Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in December of 1770. Like Mozart and Bach before him, his father was a musician. The elder Beethoven saw the potential in his son and tried to parade him around Europe as a child prodigy. Ludwig was not a star youngster like Mozart, but he did go on to become one the greatest and perhaps most influential composers ever.
Beethoven grew up in Bonn, but like every composer in the classical era he knew that Vienna was the most important place to be. He moved there in 1792 and very quickly made an impression on musical audiences. Beethoven was a very determined and headstrong man and he only wanted to compose what his own heart desired, not what an emperor demanded. He realized that he must make connections in wealthy society and he did that by playing piano recitals. His performances were powerful and dramatic and unlike anything the Viennese had ever heard.
Beethoven’s abilities and his reputation earned him several wealthy students and also a few patrons who paid him to compose music. This situation left him financially secure and able to write what he wished without having to worry about money. Until Beethoven’s time, musicians were viewed as servants. Beethoven would not stand for that attitude, though, and his career helped change public perceptions of musicians. His image was that of an artist who demanded respect and who would not be pushed around.
Composing was an intense, personal experience for Beethoven and he seemed to labor more than his classical forerunners, as could be seen by his output. For example, he wrote nine symphonies while Haydn and Mozart completed 104 and 41, respectively. Beethoven always was reaching for something new and creative in his music and as a result, there is a great contrast in styles between his early and his late works.
Although Beethoven’s career began in the classical era, his music opened the doors to the romantic era. Most importantly, his music had an unprecedented dramatic quality. He composed many sudden changes in emotion and his works often have intense, driving rhythms. In just the first few seconds of his fifth symphony, we know that this piece is not a lighthearted affair. Beethoven’s sixth symphony is a programmatic work that changed the face of classical music. It is called the “Pastoral Symphony” and it represents the sounds of nature with music.
Beethoven composed in all the genres of the classical era, completing many sonatas, concertos, and string quartets, as well as several vocal works. His ninth symphony was the first work in that genre to combine an orchestra with chorus and vocal soloists.
Although Beethoven was a very successful musician, his life was filled with personal turmoil. His father was an abusive man who made growing up a very difficult process for young Ludwig. Worst of all though, Beethoven started losing his hearing by the time he was twenty-one and was completely deaf by 1820. It is truly amazing that all of the compositions of his last years were created in complete silence — he never actually heard them performed but could imagine them only in his mind.