Chapter 17

Chapter 17: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composer Biographies

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: 1770 (baptized December 17), Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

In his own words . . .

"I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time . . . before writing them down . . . once I have grasped a theme. I shall not forget it even years later. I change many things, discard others, and try again and again until I am satisfied; then, in my head . . . [the work] rises, it grows, I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle . . . and only the labor of writing it down remains. . . . I turn my ideas into tones that resound, roar, and rage until at last they stand before me in the form of notes."

German composer. Often considered a transitional figure from the Classic to the Romantic era.

Ludwig van Beethoven is often described by musicians as a "giant straddling two styles": the Classical and the Romantic. Indeed, it is a testimony to Beethoven's place in history that he is claimed for both periods. Whether Beethoven was a Classical or a Romantic composer, however, is beside the point. Instead, we might best view him as a new composer for a new age—an age that is reflected in musical, as well as nonmusical, worlds.

Haydn and Mozart lived during a time of nascent ideals of liberty and two major revolutions. They also lived in a world of royal patronage, in which Haydn flourished but Mozart floundered. In contrast, Beethoven came of age as an artist when the consequences of revolutions had to be confronted and when the burden of patronage had already shifted to the less reliable mechanisms of the commercial sphere: publication and concert proceeds, supplemented by sporadic noble patronage. It was a far more disorderly world for Beethoven, yet one full of exciting potential.

It is in this world of change that we find Beethoven to be one of the most enigmatic composers. By the middle of his life he was almost totally deaf and had yet to produce his most profound works. In many ways cut off from the world, Beethoven was still committed to the idea of "brotherhood" so powerfully expressed in his Ninth Symphony. These tensions and contradictions find a voice in many of his compositions. His symphonies, starting with the Third (the Eroica), are huge works, as are some of his late quartets. Yet at the same time, he could compress his works. These sometimes contradictory aspects are part of Beethoven's character and part of the times in which he lived. And they make Beethoven one of the most interesting of all the great composers.


  • Orchestral music, including 9 symphonies (No. 1, 1800; No. 2, 1802; No. 3, Eroica, 1803; No. 4, 1806; No. 5, 1808; No. 6, Pastoral, 1808; No. 7, 1812; No. 8, 1812; No. 9, Choral, 1824), overtures (Leonore, Nos. 1, 2, and 3 and Egmont), and incidental music

  • Concertos, including 5 for piano, 1 for violin (1806), and 1 triple concerto (piano, violin, and cello, 1804)

  • Chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, quartets, 1 quintet, 1 septet, violin and cello sonatas, serenades, and wind chamber music

  • 32 piano sonatas, including Op. 13 (Pathetique, 1806), Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight, 1801), Op. 53 (Waldstein, 1804), and Op. 57 (Appassionata, 1805)

  • An opera, Fidelio (1805)

  • Choral music, including Missa solemnis (1823)

  • Songs, including a song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved, 1816)

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Musical Examples

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  • A General Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a detailed list of works, a picture gallery, and a bibliography.
  • Beethoven and Opera
    A listing of Beethoven's dramatic music (we usually think only of his opera, Fidelio) from OperaGlass.
  • Multimedia Beethoven Encyclopedia
    A large amount of biographical information to explore and even a quiz, focusing mainly on the symphonies.
  • The Beethoven Depot
    A place for Beethoven fans. Includes MIDI files and links to other sites, a discussion forum, and a chat room. Also has translations of some Beethoven letters and the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven's will, which he wrote in 1802 when contemplating suicide.
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