Biography of Ludwig Van Beethoven

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Birth: 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Death: 1827 in Vienna, Austria
Nationality: German
Occupation: composer
Source: Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Updated: 05/18/2006

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The instrumental music of the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) forms a peak in the development of tonal music and is one of the crucial evolutionary developments in the history of music as a whole.

The early compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven marked the culmination of the 18th-century traditions for which Haydn and Mozart had established the great classical models, and his middle-period and late works developed so far beyond these traditions that they anticipated some of the major musical trends of the late 19th century. This is especially evident in his symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas.

In each of these three genres Beethoven began by mastering the existing formal and esthetic conventions of the late 18th century while joining to these conventions signs of unusual originality and power. In his middle period (from about 1803, the year of the Eroica Symphony, to about 1814, the year of his opera Fidelio in its revised form) he proceeded to develop methods of elaboration of musical ideas that required such enlargement and alteration in perception of formal design as to render it clear that the conventions associated with the genres inherited from the 18th century were for him the merest scaffolding for works of the highest individuality and cogency.

If Beethoven's contemporaries were able to follow him with admiration in his middle-period works, they were left far behind by the major compositions of his last years, especially the last three Piano Sonatas, Op. 109, 110, and 111; the Missa solemnis; the Ninth Symphony; and the last six String Quartets, Op. 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, and 135. These works required more than a generation after Beethoven's death to be received at all by concert audiences and were at first the preserve of a few perceptive musicians. Composers as different in viewpoint from one another as Brahms and Wagner took Beethoven equally as their major predecessor; Wagner indeed regarded his own music dramas as the legitimate continuation of the Beethoven tradition, which in his view had exhausted the possibilities of purely instrumental music. Beethoven's last works continue in the 20th century to pose the deepest challenges to musical perception.

Years in Bonn

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, the Rhineland seat of an electoral court. His ancestors were Flemish (the "van" was no indication of any claim to nobility but merely part of the name). His father, a tenor in the electoral musical establishment, harbored ambitions to create in his second son a prodigy like Mozart. As Beethoven developed, it became increasingly clear that to reach artistic maturity he would have to leave provincial Bonn for a major musical center. At the age of 12 he was a promising keyboard virtuoso and a talented pupil in composition of the court musician C. G. Neefe.

In 1783 Beethoven's first published work, a set of keyboard variations, appeared, and in the 1780s he produced the seeds of a number of later works. But he was already looking toward Vienna: in 1787 he traveled there, apparently to seek out Mozart as a teacher, but was forced to return owing to his mother's illness. In 1790, when the eminent composer Joseph Haydn passed through Bonn, Beethoven was probably introduced to him as a potential pupil.

Years in Vienna

In 1792 Beethoven went to Vienna to study with Haydn, helped on his way by his friend Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who wrote prophetically in the 22-year-old Beethoven's album that he was going to Vienna "to receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn." What he actually received from Haydn in lessons was little enough, and...
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