Six years older than John Constable, Beethoven became a pivotal figure in the development of musical composition from 18th century Classicism into 19th century Romanticism.
Born in Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children, but only he and two younger brothers survived infancy. Thwarted in love, he never married and eventually became completely deaf.
Musical genius of monumental stature
Beethoven dominated musical composition in Euorpe, greatly exceeding the stature of his contemporaries Franz Schubert and Carl Maria von Weber. His influence on future Romantics including Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky and Antonin Dvorak is incalculable. Beethoven was also significant in the history of music for being the first composer to earn his living directly from his own work without needing patronage from church or aristocrat.
Romantic or Classical?
Although Romantic music represented free expression, limitless boundaries, love, nature and passion, composers (including Beethoven) did not depart completely from the structure and conformity of the previous age of Classicism. However, the freedom of Romanticism allowed Beethoven to devise new instrumental arrangements and explore new harmonic colourings which resulted in him.
- bringing the Classical genre to its highest expressive level, expanding the structural and harmonic terms that had been developed by Mozart and Haydn
- becoming a major transitional figure – a ‘Classic Romantic’, constantly pushing the Classical boundaries by changing musical structures and movements
Beethoven created masterpieces in almost every conceivable genre, full of passionate intensity and expressiveness; they include nine symphonies, five concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets.
Amongst Beethoven’s best-known works are:
- Piano Sonata number 14 (Monlight Sonata 1802)
- Eroica (Third) Symphony (1805) Originally, Beethoven planned to call the Eroica , Bonaparte, after Napoleon Bonaparte. But once he learned that Napoleon proclaimed himself the emperor of France, he crossed out the dedication and wrote on the title page, “Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
- Symphony Number 5 (1808)
- Symphony Number 6 (Pastoral 1808)
- Piano Concerto Number 5 (Emperor 1809-10)
- Fidelio (1814) – an opera
- Missa Solemnis (1823) a monumental choral work, composed in 1823 when he was totally deaf,
- Symphony Number 9 (1824) which is notable not only for its length and complexity, but also for the fact that he introduced vocal soloists and a chorus into the final movement, as if the purely instrumental form of the classical symphony could not express all that he felt. After this radical departure from tradition, many composers felt free to experiment.
End of Life
Bedridden for the last months of his life, he died at the age of 56, an autopsy revealing liver damage and dilation of the auditory nerves.
Click the tab marked ‘video’ above Beethoven’s portrait at the top of this page to hear:
- Moonlight Sonata played by Valentina Lisitsa
- Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony with 1000 voices
- Eroica Symphony (first movment) conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini – Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra 1978
- Piano Concerto Number Five, (second movement) played by Alfred Brendel