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BEETHOVEN, Ludwig van


The composer of some of the most influential pieces of music ever

written, Ludwig van Beethoven created a bridge between the 18th-century

classical period and the new beginnings of Romanticism. His greatest

breakthroughs in composition came in his instrumental work, including

his symphonies. Unlike his predecessor Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for whom

writing music seemed to come easily, Beethoven always struggled to

perfect his work.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, and was baptized on

Dec. 17, 1770. (There is no record of his birth date.) His father and

grandfather worked as court musicians in Bonn. Ludwig's father, a

singer, gave him his early musical training. Although he had only meager

academic schooling, he studied piano, violin, and French horn, and

before he was 12 years old he became a court organist. Ludwig's first

important teacher of composition was Christian Gottlob Neefe. In 1787 he

studied briefly with Mozart, and five years later he left Bonn

permanently and went to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn and later with

Antonio Salieri.

Beethoven's first public appearance in Vienna was on March 29, 1795,

as a soloist in one of his piano concerti. Even before he left Bonn, he

had developed a reputation for fine improvisatory performances. In

Vienna young Beethoven soon had a long list of aristocratic patrons who

loved music and were eager to help him.

Onset of Deafness

In the late 1700s Beethoven began to suffer from early symptoms of

deafness. The cause of his disability is still uncertain. By 1802

Beethoven was convinced that the condition not only was permanent, but

was getting progressively worse. He spent that summer in the country and

wrote what has become known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament." In the

document, apparently intended for his two brothers, Beethoven expressed

his humiliation and despair. For the rest of his life he searched for a

cure, but by 1819 his deafness had become total. Afterward, in order to

have conversations with his friends, Beethoven had them write down their

questions and replied orally.

Beethoven never married. Though he had many friends, he seemed to be

a lonely man. He continued to appear in public but spent more and more

of his time working on his compositions. He lived in various villages

near Vienna and took long walks carrying sketchbooks in which he would

write down his musical ideas. Scholars who have studied these

sketchbooks have discovered the agonizingly long process that the

composer went through in order to perfect his melodies, harmonies, and


Three Periods of Work

Most critics divide Beethoven's work into three general periods,

omitting the earliest years of his apprenticeship in Bonn. Although some

pieces do not fit exactly into the scheme, these divisions can be used

to categorize the composer's work.

The first period, from 1794 to about 1800, consists of music whose

most salient features are typical of the classical era. The influence of

such musicians as Mozart and Haydn is evident in Beethoven's early

chamber music, as well as in his first two piano concerti and his first

symphony. Beethoven added his own subtleties, including sudden changes

of dynamics, but in general the music was well constructed and not far

from the sensibilities of the classical period.

The second period, from 1801 to 1814, includes much of Beethoven's

improvisatory work. His Symphony No. 3, known as the "Eroica," and the

'Fourth Piano Concerto' are fine examples of this period.

The final period, from 1814 to the end of his life, is characterized

by even wider ranges of harmony and counterpoint. The last string

quartets contain some of the composer's most vivid new ideas. Beethoven

created longer and more complicated forms of music. In his symphonies

and string quartets, he often replaced the minuet movement with a

livelier scherzo. He also used improvisatory techniques, with surprise

rhythmic accents and other unexpected elements.

Many critics and listeners regard Beethoven as the finest composer

who ever lived. His music was unique and emotional. Never before had

instrumental music been brought to such heights. He also made great

strides with chamber music for piano, as well as for string quartets,

trios, and sonatas. His works include nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas,

five piano concerti, 17 string quartets, ten sonatas for violin and

piano, one opera ('Fidelio'), the 'Mass in C Major', 'Missa Solemnis',

and other chamber music.

Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. His funeral was attended

by hundreds of mourners. The bicentennial of his birth and the

sesquicentennial of his death were celebrated with new performances and

recordings of all of the master's works.

Word Count: 769

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