Ludwig van Beethoven is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and influential composers of all time. Historians generally regard him as the culmination of the Classical Era (1750-1830). In fact, scholars frequently delineate the end of the Classical Era and the beginning of the Romantic Era with Beethoven’s death in 1827. His works are considered among the finest of the classical repertoire.
Perhaps his best-known works are his nine monumental symphonies, which set a new standard for symphonic composition and are widely regarded as the cornerstone of orchestral literature. Indeed, numerous composers throughout the 19th century were too intimidated to compose a symphony because of Beethoven’s supreme legacy. For example, Johannes Brahms, born five years after Beethoven’s death, was widely regarded as the embodiment of German Romanticism. He would spend his life in Beethoven’s shadow, and would not publish a symphony until well into his forties for fear of being perceived as woefully inferior to Beethoven.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in December, 1770, to Johann Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich Beethoven. His exact birth date is unknown. However, his well-documented baptism occurred on December 17, 1770, so it is likely he was born on December 16. For various reasons, Beethoven was under the impression he was born in December, 1772. He clung to this delusion his entire life despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Yet another misconception Beethoven failed to dispel was his parentage. During his lifetime, rumors circulated that Beethoven was actually fathered by Frederick the Great, Emperor of Prussia. How anyone could believe a man of such influence would engage in a dalliance with a downtrodden Hausfrau in Bonn is surprising, to say the least. Of the seven children born to Johann and Maria Magdalena, only three survived to adulthood, Ludwig, and his two younger brothers, Caspar Anton Carl and Nikolaus Johann.
Beethoven was not the first musician in his family. His grandfather, Lodewijk (the Dutch cognate of Ludwig) van Beethoven (1712-73) was employed as a bass singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne. Although Lodewijk’s Flemish ancestors were well known as “master bakers,” through lifelong diligence, Lodewijk was rewarded a prestigious position as the Kapellmeister (music director) to the Elector in Bonn. Beethoven’s grandfather was the beloved patriarch of the family. Lodewijk died in 1773 when young Ludwig was only three. Although it is doubtful Ludwig retained any memory of his grandfather, he nevertheless idolized him, and sought to emulate Lodewijk his entire life. Among Beethoven’s most prized possessions was a portrait of his grandfather. This portrait occupied a prominent place in Beethoven’s Vienna apartment throughout the course of his life.
Beethoven’s father Johann likewise enjoyed some musical skill. Johann was employed as a tenor at the same court as his father Lodewijk. He also gave violin and piano lessons to supplement the family income. However, he lacked the emotional stability and leadership skills Lodewijk possessed. Johann never achieved the same professional status of his father. He unsuccessfully petitioned for the same position of Kapellmeister that Lodewijk held. That failure was due not only to lacking the skill, but to an increasing alcohol addiction. Moreover, this lifelong battle with alcoholism took a heavy toll on the well-being of the Beethoven family. Johann was held in low regard throughout Bonn, particularly during his later years when he assumed the role of town buffoon and drunk. His debilitating alcoholism forced Johann to rely on the charity of court administrators when he could no longer function as a musician.
Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich , never claimed to have any musical ability. However, her family occupied a slightly higher social status than the Beethoven family. Her father, Johann Heinrich Keverich, served as head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier. Maria Magdalena was initially married at the age of 16 to Johann Leym, a valet to the elector of Treves. She bore him one son who died in infancy. Maria was widowed a short time later, in 1765, at the age of 19. Johann married Maria on November 12, 1767, despite Lodewijk’s erroneous assumption her family occupied a low social rank.
Maria often described her marriage to Johann Beethoven as a “chain of sorrows.” She gradually assumed the leadership of the household as her husband descended into alcoholism. Acquaintances described her as a quiet, serious person. Close friends claim she never smiled or laughed. Although she was a good mother to Ludwig, she found him distant and aloof, and was unable to comprehend his genius. Moreover, she did little to curtail Johann’s cruel treatment of their son, Ludwig.
Johann initiated Ludwig’s musical training on the clavier (i.e., harpsichord or piano) and violin at the age of five. Although some contemporary historians attempt to minimize Johann’s cruelty towards his son, there are numerous, well-documented accounts of his brutal treatment of young Ludwig. A reliable account from one of Ludwig’s childhood companions related: “Beethoven’s father used violence when it came to making him start his musical studies. There were few days when he was not beaten in order to compel him to set himself at the piano.” Other dependable accounts from a local civic official reported: “He (Johann) treated him harshly and sometimes shut him up in the cellar.” In light of this abuse, it is highly surprising Beethoven didn’t grow to despise the piano.
Johann was well aware of the child wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in 1756, fourteen years prior to Ludwig. Leopold Mozart, a responsible, level-headed individual and competent violinist by profession, had successfully marketed his own children, Wolfgang and Nannerl, as child prodigies throughout Western Europe. Johann, attempting to follow the same model, unsuccessfully attempted to exploit his own son for monetary gain. Although Beethoven was considered a fine musician for his age, he lacked the precocious genius of the young Mozart. The discrepancy between their childhood musical skills may be due to Mozart’s stellar training from a meticulous, conscientious father Leopold, as opposed to Beethoven’s harsh, second-rate training from a drunken Johann.
In later childhood, however, Beethoven eventually received better training. Beethoven’s most influential teacher in Bonn was Christian Gottlob Neefe. Beethoven began studying with him in 1779 at the age of nine, the same year that Neefe was appointed Court Organist. Neefe taught young Ludwig organ and composition. Under this tutelage, Beethoven was eventually awarded the position of Assistant Court Organist. Neefe was a positive, stabilizing influence on Beethoven during his teenage years. He provided the mentorship young Ludwig’s own father was incapable of delivering. Neefe assisted Beethoven in the publication of his first composition, the “Variations on a March by Dressler”, WoO 63 (1782).
Beethoven would become Neefe’s lasting claim to fame. Indeed, history would have likely forgotten Neefe but for his association with the young Beethoven.
By his mid-teenaged years, Beethoven became a highly-skilled pianist and promising composer. In 1787, at seventeen, Beethoven traveled to Vienna alone. Although his motives for the trip are not entirely clear, presumably he hoped to study with Mozart. At that time, Vienna was the undisputed center of the musical world. The city was home to the powerful Hapsburg Dynasty, whose ruling members were ardent patrons of the arts. Mozart spent the majority of his adult life in Vienna, and Haydn likewise had close ties to the city throughout his life. Ultimately, Beethoven permanently settled in Vienna. Indeed, these three pivotal composers of the Classical Era are often referred to as the “Viennese Trinity.”
Historians are widely divided as to whether Beethoven and Mozart actually met. While it is tempting to believe they met, there is little concrete evidence to support an encounter between these two musical giants. The 19th century biographer Otto Jahn gives the following account:
Beethoven made his appearance in Vienna as a youthful musician of promise in the spring of 1787, but was only able to remain there a short time; he was introduced to Mozart, and played to him at his request. Mozart, considering the piece he performed to be a studied show-piece, was somewhat cold in his expressions of admiration. Beethoven, noticing this, begged for a theme for improvisation, and, inspired by the presence of the master he revered so highly, played in such a manner as gradually to engross Mozart’s whole attention; turning quietly to the bystanders, he said emphatically, “Mark that young man; he will make himself a name in the world!”
While it makes for a good story, Jahn could never provide specific detail as to the origin of this suspect encounter. When pressed to authenticate the story, his response was: “It was communicated to me in Vienna on good authority.” Maynard Solomon, the respected 20th century Mozart and Beethoven biographer, does not even mention this doubtful encounter in his meticulous Beethoven biography. Despite no valid documentation of a meeting, Solomon believes Beethoven probably did meet Mozart, but was likely rejected by the latter for a variety of reasons. In the event such an encounter took place, Beethoven would not record it; he would be too proud to discuss the rejection. Although Beethoven would have undoubtedly been capable of impressing Mozart, the latter already had a pupil living in his household, and was likely preoccupied with improving his own tenuous financial situation while battling chronic illness.
After spending only two weeks in Vienna, Beethoven received news his mother’s health was rapidly declining. She died from consumption (i.e., tuberculosis) shortly after his return to Bonn. Beethoven’s father lapsed even deeper into alcoholism. His father was now squandering the majority of the meager family income in pursuit of debauchery. Beethoven obtained a legal order in 1789 to receive half his father’s salary directly in order to provide for himself and his two younger brothers.
Beethoven’s financial situation improved still more while still in his late teens. At that time, he received patronage from powerful and influential individuals in Bonn. The Elector of Bonn at that time was Maximilian Franz, the brother of Marie Antoinette and youngest son of Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Maximilian Franz served as an early, albeit stingy patron of Beethoven.
A pivotal event in Beethoven’s early career occurred with the death of the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II in Vienna on February 20, 1790. Joseph II was the elder brother of Maximilian Franz and Marie Antoinette. Beethoven, although relatively inexperienced in composition, was commissioned to compose a piece to memorialize Joseph’s death, otherwise known as the “Funeral Cantata on the Death of Joseph II.” For various reasons, the cantata was never preformed, and the work was entirely forgotten. The music remained unknown until the score was discovered nearly a century later by Johannes Brahms in 1884. The score shows a remarkable degree of maturity that was not to be discovered by the rest of the world until many years later.
Funeral Cantata of the Death of Joseph II
Another fortunate event in Beethoven’s life occurred in late 1790. Joseph Haydn met the 20-year-old Beethoven while traveling through Bonn on Christmas Eve on a return trip from London to Vienna. Arrangements for Beethoven to study with the great master in Vienna were likely discussed during this encounter. The 60-year-old Haydn was at the height of his career, and was widely regarded as the greatest European composer of that time.
Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in November, 1792, to study with Haydn a year following Mozart’s death. He would never return to Bonn. Beethoven’s friend and financial supporter, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, in his farewell note to Beethoven wrote: “Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.” Little did von Waldstein know that this brief, but extremely poignant utterance would define and summarize the relationship of these three great masters of the Classical Era.
Beethoven’s patrons were very supportive during his transition from a troubled, often turbulent childhood in Bonn to a career full of infinite promise as a gifted young pianist and composer in Vienna. He must have realized he was the successor of the recently deceased Mozart. Indeed, he dedicated himself during his early years in Vienna to studying Mozart’s works, as is evident by his early compositions in a distinctly “Mozartian” style.
His relationship with Haydn over the years was often rocky. Although the immature, often arrogant Beethoven would sometimes mutter that Haydn had taught him nothing, his biographer Maynard Solomon notes that, in his later years, “Beethoven unfailingly referred to his old master (Haydn) in terms of reverence, regarding him as the equal” of Mozart and Bach. His musical foundation, rooted in the traditions of Haydn and Mozart, would undoubtedly serve him well as he began his meteoric rise in Vienna to become one of the most influential and pivotal figures in all of music history.