Ludwig Van Beethoven, the Immortal Composer
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a prolific composer who wrote 34 piano sonatas, nine symphonies and countless vocal, piano, and chamber ensemble works, only to mention a few. His greatest accomplishment, however, was liberating music from a cloistered form set by earlier composers such as Hayden, Handel, and Mozart, and expanding it to give dimension, color, and depth. He also integrated the grand literary work of Goethe, Dante, and Schiller with his composition, and enlarged the size of the orchestra by doubling certain instruments, and moved the theme melodies from violins, flutes, oboes to lower voices--violas, cellos, and bassons. In short, Beethoven lifted music from the pleasure of “hearing” to the expression of hearts and souls.
Most of Beethoven’s music begins with a simple theme, which branches out in the middle, and then reaches a powerful climax before ending with the basic theme, like a giant pine that expands in the middle but tapers toward a single stem at the top. His Fifth Symphony is such an example. It begins with four simple notes, which symbolize one’s fate knocking on the door, but develops into vibrant, colorful phrases and rhythms that intertwine and weave a large-scale tapestry of sound.
To understand Beethoven’s grand work of art, one must understand the young Ludwig’s graceless childhood, which contributed to his intense will to rise above himself and others. Growing up in a poor area of Bonn in Germany, one of his mottos was, “Help thyself.” Although he played with marbles and practiced archery like any boy his age would have at the time, his early days were marked with pain, distrust of the world, and craving for something better, something sweeter than what his family could offer him.
Ludwig’s first music teacher was his alcoholic father, Johann van Beethoven, a tenor, who forced the boy to practice piano and violin for hours every day. While the small boy pounded on the keyboard or sawed on the strings, his father would stand behind him, pouring a stench of alcohol about him.
“What’s all this nonsense,” the father would yell, stomping his foot, startling the boy. “Play according to the notes, or I’ll smack your ear!”
Such unpleasant lessons encouraged Ludwig to hide in the attic, away from his father and away from the piano and violin. There, in the attic, he saw the purplish Segovian hills and villages perched on the horizon far beyond the Rhine River and daydreamed of the place he had not seen before. He imagined the Spanish castles and kings he had read about, too, which always accompanied the lively tunes that sprang effortlessly in his ear. He couldn’t understand why he had to obey the written music that lacked imagination and weren’t as sweet as the melodies he heard in his own ears. He couldn’t understand why his father wouldn’t allow him to make his own music and to have fun with it, too. Still, Ludwig advanced quickly in both piano and violin playing.
At eleven, he took a job as a cembalo (a keyboard instrument) player in the town orchestra to earn a few coins. Here, he learned so much about symphonic music, which he would explore later, but also witnessed the musicians who couldn’t play their parts. The more he saw weak personalities, the more he told himself, “Help thyself!”
At the age thirteen, Ludwig became a distinguished court organist earning as much as his father was. By now, his mother was ill with tuberculosis and the family couldn’t survive on his father’s income alone.
Three years later, he went to Vienna to play for Master Wolfgang Mozart, then 32. Mozart was impressed with Ludwig’s brilliant piano playing as well as his improvisational skills. Afterwards, Mozart told other musicians, “Watch out for that chap! Someday he will make the world talk about him.” Mozart accepted Ludwig as his pupil.
Vienna fascinated the boy from Bonn. The ancient city had everything for him--the calm Danube River, the opera house with grand marble staircase, many concert halls, the cathedral with a tall steeple, and the city walls built to resist the Turkish invaders of earlier centuries...
But Ludwig couldn’t stay in Vienna very long, for his mother, Maria Magdalena, was dying. He barely made it in time to see her for the last time. His grief of losing his beloved mother who had shown him much affection as a small boy was so deep that it took a long time for him to compose again.
In 1798, back in Vienna, at age 28, Ludwig Beethoven was reaching his height as a passionate pianist and composer, who had produced three piano trios, three violin sonatas, and one of most brilliant sonatas of all, the Pathetic Sonata Opus 13.
Another tragedy awaited him that year. One spring morning he discovered that he couldn’t hear anything. Years later, he told his pianist-friend Charles Neate what happened that day. He was at his desk, as usual, writing his Oratorio when he heard a loud door-knock. Irritated that the visitor might be the tenor who had been asking him to change his part, he sprang up from the table under such ”rage” that he fell on the floor. When he rose he found himself deaf.
Beethoven’s letter to his long-time friend Carl Amenda reveals his anguish at losing his hearing:
“How I wish you were with me, my friend. Your Beethoven lives very unhappily, in constant conflict with... his creator. Often, I have cursed Him for making his creature suffer the most terrible chances... What a sorrowful life I must now live, avoiding all that is dear and precious to me. Oh, how happy would I be, if my hearing were completely restored!”
Among many theories regarding his deafness, Dr. Franz Wegler, Beethoven’s long time friend and physician, contends that Beethoven had a severe attack of typhus, the infectious disease transmitted by body insects such as lice, which he may have had at adolescence. Unlike common belief that such loss would deteriorate one’s spirit and debilitate him from all creative work, music scholars believe that Beethoven’s work benefited, rather than suffered from his hearing loss. It forced him to stop playing piano, which devastated the brilliant pianist, and robbed him of the pleasure of listening to his performances and all sounds around him, but it never limited the composer from creating and dictating music ringing freely in his inner ear. Here, in the depth of his agony, Beethoven made peace with God to free him and all mankind from suffering.
Beethoven spent many hours walking in the woods of Vienna intoxicated by the beauty of nature, which the great Artist Himself created. Beethoven wrote:
Every tree seems to speak of Thee.
Almighty, I’m happy.
Blessed in the woods...
Every tree has a voice through Thee.
On the height is peace--
Peace to serve Thee.
In his Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven paints the beauty of nature with descriptive melodies and lively rhythms. As you listen to it, you could almost see the short, broad-shouldered Beethoven with dark, curly hair walking in the woods of Vienna in the warm sunlight, humming or singing loudly, his hands beating time; he would occasionally look up to watch birds chattering from the acacia branches and the sky beyond, and then very quickly, he would produce a notebook from his pocket and scribble.
He died on March 26, 1827, in his apartment in Schwarzspanierhouse in Vienna. He had returned from his brother’s home in Gneixendorf in freezing weather and contracted pneumonia. The cause of death was cirrhosis of liver. His last moments suggest that he triumphed over all his physical limitations and delivered himself to the divine world. Robert Haven Schhauffler, the author of “Beethoven,” describes:
Late on the afternoon of March 26, 1827, there was a flash of lightening and a sharp peal of thunder. The unconscious Master raised himself...as if answering the thunder. He clenched and lifted his right hand, remained in that posture for several seconds, and fell back.