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The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven

Mozart’s success with opera incited a host of imitators; but of that period only Beethoven’s "Fidelio," still occasionally heard, has survived. The details of Beethoven’s life, like those of Mozart’s, are familiar. The composer came of a musical family; for his grandfather was kapellmeister, and his father, a tenor singer, filled a small musical post at Cologne. He was born at Bonn in December 1770. His father had become a confirmed toper, and the boy suffered in consequence. The father had heard of the prodigy Mozart, and the money he had brought his parents; and he conceived the notion of exploiting his own son in the same way. Thus he kept him slaving at the piano, and thrashed him when he did not practise long enough. There are stories of the sot coming home late and dragging the little fellow out of bed to go to the keyboard. This degraded specimen ended his life by his own hand, but not before his conduct had cast a gloom over his son’s youth which greatly affected his after years.

Beethoven seems to have had no regular course of instruction in Bonn, but when he was seventeen he went to Vienna and had some lessons from Mozart. Later on, he had lessons from Haydn; but the two did not get on well together, their natures being totally different. Beethoven finally left Bonn when he was twenty-two, and settled in Vienna, where he gradually made a name for himself. He began to appear in public as a player, and in 1796 played before the King in Berlin; but he soon gave up playing for composing.

His first works were roundly abused by the critics -- even some that we now regard as among his greatest creations. Weber said of the Seventh Symphony that its composer was "quite ripe for the madhouse." Then, when deafness came upon him -- the tragedy of his life -- the sapient fellows found that the "horrors of sound" in his works were due to the fact that he could not hear them himself. When "Fidelio" was first performed, it was said that never before had anything so incoherent, coarse, wild, and ear-splitting been heard! Of course, the deafness had nothing to do with it. Beethoven, like all really great composers, was simply before his time.

But the deafness had a great deal to do with Beethoven himself. It turned him into a wretched misanthrope, and well-nigh caused him to end his life. Indirectly it prevented him from marrying. He got a special kind of piano constructed, with extra strings and a resonator, and on this he would thrash out in a wild way the themes that were always coursing through his brain. In the theatre he had to lay his ears close to the orchestra in order to understand the actors, and the higher notes of the instruments and voices he could not hear at all when only a little distance away. "Fidelio" was begun in 1804 and the affliction, first evidenced in 1798, had become acute four years before that. We need not dwell on it. In all musical biography there is nothing so terrible to read about as Beethoven’s deafness. "If I were of any other profession!" he used to wail.

From the time of his deafness onwards, he was constantly adding to the world’s stores of the best in music. But he was unhappy and worried all the while. Wagner said of him that he faced the world in an almost defiant temperament, and kept an almost savage independence. He was in perpetual trouble about lodgings and servants. "The cook’s off again," was a frequent piece of domestic information to his friends. Once he determined to be cook himself, and sent out invitations to share in one of his efforts. Those who came -- well, like Poe’s raven, their verdict was "nevermore." He was absent-minded to a degree; he had a volcanic temper, which more than once led to his flinging the inkstand among the piano-wires. Once he threw a dish of stewed beef and gravy in a waiter’s face because the dish was not what he had ordered, and one of his cooks was punished for the staleness of the eggs by having the whole batch, one by one, discharged at her head.

His humour was of the sardonic kind, as when he sent a tuft of hair from a goat’s beard to a lady admirer, who had asked for a strand from his own leonine locks. When lying on his death-bed he had to be tapped. "Better water from the body than from the pen," he observed to the doctor. When he realised that his end was near, he said to those around him: "Clap hands, friends; the play is over." And so, on the 26th of March, 1827, this great master of tone went out to the darkness of the Silent Land.

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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