Ludwig Van Beethoven

The 100 most Influential Musicians Of All Time – Ludwig Van Beethoven

(baptized Dec. 17, 1770, Bonn, archbishopric of Cologne [Germany]—d. March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria)

As the creator of some of the most influential pieces of music ever written, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven bridged the 18th-century Classical period and the new beginnings of Romanticism. His greatest breakthroughs in composition came in his instrumental work, including his symphonies. Unlike his predecessor Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for whom writing music seemed to come easily, Beethoven always struggled to perfect his work.

Beethoven’s father and grandfather worked as court musicians in Bonn. Ludwig’s father, a singer, gave him his early musical training. Although he had only meagre academic schooling, he studied piano, violin, and French horn, and before he was 12 years old he became a court organist. Ludwig’s first important teacher of composition was Christian Gottlob Neefe. In 1787 he studied briefly with Mozart, and five years later he left Bonn permanently and went to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn and later with Antonio Salieri.

Beethoven’s first public appearance in Vienna was on March 29, 1795, as a soloist in one of his piano concerti. Even before he left Bonn, he had developed a reputation for fine improvisatory performances. In Vienna young Beethoven soon accumulated a long list of aristocratic patrons.

Onset of Deafness and ILL Health

In the late 1700s Beethoven began to suffer from early symptoms of deafness. Around the same time he developed severe abdominal pain. By 1802 Beethoven was convinced that his deafness not only was permanent, but was getting progressively worse. He spent that summer in the country and wrote what has become known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” In the document, apparently intended for his two brothers, Beethoven expressed his humiliation and despair. For the rest of his life he searched for a cure for his ailments, but his abdominal distress persisted and by 1819 he had become completely deaf.

Beethoven never married. Although his friends were numerous, he was a rather lonely man, prone to irritability and dramatic mood swings. He continued to appear in public but increasingly focused his time on his composi- tions. Living near Vienna, he took long walks carrying sketchbooks, which became a repository of his musical ideas. These sketchbooks reveal the agonizingly protracted pro- cess by which Beethoven perfected his melodies, harmonies, and instrumentations.

Three Periods of Work

Most critics divide Beethoven’s work into three general periods, omitting the earliest years of his apprenticeship in Bonn. The first period, from 1794 to about 1800, generally encompasses music whose most salient features are typical of the Classical era. The influence of such musicians as Mozart and Haydn is evident in Beethoven’s early chamber music, as well as in his first two piano concerti and his first symphony. Although Beethoven added his own subtleties, including sudden changes of dynamics, the music was gen- erally well constructed and congruent with the sensibilities of the Classical period.

The second period, from 1801 to 1814, includes much of Beethoven’s improvisatory work. His Symphony No. 3, known as the “Eroica,” and the Fourth Piano Concerto are fine examples of this period.

The final period, from 1814 to his death in 1827, is char- acterized by wider ranges of harmony and counterpoint. The last string quartets contain some of the composer’s most vivid melodic and rhythmic material, while the form of the music is notably longer and more complex. In his symphonies and string quartets, he often replaced the minuet movement with a livelier scherzo. He also used improvisatory techniques, with surprise rhythmic accents and other unexpected elements.

Many critics and listeners regard Beethoven as the finest composer who ever lived. He elevated symphonic music to a new position of authority in the Western music tradition.
He also made great strides with chamber music for piano, as well as for string quartets, trios, and sonatas. His works include nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, five piano concerti, 17 string quartets, ten sonatas for violin and piano, one opera (Fidelio), the Mass in C Major, Missa
Solemnis, and other chamber music.

Structural Innovations

Beethoven remains the supreme exponent of what may be called the architectonic use of tonality. In his greatest sonata movements, such as the first allegro of the Eroica, the listener’s subconscious mind remains oriented to E-flat major even in the most distant keys, so that when, long before the recapitulation, the music touches on the domi- nant (B-flat), this is immediately recognizable as being the dominant.

Of his innovations in the symphony and quar- tet, the most notable is the replacement of the minuet by the more dynamic scherzo; he enriched both the orchestra and the quartet with a new range of sonority and variety of texture, and their forms are often greatly expanded. The same is true of the concerto, in which he introduced for- mal innovations that, though relatively few in number, would prove equally influential. In particular, the entry of a solo instrument before an orchestral ritornello in the Fourth and Fifth piano concerti (a device anticipated by Mozart but to quite different effect) reinforces the sense of the soloist as a protagonist, even a Romantic hero, an effect later composers would struggle to reproduce.

Although, in the finale of the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven shows himself a master of choral effects, the solo human voice gave him difficulty to the end. His many songs form perhaps the least important part of his output, although his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte would prove an important influence on later composers, especially Robert Schumann. His one opera, Fidelio, owes its preeminence to the excellence of the music rather than to any real understanding of the operatic medium. But even this lack of vocal sense could be made to bear fruit, in that it set his mind free in other directions.

A composer such as Mozart or Haydn, whose conception of melody remained rooted in what could be sung, could never have written anything like the opening of the Fifth Symphony, in which the melody takes shape from three instrumental strands each giving way to the other. Richard Wagner was not far wrong when he hailed Beethoven as the discoverer of instrumental melody, even if his claim was based more narrowly on Beethoven’s avoidance of cadential formulas.

Beethoven holds an important place in the history of the piano. In his day, the piano sonata was the most intimate form of chamber music that existed—far more so than the string quartet, which was often performed in public. For Beethoven, the piano sonata was the vehicle for his boldest and most inward thoughts. He did not anticipate the tech- nical devices of such later composers as Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, which were designed to counteract the percussiveness of the piano, partly because he himself had a pianistic ability that could make the most simply laid- out melody sing; partly, too, because the piano itself was still in a fairly early stage of development; and partly because he himself valued its percussive quality and could turn it to good account.

Piano tone, caused by a hammer’s striking a string, cannot move forward, as can the sustained, bowed tone of the violin, although careful phrasing on the player’s part can make it seem to do so. Beethoven, however, is almost alone in writing melodies that accept this limitation, melodies of utter stillness in which each chord is like a stone dropped into a calm pool. And it is above all in the piano sonata that the most striking use of improvisatory techniques as an element of construction is found.

An Enduring Mystery

Beethoven remained a subject of interest long after his death not only because of his music but also because of unresolved questions concerning his troubled life. An enduring topic of speculation was the cause of his debil- itating illnesses and his erratic personality. In the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” the composer recognized that this subject would long be a perplexing one: “After my death,” he wrote, “if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to discover my disease . . . so at least as much as is possible the world may be reconciled to me after my death.”

Nearly two centuries later, a scientific analysis of strands of Beethoven’s hair suggested a possible answer to this lingering question. Four years of study at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., and the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago led researchers to conclude in 2000 that Beethoven had lead poisoning, which may have caused his gastrointestinal distress, irritability, and depression and possibly contributed to his death. The cause of his deafness, however, remained more uncertain, as causal relationships between lead poisoning and the disability are rare.

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