink problem.

Beethoven had little formal education to speak of and was left with only very basic skills in reading and writing.

There is a school of thought that suggests Beethoven's profound ill temper could have been due to his inner sense of embarrassment and frustration at not being able to express himself very clearly, and this may well have been the case.

He did, however, have a very good musical training and quickly became proficient on a number of instruments including the piano, organ, violin and viola.

Beethoven had some fine teachers in Bonn, but he also went to Vienna in his late teens to study with Mozart.

Following the death of both his parents, he ended up making a living as both a teacher and a viola player in orchestras and opera houses in and around Bonn.

Thinking it would be a good career move, he too went off to Vienna, possibly due to an encounter with Haydn, who was extremely impressed with young Beethoven's work.

After a time, Beethoven settled down in Vienna and developed a very good reputation both as a performer and a composer.

Although from something of a lowly social background, he eventually started to move in the highest circles and received patronage and wrote works at the commission of a number of the aristocracy.

He was quite prolific and wrote nine great symphonies and five brilliant piano concertos, as well as a whole host of chamber music, piano music and songs.

Beethoven's deafness manifested itself in about 1802, when he was just thirty-two years of age.

It did not seem to slow down his creative output, even though he was also dogged by quite severe ill health for much of this middle to late period of his life.

Rumour had it that Beethoven's deafness was due to the effects of syphilis and alcoholism, but these ideas were dispelled only a matter of twenty years ago, and now popular belief is that he had some kind of mysterious viral disease.

The syphilis theory may have developed from the undoubted fact that Beethoven had countless affairs, mainly with married women from the ranks of the aristocracy.

Whatever the disease, it can only have fuelled his frustration and loneliness, and quite possibly was one of the main causes for his volatile, rather bitter nature.

Beethoven's ill health stayed with him for many years and by 1827 he was totally bedridden, suffering from pleurisy, pneumonia and dropsy.

He died on 27 March that year and was buried in Vienna.

If you are a lover of orchestral music, then the symphonies and piano concertos are all wonderful pieces.

The piano sonatas vary from being very easy on the ear to extremely challenging and intellectually stimulating.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the opus number, and consequently the later the work, the more complex Beethoven's power of expression became.

The string quartets are well worth listening to and, from the chamber music that he wrote, the Septet Op. 20 is highly recommended.

Für Elise

Keyboard Works

One of Beethoven's most famous piano pieces, this delightful little work has an instantly recognisable opening.

It has been arranged for numerous different instruments.

Pathetique Sonata

Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, 'Pathetique', Op. 13

1798, Keyboard Works

The title does not actually mean 'pathetic', but rather 'sonata full of feeling', and the work is a good example of Beethoven's concern for the dramatised presentation of private feeling in music.

The first movement is turbulent whilst the second is serene. The final rondo breaks out into frenzied runs and emphatic dischords.

Septet

Septet in E Flat Major Op. 20

1800, Chamber Music

This is a cheerful six-movement work for clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quartet.

It is uncomplicated and untaxing, being written purely for delight and entertainment.

Moonlight Sonata

Piano Sonata No.14 in C Sharp Minor Op. 27, No. 2 ('Moonlight'): Adagio sostenuto

1801, Keyboard Works

This is probably Beethoven's most famous sonata and is often played by piano students. The opening Adagio is both emotive and instantly recognisable.

Eroica

Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major ('Eroica'): 1st Movement

1804, Symphonies, Orchestral

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the 'Eroica', is often seen as his greatest symphony, though sometimes holding joint first place with the Ninth.

It was written in 1804, and Beethoven intended to portray in its music the heroism and idealism of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he worshipped as the great liberator, the smasher of ancient tyrannies and cramping conventions, for at the time Napoleon was the chief military and political defender of the French Revolution. Beethoven saw France's message of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' as being not just for France, but for all men, and consequently held Bonaparte in extremely high esteem.

However, when the work was finished and the composer was on the verge of having the final manuscript sent to Paris with the name 'Bonaparte' at the top, Beethoven's friend brought him the news that Napoleon had just crowned himself Emperor of France. Flying into a tremendous rage, Beethoven exclaimed:

'Is he then too nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!'

The Symphony was quickly retitled 'Sinfonia Eroica: Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man'.

Set in four movements, the symphony has no introduction, merely two staccato chords that launch into the main theme.

The second movement is the great 'Funeral March', which has often confused purists who expect such a movement to come at the end of a symphony. But Beethoven wasn't writing a biography, he was depicting heroism – or, rather, heroic grief. It is an epic lament over the heroes that have fallen in the defence of everyone's freedom.

The following scherzo is a welcome change from the preceding sobriety, being full of life and laughter, whilst the finale recalls the principal theme from the first movement.

Funeral March

Symphony No. 3: 2nd Movement ('Funeral March')

1804, Symphonies, Orchestral

This Funeral March is the second movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the 'Eroica', initially written as musical praise for Napoleon Bonaparte, before the composer was dramatically disillusioned.

It has often confused purists, who expect such a movement to come at the end of a symphony, but Beethoven wasn't writing a biography, he was depicting heroism – or, rather, heroic grief. It is an epic lament over the heroes that have fallen in the defence of everyone's freedom.

Appassionata

Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor Op. 57 ('Appassionata')

1805, Keyboard Works

'The Appassionata' marks a peak in Beethoven's artistic development where emotion is not dramatised, but rather used to drive the work along.

Fidelio

1805, Opera

Never having been too interested in vocal music, this was the only opera Beethoven ever wrote. It is a passionate tale of revolutionary idealism and the power of true love.

Fidelio is often considered a little heavy going.

Leonore

Overture 'Leonore' No. 1

1805, Overtures

One of four overtures Beethoven's wrote to his only opera 'Fidelio', this makes a pleasant introduction to the overall work.

Symphony No. 4

Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major Op. 60

1806, Symphonies, Orchestral

Although this is Beethoven's most gentle symphony, it was written in the explosive year of 1806, when Napoleon was rampaging around Europe, toppling old thrones, setting up new ones, redrawing boundaries and creating new states.

Coriolan

Overture 'Coriolan' Op. 62

1807, Overtures

A heroic overture written for a tragedy by Heinrich Collin called Coriolan.

Pastoral Symphony

Symphony No. 6 in F Major Op. 68 ('Pastoral')

1808, Symphonies, Orchestral

Certainly one of Beethoven's most admired symphonies, the 'Pastoral' conjures up delightful images of babbling brooks and peasants larking about.

Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor Op. 67: Allegro con brio

1808, Symphonies, Orchestral

Like Beethoven himself, this Fifth Symphony is music of concentrated energy, struggle and triumph. In its emotional voltage it is an intensely forward-looking work, embodying one of the most powerful musical trends of the following hundred years.

Beethoven laboured some four years, 1804–8, on his Fifth Symphony, and interrupted himself to compose another symphony which was completed earlier, and hence numbered Fourth, and also to write his Violin Concerto and Fourth Piano Concerto.

The Fifth Symphony was first performed on 22 December 1808 in Vienna at an incredible concert in the Theater an der Wien, which consisted entirely of new Beethoven works: the Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto with Beethoven as the soloist, the aria 'Ah! Perfido', three numbers from his Mass in C Major, and the Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra!

The opening of the first movement (Allegro con brio) is a savage, imperious onslaught of just four notes that will be instantly recognisable from numerous films and adverts. More rhythm than melody, it is one of the briefest, the most powerful, and certainly the most symphonic themes ever written. It is reported that Beethoven pointed out this theme to a friend and declared: 'Thus fate knocks at the door!'

The second movement (Andante con moto) is less vibrant and more of an exercise in orchestral grace and charm that spins off into freedom and fantasy. It contrasts sharply with the Allegro of the third movement, which has a well-paced, menacing theme. The final movement, also an Allegro, draws on the full orchestra, which leads to a coda of excitement, power and brilliance.

Emperor Concerto

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major Op. 73 ('Emperor')

1809, Concerti, Orchestral

Beethoven himself had taken the solo part in the earliest performances of his first four piano concertos. His earliest triumphs in Vienna had been as a virtuoso performer of his own works but, by the time he had finished his Fifth, or 'Emperor', Concerto, he had grown too deaf to perform. This could be one reason why this concerto was his last. He finished it in 1809, the year of the Austrian defeat at Wagram, and the year of Napoleon's siege and occupation of Vienna. When the bombardment of the city grew too loud, Beethoven would go down to the cellar of his brother Carl's house and cover his head with pillows. This was not because he was scared, but rather to protect his ears and what little hearing he had left.

For the first Viennese performance, in 1812, Beethoven entrusted the solo part to his brilliant pupil Carl Czerny, and the story goes that a member of the audience, a French army officer, was so carried away by the music that he acclaimed it ' . . . an emperor among concertos', from which the concerto's nickname probably originated.

The concerto begins with a decisive chord from the orchestra, after which the piano comes in, rather unusually, with a sweeping cadenza – this being normally reserved for the close of a movement. The piano continues its outbursts, which Beethoven wrote out very carefully, as the style of a cadenza was usually left to the soloist.

The second movement (Adagio un poco mosso) has a songlike, evening feel about it, as the pianist steals a melody from the violins to produce a series of gentle variations that, almost without a break, leads us into the finale (Rondo: Allegro). This is a marvellous exposition of dynamism and exhilaration that comes across as being spontaneous and impulsive.

Archduke Trio

Piano Trio in B Flat Major Op. 97 ('Archduke'): Allegro moderato

1810, Chamber Music

A relaxed chamber work that doesn't seek to strive forcefully to the end. It was written seventeen years before Beethoven's death, and the listener will appreciate the maturity of the writing.

Ode to Joy

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor Op. 125: 4th Movement 'Ode to Joy'

1817, Symphonies, Orchestral

Beethoven's Ninth (and last) Symphony is famous in its own right, yet probably best known for its closing chorus based on Friedrich von Schiller's ode 'To Joy'. The poem had always appealed to Beethoven, and it was when he was twenty-two that he first planned to set it to music. However, he was fifty-four when he finished this symphony, and died only three years later.

At the first performance, in Vienna in May 1824, Beethoven was far too deaf to think of conducting. He sat in the middle of the orchestra, trying to follow the performance with his copy of the music, though he always seemed to be losing his place. At the conclusion there was tremendous applause, which Beethoven obviously could not hear. This scene was described as follows:

'The master . . . heard nothing at all, and was not even sensible to the applause of the audience . . . but continued standing with his back to the audience and beating the time until Miss Unger . . . induced him to face the people, who were still clapping their hands and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning about, and the sudden conviction . . . that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.'

In the final movement the melody of the chorus is introduced without words by cellos and basses, and some instrumental variations follow. Suddenly, a voice cries out some introductory lines (written by Beethoven himself) to the ode, which leads the entire chorus into the full poem delivered with an explosion of noise and power.

It must be remembered that Beethoven lived through a chaotic period in European history, watching the rise and fall of Napoleon, a man whom Beethoven truly admired until his illusions were shattered. In this Ninth Symphony, Beethoven was able to look back over the battles, the victories and the defeats, sum them together, and crown his nine symphonies with the stunning hope and optimism of the great chorale finale.

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A Flat

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A Flat M

ajor Op. 110

1821, Keyboard Works

One of Beethoven's more accessible sonatas, this begins with a slow movement, proceeding to a scherzo, a sobbing 'aria dolente' ('grief-stricken song') and, finally, a fugue.

It sounds as if it was written in a single afternoon, though it did, in fact, take Beethoven weeks of work.

String Quartet Op. 127

String Quartet in E Flat Major Op. 127

1825, Chamber Music

Although famous for his symphonies, Beethoven produced a large amount of chamber music that deserves recognition. The listener can hear the potential symphony in all the quartets, which have been described as ' . . . relaxed rather than striving'.

Opus 127 is grand and enjoyable, beginning with a simple falling theme that moves along quite sedately, interrupted by brief, sprightly bursts.