Friday, May 24, 2013

Ludwig van Beethoven: Early Years (1770-1802)

Childhood and youth in Bonn (1770-1787)
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770. He was named after his paternal grandfather Lodewijk (1712-1773). Lodewijk was a professional bass singer at the court of the archbishop and ruler of Bonn and later became music director there.

Lodewijk had one son named Johann (1740-1792). Johann worked as a tenor in the court choir and as a tutor of piano and violin. Johann’s wife Maria Magdalena Keverich gave birth to seven children. Only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers, Karl (1774) and Johann (1776), survived infancy.

Ludwig showed musical talent early. His first teacher was his father. Johann hoped Ludwig might be another prodigy like Mozart.

Ludwig’s most important teacher in Bonn, however, was Christian Gottlob Neefe, the court organist, who started teaching him around 1779. In 1781, Ludwig began assisting his teacher as an organist. When he was only 14, he started getting paid for it. Neefe taught Ludwig how to write music and, in 1783, helped him to publish his first composition. Ludwig published his first three piano sonatas that same year.

Getting established in Vienna(1787-1795)
In March 1787 Ludwig was able to travel to Vienna for the first time. It is possible that he met Mozart and that Mozart anticipated his future skill and creativity. After only two weeks, however, he received news that his mother was gravely ill and he quickly returned to Bonn. His mother soon died and his father soon became an alcoholic. At 17, Ludwig assumed responsibility for the care of his father and two younger brothers.

Franz Wegeler, a medical student, introduced Ludwig to the Breuning family. The Breunings taught him German and classical literature while he taught them piano. They also provided him with a loving familial context in stark contrast with his own household.

At this time Ludwig was also brought to the attention of a count named Ferdinand von Waldstein. Ferdinand became Ludwig’s lifelong friend. In 1804 Ludwig dedicated his Piano Sonata No. 21 to his friend and it has since been known as the Waldstein.

In 1789, Ludwig obtained a court order through which half his father’s salary was paid directly to him to support the family. Ludwig also supported his family by playing the viola professionally for the court orchestra. By doing so, he participated in the performance of three operas by Mozart.

In 1790 Ludwig likely met Franz Joseph Haydn as the latter traveled through Bonn on his way from Vienna to London. In July 1792, as Haydn journeyed back to Vienna, Ludwig arranged to study with him there. In November, Ludwig again moved to Vienna. In a letter to Ludwig just before his departure, his friend Ferdinand wrote, “Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.”

As in 1787, shortly after arriving in Vienna in 1792, Ludwig again received bad news: his father had died. This time, however, he did not return to Bonn.

Under Haydn, Ludwig focused on learning counterpoint but was frustrated by Haydn’s lack of attention to his work. He also continued his study of violin and composition with other teachers including Antonio Salieri.

In 1793, Ludwig established his reputation as a piano virtuoso through his extraordinary performances at private salons. He often played music from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or simply improvised.

Early period as a mature composer (1795-1802)
During this early period, Ludwig demonstrated his mastery of the forms of music established by Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. But he did so in ways which already expressed his strong personal creativity.

In March 1795, Beethoven performed his first public concert in Vienna and premiered a piano concerto he’d composed. He then began to submit for publication numbered works beginning with his first three piano concertos. He made enough money from their publication to financially support himself for almost a year. He also supported himself through profits from public concerts, annual stipends from enthusiastic supporters, and fees for giving private concerts, composing particular works, and providing private lessons in piano.

In 1796, a creeping catastrophe began. Ludwig started to lose his hearing.

From 1798 to 1800, Ludwig composed his first six string quartets (Opus 18). These were commissioned by and dedicated to his friend and patron Joseph Franz Lobkowitz. They were published in 1801.

In 1798 he composed Sonata No. 13 (Opus 18), the Pathétique, and had it published the next year. In 1799 he also completed and conducted his Septet (Opus 20). For the rest of his life this was the composition people enjoyed hearing most.

At this time Ludwig, the commoner, taught piano to the daughters of a Hungarian countess. He fell in love with one of them: Josephine. In 1800 Josephine was given in marriage to a count. Even so Ludwig maintained a convivial relationship with family, continuing as a teacher of piano and entertaining guests as a tremendous improvisational performer.

In 1800 Ludwig premiered his first symphony. In the program, he included works by Haydn and Mozart as well as his Septet and a piano concerto. Only 30 years old, he was now an acknowledged, significant, and patronized musician and composer in Vienna.

From 1801 to 1805, Ludwig taught composition to Ferdinand Ries. Ferdinand later became a professional composer and authored Beethoven Remembered.

From 1801 to 1803, Ludwig also taught Carl Czerny. Carl later became an outstanding pianist and the teacher of Franz Liszt. In 1812 it was Carl, and not the deaf Ludwig, who premiered Ludwig’s Piano Concerto No. 5.

In 1801 Ludwig as piano teacher met Giulietta Guicciardi, a 20-year-old countess and piano student. He was infatuated with her even though he knew he wouldn't be allowed to marry her either. Later he would compose his Moonlight sonata and dedicate it to her.

In 1801 he also wrote a series of letters to different friends. With them he discussed the challenges confronting him as a result of his increasing deafness. The challenges soon became a crisis. From April to October 1802 he retreated to the village of Heilgenstadt outside of Vienna. There he questioned the meaning of life as a musician facing total deafness and wrote letters to his brothers contemplating suicide. Finally he recommitted himself to affirming life and composing music despite all obstacles.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.