Ludwig van Beethoven inspired the world with his titanic liberating spirit. “His emotions at their highest level were almost godlike,” declared critic H.L. Mencken, “he gave music a sort of Alpine grandeur.”
A bold maverick, Beethoven broke free of conventional forms, so music could plumb the depths of despair, express heroic struggles and reach astonishing peaks of joy. Beethoven scholar Robert Haven Schauffler: “Whenever the spirit moved him he could squeeze blood out of bricks. And he made rubies of the blood, and platinum out of the residue of the bricks, and organized these products into miracles of design. . . .”
Beethoven took orchestral music out of aristocratic salons and into packed concert halls. After 1815, he composed mostly for publishers rather than patrons. He was proud to have pioneered a commercial market where composers earned a livelihood from the rights to their work. “What I am,” he wrote, “I am through myself.”
Beethoven was an outspoken republican amidst a continent of kings. He was outraged after Napoleon, who long claimed to uphold republican principles of the French Revolution, had himself crowned emperor. Beethoven admired England for its House of Commons, and he liked to follow Parliamentary debates reported in the German language newspapers. “The sum of his message was freedom,” observed critic Paul Bekker, “artistic freedom, political freedom, personal freedom of will, of art, of faith, freedom of the individual in all aspects of life.”
To be sure, Beethoven was tormented by demons. He endured a rude upbringing and chronic health problems, especially deafness, and his personal life was a mess. He neglected his appearance so badly that he was once mistaken as a tramp and arrested. His apartments—he moved dozens of times—were strewn with old food and dirty clothing. His handwriting was virtually illegible. He couldn’t keep track of money. Longing for domestic happiness, he courted a succession of women but was rejected by every one. He never married.
He was impossible for most people to deal with. He was a suspicious person who often accused friends of cheating him, and by the end of his life there were few left. He had a volatile temper. When a waiter brought him the wrong dish and wasn’t apologetic enough, Beethoven threw it at his head. He was so obnoxious to an orchestra during rehearsal that the musicians wouldn’t continue unless he left the room. Lost in his thoughts, he sometimes seemed like a wild man. Once he waved his arms as he walked across a field, scaring a pair of oxen, and they took off down a steep hill, pulling a panicked peasant behind.
Yet these personal failings are dwarfed by his music. He expressed a love of liberty in ways millions could understand. He gave the world the most glorious affirmations of human life.
Contemporaries commented on the extraordinary intensity of the man. “Everything about his appearance,” observed Dr. W. Christian Muller in 1820, “is powerful, much of it coarse, like the raw-boned structure of his face, with a high, broad forehead, a short, angular nose, with hair standing up and divided into thick locks. But he is blessed with a delicate mouth and with beautiful, eloquent eyes which reflect at every moment his quickly changing ideas and feelings.”
Ludwig van Beethoven was born December 16, 1770, in Bonn. He had Dutch-Flemish, ancestors which is why it’s “van” rather than the German spelling “von.” He was the eldest surviving child of Maria Magdalena, a maid. Four of his six siblings died in infancy. His father, Johann Beethoven, was a tenor in the choir of Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne.
Early on, Beethoven displayed musical talent. Hoping to strike it rich, his father pushed him hard. He took piano lessons from the time he was four years old. He devoted most of his waking hours to the piano. He often practiced till midnight, improving his techniques and trying new variations. At eight, he gave an impressive public performance. Six years later, he was playing the harpsichord, viola, and organ in the Elector’s orchestra. The Elector, an enlightened prince who promoted intellectual freedom, paid expenses to have him visit Vienna which was Europe’s musical capital.
There, probably in April 1787, 16-year-old Beethoven met the 31-year-old reigning musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After hearing the young man’s facility for improvisation, Mozart declared: “Keep your eyes on him; someday he will give the world something to talk about.” Beethoven seems to have taken a few lessons from Mozart, but their visits were cut short when both got bad news about their families. Mozart’s father, Leopold, died May 28, 1787. Beethoven’s mother suffered from tuberculosis, and he returned home to see her die, July 17, 1787. “She was such a good loving mother, my best friend!” he wrote.
Although Beethoven’s formal education ended at age 11, he attended some classes at the University of Bonn. A highlight were lectures on literature, ethics, and law by the anti-clerical republican Eulogius Schneider. Beethoven loved to hang out at the Zehrgarten, a tavern and bookshop where radical intellectuals gathered. Like so many German artists and thinkers of that period, Beethoven believed passionately in individual liberty.
Johann Beethoven spent much time in taverns, and by 1789 Ludwig became the head of household, responsible for supporting his two younger brothers. He began giving piano lessons for a wealthy family. An aristocratic admirer, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, sometimes sent money.
The following year, the influential composer and performer Franz Joseph Haydn, then 58, stopped in Bonn on his way back to Vienna. Beethoven played him a cantata he had composed, and Haydn offered enough encouragement that Elector Maximilian Friedrich provided funds so Beethoven could study with Haydn in Vienna. He arrived on November 10, 1792, and never looked back. Music was mainly chamber music offered in private performances for aristocrats—leading families had staff musicians. While patrons provided some money, fine clothing, and other amenities, they expected fashionable tunes. Patrons paid for performance rather than composition, but Beethoven was determined to make it as a composer.
He became restless with Haydn’s musical formulas and insisted on charting his own course. He took violin lessons from Ignaz Schuppanzigh. He went to Antonio Salieri, director of the Vienna Opera, for lessons on composing for the voice. He learned counterpoint from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Vienna’s most famous teacher of composition and author of an internationally respected book on the subject.
Count Waldstein helped introduce Beethoven to Vienna’s aristocratic music patrons, and by the mid-1790s he ranked as the most popular pianist with a powerful style. He excelled at improvisation. Ferdinand Ries, who studied with both Haydn and Beethoven, recalled: “No artist that I ever heard came at all near the height which Beethoven attained in this branch of playing. The wealth of ideas which forced themselves on him, the caprices to which he surrendered himself, the variety of treatment, the difficulties, were inexhaustible.” Beethoven gave successful performances in Prague and Berlin as well as Vienna.
The French Revolution—before the Terror—had inspired musicians to turn away from light entertainment and pursue more serious themes. Beethoven began to imbue his compositions with high moral purpose. Among his most notable early efforts: the First Symphony (1800), C minor Piano Concerto no. 3 (1800) and C sharp (“Moonlight”) piano sonata (1801).
What was it like for him to compose? “From the focus of enthusiasm,” he told one lady friend, “I must discharge melody in all directions; I pursue it, capture it again passionately; I see it flying away and disappearing in the mass of varied agitations; now I seize upon it again with renewed passion; I cannot tear myself from it; I am impelled with hurried modulations to multiply it, and, at length I conquer it: behold, a symphony!”
He was extraordinarily resourceful. “It would be hard to think of a composer, even of the fourth rate,” observed H.L. Mencken, “who worked with thematic material of less intrinsic merit. He borrowed tunes wherever he found them; he made them up out of snatches of country jigs; when he lacked one altogether he contented himself with a simple phrase, a few banal notes. All such things he viewed simply as raw materials; his interest was concentrated upon their use. To that use of them he brought the appalling powers of his unrivaled genius.”
After about 1800, Beethoven was clearly departing from Haydn and Mozart, and some influential critics objected. A critic for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote: “Herr von Beethoven goes his own gait; but what a bizarre and singular gait it is! . . . a heaping up of difficulties on difficulties till one loses all patience and enjoyment.”
Meanwhile, Beethoven had exulted in the republican ideals of the French Revolution and was jolted both by the violent excesses and the severity of the reaction against it. The Austro-Hungarian Emperor jailed republican activists. “The soldiers are heavily armed,” Beethoven warned a friend. “You must not speak too loud here or the Police will give you lodgings for the night.”
Beethoven’s first great work, the Third “Eroica” Symphony (1803), seems to have been inspired by struggles against tyranny. He used new combinations of instruments and harmonies which hadn’t been heard before. Whether or not Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony to Napoleon, as legend has it, he was disgusted when Napoleon brazenly betrayed republican principles and became an emperor.
In 1805, Beethoven experienced tyranny firsthand as Napoleon unleashed the full fury of his Grand Army across the European continent. On November 13th, 15,000 French soldiers entered Vienna. They occupied private homes, seized food and any other valuables they could get away with. Napoleon demanded that the Viennese pay tribute of 2 million francs and cover the cost of maintaining several thousand French soldiers in the city. Beethoven suffered inflation, food shortages, and military rule like everyone else.
Beethoven was further distracted by poor health. Since 1799, he had suffered from chronic stomach trouble and diarrhea. Then came ominous signs of hearing trouble. “My ears hum and buzz all the time, day and night,” he wrote. “I can truly say my life is miserable, for two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because I can’t possibly say to people `I am deaf . . . in the theater, if I am a little way off I don’t hear the high notes of the instruments or singers. . . .” By 1812, he could hear people only when they shouted at him. Four years later, he would endure silence.
The loss of hearing made clear that Beethoven’s future would have to be as a composer, not a performer. Between 1803 and 1812, he created one masterpiece after another. Besides the “Eroica,” Beethoven composed the Fifth Symphony (1808), which music critic Irving Kolodin noted is the most frequently performed of all orchestral works. During this period, Beethoven also produced his Fifth Piano Concerto (1809). Historians Will and Ariel Durant commented: “Of all his works, this is the most lovable, the most enduringly beautiful, the one of which we never tire; however often we have heard it, we are moved beyond words by its sparkling vivacity, its gay inventiveness, its inexhaustible fountains of feeling and delight.” Beethoven created so much more at this time, including his G major Piano Concerto no. 4 (1806), Violin Concerto (1806), F minor “Appassionata” Piano Sonata (1806), F major Symphony no. 6 (1808), A major Symphony no. 7 (1812), and F major Symphony no. 8 (1812).
Beethoven often worked and reworked his ideas until he was satisfied. His most arduous creation was the opera Fidelio. In 1803, he was commissioned to write an opera which would be performed at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. Rather than do the fashionable light entertainment about the sexual escapades of aristocrats, he chose a serious subject—the liberty of ordinary people. He turned to a libretto by Josef Sonnleithner, based on Leonore, or l’Amour conjugal, a story by J.N. Bouilly. It was based on actual events during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. To protect the living, the story was discreetly set in Spain.
It involves Florestan, imprisoned for telling the truth about corrupt tyrant Pizarro. He decides that Florestan must be murdered, but Florestan’s wife, Leonore, becomes a prison assistant, stops the murder attempt and helps expose Pizarro.
Beethoven lacked dramatic experience, and although there was much inspiring music, the work was a mishmash. The first performance, on November 20, 1805, wasn’t well received. Several months later, Beethoven met with his principal patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky who persuaded the composer to make a number of cuts. Beethoven, in turn, rewrote the overture, producing Leonore Overture No. 2, then the more ambitious Leonore Overture No. 3 which introduced the next performance on March 29, 1806. It was still a long way from satisfactory.
In 1814, three Viennese artists suggested that they perform Fidelio as a benefit for him. This stimulated him to again try resolving problems with the work. He had more experience and perspective on it. He enlisted a collaborator, Georg Friedrich Treitschke, a Viennese playwright who significantly strengthened the story and dialogue. Beethoven did a tremendous amount of rewriting—a single aria of Florestan’s went through 18 revisions. The new Fidelio opened on July 18, 1814, and this time it was a hit.
French composer Hector Berlioz declared: “That music sets your insides on fire. I feel as if I’d swallowed fifteen glasses of brandy.” Music critic Kolodin attributed some of the appeal to Beethoven’s “enkindling response to human distress, his abhorrence of injustice, his compelling belief that rank is an accident of birth and superiority a condition of the person who demonstrates it.”
Beethoven’s most famous work, his D minor Ninth Symphony, marked a return to his heroic style after exploring more intimate themes. He drew on ideas going back more than 30 years. Musical lines in the chorale, for instance, originally appeared in the Joseph cantata of 1790. He had wanted to write music for Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”) ever since he read it soon after publication in 1785. In 1812, he turned from writing the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies to note some ideas for the chorale movement of a D-minor symphony.
In 1822, Beethoven was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London to write a symphony. He began work in D minor. At about the same time, he started sketching a D minor “sinfonie allemande” with a chorale finale, probably with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” The projects merged somewhere along the line. During the first half of 1823, Beethoven struggled with the first movement, based on a melody he had sketched about six years before. Then he tackled the second and third movements simultaneously. By about August, he finished the second movement. After many revisions, the slow third movement was done in mid-October.
Meanwhile, perhaps in July, he had sketched a melody identified as “Finale instromentale.” Scholars don’t know when he set it aside—he later adapted the melody for the finale of his A minor Quartet, Op. 132—but he resolved that the fourth movement would reach a chorale climax with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” He edited the poem, cutting lines which made it sound a bit like a drinking song. The result was a simpler, more powerful affirmation of life. Integrating the chorale into the symphony proved to be Beethoven’s toughest challenge. When finally he figured out how, he exclaimed to his assistant Anton Schindler, “Let us sing the song of the Immortal Schiller.” All the sketching was done by year-end, and the score was written out in February 1824.
The first performance was set for May 7, 1824, at the Karnthnerhor Theater, a double-billing with his new Missa Solemnis. Around 12:30 p.m., Beethoven lifted his baton. Violinist Joseph Bohm recalled that the composer “stood in front of the conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.” The performance was interrupted by applause many times. Afterward, Beethoven was preoccupied with his score, and mezzo soprano Caroline Unger tugged on his sleeve, indicating that he should turn around to acknowledge the cheers.
“The Ninth Symphony,” noted Irving Kolodin, “possesses a cachet, an aura, an identity not commanded by any other work in the orchestral literature. It stands taller, strides longer, reaches higher toward the Infinite than any work even remotely like it.”
As historian Paul Johnson observed, “There was a new faith, and Beethoven was its prophet. It was no accident that, about this time, new concert halls were being given temple-type facades, thus exalting the moral and cultural status of the symphony and chamber music.”
In December 1826, Beethoven began suffering from a severe cough. Soon pains shot out from his liver and intestines. His feet became tremendously swollen. On March 26, 1827, he went into a coma. There was a violent thunderstorm, and for a moment Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his right hand and clenched his fist defiantly toward the heavens, then collapsed forever.
Three days later, an estimated 20,000 people lined the streets as eight musicians carried his coffin to Trinity Church of the Minorities, and afterward four horses took it to the cemetery at Wahring. Even the mighty royal house of Hapsburg honored this man who had created such inspiring affirmations of human life. The grave was marked by a pyramid inscribed with a single explosive word: “Beethoven.”
More than a century and a half later, after restless Germans rebelled against Communist tyranny and pulled down the Berlin Wall, conductor Leonard Bernstein gathered musicians from East and West Germany for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He changed the word Freude (“joy”) to Freiheit (“freedom”) throughout the chorale, because Beethoven’s work resonated with the spirit of freedom, and it was past time to make this explicit. Declared Bernstein: “If not now, when?” From Berlin, on Christmas Day 1989, the climactic “Ode to Freedom” was heard round the world. A joyous celebration of freedom goes on wherever people can hear Beethoven.