The Classical Period

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: Bonn, (baptized December 17), 1770

Died: Vienna, March 26, 1827

painting of Ludwig van Beethoven as young man

Born to a drunkard father and an unhappy mother, the young Beethoven was subjected to a brutal training in music at the hands of his father, who hoped that the boy would prove to be another prodigy like Mozart. Failing in this, the young Beethoven nevertheless embraced music and studied for a short time in 1792 with Franz Joseph Haydn in Vienna. Hailed as a genius and a master of improvisation at the piano, Beethoven soon made a name for himself, and by 1794 was known throughout Europe. He faithfully learned the Classical Viennese styles and traditions in music, and then proceeded throughout his career to completely revolutionize them. His earliest compositions reflect the classical restraint of Haydn and Mozart, yet there were always flashes of what was to come. The emotion he displayed while playing his own music was unheard of in his day, and the fiery intensity of his early Piano Sonata in C minor, known as the "Pathetique" is one of the first works in which Beethoven gives vent to his own dramatic musical voice.

By 1800, Beethoven had become aware of his advancing deafness -- surely a most horrible fate for a musician and unendurable to a composer. Agonizing over his fate, Beethoven contemplated suicide, but in the end embraced life, determined to go on composing, if no longer performing. Unhappy with his compositions up to that time and stating that he would now be "making a fresh start," Beethoven began composing music such as had never before been heard. His Symphony no. 3 in E-flat major, subtitled the "Eroica", was completed in 1804, and was almost twice as long as any symphony written up to that time. Taking the classical symphony as a starting point, it introduces more themes, more contrasts, more instruments, more weight and more drama than previously heard in the symphonic form. His sixteen string quartets span his creative life and developed from the classical restraint of the six "Early" quartets to the sublime late quartets which contain music of such personal pain and suffering, that one wonders if an audience was intended to hear them at all. The power of Beethoven's voice can be heard in the String Quartet no. 11 in F minor. Beethoven's musical ideas, the "themes" he used and from which he painstakingly constructed his works, were revolutionary for his day. The well-known opening motto theme of the famous Symphony no. 5 in C minor was considered by many to be evidence of madness on Beethoven's part. At the same time, his love of nature and frequent walks in the countryside led to his composing one of the earliest of program symphonies, the "Pastoral" Symphony no. 6 in F major, complete with musical images of flowing brooks, thunderstorms, and bird calls. This work would later come to influence the symphonic works of later Romantic composers Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.
With the heaven-storming opening of the Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat, Beethoven boldly broke with the tradition of the orchestral presentation of the theme before the entrance of the piano, and introduced the notion of the nineteenth century virtuoso concert-pianist.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven

The idea of universal freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of man was one the composer cherished. Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, is on this very subject, and the theme is nowhere expressed more powerfully or beautifully than in the final movement of the monumental Symphony no. 9 in D minor, composed in 1824 when Beethoven was completely deaf. With the introduction of four vocalists and mixed chorus, Beethoven sets the words of Ferdinand Schiller's Ode "To Joy" in the last movement of the symphony. To a tune so simple that half the world knows it and sings it, the genius of Beethoven seeks to embrace all humanity with his vision of equality, democracy, and love.
With plans for the future and sketches of a tenth symphony begun, Beethoven contracted a chill which led to a long illness. In and out of consciousness for weeks, Beethoven succombed on March 26, 1827. Some 10,000 people lined the streets of Vienna at his funeral to pay homage to the composer who had forever changed the musical climate of Western Europe. With Beethoven's passing, the stage was set for the onslaught of Romanticism in western music.




Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane