Monday, July 25, 2005
Beethoven, the beautiful composer
'You must listen to Beethoven once before you die'
Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized December 17, 1770; died March 26, 1827) was a German composer of classical music, who predominantly lived in Vienna, Austria. He was a major musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras. Beethoven is widely regarded as one of the greatest of composers, and his reputation also inspired – and in some cases intimidated – composers, musicians, and audiences who were to come after him.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, to Johann and Magdalena van Beethoven. 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, like Mozart. 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 the first twenty piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique and Moonlight.
The Middle period began shortly after Beethoven's personal crisis centring 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, five string quartets (Nos. 7 – 11), the next six piano sonatas including the 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 and characterized by intellectual depth, intense and highly personal expression, and Beethoven's experimentation with forms (for example, the Quartet in C Sharp Minor has seven movements, while most famously the Ninth Symphony adds choral forces to the orchestra. They include the Ninth Symphony (the Choral), the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets and the last six piano sonatas.
Considering the depth and extent of Beethoven's artistic explorations, as well as the composer's success in making himself comprehensible to the widest possible audience, the Austrian-born British musician and writer Hans Keller felt able to pronounce Beethoven 'humanity's greatest mind altogether'. Beethoven was a musical genuis, sans any doubt.
Beethoven's personal life was troubled. Around the age of 28 he started to become deaf, a calamity which led him for some time to contemplate suicide (see the 1802 'Heiligenstadt Testament'). 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 quarrelled, often bitterly, with his relatives and others (latterly and painfully over the custody of his nephew Karl); and he 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, especially after his mid-20s (when he began to suffer from serious stomach pains). In 1826 his health took a drastic turn for the worse. His death in the following year was attributed to liver disease; but modern research on a lock of Beethoven's hair taken at the time of his death shows that lead poisoning could well have contributed to his ill-health and untimely death. It is unlikely, however, that lead poisoning was the cause of his deafness, which several researchers have seen as caused by an immunopathic disorder such as 'systemic lupus erythematosus'.
In 1996 the hair was analysed chemically. High lead concentrations were found. History records that Beethoven continued working on his music until the day he died. This implies that Beethoven decided to keep his mind clear for his music. Amongst possible sources of lead are fish caught in the heavily polluted Danube, and lead compounds used to sweeten wine.
Beethoven's musical style and innovations Beethoven is viewed as the transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history. As far as musical form is concerned, he built on the principles of sonata form and motivic development that he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart, but greatly extended them, writing longer and more ambitious movements. The work of Beethoven's Middle period is celebrated for its frequent heroic expression, and the works of his Late period for their intellectual depth.
Beethoven was much taken by the ideals of the Enlightenment and by the growing Romanticism in Europe. He initially dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica (Italian for "heroic"), to Napoleon in the belief that the general would sustain the democratic and republican ideals of the French Revolution, but in 1804 crossed out the dedication as Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear, replacing it with "to the memory of a great man". The fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony features an elaborate choral setting of Schiller's ode An die Freude ("To Joy"), an optimistic hymn championing the brotherhood of humanity.
Scholars disagree on Beethoven's religious beliefs and the role they played in his work. A continuing controversy surrounding Beethoven is whether he was a Romantic composer. As documented elsewhere, since the meanings of the word "Romantic" and the definition of the period "Romanticism" both vary by discipline, Beethoven's inclusion as a member of that movement or period must be looked at in context.
If we consider the Romantic movement as an aesthetic epoch in literature and the arts generally, Beethoven sits squarely in the first half, along with literary Romantics such as the German poets Goethe and Schiller (whose texts both he and the much more straightforwardly Romantic Franz Schubert drew on for songs), and the English poet Percy Shelley.
He was also called a Romantic by contemporaries such as Spohr and E.T.A. Hoffman. He is often considered the composer of the first Song Cycle, and was influenced by Romantic folk idioms, for example in his use of the work of Robert Burns. He set dozens of such poems (and arranged folk melodies) for voice, piano, and violin.
When the most famous composer of the age died, about thirty thousand mourners were present at the funeral procession on March 26, 1827. The world had suddenly lost its greatest music maker.
Beethoven's story is one of personal triumph over tragedy and supreme musical achievement. A complex and brilliant man, no composer before or since has exerted greater influence.