E85.2073: Music Literature: The Classical Period
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Copyright 1997-98 John V. Gilbert All Rights Reserved

Ludwig van Beethoven was most likely born on December 17, 1770, in Bonn, a small town on the Rhine River, which was then the Residence of the Elector of Cologne. It was the Catholic custom to have a newborn baby baptized on the day of the birth and the records indicate that Ludwig was baptized on that day. The records of the Beethoven family as well as the maternal side of the family can be traced back to the fifteenth century. Beethoven's father was not a drunkard as some accounts depict it. Beethoven's father did not begin to drink until much later in his life (when Ludwig was seventeen) and was brought on by the loss of his wife and young daughter.

Although Beethoven's lineage seems easily established on both sides of the family back to the fifteenth century, there still seems to be some mystery concerning the maternal side of the family, and claims in recent times that Beethoven may have been a mulatto, especially since his appearance seems to have been quite different from the other members of his family. Much of this stems from a description of Bonn's master baker, Fischer, who wrote of Beethoven's youth and described Beethoven as "short and stocky, broad-shouldered, with a short neck, large head, round nose and swarthy complexion; he always stooped forward when walking. At home, even as a young man, he was called the Spaniard."

His father, Johann was tenor in in the Elector's chapel and the Kappelmeister was Ludwig's grandfather and namesake: Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-1773). Johann played an early role in young Ludwig's musical training, hoping to follow the example of Mozart as a prodigy.

 Perhaps the most important figure in Beethoven's boyhood days was Christian Gottlob Neefe, the Court organist, respected musician and composer who provided Beethoven his first systematic study in music which included piano lessons, thoroughbass and composition. Neefe was more than his music teacher, he served as Beethoven's mentor, introducing him to the works of Mannheim, J.S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach and accomplishments in German literature and philosophy. By the age of eleven, Beethoven was able to serve as the assistant organist in the Court, and when he was twelve he published his first composition, a set of variations on a March by Dressler. By thirteen he was appointed as the Court's second organist, so he then had the possibility of following in his grandfather's footsteps as a court musician. When he was seventeen, he visited Vienna briefly and played for Mozart who predicted that Beethoven's prospects for the future were bright.

But these were stormy and unsettled times. The American Revolution was begun when Beethoven was six years old, and by the time Beethoven was 19, the Bastille in Paris was stormed. Within three years, France was proclaimed a Republic and then seized by a little known lieutinent, Napoleon Bonaparte, who betrayed the people's passion for freedom by becoming a dictator instead of a liberator. The days of the court musician were dwindling. Fortunes of nobility and royal families were lost or destroyed, and the social structure was undergoing radical change.

Haydn had stopped briefly in Bonn on his way to London. Upon hearing the music of Beethoven, Haydn persuaded Beethoven's employer, the Archbishop Elector of Cologne to send Beethoven to Vienna for further study. Thus in November of 1792, Beethoven, not quite yet 22 years of age, undertook what was then a somewhat arduous trip to Vienna, 500 miles away. He travelled by stagecoach for a week. He arrived in Vienna short of funds. In the beginning he kept a careful account of his finances, noting that he spent a sum of twenty-five groschen on "coffee for Haiden and me." But despite his financial troubles, Beethoven managed to study with Haydn until Haydn again went to Vienna in 1794. In addition he studied with Johann Schenk, a Viennese composer of singspiels, and pursued counterpoint with Johann George Albrechtsberger who was one of the most esteemed teachers of the day with a widely respected treatise on composition which had been published in 1790. He also seems to have had a few informal lessons with the Italian composer Antonio Salieri who had studied with Gluck and was then living in Vienna.

By 1798, Beethoven began to experience the symptoms of deafness and by 1820, his deafness was almost total. By 1802, Beethoven wrote a letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, intended for his brothers after his death, in which he wrote of his suffering despair.

During this time he was completing his String Quartets, Opus 18. Beethoven has come onto the musical scene at a fortunate moment. The classical style was fully developed, but held the seeds of expansion in the nature of the new harmonic counterpooint that had evolved from the obligatto accompaniment process that Haydn had discovered and that weas further developed by Mozart and in the later works of Haydn. Haydn and Mozart had created masterpieces in the string quartet literature, virtually establishing and securing this relatively new genre as one of the most important of chamber music. Beethoven, although a young man, was experiencing an enthusiastic vision for the future, relishing in his own musical imagination, and quite capable of mature and original nusical ideas. Thus his first efforts in this genre are important contributions.

His first symphony, completed in 1799, was performed in concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna on April 2, 1800. It was an immediate success. Just as the time of the performance signals the turn of the century, his first sumphony marks a turning point in the symphonic literature. It is conventional to note that the first two symphonies are the most "classical" of the nine symphonies and to describe Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, the "Eroica" as the turning point in the literature. Grout claims that the movements in the first symphony "are so regular in form that they might serve as textbook models." (p 520). But this is assessing Beethoven from the lens of the twentieth century, and I think does an injustice to the inventiveness of the work which I regard as a "farewell to classicism," a summing up of all stylistic precedents synthesized by a new symphonic energy which is foundational to all that follows in Beethoven's work.