Born in 1770 in Bonn. Unhappy childhood. Father was professional singer, alcoholic. Parents tried to exploit Ludwig as child prodigy, turn him into another Mozart. At 13 he was hired as harpsichordist at Bonn court. In 1787 visited Vienna, hoping to study with Mozart, but had to return after a few weeks because of death of mother.
In 1792 moved to Vienna to work with Haydn. The two did not get along, and B worked on the side with other teachers (including Albrechtsberger and Salieri).
Was well received by Viennese aristocracy. Had different relationship with them from earlier composers; was not subservient but regarded them as equals. Maintained his independence throughout his life. Unlike Mozart, he managed his finances successfully.
First recognized as foremost virtuoso pianist and improvisor, eventually, in his 40's, as Europe's greatest composer. Continued to be revered in his later years, but no longer in fashion with the gerneral public.
From his late 20's was plagued by progressively worsening deafness. In later life had to communicate in writing ("conversation books"). Caused increasing alienation from society and bitterness. (See Heiligenstadt Testament, written at age 32).
After 1808 had to retire from public performing. Died in 1827.
Stands at borderline between Classicism and Romanticism.
Other traits of Beethoven's musical personality: great energy and strength, dynamic, almost never sentimental, special sense of humor..
9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos & 1 violin concerto, 16 string quartets, 30 major piano sonatas, 2 Masses, one opera. Chamber music (quartets and sonatas) less traditional-bound, more experimental than symphonies.
Generally three styles periods recognized:
FIRST STYLE PERIOD
Beethoven's treatment of sonata-allegro form:
First Symphony (1799), written at age 29 (almost same age as when Mozart wrote his last!); model classical symphony. Brief slow introduction, harmonically ambiguous opening, resolves into Allegro. Note treatment of sonata-allegro form (see above). Third movement called Menuetto, but actually Scherzo, Beethoven's usual replacement for Minuet. Last movement has humorous beginning.
Second Symphony (1802), still traditional, although larger dimensions.
SECOND STYLE PERIOD
Third Symphony, "Eroica" (1803). Originally written in honor of Napoleon, to be called "Bonaparte", but Beethoven changed subtitle to "Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man." Big work, probably longest symphony anyone had written up to that time. No slow intro, but two loud chords, followed by simple main theme in cellos. Not really a "theme" since it never continues the same way (motive). Continual sense of forward motion, instability, enhanced by syncopations. Second movement: funeral march (fallen hero). Fourth movement: complex set of variations, based on a Kontratanz (country dance) of B's. (Actually, on bass of Kontratanz; has been shown to be germ of entire Symphony).
Symphonies 4, 5, & 6 written during 1806-1808.
Fourth Symphony: return to the lighter, classical spirit of the first two symphonies.
Fifth Symphony. Beethoven provided no program, but this work is generally seen as embodying the struggle against fate, with ultimate triumph. Large-scale integration of form: obsessive rhythmic motive ("fate knocking against the door" Beethoven is supposed to have said) dominates entire first movement and returns in third and fourth movements; continuous transition between third and fourth movement (as in CPE Bach), and return of segment from third movement in fourth movement. Orchestration in finale reinforced by trombones, piccolo, and contra-bassoon (all for the first time in a symphony).
Sixth Symphony, "Pastorale". Beethoven provides program, but added in score: "More an expression of feeling than depiction". Total contrast in mood with Fifth Symphony; instead of heroic struggle, escape to peaceful country-side. First movement: serene impressions on arriving in the country; calm, slow harmony, with fifth pedal. Second movement: Scene by the brook, with quite literal tone painting, rippling water, bird calls. Third movement: village dance (poking fun at clumsy country band). Fourth movement: Thunderstorm Fifth (!) movement: Thanksgiving after storm
Although Beethoven follows more or less the traditional scheme (fast-slow-fast), each work has unusual features.
In the Fourth Piano Concerto (1804-1806) the piano begins the first ritornello.
The Fifth ("Emperor") Concerto (1809) begins with a written-out cadenza for the piano. There is also a formal integration: transitions between second and third movements in both 4th and 5th concertos. Tremendous demands on virtuoso skill of soloists, also in beautiful Violin concerto (1806). These works continue to be among the most popular concertos in the entire repertory.
The Monster Concert:
A concert in Vienna on 22 December 1808 included the first performances of Symphonies 5 and 6, the 4th Piano Concerto, two sacred works of chorus and orchestra, an aria, a fantasia for piano solo, and the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 for piano, chorus, and orchestra (all by Beethoven). The concert was under-rehearsed, Beethoven got into fights with members of the orchestra, the whole thing was a mess
Symphonies 7 and 8 (1812)
Wagner called the Seventh Symphony, appropriately, "the Apotheosis of the Dance". Each movement is dominated by a strong rhythmic motive, usually on the pitch E. Main key is A major; second movement is a set of variations in a minor, third movement in F (!), trio recurs twice (ABABA).
Eighth Symphony is shorter, humorous work, with minuet instead of scherzo (neo-classical?).
Also during second style period: some great quartets, as fine as the symphonies, including the three "Rasumovsky" Quartets, Op. 59 (1806)
THIRD STYLE PERIOD
Resignation: came to terms with deafness .
Most late works written for intimate circle of friends and admirers rather
than for general public; have never become as popular as middle period works
(except for Symphony #9 and Missa solemnis, which are untypical). Less physical
excitement, fewer memorable tunes, but greater spiritual heights, intenser
Turned mostly to intimate forms; string quartets ("the late quartets") and piano sonatas; but two big, public works:
Missa solemnis (1818-1823)
A gigantic work, the Mass of Masses, more a personal statement from the composer about his relation to his Creator than a functional liturgical work ( it was intended for the installation service of an Archbishop, but was completed three years too late!). Beethoven wrote over the score: "Coming from the heart; may it again reach the heart".
Ninth Symphony (1823)
Work of tremendous scale, length, expanded orchestration, including chorus and vocal soloists (transcending bounds of the traditional symphony). Mysterious beginning bridges silence and sound. Scherzo as second movement, incorporates fugue. Third movement in double variation form, with second theme faster than first. Gigantic last movement begins with reminiscences followed by rejection of earlier movement. The recitative, and setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy. Complex form includes variation on (now) famous hymn melody; note "Turkish march" variation.
Late string quartets occasionally have extra-musical references; Op. 132 with Heiliger Gedankgesang in Lydian mode, and last movement of Op. 135 (B's last complete work) with "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!").