10 November 2008

how i spent my weekend...

this is only half of the giant project i dominated this weekend:

The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven
with special attention paid to Symphony No. 8, Op. 93

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in mid-December, 1770 in a town called Bonn, located about fifteen miles upriver of Cologne. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he was baptized on December 17th, and it was customary in the Catholic practice at the time to baptize a child within twenty-four hours of his birth. He was the eldest, although not firstborn, son of Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven.[1] Maria Magdalena had given birth to two children who both died in infancy before Ludwig was born. The second-born was baptized and buried in April 1769, also with the name Ludwig. Two siblings survived after Ludwig, and later Maria Magdalena gave birth to another two children who both died in infancy. Johann van Beethoven was a known drunk and a cruel and abusive father and husband, which no doubt contributed to the reasons that four of their seven children died in infancy.[2]

The elder Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann’s father, sponsored young Ludwig’s baptism. He had moved to Bonn in 1733 to take a prominent position as a court musician, Kapellmeister, and he was much admired and respected as Bonn’s most eminent musician. He died on Christmas Eve in 1773, when little Ludwig was just old enough to be able to form some memories of him.[3]
Music was the true language of Ludwig van Beethoven, it came to him “more readily than words.”[4] It was his escape from the cold home he lived in, with an alcoholic father and a neglectful mother who allowed him to run about unwashed and in dirty clothes.[5] He would sit at the harpsichord as young as age four, crying, unable to stop repeating his exercises.[6] Johann, being a poorly paid court singer, was critical of Ludwig’s musical gifts for improvisation and freed variation as a child, telling him to stop and that he wasn’t “to do that yet.” However, Johann did recognize his son’s talent and in 1778, when Ludwig was seven, he took him to Cologne to have him give a recital. He presented his son as being six years old, to make him appear as more of a prodigy. Johann was greatly disappointed and even more critical of his son after the recital drew very little attention and no press at all.[7]

Thinking that their son was maybe not a child prodigy in the rank of Mozart, Maria Magdalena and Johann decided to pay some attention to their eldest son’s general education. They enrolled Ludwig in a Latin grade school, where his unkempt appearance led his classmates to believe that he actually had no mother. He was not a very gifted student nor was he very social. He had trouble with more than just the basics of writing and arithmetic, and he has no evident desire to make friends. Some evidence suggests he may have been slightly dyslexic, often inverting numbers in his scores and letters. However, he surely exhibited genius in his quest to solve complex problems of counterpoint.[8] Morris discusses the relationship of his learning disability to his genius stating:

“He had, besides, a mastery of musical architecture that was as instinctual as it was innovative. Again, the possibility of dyslexia arises. Some orthographically challenged people have an almost cubist ability to visualize planes and dimensions from many different angels at once. Beethoven’s sound structures are full of disproportionate rooms and inner voids, with surprise changes of level, and windows full of sky; but they always balance out as total buildings, no matter how large their size.”[9]

He began composing sometime around the age of ten, not having had any formal training in composition. Somehow, he managed to write correctly without knowing how to do so. Soon after, he was withdrawn from school and thirty-three-year-old Christian Gottlob Neefe took him on as a student. Neefe was a court organist, trained in law as well as music. Having studied in Leipzig, he was able to teach Beethoven using the pedagogical tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach.[10]

Beethoven’s first publication in 1782 was under the influence of Neefe. It was a set of piano variations of a theme by Dressler. Having been an assignment from his teacher, the variations did not foreshadow much of the composer that he would become, except for in the final variation in which he suddenly takes off in a foreign key, something of which Neefe was not very encouraging.[11]

Despite his extremely formulaic style of teaching, Neefe saw the potential that Beethoven held, yet worried that the confines of Bonn would not allow him to fulfill his destiny as a composer. He published an anonymous article in 1783 commenting on his skill and genius, stating that if he had the opportunity to travel he could become “a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”.[12]

Beethoven did travel to Holland with his mother in the fall of that same year where he played his first paid engagement. It was at a royal concert in The Hague. Also he was paid more than any other performer, he complained that the Dutch were penny-pinchers and that he would “never go to Holland again.”[13]

At age thirteen, when financial instability burdened his family after the death of his father’s palace patron, Ludwig had to apply for a court post to earn some money for his family. He was hired as the Assistant Court Organist, with no fixed salary. However, when the Elector, Maximilian Friedrich, died two months later, he was hired by the new Elector and was officially put on the court payroll earning 150 florins per year. His teacher’s salary had been cut from 400 to 200 florins per year, and when Ludwig got a 50-florin pay raise six months later, it put the mentor and protégé at the same salary. It became more and more difficult for Beethoven to learn from Neefe, as Neefe tried to tone town Beethoven’s wild musical ideas and Beethoven became resentful.[14]

During that time, Beethoven experimented his wild musical ideas with the court orchestra, exploring the sound of combining a high-pitched flute note with a low bassoon or hearing how a section of violins sounds playing a piece of all fingered notes without a single open string. He had a compositional dry spell and published almost nothing over the next few years. Still, he kept busy performing at mass every morning as well as piano solos or concertos in court.[15]

In 1787, having heard of Ludwig’s great talent and potential, the Elector sponsored Beethoven to travel to Vienna with the hope of being able to study with Mozart and return to Cologne as Kapellmeister, the same position his grandfather had held. So, in the spring of that year, Beethoven traveled the nine hundred miles to Vienna. Upon hearing him improvise a theme, Mozart was impressed with Beethoven, remarking to some friends that “some day he will give the world something to talk about.”[16]

However, after a very short time in Vienna, Beethoven received word that his mother had fallen critically ill and he rushed back to Bonn without having had much of a chance to study with the great Mozart. He arrived in Bonn while his mother was still alive, but in a very critical condition. She died July 17, 1787. Dealing with the grief of his mother’s death and the disappointment of a fruitless trip to Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven became very depressed.[17]

He was hired shortly thereafter by Hélène von Breuning to tutor her four children in music. He found comfort in the widow von Breuning and her elegant mansion. She became somewhat of a substitute mother to him and her home was the antithesis of his bleak and sad household. He also found interest in Frau von Breuning’s sixteen-year-old daughter Eleonore. Ludwig befriended the three younger boys as well, but he preferred spending time on the piano bench playing duets with Eleonore.[18]

Spending time in the von Breuning mansion also gave Ludwig his first exposure to social behavior among the upper class. He learned new manners, and he learned them well. He was also exposed to things he had missed in his lack of formal schooling, things such as German literature, ancient and modern history, geography and science. He also befriended Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a student from the new University of Bonn and a frequent visitor to the von Breuning mansion. This friendship gave Ludwig the opportunity to enroll part-time in the university as a philosophy student. [19]

In 1788 Count Ferdinand Waldstein moved to Bonn. He was a friend of Mozart’s and came from a background that impressed the Elector. He soon became a frequenter of the von Breuning mansion, and when he met Ludwig he was so impressed that he decided to do everything in his power to advance Ludwig’s career. The count tried to convince the Elector of Ludwig’s genius, but when Ludwig applied for a raise he was denied. Although to some he showed great potential, he hadn’t published a composition in years and was to others at the same level of most of the other court musicians with whom he played.[20]

An opportunity arose for Beethoven out of a tragedy: the death of Joseph II, “the people’s Emperor.” The Elector, Max Franz, was particularly upset, as Joseph II was his brother. A musical memorial was called for, and somehow Ludwig van Beethoven earned the honor of being announced as the composer for the event. Even though he was a nineteen-year-old court musician with no experience composing large-scale works to grieve the loss of a public figure, Beethoven had friends in powerful positions who must convinced the Elector in his fragile state to allow Beethoven this responsibility.[21]

For “various reasons”, Beethoven’s work for the occasion was never performed. It was assumed for a long time that he wasn’t able to finish it in time, but nearly one hundred years later , Johannes Brahms discovered Ludwig’s manuscript for the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. It was a forty-minute work for five soloists, a full chorus and an orchestra of strings, double woodwind and horns. The Cantata was a perfect example of Beethoven’s unambiguous style, and it was too difficult for the performers of that time.[22]

Beethoven was invited soon after in that same year of 1790 to compose another work for the election of Joseph II’s eldest brother, Leopold, to the Holy Roman throne. He composed another powerful piece, the Cantata on the Accession of Leopold II, which was also withdrawn and never performed.[23]

In the winter of 1790, when Beethoven had just turned twenty, the well-known composer Joseph Haydn passed through Bonn on his way from Vienna to London and Beethoven had the opportunity to present him with one of his unperformed cantatas, although which one is not known. Haydn was impressed and urged Beethoven to pursue further studies in music.[24]
Those further studies were realized with Haydn himself when Beethoven moved to Vienna in November 1792, where he would remain the rest of his life. By the end of January 1793, Haydn announced that he was so pleased with Beethoven’s progress as a student that he was ready to compose “grand operas.”[25]

Beethoven spent the next few years studying with Haydn, performing, composing—doing all he could to further his career. He published his first two works with opus numbers in 1795. The Three Trios for Piano, Violin, and Cello, dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowski, and the Three Sonatas, dedicated to Joseph Haydn, were numbered opus 1 and two, respectively.[26] In 1796 he gained wider notoriety with a five-month tour through Bohemia, Saxony and Prussia. During his tour, his performances brought members of the Berlin Singakademie to tears, earned him a gold snuffbox full of louis d’or from King Friedrich Wilhelm II and gave him a confidence that he was experiencing a time similar to the youth of Mozart.[27]

Very busy composing, performing and traveling, Ludwig van Beethoven continued to gain more acclaim over the next years. However, his growing success was met with a sad occurrence. Sometime around 1794 – 1798, he began going deaf. Various sources and letter suggest different dates regarding when his symptoms actually began. It started with a constant humming and buzzing in his ears and progressively got worse. He was careful to not tell anyone about it, as it was not until 1801 that he admitted in a letter to his friend Franz Wegeler, whom he had met through the von Breuning family in Bonn and who was trained in medicine, that “for the last three years [his] hearing has become weaker and weaker.” He went on to say that it was associated with the illness that caused him to have “violent diarrhea” and that he had seen several doctors and healers, some of whom helped his digestive situation, but his hearing continued to get worse. He expressed his grief of the fact that he had stopped attending social functions because he found it “impossible to say to people: I am deaf.” Later in the letter, he stated that he found it “surprising that some people have never noticed [his] deafness; but since [he has] always been liable to fits of absentmindedness, they attribute [his] hardness of hearing to that.” Beethoven lamented his condition and mentioned that he often cursed his Creator and his existence. He then begged his friend not say anything to anyone about his condition, as it was a terrible handicap in his profession and he worried what his enemies would say if they were to find out.[28]

He must have felt very lonely in his condition, for only two days later he revealed his secret in a letter to another friend, Karl Amenda. In this letter he referred to his hearing as his “most prized possession” and told Amenda that it had “greatly deteriorated.” In both letters he expressed to each Wegeler and Amenda how much he appreciated their true friendship and begged them to write to him more often, for their letters, “however short they may be, console [him] and do [him] good.”[29]

Perhaps Beethoven was also secretive about his condition because he was going through a period of great success, being offered more commissions that he could carry out. He was pleased that he no longer had to negotiate a fee with his patrons. “I state my price and they pay,” he wrote in that same letter to Wegeler.[30] A fear for losing his patronage also seems a likely reason to hide his worsening deafness from the public.

Driven to depression by the fact that he could no longer properly communicate in person and no longer hear what his fellow humans heard, Beethoven went to the country to live in solitude for some months. A document written by Beethoven in 1802, but only found after his death, now known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” addressed Beethoven’s thoughts of suicide during this period of his life, but he admitted that it seemed “impossible to leave the world until [he] had brought forth all that was within [him].”[31]

Over the next years, Beethoven traveled back and forth between Vienna and the country as well as other places, paying rent in four places at once at some points. Work was endless, as he was being constantly commissioned to produce new works and his prices were rising. He produced numerous compositions, including symphonies, solo concertos, string quartets, string sonatas, piano sonatas and much more, almost all of which were masterpieces and full of modern progressions and harmonies that were new and foreign to the contemporary ear.[32]

In October 1808, the new King of Westphalia, Jérôme Bonaparte, offered Ludwig a part-time position as Kapellmeister in Kassel. He saw this as an opportunity to bargain for an annual salary from the Vienna Imperial Court, writing to its directorate petitioning an annual fee of 2,400 florins to retain him as the in-house opera composer.[33] The directorate ignored Beethoven’s suggestion, and so he prepared to leave Vienna. In December he held a farewell concert for the Viennese public,[34] at which the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were both premiered.[35]

However, Beethoven’s plans changed when upon the encouragement of Countess Anna Marie Erdödy, several of Vienna’s richest patrons pooled together to offer Beethoven an annuity much larger than what the King was offering him in Kassel, on the condition that he stay in Vienna.[36] He accepted their offer and decided to stay in Vienna, as stated in a letter dated March 4, 1809.[37] He was now earning four thousand florins a year, just to remain in that city.[38]

An exciting thing happened for Beethoven in 1811, when he began correspondence with Johann Wolfgang con Goethe, someone he admired very much. This was thanks to Bettina Brentano, who knew Goethe and wrote him a lengthy letter describing Beethoven, suggesting the two should meet. Goethe responded to Bettina sending his greetings to Beethoven and inviting him to Karlsbad as a possible place to meet.[39] Beethoven first wrote to Goethe in April 1811 and sent him a copy of Egmont, Op. 84 early the next year asking for comments, writing, “even your censure will be useful to me and my art and will be welcomed as gladly as the greatest praise.”[40]

That summer, Beethoven traveled to Teplitz to spend time at the Bohemian baths to see if his health might improve. There, he began preliminary sketches of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. He continued correspondence with Goethe, exchanging letters full of compliments back and forth.[41]

In the following year of 1812, Beethoven completed the Seventh Symphony in May and immediately continued working on the Eighth. He took the half-finished manuscript with him when he returned to Teplitz in July 1812 and continued his work on it there.[42] That the Eighth Symphony is such a light, jolly work is not at all evident of all that was occurring in his life at the time.

That summer at Teplitz, Beethoven finally met Goethe in person. This was a meeting for which he had been waiting years, and although Beethoven was very pleased to make the acquaintance, Goethe’s reaction was not entirely positive. Although Goethe marveled at Beethoven’s talent, Herriot suggests that Goethe found him “uncouth and far too laconic.”[43]

The summer of 1812 is also known for the famous letters written by Beethoven addressed to his “Immortal Beloved.” The letters were not found until after his death, and there is no named recipient. In these letters he writes of a profound love, asking if there is a way she can “alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, that I am not wholly yours?”[44] There was much speculation among musicologists over the centuries in regards to who the addressee of these letters was. However, in 1977 Maynard Solomon published a theory that has now become widely accepted as conclusive. He suggests that the letters were meant for Antonie Brentano, the wife of a friend of Beethoven’s. Whether an affair between Antonie and Beethoven was ever consummated is not known, nor whether Antonie ever read the letters. The fact is that she was also at Teplitz that same summer. So is it possible she read them and returned them to Beethoven, as it was too risky a document for her to keep as a married woman? Or did Beethoven write them without the intention of sending them, as an expression of his love for her, a dream of a relationship that could never be fulfilled?[45] Whatever the case, it is obvious from the letters that Beethoven was deeply in love at the time and deeply emotionally affected by it, writing, “Oh God, why must one be separated from her who is so dear…Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose to live together…what tearful longing for you…Oh, do continue to love me – never misjudge your lover’s most faithful heart. ever thine. ever mine. ever ours. L.”[46]

During these same summer months, a rumor was spreading that Beethoven’s brother Johann was involved in an illicit relationship with his lodger’s sister, Therese Obermeyer, whom he had hired as a housekeeper. Beethoven became furious about this news and traveled to Linz, where Johann was living at the time, to put a stop to their relationship, which he deemed immoral. He involved the civil authorities and the police and even went so far as to obtain an order to evict Therese if the relationship continued. Johann was offended and upset by his brother’s interference in his personal affairs, yet ended up marrying Therese that November in order to appease his brother. He later blamed Beethoven for having driven him into a marriage he never wanted.[47]

The Eighth Symphony was dated in Linz in October 1812.[48] That Beethoven was experiencing such turbulent times in his life during the months in which it was composed doesn’t come through at all in the music. Without knowing what was going on in Beethoven’s life, a listener would think from its light, warm affection, he was in the best of moods during the period in which he was composing it.[49] However, two things set it clearly apart from his other symphonies. For unknown reasons, Beethoven did not dedicate the Eighth symphony to anyone.[50] It also does not have any introduction. Of all the preceding symphonies, only the Sixth was composed without an introduction, and the presence of one is even a debatable topic.[51]

Beethoven called his Eighth Symphony “my little one.” Aside from it being actually shorter than his other symphonies, it also has a lighter instrumentation, with just two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, two timpani, violins I and II, violas, cellos and basses. It was also composed in a very short period of time. From the time the Seventh was completed, it was only five months before the Eighth was completed and dated, and it would be over a decade before the ninth was completed.[52]

The Eighth Symphony was premiered on February 27, 1814, almost a year and a half after it had been completed. It was first performed at the Redoutensaal in Vienna. The program of the concert began with the Seventh Symphony (which had premiered two months earlier), then “an entirely new Italian terzetto” (Op. 116), then the Eighth Symphony and it concluded with “Wellington’s Victory.” The Eighth did not receive as enthusiastic an applause from the audience as Beethoven’s previous symphonies had received.[53] His pupil, Carl Czerny, later asked him why it was that the Eighth was so much less popular than the Seventh. Beethoven is said to have responded, “Because it’s so much better!”[54]

By this point in his life, Beethoven’s deafness was so severe that “one had to shout so loudly that it could be heard three rooms distant” in order to communicate with him.[55] One wonders if this is why, in the recapitulation of the first movement of the Eighth Symphony, the melody is given to the bass instruments, which get completely drowned out by the upper-register instruments. Was he unaware that the audience could barely hear the melody? Not an unlikely assumption, as it is said that his conducting style had become peculiar and extreme, and he had even gotten lost in previous concerts he had conducted because he couldn’t hear some of the instruments.[56]

Compared with his output during the first thirty-five years of life, Beethoven produced very little music from 1815 until his death in 1827.[57] However, his compositions from this last period have a denser musical thought than any of his earlier works. By 1815 he had gone completely deaf, so he refrained from interacting in society as much as possible.[58]

Beethoven took on a large responsibility in 1815. After the death of his brother Caspar in the fall, he fought to gain custody of his nephew Karl. Caspar’s widow, Johanna van Beethoven, was still alive and wanted her son to remain with her. However, Beethoven’s status as a well-known musician and of nobility overrode Johanna’s attempts to gain custody. So Beethoven took over the care of nine-year-old Karl in January 1816.[59]

There is varying evidence about the nature of the relationship between Karl and his uncle Ludwig van Beethoven. Some people close to them suspected Beethoven of beating Karl, while others witnessed pure happiness in Beethoven’s eyes when the two were together, as well as scenes of Karl falling asleep while his uncle played the piano.[60]

In May 1824, Beethoven premiered his Ninth and final symphony, also his longest, at almost an hour in performance. Although Beethoven was completely deaf, he insisted on co-conducting the first performance alongside Michael Umlauf, who had advised the musicians to ignore the composer’s gestures.[61] The Ninth was his biggest and most ambitious composition yet, and the audience received it accordingly. The performance was interrupted four times by wild applause and Morris recounts that, at one point, “while the audience erupted with delight, Beethoven stood with his back to the hall, absorbed in the score before him. One of the soloists…had to…turn him around so that he could see the tumult.”[62]

During the years 1824 to 1826, Beethoven fulfilled his obligation to compose several string quartets, which had been commissioned before he was even deep into composing the Ninth Symphony. These last quartets were masterpieces, one of which (Op. 131) Beethoven considered his “most perfect single work.”[63]

Traveling with his nephew, Karl, in an uncovered coach and sleeping in an unheated village inn in early December 1826 left Beethoven deathly ill. He was suffering from pneumonia and pleurisy, as well as spitting blood. He recovered regained his strength after a couple weeks, but by mid-December he was ill again, this time with dropsy, a fatal illness. Beethoven underwent several surgeries over the course of the next few months, but to no avail. He was abusing his prescriptions and drinking heavily. On March 26, 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven passed away in Vienna, coincidentally on the same day of year he had made his child debut in Cologne exactly forty-nine years earlier.[64]

[1] Morris, pp. 11-12[2] Herriot, p. 20[3] Morris, p. 12[4] Ibid., p.20[5] Morris, p. 18[6] Herriot, p. 20[7] Morris, pp. 18-19[8] Ibid., p. 7[9] Morris, p. 8[10] Ibid., pp. 20-21[11] Ibid., pp. 21-22[12] Ibid., pp, 22-23[13] Morris, p. 23[14] Ibid., pp. 24-25[15] Ibid., pp. 27-28[16] Morris, pp. 30-31[17] Ibid., pp. 31-32[18] Ibid., pp. 32-33[19] Morris, pp. 33-34[20] Ibid., pp. 36-38[21] Ibid., p. 39[22] Morris, pp. 39-42[23] Ibid., p. 43[24] Ibid., pp. 45-46[25] Ibid., pp. 49-53[26] Herriot, p. 56[27] Morris, pp. 70-71[28] Anderson, pp. 59-62[29] Anderson, pp. 63-65[30] Ibid., p. 58[31] Morris, p. 96[32] Morris, pp. 100-109[33] Ibid., pp. 123-124[34] Herriot, p. 160[35] Kinderman, p. 123[36] Morris, p. 130[37] Anderson, p. 217[38] Morris, p. 135[39] Morris, pp. 143-144[40] Anderson, p. 318[41] Morris, p. 147[42] Ibid., p. 148[43] Herriot, p. 206[44] Anderson, p. 374[45] Hopkins, pp. 162-164[46] Anderson, p. 376[47] Hopkins, p. 221[48] Herriot, p. 207[49] Hopkins, p. 221[50] Young, p. 101[51] Hopkins, p. 222[52] Young, pp. 101-102[53] Hopkins, p. 220[54] Young, p. 102[55] Morris, p. 158[56] Hopkins, p. 197[57] Herriot, pp. 13-14[58] Hopkins, p. 188[59] Morris, pp. 175-177[60] Ibid., pp. 183-184[61] Young, pp. 109-110[62] Morris, p. 210[63] Ibid., p. 213[64] Ibid., pp. 218-223


Anderson, Emily, comp. The Letters of Beethoven. Vol. 1. New York, NY: St. Martin's P Inc, 1961.

Herriot, Edouard. The Life and Times of Beethoven. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 1935.

Hopkins, Antony. The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven. Seattle, WA: University of Washington P, 1981.

Kinderman, William. Beethoven. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California P, 1995.

Morris, Edmund. Beethoven : The Universal Composer. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Young, John B. Unlocking the Masters: Beethoven's Symphonies. New York: Amadeus P, LLC, 2008.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

Wonderful summary of LVB's life. I hope you will find this interesting, a film I'm working on about the Ninth.

All best,

kerry candaele
venice, ca