Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) stands as a unique figure at the crossroads of Classical and Romantic music. In his music he embodied the social and intellectual ideals that were sweeping across Europe at the time, but his life was one of loneliness, illness and disappointment. He is perhaps best remembered as a composer of nine symphonies, but he also wrote a large body of piano music, including 32 piano sonatas, as well as much chamber music, the opera Fidelio, concertos, sacred choral works, and many other smaller works.
Beethoven was born in the German city of Bonn. He displayed a talent for playing the piano at an early age, giving his first concert at the tender age of eight. In 1792 Beethoven went to Vienna to study, primarily with Haydn, and stayed there for the rest of his life. Although his relationship with his teacher could be rather tempestuous, Haydn had a great and lasting influence on Beethoven's piano music, symphonies and string quartets. Beethoven's early piano sonatas reflect Haydn's clear, light textures and graceful style.
Throughout his life in the Austrian capital, Beethoven managed to avoid being an employee of the Court or the Church. Instead, he earned a living firstly through his brilliance as a pianist then increasingly by composing, writing from inspiration rather than expectation or necessity. Beethoven had rich and influential patrons who recognised his genius and supported him in his endeavours. In 1799 he dedicated his famous 'Pathétique' Piano Sonata Op.13 to his patron Prince Carl von Lichnowsky.
Viennese society quickly came to celebrate this virtuoso pianist and composer. However, a great personal tragedy was unfolding for him as, by the turn of the nineteenth century, Beethoven knew he was going deaf. Just as he had begun to achieve recognition and financial security it seemed that his career was over. To make matters worse, his inability to find lasting romance (usually with his aristocratic piano pupils) left him depressed and lonely. The infamous 'Moonlight' Sonata Op. 27, No. 2 of 1801 (described by the poet Ludwig Rellstab as 'a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight') was dedicated to Countess Giulietta Guiccardi, a pupil Beethoven loved but who left him for a younger man.
In 1802 Beethoven was in such despair that while in Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna he wrote down his feelings of bitter unhappiness in a heart-rending letter, subsequently known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. However, despite his despair he entered a new creative phase of heroic, grand music, which developed in bold and dramatic ways with sudden changes of tempo and mood. Beethoven named his Third Symphony 'Eroica' and dedicated it to Napoleon, but it is said that he ripped out the title page in anger when Napoleon declared himself Emperor. Beethoven's only Violin Concerto and the enduringly popular piano piece, Für Elise came from this same period. 1808 brought the Sixth Symphony, the 'Pastoral', in which Beethoven sought to express the feelings aroused when in the countryside. He named the first movement, with its gentle and lyrical melody, 'thankful feelings after the storm'.
By 1814 Beethoven was at the peak of his popularity in Vienna, but despite this he remained seriously depressed. He was almost totally deaf, he continued to be ill-fated in love, his career as a concert pianist was over and he became the guardian of his troublesome nephew Karl.
Beethoven's work moved into an intensely personal phase as he sought to make sense of his inner struggles and his deafness with highly idiosyncratic music that stretched the boundaries of all known musical form, texture and harmony. His Ninth Symphony included a huge chorus and four solo voices singing verses from the poet Schiller's 'Ode to Joy', with its ideas of universal brotherhood and freedom. The symphony was first performed in 1824 to rapturous applause, although the stone-deaf Beethoven had to be turned round to face the audience and receive it.
Despite his personal circumstances Beethoven was acclaimed as the greatest composer of his day, with 10,000 people attending his funeral in 1827. The enduring popularity of his music stands as testament to his genius, but he died as he lived, a tragic and heroic figure who, despite public acclaim, never found personal happiness.
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