On the Life of Beethoven

Beethoven Essay
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I am not quite sure if there’s anyone out there who has not heard of Beethoven. Many, I am sure, probably do not even know who he was or what he did but have somehow or the other heard of him.

Well, they cannot be blamed entirely, for Beethoven was born in the late 18th century and died in the early 19th century. But, fortunately for us, history has been kind to Beethoven. Unlike the fate of so many other men and women of the past, history has not forgotten him or his achievements.

For those of you who do not know who he was, or have never even heard of him, let me introduce him to you in one short sentence. Beethoven was a so-called musical genius, a prodigy, who is responsible for composing some of the greatest works of music in history. And it is because of this reason that you have heard of his name sometime or the other during the course of your lifetime.

But let us go into some more detail about the life and work of this great man.

Who exactly was Beethoven? Well, Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist, who was born on 17th December 1770 in the city of Bonn, Germany.

It was obvious from an early age that Beethoven was a musical prodigy. His talent could not be ignored or denied. At first, he was taught by his father, Johann, who was also a musician. Later on, he was taught by opera composer and conductor Christian Gottlob Neefe.

Beethoven’s training, especially under the tutelage of his father, was sometimes so harsh and intense that it reduced him to tears. This was mainly because his father had recognized his obvious talent and aptitude for music. His father was also inspired by the way Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, had promoted his son as a child prodigy to great success, and he looked to do the same for his son.

As the young Beethoven’s training widened, he was taught by other teachers such as Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, a family friend, who would, or so it is said, often drag Beethoven from his bed in the middle of the night to practice, as he himself was an insomniac. Obviously, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story, and so I shall leave it to each one of you to take a call and decide for yourselves. Whatever satisfies you is fine by me!

For his first public performance in March of 1778, Johann promoted a then 7-year-old Beethoven as a 6-year-old child prodigy.

Fiver years later, in 1783, after being taught composition by Neefe, Beethoven’s first published work, a set of keyboard variations, appeared. He was only 12.

Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as an assistant organist of the Court Chapel and then went on to publish his first three piano sonatas. He had made such an impression at such a young age that in 1783 his name appeared in a German music magazine for the first time. The article, dedicated to the 12-year-old Beethoven, praised him as a promising talent who played the piano skillfully and with power, also mentioning that the chief piece he played was Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The following years were nothing extraordinary for Beethoven, one may assume. Although he was considered a prodigy, his initial works did not attract much attention. Even worse, his mother died in 1787, when he was 16. Two years later, his father was forced to retire from the service of the court due to his alcoholism, as a result of which Beethoven was paid half of his father’s pension to look after the family. He was also forced to begin teaching (something that he hated) and playing viola in the court orchestra.

So many sudden changes and tragedies kept Beethoven away from composing during this period, because of which it is quite difficult to find any record of Beethoven’s activities as a composer from 1785 to 1790.

Playing viola in the court orchestra gave him good experience with a variety of operas, including the ones composed by greats such as Italian composers Giovanni Paisiello and Christoph Gluck, as well as the great Wolfgang Mozart.

The experience he gained while playing at the court greatly influenced his later compositions. He went on to compose several works between 1790 and 1792, all of which was proof of his newfound range and maturity. And though these works were not published at the time, they betray the style that would one day define Beethoven’s work as distinct from the classical tradition.

During the early 1790s, Beethoven met and made the acquaintance of several people who would go on to become an important part of his life. While teaching piano to some of the children of the von Breuning family, he met and befriended German physician Franz Wegeler, who was then a young medical student. The two would go on to become lifelong friends.

It was at von Breuning’s house that Beethoven met Count Waldstein, who quickly became his friend and patron. Waldstein supported the young Beethoven financially and even commissioned his first work for the stage, the ballet Musik zu einem Ritterballett in 1791.

Beethoven, in spite of his apparent mastery over his craft at such a young age, was yet to garner the reputation for which history would come to remember him.

In November 1792, Beethoven, aged 21, left his native Bonn for Vienna. Soon after arriving there, he learned of his father’s death. Beethoven had no intention of establishing himself as a composer right away. Instead, he took his time to study the works of the masters before him and focused on performances.

He studied under the tutelage of Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn and Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

A couple of years into his stay in Vienna, Beethoven continued to study under the guidance of various teachers as Bonn fell to the French in October 1794. He had no desire to go back to Bonn now. His talent and genius had been recognized by several Viennese noblemen, who willingly offered him financial support and gave him the opportunity to perform.

In this way, the young Beethoven began to develop a reputation as an improviser and performer in the salons of the Viennese nobility. He had also managed to gain a considerable reputation as a piano virtuoso.

Beethoven’s dedication to studying music must be admired. For someone who was believed to be a prodigy, Beethoven’s willingness to put in the hours to study and practice his craft is truly inspiring. Such dedication to his craft, in spite of the natural talents he possessed, reminds me of another great artist in history, Pablo Picasso, who too dedicated his entire life to mastering his craft in spite of being regarded as a prodigy.

But let me get back to the topic at hand.

In the year 1795, Beethoven, aged 24, made his public debut in Vienna, performing over a period of three days. Shortly thereafter, he published one of his compositions, Opus 1, a set of three piano trios dedicated to his patron Prince Lichnowsky. The publication proved to be commercially successful.

In 1798, Beethoven wrote one of his most celebrated compositions at the age of 27, known as Sonata Pathetique. The composition was lauded for its originality and ingenuity and was considered to have surpassed all of his previous compositions up until then.

It was around this period that Beethoven began suffering from hearing loss. It is said that he himself traced the early symptoms back to a fit he suffered in 1798 after a serious argument with a singer. Once again, unfortunately, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this claim. Therefore, let us just assume that Beethoven really said that at some point in time.

His hearing further worsened after suffering from a serious form of tinnitus (the perception of sound when no corresponding external sound is present). This, needless to say, caused him great discomfort at social gatherings and in his professional duties.

It is now generally believed that the most likely cause of his hearing loss was otosclerosis (a condition of the middle ear where one or more foci of irregularly laid spongy bone replace part of a normally dense enchondral layer of the bony otic capsule in the bony labyrinth). This condition was probably accompanied by a degeneration of the auditory nerve.

This was no doubt the most difficult time of Beethoven’s life. On 6th October 1802, he wrote a letter to his brothers Johann and Carl, in which he confesses to having thoughts of suicide due to his worsening hearing loss. But at the same time, one can notice a sense of hope and resolution on his part to continue living for the sake of his music.

Interestingly, the letter was never actually sent and was discovered in his papers after his death. What is even more interesting is that in his letters to Wegeler, he displays a more daring and courageous attitude toward his illness by stating that he would not let it crush him completely. He even vowed not to keep his deafness a secret, even in his music.

Fortunately for the world of music, and for countless musicians who were inspired by him, Beethoven did not stop composing even as his hearing loss became worse. But there was a major drawback nonetheless, obviously. His hearing loss made it difficult for him to perform at concerts, something which was his main source of income at that point in his life.

It was during this difficult period in his life that the so-called heroic period of his career began. This period in his career came to be known for his highly original works composed on a grand scale, apparently representing struggle and heroism.

Around the year 1802, Beethoven declared that he was not content and satisfied with the work he had composed up until then, because of which he would now take a new and original path.

The following year, he composed the Third Symphony, called Eroica, in which he used the new style he intended to pursue. It was longer and larger in scope than any previous symphony and received a mixed reaction from listeners. Some believed it to be a masterpiece, while others misunderstood its structure and criticized its length.

There is an interesting fact relating to the Eroica. The symphony was actually created to honor the life and career of Napolean Bonaparte, as Beethoven was believed to have sympathized with Napolean’s cause and ideal. He had even initially named the symphony Bonaparte instead of Eroica, but later decided against it after Napolean declared himself Emperor in 1804.

Beethoven canceled Napolean’s name from the manuscript’s title page and named it Eroica, with a subtitle that simply said to celebrate the memory of a great man.

During his heroic period, Beethoven went on to compose other grand pieces in the manner of the Eroica, such as the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the Rasumovsky string quartets, the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Symphonies, the opera Fidelio, the violin concerto, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives.

These works are now widely regarded as masterpieces and are some of his most celebrated works. These works were not only famous for their grand scope but also for their originality, which was radical and revolutionary for the times.

During this period, many critics and listeners began regarding Beethoven as the greatest of the Romantic composers, even ahead of greats like Mozart and Haydn.

One can learn a great lesson from what Beethoven created and achieved in this so-called heroic period. Not only did he overcome the crippling effects of his deafness (something which would have ruined the spirits of most musicians), but he was also bold enough to strike open an entirely new musical path by breaking away from the old traditional one. He was courageous enough to innovate and revolutionize.

Breaking away in this way from the traditional path and making and treading on his own path made him a true pioneer of the times.

In the year 1809, the chaos that ensued as the war approached Vienna affected Beethoven’s output. However, he did manage to compose Emperor Concerto, which was his piano concerto No. 5, and a piano sonata named Les Adieux (The Farewell), which was dedicated to his patron Archduke Rudolf, who fled Vienna along with the Imperial family as the French approached the city. He also composed String Quartet No. 10 and Piano Sonata No. 24.

The occupation of Vienna by the French disrupted the social and cultural life of the city. Beethoven also became ill during this period. Due to these issues, he was not able to remain as prolific as before.

In 1813, after the coalition led by the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesly, defeated Napolean’s army at the battle of Vitoria, Beethoven was inspired to compose a piece commemorating the victory, called Wellington’s Victory or Battle Symphony.

After the work was first performed in December of 1813, it received frequent requests for repeat performances at Beethoven concerts. These concerts became so popular and brought him so much financial success that he was able to buy bank shares that would eventually turn out to be his most valuable assets at the time of his death. These concerts also served to increase his popularity among the nobility, statesmen, and the public.

It was during this period that Beethoven began using ear trumpets designed by German inventor Johann Maelzel for conversation.

Around this time, Beethoven stopped his solo performances due to his worsening hearing loss. Family problems, legal issues, and poor health contributed to a decline in his productivity. And although he managed to write a few compositions in spite of all these problems, they mostly paled in comparison to his previous works.

By the year 1823, he had completed three major works, the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and the Diabelli Variations, all of which he had been working on for a few years. These works resulted in a resurgence in his popularity.

The Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony were first performed to great acclaim and applause. It is said that Beethoven’s hearing loss had become so bad that he was not even aware of the applause in the theater until he was turned to witness it. These works were regarded as the work of a pioneering genius, who was a master of his craft.

Beethoven’s second concert performing these works was not as successful in terms of attendance and not much money was made from it. This concert would be his last public concert.

In his final years, his health began to fail again, leaving him almost constantly ill. Still, ever the true artist, he continued to compose music in spite of his failing health. In his final days, several of his old friends and patrons paid him a visit to be by his side.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven, aged 56, passed away. He had suffered from serious liver damage brought on due to his heavy alcohol consumption and dilation of the auditory and other related nerves.

His funeral procession, held three days later in Vienna, was attended by around ten thousand people. He was buried at the Wahring Cemetery, northwest of Vienna.

At the time of his death, he was regarded as one of the greatest musicians and composers in all of Europe. His works had been published with much success and acclaim in other European countries like Britain and France.

One can learn so many important lessons from the life of this great man. Beethoven’s dedication to his craft is nothing short of inspiring. He dedicated his entire life to music, never taking his talent for granted. He spent his life studying music, studying the old masters, practicing and perfecting his craft, and even innovating in it.

And like the true artist that he was, he forged his own path in the world of music, breaking away from the old traditionally trodden path. In short, he created something new for others to work on and build upon. He became a pioneer, a master.

Beethoven’s deafness did not stop him from composing music. His frequent illnesses did not stop him either. And neither did his family problems or any other personal issues. He just kept going forward, never stopping or stagnating. He kept on creating as if he was born on this earth to do just that and nothing else. Music was the ultimate purpose of his life.

What can be more inspiring than that for any artist out there? If a so-called genius, a so-called prodigy, willingly worked so hard and so consistently at his craft, then what excuse do other artists have for not doing the same?

Beethoven’s life must serve as an example to all artists out there, proving that, just as in the case of every other so-called genius in history, hard work, dedication, patience, consistency, and discipline, beats raw prodigious talent in the long run. If one must succeed at one’s craft, one must necessarily put in the hours to master it.

There are no shortcuts in life, even if one happens to be a genius.