Ludwig van Beethoven, often regarded as the greatest composer in history, profoundly impacted musical history like no one before or after him. Even today, centuries after his passing, Beethoven remains the quintessential image of a composer—a determined genius, isolated by deafness, who boldly charted his own artistic journey, indifferent to the opinions of others.
Before Beethoven, composers primarily crafted music on commission for the church, wealthy benefactors, or while working for noble courts across Europe. While many composers of the past successfully overcame these confines to produce elegant and deeply personal music, Beethoven expanded the notion of creative freedom to new heights.
Portrait of Beethoven with the manuscript of the Missa Solemnis. By Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.
Born in Bonn in 1770, Beethoven was the child of Maria Magdalena, a graceful, deeply principled woman, and Johann, a court singer more infamous for his drinking than his musical talent. Under his father’s stern instruction, the young Beethoven endured rigorous musical training. Neighbors often reported seeing the young boy in tears as he played, with his father punishing him for any mistakes.
By 10, Beethoven left school to focus on music, even publishing some compositions during his teenage years. However, most of his early work, composed before he moved to Vienna at 22, wasn’t heard during his life.
I would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet.
Once in Vienna, Beethoven quickly built his reputation. Recognized as a piano prodigy and master improviser, his fame spread across Europe. While he dominated the Classical Viennese musical styles, Beethoven’s true genius lay in reshaping them.
Around 30, the tragic realization of his impending deafness hit Beethoven, a cruel twist of fate for any musician, and especially for a composer. The progression of this disability saw him struggling in conversations by the early 1800s. Although this ordeal led him to consider ending his life, Beethoven’s passion for music kept him going.
Determined to redefine his style, he composed revolutionary pieces like Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” in 1804. This work, longer and more complex than any previously written symphonies, set new standards in music. Soon after, he began working on Symphony No. 5, a piece distinguished by its iconic four-note motif, which Beethoven described as “Fate knocking at the door.”
Notably, Beethoven’s remaining drafts vividly showcase the challenges many artists face when staring down at a blank page. His manuscripts, notorious for their messy handwriting filled with erasures, changes, and hasty scribbles, act as a compelling window into his creative process.
More than any composer, his music symbolizes notions of struggle, revolution, and the sublime. His works, such as the only opera, “Fidelio,” and Symphony No. 9, encapsulate the early 19th-century European zeitgeist, emphasizing ideals of freedom and resistance against oppression. Symphony No. 9, also known as the “Choral” Symphony, stands as one of the finest symphonies ever, highlighting humanity’s unity and our place in the universe.
Among Beethoven’s compositions are 32 piano sonatas. In 1810, he wrote a small gem, “Für Elise.” Despite its fame and recognition as one of the most iconic piano compositions, it stands out from his other works as it wasn’t published until 40 years after his death.
For all his musical genius, Beethoven’s personal life was fraught with challenges. A mix of his innate shyness, physical appearance, and temperament meant he never married or had children. Known for his mood swings and distrusting nature, he often clashed with those around him. Beethoven passed away on March 26, 1827, from post-hepatitic cirrhosis of the liver, aged 56.
To this day, Beethoven is celebrated as perhaps the pinnacle of musical brilliance. The fact that he composed his most awe-inspiring pieces while deaf only amplifies his genius.
Words of wisdom
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” ―Ludwig van Beethoven
“Music is ... A higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy” ―Ludwig van Beethoven
“Nothing is more intolerable than to have admit to yourself your own errors.” ―Ludwig van Beethoven
“I will take fate by the throat; it will never bend me completely to its will.” ―Ludwig van Beethoven