Ludwig van Beethoven:  Bridging Eras
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


    One of the most influential musicians in history, German instrumentalist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven was the single most important musical figure of the early 19th century. He was a revolutionary artist for his time, refusing to conform to traditional musical standards and always striving to attain perfection. However, his personal life is marked by misfortune, sorrow, and great loss - especially the loss of his hearing beginning at age 31. But despite his personal tragedies and artistic temperament, Beethoven will always be remembered as the man who single-handedly created the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era.

Historical Background

    The life and influence of Ludwig van Beethoven is generally classified as falling into both the Classical and Romantic periods in history. While firmly rooted in the Classical era, Beethoven's music was revolutionary for his time, breaking forms, creating styles, and introducing the world to the Romantic era. Thus, he can be properly classified as the last of the Classicists as well as the first of the Romantics.

    The Classical era began around 1750, in the heart of the European Enlightenment. Lasting until approximately the 1820s, this period saw the development of the Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment philosophy, and the American and French Revolutions. During these years, artists began to move away from the unnaturally embellished Baroque style towards a cleaner, simpler style which they viewed as reminiscent of ancient classical civilizations Composers such as Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) developed the sound of the era in their symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets as the social demand for music increased dramatically. This period is also referred to as the Viennese period, after the capital city of Austria, which became the musical center of Europe in the late 1700s. The most important themes of this era involve the natural rights of man and the individual's role in society. As revolutionary innovations, philosophies, and politics swept across the Western world, people recognized their ability to mold their own surroundings.

    Officially beginning in the 1820s, the Romantic era was a time of increased interest in science, nature, and the arts. While scientists redefined the worldview in evolutionary terms and nationalism was on the rise all over Europe, there was a growing autonomy in the fine arts. Musicians began to rely on public and individual patronage rather than commission from the nobility, freelancing in their growing art. Compositions became stories, representing emotions, ideas, and even nationalist pride. Historic legends, tales, and folk songs became the inspiration behind the works of non-Germanic composers who wanted to express the pride of their homeland in song. Unlike their classical counterparts, Romantics did not idealize the world; instead, they saw it as an imperfect source of mystery. Composers such as Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, and Franz Liszt stretched melodies, tempos, and dynamics to greater extremes than ever before, creating powerful emotion through dissonant harmonies and dramatic tension.  The Romantic era lasted until about 1900 and saw many changes in the world, as nationalism and emotion were thrust into the spotlight.

Research Report

    Ludwig van Beethoven was born in mid-December 1770 to Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Leym in the German city of Bonn.  Although his exact date of birth is unknown, it is estimated to be a day or two before his baptism on December 17, 1770.  He was the second child born to the family whose musical background spanned at least the two previous generations.  His father, a court musician and tenor, as well as a violent alcoholic, was eager to turn his son into Mozart-like child prodigy.  Johann began giving Beethoven music lessons in 1775, but often the format was disturbingly abusive.  Coming home inebriated late at night, the father would rouse his young son and force the lessons upon him, perhaps even with physical beatings.  However, despite early abuses, Beethoven embraced music and cultivated his interest and talent.  By age seven, Beethoven was skilled enough for his first public appearance - a piano concert at Cologne on March 26, 1778.  Throughout the next year, he received instruction from several different teachers, including F.G. Rovantini (violin), Franz Ries (violin), and Willibald Koch (Organ).

    At age eight, Beethoven began studying with his first major instructor - Christian Gottlob Neefe, who came to Bonn as the court organist.  Neefe gave the young musician lessons in piano, organ, composition, and improvisation.  He also introduced him to the works of Mozart and Bach. By 1781, Beethoven had dropped out of school to study music.  He would never return to a formal academic institution; instead he devoted his life to his musical studies.  Under Neefe's instruction, Beethoven's talents were greatly developed.  And in 1780, his first composition was published: Nine Variations (on a theme by Dressler) in C minor.

    Throughout the 1780s, Beethoven continued to compose and was hired in town for various musical performance jobs.  In 1783, he became a violinist in the Bonn court orchestra and also published his first three sonatas.  Four years later, the young musician took a paid leave of absence from the court orchestra and traveled to Vienna, the musical center of Europe in the late 18th century.  It was there in April 1787 that he met and performed for another great classical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  He also made connections with his first patron, Count Waldstein, on this trip.  Sadly, Beethoven was soon called home to Bonn because his mother's health was failing.

    After his mother died of consumption in July 1787, Beethoven became the family's caretaker, for his father had turned to drinking once again.  Needing finances to support himself and his younger siblings, he went to his father's employer to demand that half his salary be given to the family before it could be wasted on alcohol.  Thus, Beethoven became the head of his household at age 16.  But he would not remain in Bonn for much longer.  In 1792, Franz Joseph Haydn was passing through town en route to Vienna when he met Beethoven and convinced him to come to Austria and study with him to refine his skills. Beethoven accepted the offer and set off for Vienna again in November.  A month later, his father died.

    Once in Vienna, Beethoven studied with Haydn and the two soon became good friends.  However, not completely satisfied with the methods of his new teacher, Beethoven soon found a new instructor, although their friendship lasted until Haydn's death in 1809.  The new teacher was the prestigious theorist Johann Albrechtsberger.  Beethoven studied counterpoint, canon, and fugue composition with him beginning in 1794.  At the same time, he received lessons in Italian vocal and operatic composition with court conductor Antonio Salieri.  The following year, after performing for numerous private functions, Beethoven gave his first public concert in Vienna at the Burgtheater in March.  His popularity grew quickly in the city, especially among the aristocracy, and between 1796 and 1798 he went on three separate performance tours.  Traveling to Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Bratislava, and Pest (Budapest), Beethoven's name became well known throughout Europe and he became financially stable enough to freelance back in Vienna - the first composer to do so by choice.

    However, around this time, Beethoven also began to notice the first signs of deafness.  By 1801, he reported a constant buzz in his ears.  Extreme tones (high and low) were becoming unintelligible as the affliction that would eventually end his career as a virtuoso pianist slowly overtook him.  Although he was reluctant to admit defeat to his deafness, he could not deny it - in a letter dated July 1, 1801, he noted that "My greatest faculty, my hearing, is greatly deteriorated."  The following year, doctors sent him to live in a rural village outside Vienna, Heiligenstadt, in hopes that the environment would revive his health.  Beethoven's new rural surroundings did reawaken his spirit and love of nature, and it was here that he composed his Symphony No. 2.  But by October 1802, he realized that his hearing was not returning, and wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers, a letter documenting his despair in going deaf.

    The next year, despite his increasing hearing loss, Beethoven composed Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, the "Eroica," a revolutionary work he intended to dedicate to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Revolutionary who fought for the people's rights.  With this work, he broke the conventional symphonic mold, using new forms and making the entire piece about half the length of any previously written symphony.  However, in December of 1804, news arrived that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor.  Enraged by the news that the man who once fought for the citizens now desired to dominate them, Beethoven violently struck his dedication from the page, ripping the it with his pencil and proclaiming, "Now he will crush the rights of man.  He will become a tyrant!"

    Over the next 10 years, Beethoven immersed himself in his compositions - completing at least four major symphonies along with many other smaller works.  He continued to be a trendsetter in the musical world.  In his famous Symphony No. 5 in C minor ("Beethoven's Fifth"), which debuted on December 22, 1808, he introduced the piccolo, double bassoon, and three trombones in the final movement - a major innovation in his day.  His Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the "Pastoral," was a musical depiction of the Heiligenstadt countryside.  Adopting what would become a key ideal of the Romantic era, Beethoven used music to recreate nature.  During this period, his fame also increased, making him easily the most important composer of his time.

    In 1815, Beethoven nearly stopped composing altogether.  That was the year that his brother Caspar Carl died and made him the guardian of his nine-year-old son Karl.  Beethoven shared this custody with the boy's mother Johanna, who he believed was immoral.  He quickly became very attached to the boy and sought sole guardianship in what became a painful and lengthy custody battle.  Karl was sent away to boarding school in 1816, the same year that his mother and uncle went to court over his welfare.  The stress of the proceedings created a great strain on the composer, who repeatedly fell ill and nearly stopped composing as personal turmoil consumed his life.  The battle was anything but civil, as Johanna and Beethoven traded insults in the bitter fight.  In court, she was even prompted to ask, "How can a deaf, madman bachelor guard the boy's welfare?"  Nevertheless, Beethoven was eventually granted custody of his nephew, although the decision did not come until 1820.

    By this point, Beethoven was indeed totally deaf, and communicated primarily with conversation notebooks.  Already an impatient, unreasonable, intolerant man, he had withdrawn into seclusion as his deafness had increased.  His already moody personality became marked by suspicion and paranoia, and he often lamented his great loss.  However, he did not lose faith altogether.  In a letter to a friend, he reports:  "How can I, a musician, say to people 'I am deaf!' I shall, if I can, defy this fate, even though there will be times when I shall be the unhappiest of God's creatures."  He continued composing, and even insisted on conducting the premier of his 9th Symphony in 1823.  Unbeknownst to him, the real conductor stood just out of his sight to beat time for the orchestra.  At the end of the final movement, his ailment became painfully apparent, as he was not even aware when the sound ended.  One of the singers turned Beethoven around to face the audience and see the ovation he had generated.  Sadly, this was the great composer's last major symphonic work.

    Three years later, Beethoven's life was again centered around his beloved nephew.  On July 30, 1826, Karl attempted suicide, and although he did not die, his uncle was devastated.  Johann Nikolaus, Beethoven's brother, offered to let the pair stay at his country estate in Gneixendorf.  They accepted, and set off in August.  However, upon their return to Vienna in December in an open coach, Beethoven contracted pneumonia, and although he would recover from this particular disease, his health would never fully revive.  He was soon afflicted with cirrhosis of the liver, which led to dropsy.  Despite at least five operations to drain fluid, his condition deteriorated steadily.  In January 1827, Beethoven made his will, naming Karl his sole heir.  Within weeks, he was confined to his bed.  On March 26, at 5:45 pm, with an electric storm raging outside, the great musician died.  One eyewitness account describes his dramatic death:  "Beethoven's eyes opened and he lifted his right fist for several seconds, a serious, threatening expression on his face.  When his head fell back, he half closed his eyes ... Not another word, not another heartbeat."

    Tens of thousands came to mourn the man who single-handedly revolutionized the form and sound of classical music.  A product of the Enlightenment and strongly influenced by the French Revolution, Beethoven was a musical perfectionist who was said to personify revolution.  His unique style made him the last of the Classic musicians, and the first of the Romantics.  The tensions in post-French Revolution politics, society, and his own personal life were translated into some of the greatest musical works in history.  Beethoven has been described as an eccentric "Absent-Minded Composer" who harassed even his closest friends with his mood swings and artistic temperament, yet he remains one of the most beloved musicians of all time.  Perhaps his life is best summarized in his own final words:  "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est" (Applaud, friends, the comedy is ended).

Historical Significance

    Through his revolutionary style, awesome musical genius, and brash personality, Beethoven took Europe by storm at the turn of the 19th century.  He can be given almost sole credit for creating the bridge between the Classical period and the Romantic. Although Beethoven may not have been the child prodigy his father was grooming him to be, he certainly lived up to his potential. His compositions are still standards for any serious music student and are extremely well known even among non-music scholars. But, perhaps most importantly, his sphere of influence goes far beyond the musical community.  For the Romantic era that he ushered in was not merely a musical institution.  It was a period in world history that saw the development of some of the fundamental ideals that modern philosophy is based on - among them are nationalism, expression, and equality. Beethoven's role in this key period of history cannot be minimized. As Mozart once accurately prophesized about a young Beethoven: "Watch this lad. Some day he will force the world to talk about him."


Webster's New World Dictionary of Music by Nicolas Slonimsky Schirmer Books, 1998, NY
Beethoven by Denis Matthews Vintage Books, 1985, NY
Beethoven by William Kinderman University of California Press, 1995, Berkeley
The Life of Beethoven by David Wyn Jones Cambridge University Press, 1998, Cambridge
The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven's Life and Music by Barry Cooper, Anne-Louise Coldicott, Nicholas Marston and William Drabkin Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1991, London

Web Resources     A brief, yet informative and detailed biography of Beethoven.     Essentials of Music - an excellent site for historical information on musical eras and composers.    The Beethoven Reference Site - a very complete source for information on Beethoven's life and music; also includes an excellent picture gallery.    The Internet Public Library entry on Beethoven - includes good biographical information.    "The Beethoven Mystique" by Jeffrey Dane - an article about Beethoven's influence in his own era as well as from a greater historical perspective.    Ludwig van Beethoven: A Musical Titan - a very thorough biography including links to music files.     The Beethoven Experience - includes a biography, picture gallery, and information/links about his musical masterpieces.     The Ira F. Brilliant Center For Beethoven Studies - a good source for pictures and information about Beethoven-related events.    Ludwig van Beethoven: The Magnificent Master - includes excellent biographical information, picture gallery, and many Beethoven-related links.

 Site Created by: Emily A. Wacker