The exact date of Beethoven's birth is unknown, but as he was baptised on the 17th
Dec 1770 and the custom was for this to take place within 24 hours of birth, it is
likely that he was born on 16th December 1770 in Bonn. Most of the information that
we have of Beethoven's early years comes down through an account known as the 'Fischer
manuscript' which was written by Gottfried Fischer and his sister Cäcilie Fischer
who both lived in the house known as the Fischerhaus in the Rheingasse, where the
Beethoven family also had lodgings intermittently from 1776-1786. When the Beethoven
monument was unveiled in Bonn in 1845, the Fischers were still living in the Rheingasse.
From their account, we learn that Beethoven attended elementary school in the Neugasse,
he then went to the school attached to Bonn cathedral and subsequently to a school
in the Bongasse.
His father, Johann (a Court
Tenor) gave him instructions in piano, Violin and possibly Viola. His first public
concert was 0n 26th March 1778 when he was aged 7 (the same day he was to die 49
years later). Realising the boy's talents and his own limitations as a teacher, Johann
found other tutors for Ludwig and the most notable of these was C.G.Neefe who was
responsible for introducing Beethoven to the music of J.S.Bach. In 1782 Beethoven
was assisting Neefe as deputy court organist and his first work, a set of variations
on a march by Dressler was published. Soon he was playing the Viola in the court
orchestra, gaining invaluable knowledge of orchestral music and the art of writing
for the orchestra.
Beethoven had first visited Vienna in 1787 with the intention of studying with Mozart.
Barely had he arrived when he was summoned back to Bonn to his dying mother. In 1792
a second visit was arranged, this time to study with Joseph Haydn (Mozart having
died in 1791). Beethoven may not have known it at the time, but Vienna was to remain
his home for the rest of his life. It was as a pianist rather than a composer that
the young man first began to make an impression, with his virtuoso technique and
dramatic improvisations. Beethoven was also meeting many influential people, particularly
amongst the aristocracy - in this he was aided by the 'van' in his name, which many
mistook to represent nobility (as with the German 'Von').
Beethoven aged 50
Beethoven playing in Lichnowsky palace
Beethoven's compositions are generally divided into 3 stylistic periods. His first
period works although showing the influences of composers such as Haydn, Mozart,
C.P.E.Bach and Clementi, reveal a marked originality with bold modulations, frequent
unexpected turns of phrase and the replacement of the Minuet with the Scherzo. Beethoven
also develops piano technique by placing greater demands on the performer. There
is no sudden change of style as such, rather a natural progression which is probably
best observed in the 32 Piano Sonatas.
The first period covers the early works up until c.1802 and includes about 10 of
the Piano Sonatas, the first 2 Symphonies, the ballet 'Creatures of Prometheus',
the op.18 String quartets and the first three Piano concertos.
1802 is a significant date as it is the year of the so-called 'Heiligenstadt testament'
in which Beethoven writes of his despair over his increasing deafness (which he had
first noticed 5 or 6 years earlier) in a letter to his brothers that was never sent,
but found (along with the letters to the 'Immortal beloved') amongst his possesions
after his death. The work that really marks the start of the middle period is the
Symphony no.3 'Eroica' (1803). In this work, Beethoven expands the dimensions of
the Symphony considerably and introduces many novelties and complexities which baffled
the ears of many at its first public performance. The following Symphonies up to
and including no.8 (1812) all belong to the middle period, as do many of Beethoven's
best loved works - 'Razumovsky' quartets, 'Waldstein' sonata, 'Appasionata' sonata,
'Archduke' trio, the opera 'Fidelio', Piano concertos 4&5 and the Violin concerto.
About 1813 there is a marked slowing in Beethoven's output of major works, and for
the next 6 years or so, he produced mainly smaller pieces, songs and song arrangements.
There are many reasons for this; his deafness by now was quite advanced (he had ceased
giving public performances as a pianist) and this isolation was producing an inner
transformation (spiritually). He was also taking more time over his works, with major
compositions taking sometimes many years to perfect. In 1815, another burden in the
form of his nephew Karl came into his life. For the next 5 years Beethoven was involved
in legal disputes with Karl's mother for sole custody of the boy. Karl was to prove
a source of anxiety to Beethoven from then on, resulting finally in Karl's failed
suicide attempt of July 1826.
The late period works (from about 1816) include the last 6 Piano sonatas, Symphony
no.9 'Choral', last 5 String quartets, and the 'Missa Solemnis'. Characteristic of
the late period are a meditative quality, with the working out of themes and motives
to their utmost potential. There is also an increase in the importance of contrapuntal
textures. New sonorities are created, with wide spacing of parts (Piano sonatas).
Trills are also of more significance as are silences. Beethoven no longer adheres
to traditional classical forms and works may have just 2 movements (Sonata op.111)
or as many as 7 (String quartet op.131).
Beethoven's method of composition changed as he developed. Particularly from the
middle period on, he would refine an original idea, sometimes many times and over
a period of years before he was satisfied. These working outs would be written in
sketch-books (which he often carried around with him whilst out walking) and are
fascinating to study as they demonstrate the many transformations a work would go