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Ludwig van Beethoven

Life

Born in Bonn, Beethoven showed remarkable talent at an early age. His father, a court musician, subjected him to a brutal regimen, hoping to exploit him as a child prodigy. While this plan did not succeed, young Beethoven's gifts were recognized and nurtured by his teachers and by members of the local aristocracy. In 1787 Beethoven first visited Vienna, at that time the center of the music world. There he performed for Mozart, whom he greatly impressed.

In 1792 Haydn invited him to become his student, and Beethoven returned to Vienna, where he was to remain permanently. However, Beethoven's unorthodox musical ideas offended the old master, and the lessons were terminated. Beethoven studied with several other eminent teachers, including Antonio Salieri, but was developing according to his own singular genius and could no longer profit greatly from instruction.

Both his breathtaking piano virtuosity and his remarkable compositions won Beethoven favor among the enlightened aristocracy congregated at Vienna, and he enjoyed their generous support throughout his life. They were tolerant, too, of his notoriously boorish manners, careless appearance, and towering rages. His work itself was widely accepted, if controversial, and from the end of the 1790s Beethoven was not dependent on patronage for his income.

The year 1801 marked the onset of Beethoven's tragic affliction, his deafness, which became progressively worse and, by 1817, total. Public performance eventually became impossible; but his creative work was not restricted. Beethoven never married; however, he was stormily in and out of love all his life, always with women unattainable because of marriage or station. His personal life was further complicated when he was made the guardian of his nephew Karl, who caused him much anxiety and grief but to whom he nevertheless remained fondly attached. Beethoven died, after a long illness, in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm, and legend has it that the dying man shook his fist in defiance of the heavens.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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