Beethoven was born in Bonn on 17th December 1770. His father and grandfather were also musicians, employed by the Court of the Electorate in Bonn. He had two brothers but was the only one to continue the musical tradition of the family.
Beethoven had his first piece of music published when he was 12 years old.
Beethoven began his studies in Bonn. He travelled to Vienna and was going to study with Mozart, but he returned quickly to Bonn when he found out that his mother was dying. Mozart had died by the time Beethoven went back to Vienna but he studied with several leading composers of the time, including Haydn and Salieri.
As well as composing, he was also a prominent performing musician and was highly regarded as a pianist.
Beethoven made friends with members of the Viennese aristocracy such as Count Razumovsky, Prince Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz and Archduke Rudolph and dedicated much of his music to them. These men became his patrons, helping Beethoven by giving him gifts and encouragement. Through this circle of friends, Beethoven’s music was given performances in the courts and in theatres.
Some of his compositions, particularly some of the piano sonatas are also dedicated to his female friends and pupils. Beethoven appears to have fallen passionately in love with several women during his life, but it was always unrequited or unsuccessful.
Beethoven’s hearing deteriorated from his late twenties. He first shared his fears about it in two letters to friends, written around 29th June, 1801. For some months he stayed in a village outside Vienna in the hope of his hearing improving, but in October 1802 he expressed his feelings of utter despair about deafness to his brothers in a letter found after his death known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’.
Beethoven was composing at a time of huge political, social and artistic change in Europe, during and post-French Revolution. During this time, artists and musicians worked and developed their ideas much more freely. Beethoven’s music shows the influence of this, mainly in the style of his composition which breaks down some of the constraints of the Classical period. He experiments much more than previous composers in his use of keys and the development of the sonata form – he uses drama and expression much more intensely than previous composers.
When Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony, the ‘Eroica’, he dedicated it to Napoleon because he respected liberty and fraternity which Napoleon had originally appeared to stand for during the French Revolution. However, in a famous incident, when Napoleon was crowned Emperor, Beethoven is said to have been so dismayed that he crossed out the dedication.
Even though his music was highly regarded and he socialised with the aristocracy, Beethoven suffered from constant money problems. At points during his life, he tried to organise benefit concerts to earn some money. You can hear a re-creation of one of these concerts, held at the Theater an der Wien on 22nd December 1808, at the end of The Beethoven Experience, on Friday 10th June at 21.15.
Beethoven also had a difficult relationship with his family, and towards the end of his life, was involved in a bitter dispute to become the legal guardian of his nephew, Karl, after his brother’s death.
Beethoven died in 1827.