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Title Beethoven: biography
Ludwig van Beethoven: portraits...
Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised on December 17th 1770 at Bonn. His family originated from Brabant, in Belgium. His father was musician at the Court of Bonn, with a definite weakness for drink. His mother was always described as a gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart. Beethoven referred to her as his "best friend". The Beethoven family consisted of seven children, but only the three boys survived, of whom Beethoven was the eldest. Know more about this...
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the lives of Beethoven's ancestors

At an early age, Beethoven took an interest in music, and his father taught him day and night, on returning to the house from music practice or the tavern. Without doubt, the child was gifted, and his father Johann envisaged creating a new Mozart, a child prodigy.

On March 26th 1778, at the age of 7 1/2, Beethoven gave his first know public performance, at Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years old. Because of this, Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was. Even much later, when he received a copy of his baptism certificate, he thought that it belonged to his brother Ludwig Maria, who was born two years before him, and died as a child.

But the musical and teaching talents of Johann were limited. Soon Ludwig learned music, notably the organ and composition by renowned musicians, such as Gottlob Neefe. Neefe recognised the how extraordinarily talented Beethoven was. As well as teaching him music, he made the works of philosophers, ancient and modern, known to Beethoven. Know more about this...
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Beethoven's music teachers

In 1782, before the age of 12, Beethoven published his first work: 9 variations, in C Minor, for Piano, on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler (WoO 63). And the following year, in 1783, Neefe wrote in the "Magazine of Music", about his student: "If he continues like this he will be, without doubt, the new Mozart".

In June 1784, on Neefe's recommendations, Ludwig was appointed organist of the court of Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne. He was 14. This post enabled him to frequent new circles, other than those of his father and friends of his family. Here he met people who were to remain friends for the rest of his life: The Ries family, the von Breuning family and the charming Eleonore, Karl Amenda, the violinist, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a doctor, and a dear friend who also went to Vienna, etc.

At home, little by little, Ludwig replaced his father. Financially first of all, because Johann, often under the influence of drink, was less and less capable of keeping up his role at the court. The young Beethoven felt responsible for his two younger brothers, an idea he kept for the rest of his life, sometimes to the extent of being excessive.

Prince Maximilian Franz was also aware of Beethoven's gift, and so he sent Beethoven to Vienna, in 1787, to meet Mozart and to further his musical education. Vienna was, after all, the beacon city in terms of culture and music. There exist only texts of disputable authenticity on the subject of this meeting between Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart is thought to have said "Don't forget his name - you will hear it spoken often."!

But a letter called Beethoven back to Bonn: his mother was dying. The only person in his family with whom he had developed a strong and loving relationship passed away on July 17th 1787.

Five years later, in 1792, Beethoven went back to Vienna, benefiting from another grant, for two years, by the Prince Elector, again to pursue his musical education. He never went back to the town of his birth. His friend Waldstein wrote to him: "You shall receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands"...

At Vienna, the young musician took lessons with Haydn, then with Albrechtsberger and Salieri. He captured the attention of, and astonished, Vienna, with his virtuosity and his improvisations on piano. In 1794, Beethoven composed his opus 1, three trios for piano. The following year, Beethoven made his first public performance at Vienna (an "Academy") whereby each musician was to play his own work. Then followed a tour: Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin before leaving for a concert in Budapest.

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Beethoven's works

Beethoven made numerous acquaintances at Vienna. Everybody in the musical and aristocratic world admired the young composer. These music-lovers were Beethoven's greatest supporters. He became angry regularly with one or another of them, often making honourable amends soon afterwards. His talent excused his excessive, impulsive behaviour.

In 1800, Beethoven organised a new concert at Vienna including, notably, the presentation of his first symphony. Although today we find this work classical, and close to the works of Mozart and Haydn, at the time certain listeners found the symphony strange, overly extravagant, and even risqué. This genius, Beethoven, who was still a young, new composer, was already pushing the established boundaries of music.

In 1801 Beethoven confessed to his friends at Bonn his worry of becoming deaf. At Heiligenstadt, in 1802, he wrote a famous text which expressed his disgust at the unfairness of life: that he, a musician, could become deaf was something he did not want to live through. But music made him carry on. And he wrote that he knew that he still had many other musical domains to explore, to discover, and to pass on. Beethoven did not commit suicide, rather, knowing that his handicap was getting worse and worse, he threw himself into his greatest works: exceptional sonatas for piano (notably The Storm, opus 31), the second and the third symphonies- The Eroica - and of course many more. Know more about this...
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Beethoven's deafness

Beethoven wrote this third symphony in honour of a great man, Bonaparte. He was seen as the liberator of the people, opening, from the French Revolution, a door to hope. When the First Consul declared himself Emporor, Beethoven became enraged and scowled out Bonaparte's name from the score.

On April 7th 1805 the Eroica symphony was played for the first time.

Meanwhile, Beethoven had finally finished his opera, Leonore, the only opera he ever wrote. He wrote and re-wrote four different overtures. The name of the opera therefore changed to Fidelio, against the wishes of the composer. November 20th 1805 was the date of the opening performance … before a thin audience of French officers. This was because Napolean, head of the army, had captured Vienna for the first time. This happened again in 1809. Know more about this...
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the 4 overtures to this opera

In the years that followed, the creative activity of the composer became intense. He composed many symphonies, amongst which were the Pastoral, the Coriolan Overture, and the famous Letter for Elise. He took on many students, those he found young and attractive, and he therefore fell in love with several of them. The Archbishop Rudolph, brother of the emperor, also became his student, his friend and eventually one of his benefactors.

In 1809, Beethoven wanted to leave Vienna, at the invitation of Jérome Bonaparte. His long-standing friend, the Countess Anna Marie Erdödy, kept him at Vienna with the help of his wealthiest admirers: the Archbishop Rudolph, the Prince Lobkowitz and the Prince Kinsky. These men gave Beethoven an annual grant of 4 000 florins, allowing him to live without financial constraint. The only condition was that Beethoven was not to leave Vienna. Beethoven accepted. This grant made him the first independent composer. Before this contract musicians and composers alike (even Bach, Mozart and Haydn), became servants in the houses of wealthy aristocratic families. They were thus part of the domestic staff, with no more rights than any other, but with the added task of composition and performance. Thus, for the musician of the day, Beethoven had outstanding circumstances: he was free to write what he wanted, when he wanted, under command or not, as he pleased.

In 1812, Beethoven went for hydrotherapy at Teplitz, where he wrote his ardent letter to "The Immortal Beloved". This letter which was found in a secret draw with the Heiligenstadt Testament, has not stopped the theories and suppositions of researchers and biographers ever since. Numerous women amongst his students and friends have been, in turn, proposed as the recipient of this letter. Unless a new document is discovered (perhaps within the possessions of a private collector) it is likely that the truth about this mysterious woman will remain a secret. Know more about this...
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the letter to the Immortal Beloved

At the end of July 1812, Beethoven met Goethe, under the organisation of Bettina Brentano. These two great men admired each other, but didn't understand each other. The composer found the poet too servile, and the poet last estimation was that Beethoven was "completely untamed". Beethoven admired Goethe, he put to music several of his poems. I always regretted not having been better understood by Goethe.

Then one of his benefactors, the Prince Lobkowitz, fell into financial difficulty, and the Prince Kinski died from falling off his horse. Kinski's descendant decided to put an end to the financial obligations towards Beethoven. Here started one of the composer's many attempts at saving his financial independence.

The Czech Johann Nepomuk Maelzel took up contact with Beethoven. Inventor of genius, and probably inventor of the metronome, Maelzel had already met Beethoven and had created various devices to help Beethoven with his hearing: acoustic cornets, a listening system linking up to the piano, etc. In 1813, Beethoven composed 'The Victory of Wellington', a work written for a mechanical instrument made by Maelzel, the "panharmonica" (or "panharmonicon"). But it was above all the metronome which helped evolve music and Beethoven, who had taken interest straight away, noted scrupulously the markings on his scores, so that his music could be played how he wished.

The Academy of 1814 regrouped his work, as well as the seventh and eighth symphonies. This was also the time of the re-writing of Leonore as Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera. This work eventually became successful before the public.

Then the Congress of Vienna met, which brought together all the heads of state to decided the future of Europe after Napoleon. This was one of Beethoven's moment of glory. He was invited to play many times, bringing him recognition and admiration of which he could be truly proud.

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Beethoven's symphonies

On November 15th 1815, Kaspar Karl, Beethoven's brother, died. He left behind his wife, whom the composer referred to as 'The queen of the night' due to the pastimes of the widow, as well as a son, Karl, who was 9. Here Beethoven's life was to change dramatically. His brother had written that he wished Karl's guardianship to be exercised by both his wife and his brother Ludwig. Beethoven took this role very seriously, but the 45 year old celibate who could no longer hear found it difficult to live with and understand a child, and then a young man. This cohabitation was the cause of a new trial against the mother of the child, a generation conflict and numerous troubles.

In 1816, Carl Czerny (future teacher of Franz Liszt and once Beethoven's student) became Karl's music teacher, but didn't find the talent in the boy which Beethoven hoped him to posses. At this time , he ended his cycle of lieders 'To the distant loved one'and drafted the first theme for his ninth symphony.

Two years later, the Archduke Rudolph became Cardinal and Beethoven began composing his mass in D. It was never ready for the intronisation, but the work was rich beyond compare.

Gioachino Rossini triumphed in Vienna in 1822 where he met Beethoven again. The language barrier and Beethoven's deafness meant that they could only exchange brief words. The Viennese composer tolerated Italian opera only in moderation - he found it lacked seriousness.

The ninth symphony was practically finished in 1823, the same year as the Missa Solemnis. Liszt, who was 11, met Beethoven who came to his concert on April 13th. He congratulated the young virtuoso heartily who, years later, transcribed the entirety of Beethoven's symphonies for piano. Know more about this...
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Liszt's transcriptions

May 7th 1824 was the date of the first playing of the ninth symphony and despite musical difficulties, and problems in the sung parts, it was a success. Unfortunately it was not financially rewarding. Financial problems constantly undermined the composer. He always had money put to one side, but he was keeping it for his nephew.

Then began the period of the last quartets, which are still difficult even for today's audience, which knows how to interpret his other works. He started to compose his tenth symphony.

In 1826, Beethoven caught cold coming back from his brother's place, with whom he had rowed again. The illness complicated other health problems from which Beethoven had suffered all his life. He passed away encircled by his closest friends on March 26th 1827, just as a storm broke out.

The funeral rites took place at the church of the Holy Trinity. It is estimated that between 10 000 and 30 000 people attended. Franz Schubert, timid and a huge admirer of Beethoven, without ever having become close to him, was one of the coffin bearers, along with other musicians. Schubert died the next year and was buried next to Beethoven.

The actor Heinrich Anschütz read the funeral prayer written by Franz Grillparzer, (a great writer), in front of the doors of theWähring cemetery (now Schubert Park).

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the funeral prayer by Grillparzer


© Décembre 2001 - Dominique PRÉVOT

Many thanks to Hannah SALTER for her translation of this page from French into English
© Dominique PREVOT
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