He is universally recognized as one of the greatest composers of the Western European music tradition. Beethoven's work crowned the classical period and also effectively initiated the romantic era in music. He is one of the few artists who genuinely may be considered revolutionary.
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.
By the 19th century, Beethoven's work could already be divided into three fairly distinct periods. The works of the first period include the First (1800) and Second (1802) Symphonies; the first three piano concertos (1795–1800); the first group of string quartets (1800); and a number of piano sonatas, among them the Pathétique (1798) and the Moonlight Sonata (1801). Although the compositions of the first period have Beethoven's unmistakable breadth and vitality, they are dominated by the tradition of Haydn and Mozart.
Beginning about 1802, Beethoven's work took on new dimensions. The premiere in 1805 of the massive Third Symphony, known as the Eroica (composed 1803–4), was a landmark in cultural history. It signaled a definitive break with the past and the birth of a new era. The length, structure, harmonies, and orchestration of the Eroica all broke the formal conventions of classical music; unprecedented too was its intention—to celebrate human freedom and nobility. The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, who at first symbolized to Beethoven the spirit of the French Revolution and the liberation of mankind; however, when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, the disillusioned composer renamed his work the “Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
The works of Beethoven's middle period, his most productive, include the Piano Concertos No. 4 (1806) and No. 5 (Emperor Concerto, 1809); the Razumovsky Quartets (1806); his Ninth Sonata for violin, the Kreutzer Sonata (1803), and his one Violin Concerto (1806); the Fourth through Eighth Symphonies (1806–12); a number of piano sonatas, among them the Waldstein and the Appassionata (both 1804). His sole opera, Fidelio, was produced in its first version in 1805 and in its final form in 1814. Beethoven wrote four overtures for the opera, three of them known as the Leonore Overture. He also composed overtures to Collin's Coriolan (1807) and to Goethe's Egmont (1810). From about 1813 to 1820 there was some slackening in Beethoven's productivity, probably due in part to difficulties concerning his nephew.
Beethoven's final period dates from about 1816 and is characterized by works of greater depth and complexity. They include the demanding, nearly symphonic Hammerklavier sonata (1818) and the other late piano sonatas; the monumental Ninth Symphony (1817–23) with its choral finale based on Schiller's Ode to Joy; and the Missa Solemnis (1818–23). The last five string quartets and the Grosse Fuge (also for quartet), composed in his last years, are considered by many music lovers to be Beethoven's supreme creations, and by some the most sublime music ever composed.
An extraordinarily prolific composer, Beethoven produced, in addition to the works mentioned, sonatas for violin and piano and for cello and piano; string and piano trios; music for wind instruments; miscellaneous piano works, including the popular bagatelle Für Elise (1810); over 200 songs; a number of shorter orchestral works; and several choral pieces.
Beethoven's influence on subsequent composers has been immeasurable. Aside from his architectonic innovations and expansion of the classical sonata and symphony, he brought to music a new depth and intensity of emotion that was emulated by later romantic composers but probably never surpassed.
See his letters, ed. by Emily Anderson (3 vol., tr. 1961); biography by A. F. Schindler (tr. 1966); studies by D. F. Tovey (1945), W. S. Newman (1971), and Roger Kamien (1992); Elliot Forbes, ed., Thayer's Life of Beethoven (2 vol., rev. ed. 1967); H. C. R. Landon, ed., Beethoven: A Documentary Study (1970); Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, ed., The Beethoven Reader (1971); Martin Cooper, Beethoven's Last Decade (1985).
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