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The Life of Ludwig Van Beethoven

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Most composers during the classical era are known for being a little mad. It is almost as if you could not write a valuable piece of music without experiencing some sort of traumatic and unfortunate event in your life. For some people, this is truer than others. Beethoven lived a life of unfortunate circumstances and events. From the time he was born to the day he died, he faced many trials and tribulations that greatly affected his work and personal life. With that being said, he is one of the most widely recognized and admired composers in both the Classical and Romantic styles he played a part in shaping. His life, experiences, and handicap all pushed Beethoven to do more, be more, and strive for greatness.

Ludwig Van Beethoven was born on December 16th, 1770 in Bonn, Germany to Johann and Maria van Beethoven. Unfortunately for Beethoven, he had an abusive and traumatic childhood that stemmed through his entire life and greatly affected his musical output. His father was an alcoholic and realized Ludwig’s talent for the piano at a young age. He would often wake young Beethoven from his sleep to perform for his friends and would face a lashing if he refused. From here, his father promoted him as the next child prodigy which led to his distaste for child prodigies later in life. At the young age of eight, Beethoven gave his first public performance; a piece for the piano. Four years later he often filled in for his church as an organist. Not even a year later he published his first set of work which consisted of keyboard pieces. Later, in 1787 he became employed as a court musician in his hometown of Bonn where he studied under Franz Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This time period greatly influenced the type of music he began to produce. His life can be broken down into three main periods known as the early, middle, and late.

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Beethoven’s early period in life starts in 1792 when he relocated to Vienna. He quickly made a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist and used his abilities on the keyboard to gain favors from the nobility. At one point, he tried to claim his own “nobility” by changing the Van in his name to Von which was a title of nobility. Up until this point his compositions consisted of mainly works for the piano. An example being Pathetique Sonata, Op. 13 (1798). Around this time period is when he began to lose his hearing. For some unbeknownst reason he went to great lengths to hide this from the people closest to him. It is believed by many that his deafness deeply changed his personality and triggered a rage deep within him. Up until this point in his life, most of his compositions were classical in nature and it was not until his later stages did he become the father of the Romantic era as we know him so well to be today.

The middle period of his life begins in 1800. Beethoven turned to his friend Krumpholz and said, “I am not very well satisfied with the work I have thus far done. From this day on I shall take a new way.” From then on he approached his musical styling and composition differently. He then set out for a more expressive Romantic musical tone and his imagination began to stem beyond just the piano. An example being the Tempest Sonata, Op. 1 (1801-1802). As well as his first symphony, Symphony No. 1, in C major, was published in 1801. He began to produce his greatest and most well-known symphony, Symphony No. 5, in C Minor, in 1803-1804. This was his first symphony produced in a minor key and was said to be heavily inspired by Haydn and Mozart. Symphony No. 5 premiered on December 22, 1808, which also premiered on Symphony No. 4 and No.6. It has a remarkably contrasting sound from the first four notes to the very end and is extremely compelling musically. It is said that this time period is his greatest and most productive. Unfortunately, this period is the shortest as his musical output began to drop in 1809 due to his declining health and mental state.

The late period in his life includes a brief break in production. His musical output was mostly nonexistent until around 1818 and at this stage of his life, he was completely deaf and more than a little mad. This is in part due to the passing of his brother in 1815. His brother left behind a son named Karl which was a source of stress for Beethoven. He did not believe that Karl’s mother was fit to take care of him and began a very ugly battle to gain custody of his nephew. After using his influence with the aristocracy to win the case and gain custody, it became extremely apparent that Beethoven was not fit to raise Karl either. Their relationship was so poor that it led to a suicide attempt on Karl’s end a few years later. Beethoven truly loved his nephew but the weight of the failure he felt raising him was truly overwhelming. This was a contributor to his late style of composition and some of his largest works including The 9th Symphony (Choral), Op. 125 (1818-23).

Ludwig Van Beethoven was a very difficult, shy, temperamental, trauma-driven man whose personal life and tribulations bled deeply into his work. He died on March 26th, 1827 at the age of 56 due to post-hepatitic cirrhosis of the liver. His autopsy suggested his deafness was due to contracting typhus in the summer of 1796. He is widely considered one of the greatest and most well-known composers of all time. The fact that some of his most well-known and beautiful pieces of work were written while completely deaf is phenomenal. This handicap truly helped shape his individualistic style of composing. We study his music today as his piano works and style of composing helps influence the production of music today. He helped bridge the gap between classical composition and music to romantic composition and music. By the end of his career, he took the best of the classical era and transferred it into a new dynamic that would help shape the Romantic era of the 19th Century.  

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