Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday

Two and a half centuries ago, one of the transcendent geniuses of classical music was born at in this house at Bonngasse 20 in Bonn, then the seat of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne.

Beethoven’s birth house

We do not know exactly which day it was, but we do know he was baptized on December 17, 1770: the baptism register with his Taufeintrag (baptism entry) is kept at the Bonn city archives. The custom in the city was to baptize within 24 hours after birth: Beethoven himself regarded December 16 as his birthday.

Beethoven’s paternal family is actually Flemish (hence the Dutch prefix “van”): bearers of the family name can still be found in the phone books of Mechelen/Malines and Leuven/Louvain. They were musicians and instrument makers: one Lodewijk/Louis/Ludwig van Beethoven, the great composer’s namesake grandfather, went to Bonn to find employment (as a bass singer) at the palace. His son Johann also found employment there, but found his career thwarted, possibly also through his excessive love of the bottle. He however quickly realized little Ludwig’s off-the-scale musical gifts, and through a grueling regimen of tutoring on keyboard and violin tried to turn him into the new Mozart (who had initially become famous as a traveling child prodigy virtuoso, with his father as his manager). He was successful as a performer (that was a sine qua non for composers of the day), but his greatest fame was to be elsewhere.

That path began at age ten, when Christian G. Neefe started teaching him composition. Already at age 13, his first published composition was printed: a set of keyboard variations, WoO 63, and shortly later a set of three piano sonatas WoO 47 [WoO=Werk ohne Opuszahl, work without an opus number] — clearly youth works, but at least one of them the harbinger of great things to come. Initial response was lukewarm, and the budding composer supplemented the family income as a chapel organist at the court, and a violist in the court orchestra—apparently continuing to hone his craft as a composer in the meantime. His general education, such as it was, appears to have been spotty at best: judging from private notes, he would carry out multiplication (when required for calculating bills) by repeated addition. Nevertheless, he appears to have been an avid reader, and many of his readings would inspire later compositions.

After his mother had died, and while his father was busily drinking himself into an early grave, Beethoven traveled to Vienna on a study trip sponsored by his wealthy friend and admirer, Count von Waldstein [cf. the Waldstein Sonata]. There he studied with Haydn (who found his music “too violent”) but also with Salieri (on vocal composition), with Albrechtsberger (on counterpoint), and one Schuppanzigh (violin). When Haydn left for London, Beethoven elected to stay in Vienna [Bonn would soon fall to French troops] where he was starting to gather a circle of admirers. The rest is (fascinating) musical history: a good place to start reading is Jan Swofford’s biography.

I still vividly remember the first time, as a young child, I heard an entire long-form Beethoven composition — the famous Fifth Symphony, Op. 67. I had heard classical music before — Tchaikovsky wonderfully inventive First Piano Concerto is the first classical piece I consciously remember, and there had been Mozart, Verdi — but I had never heard something like this. I lacked the words to describe it, but aside from its emotional sweep, what struck me most was its incredible unity of purpose, and the inexhaustible inventiveness with which he kept transforming the basic thematic material in ever-changing, always engaging ways. From then on I had a youthful obsession with Beethoven, who to this day remains my second favorite composer after J. S. Bach [whom I had yet to truly discover]. I was delighted, actually, to discover that even such short, amateur-friendly piano works as the Bagatelles have some hallmarks of vintage Beethoven: not just the plasticity with which he handles thematic material, but also the rhythmic playfulness and textural variation.

Beethoven at his perkiest and funniest

And Beethoven at his most nocturnal and spiritual

Beethoven at his most obsessive:

And from the same symphony, at his most sublime

When this latter symphony was performed for the first time, Beethoven was so profoundly deaf that he could hear neither the performance (except in his mind) nor the thundering applause afterward —and had to be turned around to see the standing ovation. That must rank among the most poignant moments in music history. And yet, nearly two hundred year after its composition, it still has the power to move audiences deeply.

Musik [ist] höhere Offenbarung als alle Weisheit und Philosophie. [Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.] — Ludwig van Beethoven

UPDATE: veteran producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Beato on Beethoven’s struggles with deafness

UPDATE2: “masgramondou” sent this meme:

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