Perhaps one of the best known composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven was certainly a character. He was born in 1770. That’s about when the English Colonies were deciding the tax on tea was too large a burden to bear and wondering if they ought to take up arms and declare their independence from England. They did, six years later.
Johann van Beethoven, Ludwig’s brutal father
His mother, Maria Magdalena, was always described as “a gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart.” Beethoven referred to her as his “best friend.” His poor mother gave birth to seven children, but only three sons survived. Beethoven was the oldest and must have felt a profound responsibility to care for his younger brothers when his father, a drunkard, was unable to provide for the family.
When at an early age he showed musical prowess, his father forced him to practice mercilessly for hours each day, slapping him if he made a mistake. Yes, parenting was different then, but this was beyond even the harshest treatment known of at the time.
From Beethoven: The First Biography:
“On March 26th 1778, at the age of 7 ½, Ludwig Van Beethoven gave his first public performance at Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years-old. Because of this Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was. Even much later, when he received a copy of his baptism certificate, he thought it belonged to his brother Ludwig Maria, who was born two years before him and died as a child.”
His father was obsessed with making him the new Mozart. You would think he’d grow to hate music after practicing endlessly for hours upon hours each day and being beaten and mistreated by his bear of a father. But Beethoven’s love of music somehow remained intact.
I’m so glad it did!
Young Ludwig van Beethoven
What were you doing at age 14? I went to roller skating parties and school dances, took guitar lessons and tried out for cheerleader (didn’t make the squad).
Beethoven had to drop out of school at 14 and provide for his family financially. He was appointed organist of the court of Maximillian Franz, the Elector of Cologne. I wonder if his feet even reached the pedals yet? I suppose they did by age 14, but only barely perhaps.
He made lifelong friends during his time in Cologne and was out of the reach of his father.
His father Johann was incapable of caring for the family at all anymore, so Ludwig became the main provider and caretaker of his two younger brothers. I’m sure his mother was grateful, but when you compare her to Clara Schumann, whose husband was also incapacitated and who was also the mother of many, Beethoven’s mother was somewhat lacking. Was it her passive personality? While Clara wrote music and performed in recitals and even at one point carried her children safely across a battlefield while eight months pregnant, poor Maria Magdalena let her son take over and faded away into the background.
Karl van Beethoven
Beethoven never married or had any children, though he did fancy a married woman and write her love letters at one point in his life.
When his brother passed away he fought his sister-in-law for custody of their son Karl, which he won after years of battling the courts. Karl ran away to see his mother frequently.
Classic FM has a short but informative biography of Karl that includes what happened to the Beethoven family line (hint: it ends in Michigan!)
The French Revolution wasn’t even a thought in any frenchman’s mind when Beethoven wrote his first musical piece as a child, but it soon would be and Beethoven would keep a watchful eye on it from his home in Bonn, Germany. Later, when Napoleon Bonaparte disappointed him by making himself an Emperor, Beethoven would scratch through his name in the dedication to his third symphony, titled Eroica (Heroic). It is a regal piece, suitable for a national hero’s dedication. But Beethoven believed in democracy. He flew into a rage when he heard the news about Bonaparte making himself emperor and said, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” This was the sort of impulsive behavior Beethoven was known for, so it wasn’t surprising that he tore up the title page of his composition. He was a passionate man, bigger than life, irascible, and irritable.
Beethoven’s greatest personal affliction was the gradual loss of his hearing. Because of this he retreated into himself, composing feverishly, all the while knowing his time was running out as his condition worsened. Can you imagine? How brutal for a composer to lose his hearing. I know a worship leader who had to deal with the same thing. He recorded an album after losing a significant amount of his hearing. I think that was quite brave of him!
It was around this time that Beethoven met an inventor named Maelzel. From Beethoven: The First Biography:
“Genius inventor and probable inventor of the metronome, Maelzel created various devices to help Beethoven with his hearing: acoustic cornets, a listening system linking up to the piano, etc. It was above all the metronome, which helped evolve music, and Beethoven, who had taken interest straight away, noted scrupulously the markings on his scores, so that his music could be played how he wished.” A metronome mark could show any orchestra what tempo Beethoven wanted his music played, which helped immensely. Before the metronome, the tempo at which a piece would be played was a guess once time passed and a new generation tried performing a piece.
Maelzel’s Metronome 1815
Although he lacked social decorum, Beethoven was a brilliant composer who left behind a body of work that is revered today. Many of his later compositions were written when he was completely deaf, which lends to his stubbornness and genius. The opening to his Fifth Symphony is so widely recognized that you’d be hard pressed to find a person young or old who hasn’t heard it.