Custody battles, health problems, political upheaval, failed relationships -- Beethoven’s life was as dramatic and tumultuous as his music.
1770-1792 Early Connections
Beethoven was born into a musical family three generations deep in Bonn, Germany. His grandfather was a bass singer who eventually became Kapellmeister; his father was a tenor who played and taught piano and violin, including early lessons to his son. Christian Gottlob Neefe, Beethoven's first influential music teacher, was hired by the same court where Beethoven's father and grandfather taught. A busy organist, Neefe recognized Beethoven’s skill and potential, allowing him to serve as his assistant and occasional substitute for orchestra gigs. Eventually some of Neefe’s salary was transferred to Beethoven for his services, providing him with a means to support himself while still having time to compose and develop musically.
1792-1795 Studies with Haydn
Surrounding himself in Bonn with a circle of musically skilled friends, who commissioned him regularly, Beethoven accepted a proposal to study with Haydn in Vienna; he was in his early 20s. Count Waldenstein, a musician friend of Beethoven’s, supported his studies with Haydn by famously writing,” Dear Beethoven: The Genius of Mozart is still mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn…With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” Beethoven would go on to dedicate many of his early sonatas to his teacher Haydn, and ultimately symbolized the bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods.
1795-1801 Going Deaf
By 1790, Beethoven was accepted in Vienna’s social circles, the respect for his music and pianistic talent was well recognized, and he was traveling in Europe as a performing musician. To his brother, from Prague, he wrote: “I am well, very well. My art is winning me friends and respect, and what more do I want?” Only six years later, upon the realization that he was going deaf, his outlook changed dramatically:
“I must confess that I am living a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.”
A love interest at the time, the 17-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, temporarily lifted Beethoven’s spirits: he dedicated the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, of 1801, to her. While he continued to compose furiously, his deafness and overall decline in health became a serious preoccupation.
1801-1806 Eroica & Fidelio
In the summer of 1803 Beethoven finished writing the Eroica symphony, originally titled "Bonaparte," after his French contemporary. Before it was published, Napoleon made himself emperor in 1804 and Beethoven famously re-titled the symphony merely "Eroica." It wasn’t the last time Napoleon’s actions would affect Beethoven’s career. At the presentation of Beethoven’s first and only opera, Fidelio, in 1805, Napoleon’s troops had just entered Vienna, and Beethoven’s usual audience of wealthy, Viennese nobility were not to be found in the concert hall; the opera’s reception was lukewarm.
1806-1814 Heights of Composition & Productivity
From the Spring of 1806 through 1808, Beethoven’s productivity reached historic proportions. Three string quartets, the "Appassionata" sonata, the Fourth Symphony, the Violin concerto, and most of the Fourth Piano Concerto were all composed during this period. In 1814, the Congress of Vienna gave Beethoven the perfect opportunity to produce even more works specifically for the nobility of Europe, as his status, at this high point in his career, dictated. The numerous resulting pieces were unanimously well-received; simultaneously Beethoven made his last public appearances as a pianist, his deafness worsening.
1814-1817 Family Turmoil and Responsibility
After the Congress of 1814, a wealthy Beethoven, at the height of his fame, received some news as unexpected as his dramatic dynamic shifts. His brother, dying of tuberculosis, stated in his will his intention that Beethoven become the sole guardian of his son Karl. Temporarily, Beethoven split custody with Karl’s mother, but his inability to fulfill his brother’s last wishes caused him great distress. After written appeals to local courts, Beethoven eventually earned sole guardianship of Karl -- only to feel overwhelming guilt over the resulting separation of Karl from his mother.
1817-1826 From Personal Distress, a Huge Creative Output
Taking care of his nephew, his deteriorating health and almost total deafness possessed Beethoven for a few years; around 1817, the clouds lifted and a period of productivity began. Over the next seven years, Beethoven would compose four piano sonatas, the Missa solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, and one of the most famous pieces of music ever written, his Ninth Symphony.
1826-1827 Attempted suicide of Beethoven’s nephew; Beethoven’s own death
Increasingly rebellious and resentful of his ailing uncle, Karl attempted suicide in 1826. Deeply disturbed by this, Beethoven retreated to a property owned by his brother Johann to rest, and to write some of his last compositions: the String Quartet in F Major Op. 135 and the Grosse Fuge, (op. 133). Beethoven returned to Vienna, and having grown increasingly ill, died. He left his entire estate to Karl.
Photo, above right: The house of Beethoven's birth, Bonn, Germany (Wikimedia Commons)