Nicholas Mcgegan


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most widely recognized and admired composers in the history of Western music, and served as an important bridge between the Classical and Baroque era styles he admired and the Romantic style his music would come to personify. Beethoven was born in 1770 into a modest family in the small German provincial town of Bonn, where he would study composition and play the piano and viola until moving to Vienna in his early 20’s where he would live the rest of his life.

Beethoven was an earlier admirer of two of the most important figures of the Classical era: Franz Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Haydn in particular became a fundamental influence and figure in Beethoven’s early career, with Beethoven playing over 50 Haydn Symphonies with the Esterhazy Court Orchestra as a violist, and leaving Bonn to go study with the master himself as a pupil. As a close friend wrote him upon his departure from his hometown, it was time to go to Vienna to “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Moving to Vienna in 1792 proved fruitful to Beethoven, who despite some difficulties with Haydn studied with him and many others (including the often and unjustly maligned Antonio Salieri), honing his craft and undoubtedly being surrounded by Mozart’s music, his other Classical-era idol, whose influence is strongly felt in Beethoven’s piano concertos. Beethoven’s impressive piano writing and ambitious symphonies made quick splashes, and by the time he was onto his Fifth Symphony in 1808 heads of state at peace accords in Vienna would schedule their meetings around Beethoven performances so as to not miss them.

A virtuoso pianist and an often difficult man, Beethoven nonetheless impressed with his fierce individualism and determination in an age where patronage was still the norm. While he did not abandon patronage entirely as Mozart had, Beethoven rarely went out of his way to please anyone but himself. His legend grew as he kept performing and composing while becoming fully deaf, a handicap he would carry for the last 30 years of his life. Instead of his deafness impeding his composition, his individualistic style only intensified upon his discovery of his impending deafness, leading to some of his most beloved works, including his last three Piano Concertos and the immortal Fifth Symphony. This crisis made Beethoven take his Classical style and bring it to new emotional highs and lows, expanding the symphony’s length, color palate and dynamic levels, and introducing the trombones as an orchestral instrument to great effect.

He is also credited with fully embracing the expanding range of the piano in his sonatas and concertos, and for inadvertently popularizing steel-framed keyboards, as he would often leave a stream of broken wooden pianos on stages wherever he performed. The emotional depth, expanded orchestration, and immense length of his works (for his time) were all hallmarks of what would come to be known as the Romantic era, yet all of Beethoven’s works were rooted in a Classical era aesthetic of clear form and function – just through a much more emotional (and unpredictable) filter.

While the onset of his deafness may have launched Beethoven’s more emotional “Middle Period,” the beginning of the rediscovery and cataloguing of Bach’s music brought upon by Mendelssohn ended up leading to the masterworks of Beethoven’s “Late Period.” Although Beethoven had performed Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier publicly since he was 12, a new fascination formed of the Baroque master’s style after his rediscovery, and this intellectual curiosity would lead to the intensely contrapuntal masterworks of Beethoven’s later life, including the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and his late string quartets. By the end of his brilliant career (he died in 1827), Beethoven had become the ultimate fusion composer, taking the best of the classical and Baroque eras and sending it to new dynamic, instrumental, and emotional extremes that would define the Romantic era of music in the 19th Century.