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~ LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN ~
Biography by Allen Krantz

Beethoven

Born: December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria
His life in History
See also his Biography and Works from the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music

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Click to find the music of Beethoven in the Archives!


Ludwig Van Beethoven is certainly on any short list of the greatest composers. Like all supreme artists, this is not for his prodigious technical gifts alone, but for the depth of human experience and emotion that his music explores and the universality of its message. Beethoven's struggles with his own fate and deafness are embodied in music that fearlessly continued to evolve throughout his life. His continued searching for deeper musical, philosophical and emotional truths brings to mind artists such as Shakespeare and Michelangelo.

Beethoven's Birthplace Beethoven, the son of a rather dissolute court musician, was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. It is perhaps his early rebellion against the arbitrary strictness of a father who wanted to exploit his son's talents that formed Beethoven's strong and difficult personality. He was truly a child of the revolutionary spirit that was spreading through Europe, and the first important composer to openly declare himself an artist serving a higher calling than the court or aristocracy.

Beethoven thus did not become the second Mozart, the darling of court society that his father hoped for. Rather he became an independent force, confident of his own powers, and one whose few lessons with the greats of the previous generation, including Haydn and Mozart, didn't ultimately mean much to him. He settled in Vienna in 1792, and his first public fame came as a piano virtuoso of unprecedented power, with a new and explosive kind of playing that was quite apart from the elegant fluency of Mozart and other virtuosos of the day. His virtuosity is certainly evidenced in his piano sonatas and particularly the five piano concertos, culminating in the Concerto No.5 in Eb (Emperor), which, like the concertos of Mozart, were originally conceived as apt calling cards for a composer/pianist.

Beethoven's talents and brash confidence won the respect of a musical and enlightened aristocracy who treated him with a deference that Beethoven expected and demanded, and that would have shocked both Haydn and Mozart. While he probably could have survived by other means, he received financial support from a number of interested nobleman, but without sacrificing his independence. Beethoven's Piano

Beethoven's output is usually thought of as grouped in early, middle and late periods. The First Symphony (1800) begins the new century on a seventh chord (a mysterious dominant of the subdominant) that quickly challenges classical propriety (although such things had already been explored by C.P.E. Bach, perhaps the true father of the new music). The style of this music already sacrifices the elegance of Mozart's surfaces for power and energy, and Beethoven shows his attraction to the economic use of material favored by Haydn. Beethoven's gruff humor probably owes more to Haydn as well, and by the Second Symphony, the minuet has been replaced with a weightier scherzo which is characteristic of the direction in which Beethoven's symphonic thoughts are moving.

Sketch and Letter

The Third Symphony (Eroica) is a watershed in western music history. The violent removal of the dedication to Napoleon is well known, but the universal heroism and grandeur of the longest symphony until the Ninth, remained and points the way to the noblest aspirations of the form in the 19th century.

By this time Beethoven has also established his most important metiers with a number of his thirty-two piano sonatas and the Op.18 string quartets. He had also begun to experience the deafness (probably from syphilis) that transformed his inner world view. This was at first met most characteristically perhaps with the violence and challenge of the fate motive of the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven seems to address his own destiny and place in the universe with a biblical directness that evokes Job.

Other seminal middle period music includes such masterpieces as the Violin Concerto, the Piano Sonata No.21 in C (Waldstein) and No.23 in F- (Appasionata), and the Rasumovsky string quartets. Much of this music is characterized by an enormous Beethoven and Quartet expansion of classical forms and themes that are markedly rhythmic in character (e.g. the opening motives of the Violin Concerto and the Waldstein Sonata). In addition, Beethoven realizes the essence of the most important of classical forms - the sonata form - with strongly differentiated first and second theme groups, highly dramatic development sections and codas that sometimes rival the development in size. The importance of the sonata form can be particularly seen in a work such as the first string quartet of Op.59, where even the slow movement and scherzo are in sonata form.

For all the inspiration that Beethoven was to succeeding generations of romantic composers, both in the transcendence of his music and the independence of his character, he almost completely worked within the heritage of the classical tradition. The sublime world of the last five of his sixteen string quartets and the late piano sonatas is still within the bounds of classical procedures, but now forms are telescoped and there is a very personal use of unusual numbers and types of movements combined with an increasing use of counterpoint. Many of the final works contain fugal sections of a very personal nature within sonata forms. In these works Beethoven, in his isolation brought about by years of total deafness, reaches a profound state of resignation and understanding, humor, and contemplation. The rhetorical trills of the earlier classical era have been transformed into the shimmering stars in the heaven of the variations of the Op.109 piano sonata.



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Selected images courtesy of Karadar Classical Music


Allen Krantz

Allen Krantz is a composer and classical guitarist with degrees from the San Francisco Conservatory and Stanford University. He is on the faculty of Temple University in Philadelphia, PA where he lectures on music history and heads the guitar program. Krantz's works range from solo piano and chamber music to a number of orchestral pieces. Recordings of his compositions and arrangements are on the DTR label, and his guitar transcriptions are published by International Music.
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