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Ludwig van Beethoven

Indexed Biography

Gary D. Evans

Any corrections or suggestions are welcomed

Last Updated: March 25, 2019 6:09 PM

- A Biographical Sketch


December, 1770 - 1779 [From Birth through age 8]

Beethoven's Grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-1773) was a musician from what is now Belgium. At the age of 20 he moved to Bonn where he was employed as a bass singer in the court of the Elector of Cologne. One year later (1733) he met and married Maria Josepha Poll. Of their three children, only one survived - Johann (1740-1793). As Johann grew he also demonstrated musical talent, allowing him to earn a living singing as a tenor and providing keyboard and violin lessons.  Meanwhile, his father had risen in the court, becoming the music director by age 49 (1761).

Beethoven's grandmother suffered from alcoholism and was eventually institutionalized by her husband.  Thus, Johann was raised solely by his domineering father in a relationship that has been described as strained.

At age 28 (1767) Johann met, and despite the disapproval of his father, married Maria Magdalena Keverich -- daughter of the head chef at the court of the Archbishop of Trier. Three years later, on December 16, 1770, a few years after their first born died at 6 days of age, Ludwig was born.  A few years later Ludwig's brothers, Caspar Anton Carl (4/8/1774) and Nikolaus Johann (10/2/1776) were born and also survived into adulthood.

Ludwig showed a remarkable aptitude for music early on, with his father - a stern man and chronic alcoholic - beginning formal instruction of him by the age of five years. Musical education was thereafter supplemented by the Bonn court organist Gilles van den Eeden, a family friend Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer who taught him keyboard, and a relative Franz Rovantini who taught him to play the violin and viola. Beethoven's lessons at this time are described as harsh and intensive, including late-night instruction of the sleepy Beethoven. Johann, well aware of the child prodigy Mozart being promoted by his family, posted notices of Beethoven's upcoming first public performance (3/1778) stating that the boy was six years old, when he was actually seven at the time.

Beethoven's father, Johann drank chronically, while his wife - described as intelligent and serious - suffered his frequent absenses with apparent equanimity. The biographer Maynard Solomon, citing a neighbor's recolleciton, offers this glimpse of their lives at this time [Beethoven, Pg13]:

"When he received his monthly salary or money from his pupils, he would play a joke upon returning home: he would throw the money at his wife's feet and say: 'Now woman, manage with that.'  Then she would give him a bottle of wine, saying: 'One cannot let men return home with empty hands.'  He said: 'Yes, empty hands!' She responded: 'Yes, but I know that you prefer a full glass to an empty one.'  'Yes, yes, the woman is right, she is always right.' "

1780 - 1784 [Preteen Years, Ages 9 through 13]

Beethoven was offered lessons by the Bonn Court's Organist, Christian Gottlob Neefe. One year later (1781), Beethoven became an unpaid assistant organist with a salary beginning three years later (1784) within the court chapel. By March 1783, he helped Beethoven write his first published work - WoO 63.

In addition, his first three piano sonatas were published that year - dedicated to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich (1708-1784), who, noting Beethoven's talent, encouraged and supported his musical education. Maximilian Frederich was succeeded by Maximilian Francis, who extended support for the arts and for education as an adherent of Enlightenment philosophy, under which Beethoven thrived.

Beethoven wrote and submitted a petition February 16, 1784 (age 13 years) for a paid position as assistant count organist, stating that his father - a now chronic alcoholic - was unable to provide proper support of the Beethoven family.  He was granted the position.


1787 - 1792 [Mid-teens through early adulthood, ages 16 - 21]

At the age of 16 years (March, 1787) Beethoven left Bonn briefly, traveling to Vienna for the first time, probably in hopes of meeting with and possibly studying with Mozart. Whether a meeting actually took place is unknown. After only two weeks, Beethoven's mother became severely ill, prompting his return to Bonn. She died shortly thereafter. Beethoven's father, grieved, moved more deeply into alcoholism leaving the care of Beethoven's two younger brothers to the sixteen-year-old for the next five years. Beethoven met several people during those years who became lifelong friends: Franz Wegeler, then a medical student, introduced him to the well-off von Breuning family who afforded affection and support to the young Beethoven, who soon began music lessons for their children.

Beethoven was noticed by Count Ferdinand von Waldstein who became a financial supporter and lifelong friend.

After caring for his brothers for the preceding two years (1789), Beethoven sought and obtained a court order that half his father's salary would be paid directly to him. In addition, income was derived from his playing the viola in the court orchestra, where he met a boy of about his age, Anton Reicha, a flautist and violinist - the nephew of the orchestra's conductor - Josef Reicha.

From age 19-21 (1790-1792), Beethoven's creative output grew dramatically along with his maturity. Leaders in Bonn commissioned the two Emperor Cantatas, WoO 87 and WoO 88, to mark the death of Franz Joseph II in 1790 and the accession of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor. These were not performed at the time and were lost, then later discovered 90 years later.

Sometime late in December, 1790, Haydn traveled from Vienna to London and stopped in Bonn, where was introduced to Beethoven. On Haydn's July 1792 return trip from London back to Vienna, again stopping in Bonn, they met again and probably discussed the possibility of Beethoven beginning studies with him in Vienna at a future date.

1792 - 1795 [Early Adulthood, Nov.1792 - Move to Vienna through 1795]

With help of many, including The Elector of Bonn and Count Waldstein who wrote to him "Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart's spirit through Haydn's hands," Beethoven departed November 1792 for Vienna. He would live there for the remainder of his life. Shortly after his arrival, news of his father's death in Bonn came to him. Within a short time, his two brothers - now also young adults moved to Vienna as well.

Shortly after moving to Vienna, Mozart also died, prompting Beethoven to study his work closely, and writing works that are seen to have a Mozartean construction, yet with Beethoven's signature. Beethoven began studying counterpoint with Haydn, violin with Ignaz Schuppanziah, and some Italian vocal composition under Salieri. Haydn left for England 2 years later (1794) prompting Beethoven to further his counterpoint instruction with Johann Albrechtsberger and others.

With Beethoven's Bonn monetary support ending, several Viennese noblemen, principally Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, Prince Karl Lichnowsky and Baron Gottfried van Swieten, aware of the importance of Beethoven's musical powers, offered ongoing financial support. By 1793 (age 22), Beethoven's fame had grown and he was frequently invited into the homes of nobility where he performed for them. Also, beginning in 1793 his compositions were regularly published, initially through his friend Nikolaus Simrock as a set of variations (WoO 66).

At the age of 24 years, March 1795, Beethoven undertook his first public performance which included one of his piano concertos (either the first or second). Shortly thereafter, he arranged for the publication of his first Opus piece, Opus 1 - the three piano trios, dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, which proved significantly profitable for Beethoven.

1795-1801 [ages 24 through 30]

It is believed that sometime between 1798 and 1800 Beethoven became aware of advancing hearing loss (Anderson# _______, 1801).

Composition, publication, income and regard steadily increased. During 1799 Beethoven taught piano to Countess Anna Brunsvik's daughters. And, through the family he met a young countess, Julie "Giulietta" Guicciardi. In a letter to his friend Franz Wegeler (Anderson _____Nov. 1801), Beethoven writes that he has fallen in love with her, but that marriage was out of the question given their difference in class. He later dedicated his Sonata No. 14, the "Moonlight" to her.

Beethoven fell in love with the Brunsvik's youngest daughter, Josephine. She, however married Count Josef Deym. A few years later (1804) the Count died suddenly, allowing their relationship to intensify - as is reflected within the many love letters Beethoven sent to her over the years that followed (see Anderson Letters 1804-1805, etc.). By 1807, under pressure from her family and with the knowledge that her ongoing relationship with Beethoven could result in the loss of her children, she withdrew from him. Three years later, 1810, she married Baron von Stackelberg.

Beethoven's compositions continued to advance his fame and standing. He continued to teach a few students, including Ferdinand Ries, and Carl Czerny (who later offered the premier performance of Beethoven's 5th piano concerto "the Emperor" on February 11, 1812).

Beethoven's brother Carl began helping his brother in handling the business end of things, enabling Beethoven to receive greater financial return for his work.

Archduke Rudolph, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II studied piano and composition with Beethoven beginning in ~1803. The Archduke offered significant financial support to Beethoven and the two became lifelong friends. Fourteen of Beethoven's works were dedicated to Rudolph, including the Archduke Trio (1811), the Missa solemnis (1823), etc.

Progressive hearing loss associated with tinnitus resulted in his not being able to keep up with conversations, especially in noisy environments and caused him to withdraw from those settings. In addition, he found that he could not adequately perform, increasingly moving him toward composition rather than performance. On the advice of his doctor, Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt, a small Austrian town outside of Vienna, from April to October 1802. There he wrote, but never sent, his Heiligenstadt Testament (part 1 / Part 2) - a letter to his brothers reflecting his despair and suggesting suicide.


"Middle Period"

1803 - 1815 [Ages 32 - 44]

Beethoven returned from Heiligenstadt (October 1802) a changed man. A change in his musical style was present. Per Carl Czerny, Beethoven remarked, "I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way." The coming works took on a grand scale, the first of which was his Third Symphony, the "Eroica."

Beethoven continued to support himself through wealthy patrons and from the publishing of his works. In addition, he held a position at the Theater an der Wien, but this was ended when management changed hands in 1804. This forced him to move to the suburbs of Vienna, there sharing rooms with his longtime friend, Stephan von Breuning.

By 1808, Beethoven received a lucrative offer from Napoleon's brother Jerome Bonaparte, titled as King of Westphalia, to become the concertmaster of the court in Cassel. Friends and patrons in Vienna eventually countered this offer: Archduke Rudolph, Prince Kinsky and Prince Lobkowitz offered a promise to pay him 4000 florins a year for his lifetime (allowing him an upper middle-class lifestyle). Beethoven accepted and for a time, he lived quite free of financial worries.

1809 was a traumatic time in Vienna during which time Napoleon's forces bombarded and occupied Vienna for a time. His friend, Ferdinand Ries, recalled that during a loud bombing attack in May 1809, Beethoven tried to protect himself and what remained of his hearing by evacuating to the basement of his brother's house, there covering his ears with pillows.

The annuity payments promised to Beethoven became irregular, and then with Kinsky's sudden accidental death, Lobkowitz's bankruptcy, and the French invasion of Vienna causing marked monetary inflation, Beethoven's financial position became insecure. He reacted by redoubling his focus on selling his compositions.

During the Spring of 1811 Beethoven developed high fever, headaches, etc. His doctor advised a stay at the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. Beethoven spent six weeks there. Six months later, during the winter of 1812, while working on the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven again became ill, prompting his physician to again advise his moving back to Teplitz during the Summer months; during which time he wrote the letter to his "immortal Beloved," which was never sent.

He departed Teplitz in late October 1812, but did not return directly to Vienna. He instead visited his brother, Nikolaus Johann, in Linz, where he was living with his housekeeper, Therese Obermayer. Beethoven argued that the relationship must end immediately given she had had one child out of wedlock, and had been convicted of theft the year before. Beethoven considered the relationship to be beneath his brother's - and the family's - dignity, and indicative of low moral standards.  Beethoven went so far as to appeal to the local civic and religious authorities resulting in a police order compelling her to leave the home.  Nikolaus Johann responded by marrying her the following month, on November 9th.

Within only a few months of Johann's and Therese's marriage (early 2013), and with Beethoven continuing to provide care for his other brother Casper Carl, then ill with an exacerbation of tuberculosis - from which his mother had died, and with his own ongoing illnesses and progressive deafness, he wrote of his profound suffering.  During this time, his physical appearance became disheveled, his public manners declined, and his work output decreased.

By June 1813, he picked himself up and found the motivation to begin composing again, perhaps associated with the news of Napoleon's armies having been defeated at Vittoria, Spain, by forces led by the Duke of Wellington. This news prompted his completing the "battle symphony - Wellington's Victory," performed December 8, 1813. The performance was a success and led the public to ask for his "Fidelio" to be performed again. Beethoven completed its third revision and performances in July 1814 were well received. Other compositions that summer included his piano sonata No. 27, Opus 90 - the first written after a five-year hiatus from the last. He also created several songs including the song cycle, "An die ferne Geliebte, and in 1815 - the second rendition of "An die Hoffnung," Opus 94, the first of which was written in 1805 as a gift to Josephine Brunsvik.

By age 43 (~1814), Beethoven was essentially completely deaf, with "conversation books" being extensively used to communicate more efficiently. In the end, over 400 of these books were filled (with over 250 of them destroyed and/or altered by one of Beethoven's secretaries - Anton Schindler, who sought an idealized recollection of Beethoven after his death.



1815-1820 [Ages 44 through 49]

There was a significant drop in Beethoven's work between 1815 and 1817 during which time he suffered from prolonged illnesses and from the emotional burden of failed romances and from caring for his ill brother Casper Carl who finally died November 15, 1815 of tuberculosis. In addition, Beethoven believed that Carl's wife Johanna was an unfit mother to his then nine-year-old nephew, Karl. Before his death, Casper Carl had established Beethoven and Johanna as joint guardians of the boy, but Beethoven fought her half of the guardianship vigorously in court. This battle extended through 1820, and caused a great deal of financial and emotional stress to all the parties involved. The many court appearances eventually led to the determination (December 18, 1818) that Beethoven was, in fact, not of the noble class, but rather a commoner - moving proceedings to a lower court, and resulting in further stress for him.

Through those years, Beethoven was quite severe with Karl, and the boy became increasingly unhappy - eventually leading to a suicide attempt 7/31/1826. Karl survived and eventually joined the army - escaping the traumatic life surrounding the custody battles and Beethoven's demands on him.

During these events, Beethoven's poor health over 1815-1818 improved and allowed a resurgence of compositional effort with a new, complex style having evolved during the process. By this time, Beethoven's hearing had continually declined - requiring the daily use of conversation books and requiring help with running his household. The complexity and large scale of his works during the years after 1818 expanded greatly.

1820 - 1827 [Ages 49 through his death March 26, 1827 at age 56]

Beethoven continued to create masterpiece after masterpiece during this period, despite bouts of crippling illness. His brother Johann helped with managing his business dealings and helped augment Beethoven's income through negotiation and finding older works that could be published. During this time, and through devastating exacerbations of his chronic illnesses, the towering Ninth Symphony and Beethoven's Late Quartets were commissioned and created. Of those works, Beethoven considered Opus 131 in C minor to be his best work. During April of 1825, Beethoven was exceedingly ill, but with a brief cessation of symptoms for a time following. This suffering and relief from suffering is immortalized within Opus 132 (String Quartet#15) in an intensely expressed movement - the "Heiliger Dankgesang," [Holy song of thanks].

Opus 130 (String Quartet #13), completed November 1825, contained an exceptionally complex and difficult to perform finale. His publisher prevailed upon him to rewrite the finale (now referred to as The Grose Fugue) and have the former finale be published as a stand-alone work; it was reissued as Opus 133. Beethoven agreed and began the new movement, his last completed work, September 1826 - completing it November 1826. Opus 130 contains what may be the most heartbreaking music ever created, "The Cavatina."

Beethoven suffered a return to severe suffering during the Winter months of 1826 through his death in March 26, 1827.