The name Beethoven has stood for centuries, but the man’s life and the challenges he overcame are as towering as the symphonies he constructed.
The word “genius” is bandied about these days with reckless abandon, and many a labelled genius are in fact nothing of the sort. However, one man to whom the tag unequivocally applies is the colossus, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
It’s impossible to cover everything here, so this is a mere sprinkling of the more thought-provoking aspects of his fascinating life and music.
There can’t be many people out there who aren’t familiar with the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Opus 125, his mighty Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824. That’s the Ode to Joy in case you didn’t know its more usual designation. That famous chorale finale itself has four separate parts – it’s like a symphony within a symphony, or perhaps more accurately, an oratorio within a symphony. There’s a 24-minute clip of the whole fourth movement at the end of this article.
However it’s defined, it was wildly innovative at the time of composition. Singing in a symphony? Unheard of! And the length! At the time, it was the longest symphony that had ever been written, between 60 and 70 minutes long depending on the performance.
(Here’s an interesting fact: when CDs were first being mass-produced in the 1980s, the Ninth became something of a timing benchmark; the audio capacity was set at 74 minutes so that the whole symphony would fit on a single disc. Ah, Beethoven, even extending his influence to technology long after his death.)
The Ninth Symphony is an epic masterwork, the pinnacle of the symphonic form. It has nobility, wonder, joy, triumph, brotherhood. There’s a lot going on and it’s staggering to think it was written by a man who by then was totally deaf.
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That’s what gets me about Beethoven. He composed – in his head – each individual part for an entire orchestra, soloist singers and a choir without the benefit of hearing the melodies on a piano or violin as he wrote. It blows my mind.
He wrote nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, five piano concertos, 16 string quartets, one opera and a host of other chamber works; all of them, needless to say, brilliant.
How about the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony (1808) – the deceptively simple “da-da-da-daaaah, da-da-da-daaaah”? Those four notes are arguably the most famous four notes in all of music. They set the rhythmic tone for the whole piece, an electrifyingly powerful work that speaks to all listeners no matter if they are classical music fans or not.
Beethoven was born into a musical family in Bonn, Germany in 1770, the same year Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain. He gave his first public performance at the age of 7, and by 12 had published his first work. When his father succumbed to alcoholism in the early 1780s, Beethoven supported his family through his music. It was a tough time, but he was soon being hailed as Mozart’s successor and moved to Vienna in 1792.
What made Beethoven different from earlier composers were his innovations. He wrote big works for big orchestras, used extended structures, a range of different keys, assertive rhythms and distinctive motifs, such as the one in his Piano Sonata No. 14, Opus 27 No. 2, the Moonlight Sonata (1801). Listen to Claudio Arrau play the first movement – he puts his whole heart into this sublime music:
Back to his deafness. By the age of about 30, Beethoven realised his hearing was impaired. He was devastated. In his famous Heiligenstadt Testament (1802), a letter to his brothers, he despairs of his growing deafness, and admits to having considered suicide. What stopped him was his overwhelming, all-consuming need to create music. He wrote that being deaf made him appear misanthropic and grumpy, and indeed, all the images we have of the composer show him with a stern, almost forbidding expression.
But the music he wrote, even when deaf, is nothing short of spectacular. In a quiet moment, check out some of his masterpieces, such as the joyful Diabelli Variations (1823), the dazzling Violin Concerto (1808), the complex late String Quartets, the strapping Piano Concerto No. 5 (1809). Hear Beethoven evoke a massive storm in under four minutes in the fourth movement of the Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral (1808):
This is power, this is genius.
A whole separate article is needed for Beethoven’s relations with women. He certainly fell in love a number of times, most famously with his “Immortal Beloved”, whose identity is a source of endless speculation to this day. Suffice to say that he was a passionate man with a propensity to fall for women who, for various reasons, weren’t available. Whether this was one of those subconscious things or not, I’m not qualified to say. As much as Beethoven craved a satisfying love life, he never married.
Still on matters personal, after his brother’s death, Beethoven engaged in lengthy legal action against his sister-in-law, and gained custody of his nephew Karl in 1820. He wanted Karl to be the son he never had, but things weren’t easy between them. They were often at loggerheads; and Karl attempted suicide in 1826. Soon after, he joined the army and never saw his uncle again. It was another failure in Beethoven’s unhappy personal life and affected his compositional output for some years.
Professionally, however, Beethoven was feted, his talents lauded, and when the famous composer died in March 1827, thousands of people came to his funeral and schools and theatres were closed as a mark of respect.
Beethoven’s music is masterful. The Appassionata, the Missa Solemnis, Fidelio, the Eroica, the mighty Ninth Symphony. He wrote the world’s most beautiful music, some of which he only heard inside his own head. This is a monumental composer whose works continue to bring light into the darkness. A genius. No argument.