Ludwig van Beethoven

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Ludwig van Beethoven: detail of an 1804 portrait by W.J. Mähler

Beethoven, Ludwig van (baptized 17 December 1770 - 26 March 1827)

Widely called one of history's greatest composers, Beethoven is the main figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western classical music.

Born at 515 Bongasse in Bonn, Germany, to Johann van Beethoven (1740-1792) and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744-1787), Beethoven was baptized on December 17th but his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger and family celebrated his birthday on December 16th.

His first teacher was his father, followed by Christian Gottlob Neefe. In 1787 young Beethoven went to Vienna, where he may have met and played for Mozart. But he returned home because his mother was dying of tuberculosis and died when he was 16. Ludwig was then responsible for raising his two younger brothers because of his father's worsening alcoholism.

In 1792 he moved to Vienna and established a reputation as a piano virtuoso. Detailed information about his musical style and works and life are voluminous.


2Beethoven.jpg 1820 portrait by Karl Stieler]]

He became deaf when around 28, leading him to contemplate suicide. He never married, and some scholars believe his period of low productivity from about 1812 to 1816 was caused by depression resulting from Beethoven's realization that he would never marry. He didn't publish anything during this period, but he released an enormous amount of material in 1816.

Beethoven quarreled, often bitterly, with his relatives and others (including a painful and public custody battle over his nephew Karl - some have suggested the friendship was homosexual); he frequently treated other people badly. He moved often and had strange personal habits, such as wearing dirty clothing even as he washed compulsively. Nonetheless, he had a close and devoted circle of friends his entire life.

When about forty, Beethoven became totally deaf, but he continued to compose until his death.

Critics on Beethoven's Religious Views

Corliss Lamont wrote that Beethoven

  • used Humanist themes such as his Third Symphony (the Eroica, 1804), celebrating the memory of a great man; his Fifth Symphony (1808), portraying the triumph of mankind over fate; and his Ninth Symphony (1824—1826), assertive of the brotherhood of man and attaining its climax in a stirring setting to music of the poet Schiller’s "Ode to Joy. There is no doubt that Beethoven himself was a real democrat at a time when it was not easy to be one.

J. M. Robertson points out that Beethoven had no formal religion but believed in three ancient, pantheistic formulas: “I am that which is”; “I am all that is, that was, that shall be”; and “He is alone by Himself, and to Him alone do all things owe their being.”

When his friend Moscheles at the end of his arrangement of Fidelio (1805) wrote, “Fine, with God’s help,” Beethoven added, “O man, help thyself.” Comments Robertson, “His reception of the Catholic sacraments in extremis was not his act. He had left to mankind a purer and a more lasting gift than either the creeds or the philosophies of his age.”

Sir George Macfarren, writing of Beethoven in the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography, speaks of him as a “free thinker,” saying the remarkable Mass in C “might scarcely have proceeded from an entirely orthodox thinker.”

Sir George Grove, in his Dictionary of Music and Musicians, wrote, “Formal religion he apparently had none” and “the Bible does not appear to have been one of his favorite books.”

Joseph McCabe flatly said that Beethoven, reared a Catholic, quit the Church, was an apostate from their creed, and adopted Goethe’s pantheism.

Agreeing, Nicolas Walter labels Beethoven a pantheist, not a Christian. Beethoven was known to have been quite boorish, particularly because of his deafness.

Personal Life and Final Days

No girlfriends are known to have been attracted to him. Rather, his attention allegedly was focused on a young nephew named Karl, who not only refused to return the affection but may have attempted to blackmail Beethoven by threatening to publicize such advances.

Ten days before his death, he wrote his friend Moscheles that he calmly accepted his fate “and only constantly pray to God that his holy will may ordain that while thus condemned to suffer death in life, I may be shielded from want. The Almighty will give me strength to endure my lot, however severe and terrible, with resignation to his will.” As pointed out by Robertson, Beethoven’s deistic phrasing was followed by an example of his final comfort, “the noble liberality of the [London] Philharmonic Society,” which had promptly sent him £100 in his need. When Beethoven was dying, he yielded to the pressure of Catholic friends and let a priest administer his sacraments. But when the priest left the room, Beethoven said, in the Latin words of the ancient Roman theater, “Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.” An apologist said Beethoven meant the comedy of life was over, not the comedy of a priest administering sacraments, an argument McCabe found implausible.

Two versions exist concerning his final day. Biographer Robert H. Schauffler wrote that the day after Beethoven signed his will, he was given a bottle of wine as a present and remarked, “Pity, pity - too late,” then lapsed into unconsciousness. A violent thunderstorm began that afternoon and, following a loud crack of thunder, Beethoven rose in his bed, wide-eyed, lifting his right hand in a clenched and defiant fist, then fell back, relinquishing his hold on life.

Denying this, Nicolas Slonimsky, author of Music Since 1900 and My First Hundred Years - he lived to the age of 102 - checked with the Vienna weather bureau. Their records, he reported, did confirm that an electric storm had raged while Beethoven was in extremis. However, Slonimsky added that “the story that he raised his clenched fist aloft as a gesture of defiance to an over-bearing Heaven must be relegated to fantasy; he was far too feeble either to clench his fist or to raise his arm.” (Slonimsky also found that, contrary to myth, snow did not fall at Mozart’s funeral, for it was a clear day according to the Austrian weather bureau.)

Barenboim on Beethoven and the Quality of Courage

Daniel Barenboim, the director of the Berlin State Opera, declared in The New York Review of Books (4 April 2013) the following:

It is always interesting and sometimes even important to have intimate knowledge of a composer’s life, but it is not essential in order to understand the composer’s works. In Beethoven’s case, one mustn’t forget that in 1802, the year he was contemplating suicide—as he wrote in an unsent letter to his brothers that came to be known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament”—he also composed the Second Symphony, one of his works that was most positive in spirit, thus showing us that it is of vital importance to separate his music from his personal biography and not to conflate the two.
Therefore, I will not aim here to provide an elaborate psychological study of the man Beethoven through an analysis of his works, or vice versa. In fact, although the focus of this essay will indeed be Beethoven’s music, it must be understood that one cannot explain the nature or the message of music through words. Music means different things to different people and sometimes even different things to the same person at different moments of his life. It might be poetic, philosophical, sensual, or mathematical, but in any case it must, in my view, have something to do with the soul of the human being. Hence it is metaphysical; but the means of expression is purely and exclusively physical: sound. I believe it is precisely this permanent coexistence of metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music. It is also the reason why when we try to describe music with words, all we can do is articulate our reactions to it, and not grasp music itself.
Beethoven’s importance in music has been principally defined by the revolutionary nature of his compositions. He freed music from hitherto prevailing conventions of harmony and structure. Sometimes I feel in his late works a will to break all signs of continuity. The music is abrupt and seemingly disconnected, as in the last piano sonata (op. 111). In musical expression, he did not feel restrained by the weight of convention. By all accounts he was a freethinking person, and a courageous one, and I find courage an essential quality for the understanding, let alone the performance, of his works.
This courageous attitude in fact becomes a requirement for the performers of Beethoven’s music. His compositions demand the performer to show courage, for example in the use of dynamics. Beethoven’s habit of increasing the volume with an intense crescendo and then abruptly following it with a sudden soft passage (a “subito piano”) was only rarely used by composers before him. In other words, Beethoven asks the performer to show courage, not to be afraid of going to the edge of the precipice, and he thus forces the performer to find the “line of most resistance,” a phrase coined by the great pianist Artur Schnabel.
Beethoven was a deeply political man in the broadest sense of the word. He was not interested in daily politics, but concerned with questions of moral behavior and the larger questions of right and wrong affecting the entire society. Especially significant was his view of freedom, which, for him, was associated with the rights and responsibilities of the individual: he advocated freedom of thought and of personal expression.
Beethoven would have had no sympathy with the now widely held view of freedom as essentially economic, necessary for the workings of the market economy. A relatively recent example of the economic definition of freedom can be found in “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” a document issued by President George W. Bush on September 17, 2002, defining America’s relation to the rest of the world. It states that the aim of the United States, as the most powerful nation on earth, is to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe…. If you can make something that others value, you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it. This is real freedom, the freedom for a person—or a nation—to make a living.
Beethoven’s music is too often seen as exclusively dramatic, expressive of titanic struggle. In this respect, the “Eroica” and the Fifth symphonies represent only one side of his work; one must also appreciate, for example, his “Pastoral” Symphony. His music is both introverted and extroverted and it again and again juxtaposes these qualities. The one human trait that is not present in his music is superficiality. Nor can it be characterized as shy or cute. On the contrary, even when it is intimate, as in the Fourth Piano Concerto and the “Pastoral” Symphony, it has an element of grandeur. And when it is grand, it also remains intensely personal, the obvious example being the Ninth Symphony.
Beethoven, in my view, was able to achieve a perfect balance in his music between vertical pressure—pressure from the composer’s mastery of musical form—and horizontal flow: he always combines vertical factors such as harmony, pitch, accents, or tempo, all of which relate to a sense of rigor, with a great sense of freedom and fluidity. This question of extremes and of balance, I believe, must have been a conscious preoccupation for him. You find an expression of it in Fidelio, for example: the composition contains a constant movement between polar opposites—from light to darkness, the negative to the positive, between events that occur above, on the surface, and those that take place underground. Just as he was unable to write anything superficial, or simply pretty, he was equally unable or unwilling to write anything portraying what was fundamentally and exclusively evil. Even a character such as Pizarro, the governor of the prison in Fidelio, can be understood as a personification of corruption and oppression, but not of evil.
Beethoven’s music tends to move from chaos to order (as with the introduction to the Fourth Symphony) as if order were an imperative of human existence. For him, order does not result from forgetting or ignoring the disorders that plague our existence; order is a necessary development, an improvement that may lead to the Greek ideal of catharsis. It is not by chance that the Funeral March is not the last movement of the Eroica Symphony, but the second, so that suffering does not have the last word. One could paraphrase much of the work of Beethoven by saying that suffering is inevitable, but the courage to fight it renders life worth living.

The Autopsy


Beethoven's grave in the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna

According to official records, Beethoven was often in poor health. According to one of his letters, his abdominal problems began while he was still in Bonn and thus can be dated to before 1792. In 1826 his health took a drastic turn for the worse. The autopsy report indicates serious problems with his liver, gall bladder, spleen, and pancreas. There is no general agreement on the exact cause of death.

Contemporary research on a lock of Beethoven's hair cut from his head the day after he died and a piece of his skull taken from his grave in 1863, both now at the Beethoven Center in San Jose, California, show that lead poisoning could well have contributed to his ill-health and ultimately to his death. The source (or sources) of the lead poisoning is unknown, but may have been fish, lead compounds used to sweeten wines, pewter drinking vessels, or long sessions in mineral baths. It is unlikely that lead poisoning was the cause of his deafness, which several researchers think was caused by Paget's disease, cochlear otosclerosis, or an autoimmune disorder such as systemic lupus erythematosus, although recent studies have shown that some lead poison victims have suffered from hearing loss as well. The hair analyses did not detect mercury, which is consistent with the view that Beethoven did not have syphilis (syphilis was treated with mercury compounds at the time). The absence of drug metabolites suggests Beethoven avoided opiate painkillers.

Beethoven died on 26 March 1827, after a long illness. He was buried in the Währinger cemetery. Twenty months later, the body of Franz Schubert was buried next to Beethoven's. In 1888, both Schubert's and Beethoven's graves were moved to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), where they can now be found next to those of Johann Strauss I and Johannes Brahms.

{AA; Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, 29 January 1996; CE; CL; HNS2; JM; JMR; JMRH; TSV; TYD}