He gripped the public's imagination a couple of centuries ago and he hasn’t let go since. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the great composer’s birth and to celebrate, we look at some crucial elements of his life and music
When we think of history’s most venerated figures—scientists, political leaders, painters or musicians—our idea of them is often so overpowered by the enormity of their achievement and legacy, that we forget they were humans just like us, with their own failings and weaknesses. Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers who ever lived, was no exception.
Ludwig's father, Johann van Beethoven
His was the genius mind that brought us such monumental music treasures as the rapturous “Ode to Joy” which we adopted as the European Anthem, the delicate jewellery-box sounds of "Für Elise"; and the distinctive, blood-curdling four opening notes of the Fifth Symphony. This genius mind though, belonged to a man whose psyche and life were rife with contradiction and tragedy. Childhood trauma, alcoholism, loneliness, self-doubt and an artistically crippling deafness were just a few of the issues Beethoven battled with throughout his life. Yet, as it often happens, the anguish he suffered fed and aided his creativity. Every movement, chord and note conceived by him oozes with raw suffering, despair in the face of life’s unfairness and existential dread. It penetrates and digs deep into the soul, revealing to us the core of what makes us human and—inevitably—what we all share in common, ensuring his music will keep speaking to and bewitching generations to come.
Beethoven had lost 60 per cent of his hearing by 1801 when he was just 31. For someone whose entire life was centred around music, the tragedy of these circumstances must have been insurmountable. Though doctors initially told him that it would cure itself, deep down Beethoven already knew it never would.
That same year, he wrote his last will, known today as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In it he announced in utter despair, “If I do reach the stage where I can’t compose anymore, and I can’t hear my own music, there’s no point in living”. As it turned out, not only did the composer live till the age of 56 but he also wrote some of his heftiest, most ground-breaking work while completely deaf, including “Missa Solemnis” and the Ninth Symphony. He never quite abandoned his hope of hearing something, though. In 1818, he ordered a Broadwood piano from London as it was the loudest existing instrument. And while it’s unlikely he could hear it play, he could probably feel the instrument’s vibrations. Some of his compositions illustrate this desperate attempt in a vividly heart-breaking way. Says Scottish pianist Steven Osborne: “There is one bit in the penultimate Piano Sonata, where he starts repeating this note over and over again, which gets louder and louder, until he's almost hammering it. It's a very short passage, but it is reminiscent of Beethoven banging the key just to hear something.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mozart
was an undeniable influence on Beethoven’s work. In fact, when the composer moved out of his native Bonn to Vienna in 1786, he was hoping to study with Mozart, though the details of their relationship, including whether they ever actually met, remain uncertain. When Mozart died in 1791, everyone expected the talented young Beethoven to fill his shoes, and the impressionable composer initially succumbed to that pressure, styling his works so they’d have a distinct Mozartean flavour.
Yet once he eventually found his own voice, the two geniuses’ visions turned out to be polar opposites. American pianist Jonathan Biss says, “I always compare him with Mozart because they were almost contemporaries but they couldn’t be more different. Mozart was more of an observer of human emotion and Beethoven would actually feel it, like it was a life or death matter. Listening to Beethoven you get the impression that he would set compositional problems up for himself to solve.”
An event that profoundly hurt Beethoven was his relationship with his nephew, Karl van Beethoven. The only child of the three Beethoven brothers, he was seen by his uncle as the only chance of continuing the family’s music legacy for the next generation. Feeling responsible for the boy, Beethoven tried his utmost to “rescue” him from the clutches of his sister-in-law whom he perceived as “immoral”.
He pushed matters to the extreme when he took Karl’s mother to court to gain full custody of the child, a battle which he ended up winning but which also resulted in a painful and disappointing relationship with Karl plagued with suicide attempts and running away from home, which devastated Beethoven creatively.
"Ode to Joy"
The liberating, awe-inspiring sounds of the “Ode to Joy” are arguably Beethoven’s most well-known and best-loved. This monumental symphony was created when the composer was completely deaf and in his early fifties, and gave life to one of the most iconic, frequently-told stories about Beethoven: when he conducted the world premiere in Vienna in 1824, aged 54, the audience erupted in a wild applause. Since he couldn’t hear, he just stood there with his back to them, prompting a soloist to turn him around so that he could see what a great triumph the piece was.
The crazy hair
As dramatic as his works, Beethoven’s hair is a crucial part of how we view the composer. When he died in 1827, numerous people stole clumps of it at the funeral. Centuries later, strands of the hair were examined in order to establish the cause of his death.
What the scientists found were dangerously high levels of lead absorbed by his hair, prompting the theory that the great composer died of lead poisoning.
Yet the actual cause remains unresolved till this day, with alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis and hepatitis all considered as potential explanations.
This playful little bagatelle (a short piece of music, usually for piano) is one of the most famous melodies in the world, and proof that not every of Beethoven’s compositions was a monumental work of great seriousness and drama. The piece was discovered and published 40 years after Beethoven’s death, becoming a popular standard for aspiring piano students.
A grouchy genius
An eccentric his entire life, Beethoven was not one for pleasantries and social norms. Among his prime moments of societal ineptitude was waking up in the middle of the night and banging on his walls as he beat time to his music, waking up all his neighbours; or refusing to perform at soirees when he would be called upon to do so. Says John Suchet, the host of Classic FM’s flagship morning show, “He was a difficult, irascible, temperamental, short, stocky man who was not easy to get on with. He has very few close friends and he managed to alienate even them. On one occasion dressed in a ragged coat tied up with string, he went for a walk at night and stared through people’s windows, and he was arrested as a tramp, was taken to the police station and put behind bars.”
Influence on subsequent music
“His influence was crippling,” says Jonathan Biss. “The personality was too big to try to replicate. Also, he took these forms, like the piano sonata or the string quartet and he pushed them beyond logical limits. There was not much left to do with them. Maybe Beethoven’s greatest influence was that he forced anyone who came after to him to look in the completely opposite directions.”
German composer Johannes Brahms was one of the people who felt the pressure of writing new music post-Beethoven directly. When he was in his early twenties, he was commonly regarded as the heir to Beethoven’s legacy and he nearly collapsed under the weight of that comparison, saying, “You don't know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us.”
These footsteps continued echoing beyond the Romantic era, however, and shaped and influenced every aspect of music as we know it today, percolating even into such unexpected genres as disco or metal music and hence, redirecting new generations of listeners towards his own oeuvre. “I have no idea how we’ll be consuming music in 15 years’ time but I’m sure Beethoven will have a firm place in it,” says Jonathan.
Best bits of Beethoven to catch in 2020:
Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven Sonata Cycle at Wigmore Hall: December 2019 – February 2020. For tickets, visit wigmore-hall.org.uk
Steven Osborne’s Late Beethoven Piano Sonatas: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall: March 8, 2020. For tickets, visit glasgowlife.org.uk St Luke’s: March 14, 2020. For tickets, visit slms.org.uk
André de Ridder will be presenting (Not) Another Beethoven Cycle with dates in the UK to be confirmed soon
John Suchet’s year-long radio series, Beethoven—The Man Revealed, begins on Saturday, January 4, 2020 at 9pm on Classic FM.
Southbank Centre, London – Beethoven 250 – December 2019 – May 2020 For tickets, visit southbankcentre.co.uk
For more Beethoven events happening across the UK, visit readersdigest.co.uk/culture/Beethoven250
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