Ludwig van Beethoven (born Bonn 1770; died Vienna 1827) was a German composer and pianist who was nothing short of revolutionary in his music.
Beethoven broke the conventions of the time and bridged the gap between the controlled formality of the Classical period and greater expressive freedom of the Romantic period.
He “radically transformed every musical form in which he worked” (The Oxford Dictionary of Music; Kennedy, M. 1986).
Beethoven’s music is typically tempestuous and brooding, but also gentle and deeply expressive at times.
Beethoven’s Early Years and Timeline
Beethoven’s father was a drunk who was Court Singer to the Elector.
He was keen to exploit the talent of his 2nd child and so taught music to Ludwig from an early age.
1779 – Beethoven became a pupil of Christian Gottlob Neefe and then became his assistant court organist in 1784. Subsequently, Count Waldstein became his patron in Bonn.
1792 – Haydn visited Bonn and invited Beethoven to study with him in Vienna.
1794-96 – Beethoven lived in the home of Prince Lichnowsky and became famous as a virtuoso improviser at the keyboard.
1795 – Beethoven published his Opus No.1 – 3 piano trios which were very successful.
1795 – Beethoven made his first public performance in Vienna as the soloist in his B flat major piano concerto.
Have a look at Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major below:
Beethoven stayed for the rest of his life in Vienna.
1798 – Beethoven discovered that he was going deaf.
1815 – given honorary freedom of Vienna.
1827 – His funeral was a national occasion.
Beethoven – Music and Recommended Listening
The catalogue of music written by Beethoven is extensive and includes:
- 9 symphonies
- various concertos
- 32 piano sonatas plus other piano works.
- various chamber music pieces
- some choral and solo voice works
- Only 1 opera.
Here are 3 pieces I suggest you listen to as a starting point for understanding Beethoven:
F minor Piano Sonata (Opus 2 No.1)
This is the first piano sonata published by Beethoven in 1795.
It clearly demonstrates how Beethoven had already developed the extent and technicality of the sonata beyond what had been seen in the previous period.
There are 4 movements – have a listen to extracts from each movement below:
Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 – “Eroica”
This revolutionary piece of music extended the range and possibilities of the symphony.
It was so “revolutionary” that it was even originally dedicated to Napolean!!
Have a listen to an extract from the opening movement:
(performed by The Czech National Orchestra
source – musopen.org – Public Domain)
You can see the whole symphony performed in this video from the BBC Proms:
You can also read more about Beethoven’s symphonies in my lesson on The Symphony.
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major (Opus No. 73)
This piano concerto (known as the Emperor Concerto) was Beethoven’s final completed piano concerto (premiered in 1811 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolf).
You can hear the increased musical technical and expressive possibilities that Beethoven had developed in his musical journey in this performance:
Why is Beethoven Still So Important?
Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of the most famous pieces of music of all time that are still widely studied, performed and recorded.
The technicality of his music means that it remains a crucial source of study for any aspiring composer, performer or historian (particularly in the Western classical tradition).
However, the intense drama combined with the moments of such tender beauty mean that the music is equally as compelling for the non-student as well.
Beethoven’s music is set to continue to enthral for generations to come!