Ludwig van Beethoven: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Ludwig van Beethoven

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Ludwig van Beethoven: Overview

Ludwig van Beethoven: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 15/16 Dec 1770; d. Vienna, 26 March 1827).

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on the 15th/16th December 1770 at Bonn to a family which originated in Flanders. The particle 'van' does not indicate noble birth of any kind, and it was misleading when the composer translated this to the German 'von'. The composer's grandfather arrived at Bonn in 1733 and evidence has been adduced to show that he had been born at Malines (Mechlin). It might be safe to say that the family rose in Flanders from the social status of workmen to that of petits bourgeois. Both the grandfather and the father of the composer served as musicians in the chapel of the Elector, the former eventually becoming Kapellmeister and the latter, Johann, a tenor chorister. In 1767 this Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich, daughter of the chief cook at a neighbouring court and widow of a court valet. Although Johann's father regarded the marriage as a social come-down for his son, there was in fact very little social distinction between musicians and other servants at the princely courts of the day. Of the seven children born to Johann and his wife only three survived infancy: the composer and his two younger brothers, Karl and Johann. The father seems to have been a hard yet feckless character, and his later years were rendered additionally disagreeable for his family by the alcoholism from which his mother had also suffered. As the eldest son, Ludwig was early called upon to direct family affairs, but this was not until his father had attempted to exploit the remarkable musical gifts which the boy showed at an early age. His only education worthy of the name was in the craft of music and he certainly received lessons in pianoforte, organ, violin and viola. Any other schooling had ceased before he was twelve, and although he picked up rudimentary French and a little Italian, his correspondence shows that he always found difficulty in expressing himself clearly in his own language; and he was capable of only the most elementary arithmetic. This total absence of general culture from his home background no doubt explains not only Ludwig van Beethoven's belated attempts at self-education, but also much of his later behaviour, which was put down to natural boorishness when it probably reflected the embarrassment and sense of frustration which he often felt in the company of those more gently brought up than himself. He remembered his mother with deep affection, but she was unable to do more than mitigate the squalid and penurious circumstances in which the family found itself owing to the father's drinking.

The teacher who exercised the first profound influence on the young Ludwig van Beethoven was C. G. Neefe, who came to Bonn in 1779 and was appointed court organist in 1781. Neefe introduced the eleven-year-old boy to J. S. Bach's Well-tempered Clavier and found him so forward that by 1784 Ludwig was officially appointed as Neefe's assistant. When the Elector Max Franz (brother of the Emperor Joseph II and of Queen Marie Antoinette) acceded in the same year, the young Ludwig van Beethoven's duties became less, and he was able to devote more time to study. In 1787 he was sent to Vienna, probably at the expense of Count Waldstein, and according to tradition received a number of lessons from Mozart. After a matter of weeks rather than months, however, he was summoned home to attend his mother's death-bed. Two years later his father was dismissed from his post in the choir and at nineteen Ludwig van Beethoven found himself solely responsible for himself, his father and his two brothers. He supplemented his income by giving lessons and also by playing viola in the orchestra of the Opera - an occupation which brought him a first-hand knowledge not only of works by Mozart, Gluck and the Italians Cimarosa and Paisiello but also the masters of the contemporary opera comique, especially Gretry.

The friends which Ludwig van Beethoven made in his youth at Bonn were in many cases to remain intimate with him to the end of his life. They provided a much-needed alternative to a happy family background, and their character and social standing prove that the assistant organist must have possessed altogether exceptional attractions of personality, intelligence and general likeableness. The widowed Frau von Breuning's house, with the children Christoph, Eleonore, Stephan and Lorenz seems to have been a second home to him, and Eleonore married Franz Gerhard Wegeler who was to be a close friend of the composer's when he moved to Vienna. Stephan von Breuning was a fellow pupil with Ludwig van Beethoven of the violin teacher Franz Anton Ries, who was generous in helping the young composer financially. Also to be mentioned as evidence of Ludwig van Beethoven's ability to transcend social distinctions by sheer character and personality, is his relationship with Count Waldstein, a friend of the Elector's and originally a piano pupil of the composer's but also a real friend and the dedicatee of the piano sonata op.53. Waldstein may well have been instrumental in arranging Ludwig van Beethoven's removal to Vienna in 1792, either by advising the Elector of its advisability or offering to finance the move, or both. In the same year Haydn passed through Bonn on his return journey from London to Vienna and Ludwig van Beethoven showed him the Funeral Cantata that he had written the previous year on the death of the Emperor Joseph II. We know that Haydn was impressed, but whether he invited Ludwig van Beethoven to Vienna or played any part in his moving there is uncertain. Certainly by 1795 all Ludwig van Beethoven's family connections with Bonn were severed - his father dead, his brother Carl a music teacher and Johann a chemist's assistant, both in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven's instinctive gathering of the remains of his family about him, and his extraordinarily strong feelings of affection and responsibility for them were to have important effects on the course of his life and eventually to determine its emotional direction.

Although life at Bonn had centred round the Electoral Court and social conditions were essentially the same there as elsewhere in Europe before 1789, there was a far more liberal spirit and much greater social mobility there than in Vienna. This was due in part to the nearness of France and the gradual infiltration, rather than any violent imposition, of new revolutionary ideas; and in part also to the genial personality of the Elector Max Franz, who shared many of his brother Joseph's liberal principles and found them more easy to put into practice in a small principality than at the centre of a great empire. The young Ludwig van Beethoven had hitherto been largely spared the personal experience of aristocratic arrogance and of the extreme instances of plebeian disenfranchisement. These soon leaped to his eye in Vienna, where the Imperial Court was surrounded by miniature establishments of the same kind belonging to members of a cosmopolitan - Slav, Magyar, Belgian and Italian as well as Germanic - aristocracy. Music, and in particular instrumental music, played a great part in the entertainments of these, and also lesser households. No doubt Ludwig van Beethoven was assisted by the recommendations of his friend Waldstein (a landowner in the territory of the present Czechoslovakia) and it was not long before he was much in demand first as a performer, then as piano teacher and finally as composer. A mere glance at the dedications of his works over the next 15 years will show how closely engaged he was with the aristocratic world of patronage - Lichnowsky, Lobkowitz, Schwarzenberg, Clary, Keglevics, Kinsky and Liechtenstein were all among the leading families of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of his patrons recognised in the brilliant, intensely vital yet susceptible young man a genius and a personality that transcended the narrow limits imposed by social caste. Those who did not were liable to get the rough side of Ludwig van Beethoven's tongue, and even a momentary or imaginary slight from those whom he recognised as true friends was apt to receive immediate punishment - 'Lobkowitzer Esel!' or 'Ass of a Lobkowitz!'

Chamber-music, including pianoforte works for his own performance, naturally formed the great part of Ludwig van Beethoven's compositions after his arrival in Vienna. He had already written essays of this kind in Bonn, but it was the stimulus of Viennese demand that accounts for the large production of the ten years following his arrival - the trios, Op.1, and Op. 9, the Rondino, the violin sonatas Op. 12, the many sets of piano variations on popular operatic melodies of the day, the piano sonatas of Op.2, 10 and 14 and finally the six string quartets of Op. 18. All these were composed before 1800 and almost all were dedicated to members of one of the princely families mentioned above. The two important exceptions are the piano sonatas Op.2 dedicated to Haydn and the violin sonatas to Antonio Salieri, both composers of the older generation; and with them should be mentioned the dedicatee of the first symphony, composed 1799-1800, Baron van Swieten. From Haydn Ludwig van Beethoven had some lessons, but the young man needed more rigorous demands made of him and Haydn's nickname for his brilliant pupil, The Great Mogul', reflects a certain uneasiness on his side also. Instead Ludwig van Beethoven turned to three very different teachers - Albrechtsberger for the strict counterpoint of the old school, Schenk for theory and Salieri, Kapellmeister of the Court, for Italian prosody and vocal writing generally. His living Ludwig van Beethoven earned by playing in aristocratic houses, by composing if not to commission then with the certainty of selling the dedication (a practice considered acceptable at a time when public concerts hardly existed) and by teaching. Among friends who were influential though not belonging to the nobility, the Baron van Swieten was important as the source of Ludwig van Beethoven's knowledge of Handel and both J. S. and C. P. E. Bach. A Dutchman by birth and son of Maria Theresa's favourite doctor, van Swieten had been friendly with Mozart and his patronage of the young Ludwig van Beethoven earned him the dedication of the first symphony. Among the young composer's musician friends were the members of the string quartet attached to Prince Carl Lichnowsky's establishment - Schuppanzigh, Sina, Weiss and Kraft. His fame as an improviser brought him into professional contact with the leading pianists of the day in the contests, very popular at the time, which set two virtuosos the same theme on which to improvise.

The first two of the piano concertos, in which Ludwig van Beethoven appeared before the public, were written between 1795-7, the third in 1800, the fourth in 1805-6 and the fifth {Emperor) in 1809. A much longer period was needed for the nine symphonies, which appeared respectively in 1800, 1802, 1803 (Eroiea), 1806, 1807, 1808 (Pastoral), 1812 (nos.7 and 8) and 1822. The violin concerto was written at the same time as the fourth symphony (1806), and Ludwig van Beethoven usually followed the practice of working on several different compositions at the same time. The piano sonatas, like the symphonies, cover the whole of his mature working life, the last (Op.111) appearing in 1822. So too the string quartets after Op. 18, already mentioned - the three Razumovsky Op. 59 appearing in 1806, Op. 74 and 95 in 1809-10 and the last five (Op.127, 130, 131, 132 and 135) between 1824 and 1826. Ludwig van Beethoven remained all his life essentially an instrumental composer, bringing to perfection and further developing the broadly speaking symphonic work of Haydn and Mozart, for both of whose work he had the profoundest admiration. Less at home in vocal music, where his imagination was limited by the physical limitations of the human voice, he composed in 1805-6 a single opera, Fidelio, on a text adapted by Joseph Sonnleithner from a French original; and two Masses, the first (C major) in 1807 and the Missa Solemnis, the crowning production of his last years, between 1818 and 1823. In each of these fields, except that of the opera, his work reveals a uniquely powerful and original mind which left an unmistakable mark on the history of the genre. Fidelio, too, is unique and original, but with a first act strongly influenced by the French opera comique and the final scene approximating a scenic oratorio, the work had no influence on the formal development of opera as a musical genre.

Ludwig van Beethoven was never, even at the height of his fame and in good health, an easy man. He was bitterly aware of the contradiction inherent in the dependence of an artist with his creative gifts on individual caprice and favour. His real charm and obviously exceptional character easily changed to black rage and unmitigated abuse, revealing a deep sense of frustration and resentment. Although he was very attractive to women and had a reputation of success in his affairs, it was not perhaps by chance that all the women with whom he is known to have been in love were unattainable owing to their social position and often to the fact that they were married. Instinctively Ludwig van Beethoven probably knew that, however much he longed for ideal domestic happiness, the overriding importance to him of composition and the total disorder that this often introduced into his daily routine of life were not compatible with marriage. The 'Immortal Beloved' to whom he wrote the strange and moving document which has come down to us has never been satisfactorily identified; but it is interesting to observe that in it Ludwig van Beethoven takes for granted the unhappy ending of their relationship. If the document is correctly dated as belonging to July 1812, the woman was almost certainly Amalie Sebald, a singer from whom he was not separated by any social barrier.

An equally famous and far more important document relating to Ludwig van Beethoven's character is the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he announced to his two brothers the fact of his incipient deafness and spoke of his interior attitude to this disaster. The letter is dated 1802 and Ludwig van Beethoven had another twenty-five years to live, during which his deafness increased at a pace fluctuating with the state of his general health, which also began to deteriorate early, so that by his middle forties he was almost stone deaf and subject to perpetually recurrent trouble with his stomach, his letters full of references to bronchitis, colic, rheumatism etc. The earlier explanations of Ludwig van Beethoven's deafness and ill-health as the effects of syphilis and alcoholism have recently ( 1 970) been decisively rejected in favour of some form of immunopathic disease, possibly systemic lupus erythematosus. Whatever the explanation, Ludwig van Beethoven was a sick and prematurely aged man when his brother Karl died in 1815; and the legal battle to obtain exclusive control over his nephew (his brother Karl's son, also named Karl) and remove him as far as possible from the influence of his mother, had a disastrous effect on his health. The final blow was struck by Karl himself, whose unsuccessful suicide attempt was no more than a boy's gesture of despair prompted by his uncle's possessiveness and his own inability to satisfy the high standards demanded of his weak, commonplace but in no sense vicious, personality by his guardianuncle of genius, whose devotion to his nephew dominated his emotional life from 1815 to his death in 1827 and became an obsession recognised by all his friends, as is shown from the conversation-books which the composer's deafness rendered essential. At an age when his creative activity was, except for a single year, increased rather than diminished and ill health had greatly reduced if not quite destroyed his desire for marriage or sexual relations of any kind, all Ludwig van Beethoven's human affections and hopes were centred on this unremarkable son of an unremarkable father. His violent disapproval of the boy's easy-going, feckless mother, whom he pursued through the law-courts and in private, hardly concealed the fact of his jealousy of the boy's affection for her.

It so happened that this new emotional factor in his life appeared at a time when his fame and the estimation of his music in Vienna had waned. With the French occupations of Vienna in 1805 and 1809 and the enormous indemnities demanded by Napoleon the Austrian economy was all but ruined, and of the three patrons who since 1809 had guaranteed him an annual pension - the Archduke Rudolph and the Princes Kinsky and Lobkowitz - only the first was able to maintain payments. The Archduke Rudolph, a brother of the Emperor, was a composition pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven's, and this close link with the royal family most probably saved the composer from the attentions of the secret police, who might otherwise have been less lenient towards his loudly professed republican sentiments. Ludwig van Beethoven's political attitudes were dictated by emotion rather than reason, and a bitter awareness of his own unappreciated worth made him anything but a democrat. He had been deeply disappointed in his original enthusiasm for Napoleon, acquired at the French Embassy in Vienna before the First Consul had declared himself Emperor, and had withdrawn the original dedication of the third symphony as a result. The economic collapse of Austria and the increase in taxation, in fact the result of military defeat by Napoleon, were regarded wholly illogically by Ludwig van Beethoven as a personal insult which he attributed to the Emperor Franz. Similarly he regarded the relegation of the lawsuit over his nephew to the common lawcourt, instead of that reserved for the nobility (into which the spurious 'von' in his name had originally obtained his entry) prompted him to the same explosions of indignation and wounded self-esteem as did the treatment that he received from the long succession of servants hired to manage his quite unmanageable bachelor household which shifted from house to house in Vienna with bewildering rapidity.

Ludwig van Beethoven once described himself as someone 'who did everything badly except compose music', and yet he aroused intense personal devotion not only by his music but by his personality, rough and ill-mannered, violent and wrong-headed though his actions often were. The nature of his personality and the fact that he was, outside music, virtually uneducated, gave his musical utterance a simplicity and a sincerity that are without parallel among the great composers; and it is these qualities, coupled with an intense humanity and an inexhaustible power of striving for the ideal, that have earned him his unique place in the affections of ordinary music-lovers. He is the very personification of the quality imagined by Goethe - his antithesis in almost every way - in the line given to the angels in Faust: 'wer immer strebend sich bemiiht, den konnen wir erlosen' ('it is the man who never ceases to strive that we can redeem'). Ludwig van Beethoven's religious attitudes and feelings, as we gather them from his music, his chance remarks and the books that he prized, are more significant than his actual beliefs, of which we know little. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he was not a practising member of any church, though he seems on his deathbed to have welcomed the administration of the last rites from a Catholic priest. He was a passionate lover of nature, and especially of the countryside round Vienna and the various villages where he spent his summers. His notebooks contain intimate jottings which show that he was intensely aware of the presence of God in the depths of the country. 'Almighty One in the woods,' he wrote, T am blissfully happy in the woods; every tree speaks through Thee, O God! what splendour! in such woodlands as these! on the heights is peace to serve Him!' The conception of God as a universal father and all men as His children recurs in the notebooks and is strongly stressed both in the Missa Solemnis and the ninth symphony. That he regarded his own vocation as resembling that of a priest is shown by a letter written four years before his death to his pupil the Archduke, himself a priest in Catholic orders. 'There is no loftier mission than to come nearer than other men to the Divinity, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind'.

Although the last occasion on which Ludwig van Beethoven received public acknowledgment of his genius was during the Congress of Vienna (1814), he continued to receive tributes from all over Europe, and particularly from England, where the Philharmonic Society commissioned the ninth symphony and the firm of Broadwood presented him with a piano (1818); and he was visited by a stream of admirers, many of whom expressed distress at finding him in primitive living-conditions but all of whom, without exception, saw through the rough exterior of the man to the simplicity and nobility within. Much has been made of his supposedly dishonest dealing in selling the Missa Solemnis to two different publishers. But apart from the fact that he believed it necessary to make all the money possible for the sake of his nephew, he never showed any understanding of business matters and less still of mathematical calculations, while at this late period of his life his mind was clearly often clouded by the advanced state of his general illness. At the beginning of 1827, when his nephew Karl had sufficiently recovered from the self-inflicted wound of his attempted suicide and could rejoin his regiment, Ludwig van Beethoven was already seriously ill as the result of pneumonia and pleurisy, to which dropsy was soon added. Although by today's medical standards his condition was mishandled by the doctors, he was surrounded by friends including the thirteen-year-old Gerhard von Breuning, son of his boyhood friend Stephan. He expressed his appreciation of some of Schubert's songs that were shown him and once again his deep admiration for Handel, scores of whose works had been sent him from London. He died on the 26th March 1827 and was buried two days later in the Wahring cemetery, from which his body was moved in 1888 to the Central cemetery in Vienna.

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