Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is arguably one of the most well-known composers of all times. From his deafness and notoriously angry look to the movie dog who got his name from howling at the famous first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven is still recognizable in today’s culture. His music and life are incredibly complex and this blog barely brushes the surface, but hopefully you will learn something new and interesting.
1. No one knows for sure Beethoven’s date of birth. He was baptized on December 17, 1770. In that era and region where Beethoven was born, it was the tradition of the Catholic Church to baptize the day after birth. Therefore, most scholars accept December 16 as Beethoven’s birthday.
2. Beethoven’s father wanted to pass his son off as a child prodigy so he lied about young Beethoven’s age at his first public performance. For a good portion of Beethoven’s life, he believed he was born in 1772 instead of 1770.
3. In March 1787, Beethoven traveled to Vienna with the intention of studying with Mozart. His visit was short-lived. Two weeks after his arrival, he learned that his mother was ill and he returned to his home in Bonn, Germany. Shortly after, his mother died and his father succumbed to alcoholism, making Beethoven responsible for the care of his two younger brothers. After remaining in Bonn for five years, Beethoven finally fulfilled his dream of moving to Vienna in 1792.
4. Beethoven began losing his hearing at an early age. There are letters to his friends from as early as 1801 describing his symptoms. No one knows the cause of Beethoven’s deafness although some theories cite typhus or auto-immune disorders as possible causes.
5. One of the great mysteries to this day is the identity of the intended recipient of the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter. Written over two days in July 1812, the letter is an impassioned cry of longing for someone only addressed as “my Immortal Beloved.” Musicologists have proposed many theories as to the identity of Beethoven’s mystery woman, but it is unlikely we will ever know for certain. In 1994, the Immortal Beloved movie suggested the identity was the wife of Beethoven’s brother Kaspar, but this is not based on fact.
Find here the full transcript of the Immortal Beloved letter.
6. From instrumentation to length, Beethoven played a significant role in the evolution of the symphony. He was the first to use three horns instead of two in Symphony No. 3, Eroica. Trombones appeared in a symphony for the first time in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 5. The contrabassoon also made its symphony debut in Beethoven’s Fifth. Symphony No. 9 was the most progressive of all, being the first to use a full choir. While he wrote far fewer symphonies than his famous predecessors Mozart (41) and Haydn (106), they are arguably more complex and of much greater length. At nearly an hour in length, Symphony No. 3 was the longest symphony up to that point.
7. Beethoven’s musical style is divided into three periods: early, middle and late.
The early period, which lasted until about 1802, is more classical in nature, along the lines of Mozart and Haydn. Famous works from this period include the first two symphonies, the Opus 18 string quartets, the first two piano concertos and the Pathetique piano sonata.
The middle period, 1803-1814, was greatly influenced by his personal struggles with his ensuing deafness. Works from this period are larger in scale and represent struggle and heroism. They include symphonies 3-8, Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, the last three piano concertos, and the Moonlight and Apassionata piano sonatas.
The late period began around 1815. By this time, he was completely deaf. Characterized by exploration of form, these pieces include Symphony No. 9, the last five string quartets, the last five piano sonatas and his Missa Solemnis.
8. Many of Beethoven’s portraits are based on a life mask that was taken in 1812. He is portrayed as unhappy or angry because, in order to take a life mask, one has to lie absolutely still without smiling.
9. Beethoven loved macaroni and cheese! Here is a recipe, courtesy of the online exhibit Schulz’s Beethoven: Schroeder’s Muse. (Beethoven’s Macaroni & Cheese or Traditional Austrian Spaetzle with Cheese and Sweet Caramelized Onions)
10. Speaking of Schroeder, he is the character bent over the piano in Charles Schulz’s classic comic, Peanuts. When Lucy asks Schroeder what the meaning of life is he yells, “Beethoven!” The composer was featured in hundreds of Schulz’s comic strips. The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University developed an online web exhibit examining in detail Beethoven’s relationship to the comic.
Here is one of the many gifts Beethoven left for us: Moonlight Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 1st Mov, on the hands of the great pianist Daniel Barenboim.