Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770;
died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
German classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven is often considered one of the bridge composers, and the evolution of the classical music period into the romantic era can be seen in his many compositions. Living and working primarily in Vienna, Austria during his life Beethoven is often considered one of the greatest composers in history, producing work even after a devastating hearing loss. His catalogue of musical work has inspired and intimidated composers that came after him.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany on December 16, 1770, although his birthday is often celebrated on December 17, the day of his baptism. Like many composers before him, his first music teacher was his father, himself a court musician in Bonn, and without success attempted to show him off as a child prodigy, much as Mozart's father had. Beethoven's childhood was difficult, and his father, an abusive alcoholic, beat him often when he did not perform up to his standards. Still, others soon recognized his great musical abilities, and in 1787 while in Vienna he got the opportunity to play for Mozart. He was given a job and music lessons by Christian Gottlob Neefe and sponsorship by the German court to play and study music. His career was halted slightly when he was 17, and his mother died, forcing him to care for two younger brothers.
In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna, intending to train with Joseph Haydn. Unfortunately, Haydn did not appreciate Beethoven's unconventional musical ideas and playing style and stopped lessons. Despite this minor set-back, Beethoven quickly became known in Vienna for being a piano genius as well as a composer, though the composing came much more slowly. In the 1790's, Beethoven decided upon the career of a freelance musician, rejecting the idea of working for a church or a court, and supported himself through public performances, sales of his compositions and grants and stipends from noblemen willing to support his work and talent.
Typically Beethoven's musical life is separated into three periods: Early; Middle; and Late. In his Early period, his compositions and playing style reflected the greats of classical music, including his former teacher Haydn and Mozart, while he simultaneously experimented with new stylistic avenues and finding his own voice. It was during this time that he composed his first and second symphonies, along with the first six string quartets, two piano concertos and twenty piano sonatas, including two of his most famous, "Pathetique" and "Moonlight."
Beethoven's Middle period started after he lost his hearing and is recognized as being the period during which his most dramatic and large-scale music works were composed. It was during this time that Beethoven composed many famous works, including symphonies numbers three through eight, the last three piano concertos, the triple concerto and his only violin concerto. He also composed five string quartets, seven more piano sonatas and his only opera, Fidelio.
Beethoven's Late period started in 1816 and continued until his death. Compositions during this time are typically categorized as being Beethoven's most intellectual, intense and personal works. They also are the most experimental in his library. For example, his Ninth Symphony was the first symphony to add a choral part to the final movement.
Beethoven's most well-known works include his Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 5 , a Violin concerto, the "Pathétique," "Moonlight," and "Appassionata" piano sonatas and the "Für Elise". "Ode to Joy," the recognizable final choral movement of the Ninth Symphony is the National Anthem of the European Union and was played by Leonard Bernstein during the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events commemorate the universal nature of Beethoven's music works. Because of the breadth of Beethoven's artistic experimentation and his success at creating works that could be understood and enjoyed by the entire world, many have called Beethoven, not only the greatest composer in history, but one of the greatest minds in history.
Beethoven's personal life was very difficult, and when he began to lose his hearing at age 28 he thought seriously about suicide. He was not easy to get along with, and often fought with relatives and friends, a trait that potentially was the reason he never married. Because of his freelance lifestyle, he often was in financial distress. Many note the influence of Beethoven's troubled life in his music; his compositions have themes that center around great struggle that is resolved with victory.
Perhaps Beethoven's greatest contribution to music was his transformation of the sonata form, although rivaling that was his re-envisioning of the symphony into a freer and more expressive form. Often in poor health, he died on March 26, 1827, legend has it during a wild thunderstorm, angry. His last piece of music was a string quintet in C Major, unfinished.