Classical Composer Biography: Ludwig van Beethoven
by Betty Fry
I had been trying to discover who had written ‘Ode to Joy’, but did not even know where to begin, apart from knowing it must be one of the great composers. But after a great deal of reading I managed to find out Beethoven was the composer of the music, but that in the first instance it had been a poem written by the German dramatist, poet and historian Friedrich von Schiller.
So I looked in my reference book ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations’ and under the poet’s name found the verse in question had significance enough to be quoted both in German and English.
‘Joy, beautiful radiance of the gods, daughter of Elysium, we set foot in your heavenly shrine dazzled by your brilliance. Your charms re-unite what common use has harshly divided: all men become brothers under your tender wing’.
These lovely words inspired Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. It fired his imagination back in 1793, but it was to be over thirty years before the composer finally set Schiller’s verse to music in the ‘Choral’.
Those facts established, I found the piece of music in question among my CD collection, and put it into my player. I then listened with interest, and could not help but agree with one of my friends, Elizabeth Turner, that the verse put to music in the ‘Choral’ is indeed a wonderful and special part of the glorious whole.
I went on to learn that Ludwig’s father Johann married a young widow who bore him seven children. The first died in infancy and his name, Ludwig, was passed on to his next brother, who was born on 16th December, 1770.
However the family was not especially well off, and when his son began to show signs of exceptional musical talent, Johann van Beethoven sought to exploit it in the way Mozart’s father had done so successfully twenty years earlier.
Theory and technique were bullied into the young Beethoven, probably explaining why later, more conducive training remained anathema to him. The experience may also have contributed to his well known irascibility and intolerance.
But soon his genius demanded that others take over, and he so excelled at the piano, that at seven years of age he gave his first recital on 26th May 1778.
An important influence to him at this time was Christian Gottlob Neefe, the court organist who organised Beethoven’s tuition along more systematic lines.
The benefits were such that, at eleven, Beethoven was able to deputise for his teacher as assistant organist and, in 1783, publish his first composition, a set of variations.
In 1787, Beethoven went to Vienna for the first time, where he received several lessons from Mozart, but news of what proved to be his mother’s fatal illness sent him hurrying back to Bonn after just three months.
But although their acquaintance had been brief, Mozart was in no doubt about Beethoven’s potential. “Watch him,” he remarked, “Some day the world will talk about him”.
It was not until 1792 that Beethoven was able to return to Vienna to continue his studies. His principal tutor was the venerable Haydn, but there was little rapport between the two, and the lessons were unproductive. So much so that Beethoven took advantage of one of Haydn’s visits to London early in 1974 to obtain tuition elsewhere.
Beethoven grew up during the period of the French Revolution and believed passionately in the revolutionary ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood’. He welcomed Napolean’s rise to power, seeing it as a step towards a more just society, and planned his ‘Third Symphony’ as a tribute to his hero.
But in 1804 when Napolean crowned himself Emperor, Beethoven felt betrayed and scratched out the dedication of his newly completed symphony to Napolean, and let it be known simply as his ‘Eroica’, or ‘Heroic’ Symphony
‘Eroica’ is perhaps the most epic funeral march in history, written initially by this musical giant, for another giant, the great Napolean. The sense of the tragic is on a heroic scale; the grand sombre themes are full of nobility. Anguish breaks through as Beethoven launches into a tremendous fugue, building up to a passage like the howling of the wind.
Clarion calls on brass sound the climax before the music subsides. The conclusion once again picks up the heavy sombre tread, like that of a defeated army. The piece ends with the original themes fragmented, leaving only a pervading sense of desolation.
His only opera ‘Fidelio’ broke new ground with its expression of political and human idealism. The story concerns a Spanish nobleman, Florestan who has been unjustly imprisoned. In the hope of rescuing him, his wife Leonora goes to the prison disguised as a boy, Fidelio. In the end her devotion pays off; Florestan is set free, and the tyrannical prison governor, Don Pizarro, is condemned to the dungeon in his place.
‘Mir ist so Wunderbar’, (I feel Wonderful), is among the most famous in all opera. It takes the form of a canon where everyone sings the same tune but with different words at different times. In this way Beethoven reveals the complex relationships between four people.
It was while playing at a concert in Prague in 1796 that Beethoven first noticed a buzzing in his ears. Two years later came the first real signs of deafness, and by 1802 he was despairing enough of his condition to contemplate suicide.
Although the depression was overcome, he became increasingly difficult to deal with, but, more importantly, his whole concept of music changed as he resolved to accept fate’s challenge. The years from 1802 to 1809 saw an explosion of creativity.
In his personal relationships however, Beethoven was less successful. He never married, though he was highly susceptible to feminine charms, and there were several to whom he lost his heart. The bitterest disappointment coming in 1810 with the ending of his engagement to Therese von Malfetti. It is thought by some that she might have been the mysterious ‘Immortal Beloved’ to whom Beethoven wrote a letter found among his papers after his death.
After 1808 his deafness forced him to give up public performance and concentrate upon composition. By 1818 his deafness was so profound that ear trumpets and similar devices were no longer of any help.
The isolation he felt saw him enter a phase where much of his music became more of an inner communion, than a public statement. Withdrawing into the intimate realm of chamber music, he distilled his final thoughts into a series of deeply intense string quartets.
On 24th March 1827 Beethoven signed the score of the String Quartet Op. 131, asked for the last sacrament, and died two days later in his 56th year. Strangely, at the moment of his death a mighty thunderstorm began to rage over Vienna, as if mirroring the impact he had made, and would continue to make. Perhaps at last he could hear again, and the rolls of thunder were like music to his ears. I would like to think so anyway.
An estimated 50,000 attended his funeral, and the city’s leading musicians acted as pallbearers. He was buried in the Wahringer cemetery, but his remains were subsequently re-interred in Vienna’s central cemetery, which is where they lie to this day.
For many people Beethoven is the greatest of all composers. His music expresses every kind of emotion, from the passionate to the tender, yet technically is never anything other than faultless. From the beginning to the end of his creative life he constantly expanded his style and ideals, and his work forms a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods.