Ludwig van Beethoven: a force of nature at the dawn of Romanticism

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Who was Beethoven?

Beethoven was not only one of the greatest composers of all time – but also something of a revolutionary. Not just in the obvious sense that his compositions took music in a new direction. He was an artist imbued with the idea of revolution. Crucial to a full appreciation of Beethoven’s music is a knowledge of the times in which he lived, an understanding of the tumultuous events sweeping across Europe, bringing with them new orders and new ideas.

When and where was Beethoven born?

Bonn, where Beethoven was born in December 1770, was an outpost of the Habsburg Empire. It was small, prosperous and sophisticated due to the fact that it was the seat of the Elector of Cologne and Münster. On the surface it was also conservative. But Vienna – capital city of the Holy Roman Empire, formal and proper, with a growing network of spies, where dissent was not tolerated – was 500 miles and several days’ coach ride away. And so the burghers of Bonn, not to mention the elector, were prone to making decisions almost calculated to upset those at the heart of government.

Where did Beethoven grow up?

The young Beethoven remained in the town of his birth, Bonn, until the age of 21.

The first of these to have a lasting impact on the young musical prodigy in Bonn was the employment as court organist not only of an outsider, from Saxony, but a man of the wrong religion too. A Protestant, no less, who wasted no time in joining the proscribed organisation of like-minded dissidents, the Illuminati.

No one knows what persuaded the largely incapable and alcoholic Johann van Beethoven to employ Christian Gottlob Neefe as teacher to his son Ludwig, but it was an inspired choice. It does not take too much imagination to see Neefe, as well as encouraging his young pupil’s first attempts at composition, filling his head with ideas of religion, philosophy and politics. Neefe radicalised Beethoven.

An early breakthrough

Before Beethoven was ten, the old order passed with the death of Empress Maria TheresaEmperor Joseph put in place immediate reforms, stripping the clergy of much of their power, introducing a measure of freedom of worship, and pushing through emancipation of the peasantry before he died, just 48, in 1790.

That was when the musical establishment of Bonn took a truly extraordinary decision. They decided to commission a work to commemorate Joseph’s death, which would set to music words by a local poet, which in lauding Joseph’s break with the past were political dynamite, as well as a second piece to mark the accession of the new emperor.

And instead of choosing one of the several senior and respected musicians at court, they awarded the commission to the 19-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven. No matter that the orchestra refused to perform the pieces because they considered them unplayable, from these two Cantatas on, Beethoven would always be a political composer.

When did Beethoven arrive in Vienna?

He left Bonn for Vienna in November 1792, never to return. At the time, Paris was undergoing the single most cataclysmic event of the age. Three years earlier the people had stormed the Bastille, initiating the French Revolution. Louis XVI and his Queen were under arrest. The King would go to the guillotine within two months, Marie Antoinette a matter of months after that. It was not long before the French set about exporting their revolution, a task made easier by the fortune that one of their citizens was on his way to becoming the greatest military commander in history. Vienna was steeped in old-world tradition and was therefore most vulnerable to the new French Revolutionary Army. It was a city living in fear.

While lauding the aims of the French Revolution, Beethoven condemned outright the violence and bloodletting it had led to. He also deplored the French occupation of Bonn and the Rhineland. But this revolutionary young composer had found a hero in the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom he dedicated the Eroica Symphony, the work that famously propelled music into the 19th century.

Napoleon and the Eroica

When Napoleon appointed himself Emperor, Beethoven withdrew the dedication, declaring him to be nothing more than a tyrant after all. Still, Beethoven could not help admiring Napoleon. The title page of the first edition bore the words: Sinfonia Eroica… per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo [Heroic Symphony… to celebrate the memory of a great man], and Beethoven wrote to his publisher that ‘the title of the symphony is really Bonaparte’.

The influence of the Revolution stayed with Beethoven. The French composer Méhul, much admired by the revolutionaries, composed five symphonies in this period. All four movements of his First Symphony bear striking stylistic similarities to Beethoven’s Fifth – regarded as the epitome of revolutionary musical writing – and both were composed in the same year.

Beethoven and Méhul

Who influenced whom? One suspects that if you suggested to Beethoven that he was influenced by Méhul, he would probably agree, and say that the revolutionary theme of his only opera, Fidelio, was also influenced by themes used by Méhul in his operas.

Several times in adult life, Beethoven actively contemplated a move to Paris – surely a desire to experience revolutionary times at first hand. In fact in 1808, an annus horribilis for him, plans for the move were well advanced. It never, of course, happened. After Napoleon’s final defeat and exile, Vienna, with the autocratic Metternich running things, was more or less shut down. There were secret police everywhere.

Beethoven, by now deaf, had only one outlet for his ideas, and that was music. No wonder his compositions gave a new meaning to the world ‘revolutionary’. There had never been a piano sonata like the Hammerklavier. No composer had ever used voices in a symphony, as Beethoven would in his Ninth. The final Piano Sonata, Op. 111 shows his radical approach to form and his revolutionary brilliance stands out in every movement of his five Late Quartets, simply the greatest body of music ever composed.

When and why did Beethoven go deaf?

It is believed that Beethoven began to lose his hearing in his mid twenties. The cause of his hearing loss remains something of a mystery, though modern analysis of the composer’s DNA has revealed some health issues – including large amounts of lead in his system.

Beethoven later claimed that his deafness had its origins in a quarrel with a singer, back in 1798. In 1801, he wrote to friends describing his symptoms and how they were making life difficult for him, both as a composer and in society.

Then came the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. Beethoven spent around six months of the year 1802 in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, on the advice of his doctor. This was where he wrote his famous Testament: a letter to his brothers, in which he reveals that his deafness has made him consider suicide, but that he has resolved to continue living through his art. Never sent, the letter was found among the composer’s papers after his death.

Did Beethoven marry?

No. He did meet a young countess, Julie Guicciardi, for whom he developed strong feelings: he writes about his love for her in a letter written to a friend in November 1801.

Sadly, though, the young Beethoven was from humbler origins than Julie, and this class difference meant that a union would have been out of the question.

Then there was Antonie Brentano – a philanthropist, arts patron, and close friend of the composer. While he was at the spa resort of Teplitz in 1812, Beethoven wrote a ten-page love letter to his ‘Immortal Beloved’ – but the letter was never sent and the addressee never revealed. The identity of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ has been much discussed, but the musicologist Maynard Solomon has convincingly demonstrated that the intended recipient must have been Antonie Brentano.

When did Beethoven die?

Beethoven died on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56. Some 10,000 people attended his funeral procession six days later – including a young Franz Schubert.

What did Beethoven die of?

The precise cause of Beethoven’s death is not known for certain, although cirrhosis of the liver and infectious hepatitis are among those causes put forward.

What were Beethoven’s final words?

You may hear the story told that Beethoven’s final deathbed words were ‘applaud friends, the comedy is ended’ (spoken in Latin, no less). In fact, however, we believe that his final words came after a publisher had sent the dying composer 12 bottles of wine as a gift. Beethoven’s reaction (and last words)? ‘Pity, pity, too late!’.

Did Mozart and Beethoven meet?

The young Ludwig van Beethoven intended to study with Mozart and, in 1787, when Beethoven was 16 and Mozart was 31, the younger composer travelled to Vienna to meet his would-be mentor, However, shortly after his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven’s mother fell ill, meaning that he had to return to his hometown of Bonn in Germany.

Beethoven stayed in Bonn for five years, looking after his younger siblings. When he was finally able to undertake the trip to Vienna the great Mozart was, sadly, dead.

What are Beethoven’s most famous pieces?

With such an incredible output to his name, this becomes a very thorny question in Beethoven’s case. However, we’d certainly nominate the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies (although the Sixth and Seventh follow close behind, and to be honest all nine are masterpieces). On the concerto front, the Violin Concerto and the final two Piano Concertos are probably the best known.

Among Beethoven’s large and deeply impressive chamber music output, we’d have to single out the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio, as well as the late String Quartets mentioned above.

The best known Beethoven Piano Sonatas include the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata and the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata. Scared music lovers, meanwhile, will want to sample Beethoven’s great choral work, the Missa Solemnis.

How did Beethoven change music?

Like his forebear Bach, and more so than his immediate predecessors Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven had a profound impact on the direction that classical music was taking. Under his influence, some essential classical forms such as the sonata, the concerto, the string quartet and most obviously the symphony became bigger and wider in their ambitions.

Take Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, which both rearranged the formal structure of a Classical symphony, and features – totally originally – the human voice in its final movement. Innovations such as these make Beethoven one of the earliest and best Romantic composers.

Or take the extraordinary ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata: no other piano sonata covers such a vast ground, both musical and emotional. The final movement is a vast fugue, a mindblowingly complex composition that makes huge demands on the performer. Lastly, Beethoven’s final five String Quartets attain a quality of transcendent beauty and emotional eloquence that was, quite simply, without precedent in the chamber music world.

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