Ludwig van Beethoven personifies the idea of the creative genius of popular imagination, railing against convention and physical limitations to challenge the boundaries of form and expression in his art. Ludwig van Beethoven was a very prolific composer. Recognized as one of the greatest and most influential composers of the Western classical tradition, he defied the onset of deafness from the age of 28 to produce an output that encompasses 722 works, including 9 symphonies, 35 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets.
Early life and studies
Ludwig van Beethoven, born in Bonn in December 1770, the son of Johann van Beethoven, a Flemish-German teacher, and singer employed in the service of the Elector of Cologne. His musical talent recognized and cultivated from an early age. From the age of 9 or 10, he took lessons from the court organist and composer, Christian Gottlob Neefe. He stated that Beethoven ‘would become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he continued as he has begun.
Beethoven subsequently took on assistant organist and violist positions in the court orchestra. His first publication – a set of three keyboard sonatas – appeared in 1783. In 1787, he left for Vienna, to study with Mozart, but the visit cut short after his mother fell ill. He returned five years later to take lessons with Joseph Haydn. This time decided to make the Habsburg capital his home and resided there for the rest of his life.
Beethoven and the piano
Ludwig van Beethoven’s early renown derived from his virtuosity as a pianist demonstrated in public and private concerts. His first two published opuses in Vienna consisted of piano trios and solo piano sonatas, respectively, dedicated to Haydn. A series of five piano concertos followed, between 1795 and 1810, the first four of which Beethoven himself premiered. He also performed works by other composers, such as Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, and was famous for his improvisations. Teaching the piano also formed an essential element of his activities in his early career, supplementing his income. Notable aristocratic pupils included Archduke Rudolf of Austria and Countess Giulietta Guicciardi , to whom Beethoven dedicated the ‘Moonlight’ piano sonata.
Because of his increasing deafness, Beethoven stopped playing the piano forcefully in public in 1814. But the instrument remained central to his creative life. Beethoven embraced technical developments in his late piano sonatas previously accepted boundaries of dynamics, expression, rhythm, and technique.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s surviving sketches provide the most powerful examples of any creative artist’s struggle with the blank page. Notorious for the disheveled appearance of his handwriting, his writings often crammed full of deletions, amendments, and scribbles. The manuscripts offer a powerful visual representation of his creativity and feed popular perceptions of the composer’s irascible temperament.
His nine completed symphonies form the backbone of his compositional output, spanning the years 1800 to 1824. A coalition of Beethoven’s patrons led by Archduke Rudolf agreed to pay him a salary of 4000 florins per year. His only condition that he would remain in Vienna and not take up an invitation to become Kapellmeister at Kassel. The intention was to assuage Beethoven’s financial concerns and give him greater autonomy as a composer. In return, Beethoven dedicated 14 works to Rudolf.
Chamber music formed enduring element of Ludwig van Beethoven’s output, notably the 16 string quartets composed between 1800 and 1826. The last four explored new sound worlds arising from a tremendous final burst of creativity in 1825 1826.
Beethoven’s music encompasses many other genres, including songs, canons, cantatas, variations, bagatelles, overtures, dances, opera, incidental music, and marches. It reflects the diversity of his interests and opportunities as a composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s music identified with transcendental notions of struggle, revolution, and the sublime more than any other composer. His only opera, Fidelio, and the Ninth Symphony often interpreted with the broader cultural and political landscape of Europe. The French Revolution and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars represent a backdrop to Beethoven’s life between 1789 and 1815. The first performance of the Third Symphony (Eroica) in came six months before Vienna fell to Napoleon’s army. Fidelio received its first performance on 20 November 1805 to an audience made up mainly of the occupying French military. During the Siege of Vienna of 1809, Beethoven sought refuge in the cellar of the home of his brother Kaspar. His earlier admiration for Napoleon gave way to contempt.
Beethoven’s status flourished that his music featured prominently at the Congress of Vienna after the downfall of Napoleon. The Congress saw the premieres of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and Wellingtons Sieg and the cantata Der glorreiche Augenblick. Beethoven composed for a grand gala concert attended by many European Heads of State in the Redoutensaal in Vienna (1814). When he died in 1827, Beethoven was a celebrated pianist throughout Europe, his funeral procession in Vienna attracting many onlookers.
Beethoven’s legacy resides principally in how his music performed, recorded, and studied in countries around the world. Perceptions of his music have shifted dramatically in response to different tastes and social contexts. It is a measure of Beethoven’s power to stimulate and provoke has been appropriated by diverse political and social movements.
Beethoven’s music exerted a powerful creative influence on successive generations of composers. His legacy also looms large in literature, the visual arts, and popular music, as well as in the extensive use of his music in popular culture more generally: in films, TV commercials, comics and Manga, and video games.
Ludwig van Beethoven preserved his sketch material, because they often contained a great deal of material as unfinished work. Some 30 volumes of Beethoven’s sketches survived, including a draft or full score manuscripts of many of his completed works. Deciphering and analyzing this material has become a scientific discipline and started around the second half of the 19th century. The British Library holds a significant collection of this physical legacy. It’s available online via the Digitized Manuscripts portal. The Library’s holdings also extend to extensive collections of early Beethoven editions, secondary literature, and sound recordings.