SOURCES: lvbeethoven.com, pbs.com, britannica.com, tonara.com, npr.org, liveabout.com, wrti.org, wps.prenhall.com, loc.gov, wikimedia, gettyimages.com, cbc.ca, classicalfm.com, the factsite.com, laphil.com, hyperion-records.co.uk, 91classical.org MATT PALLISTER/TIMES-DISPATCH
The typical portrait of Beethoven (above) is the “classicized” version of him as a light-skinned European. But he had a dark complexion and was nicknamed “Der Spagnol.” (“The Spaniard”) in his youth.
1827 Ludwig van Beethoven dies March 26 in Vienna
1824 Finishes his ninth — and final — symphony
1802 Acknowledges deafness in Heiligenstadt Testament (will)
1792 Returns to Vienna; studies with Haydn, never returns home
1787 Visits Vienna; meets and studies with Mozart
1782 First publication of his work, known as the Dressler Variations
Ludwig’s ears The most astonishing aspect of Beethoven’s life is that he started going deaf midway through it. By his late 20s, arguably the greatest composer who ever lived began to realize that he was losing his hearing. Like most men of his day, Beethoven suffered from countless maladies, but the source of his deafness — he had lost all hearing by his mid-40s — remains a mystery. Perhaps even more mysterious is that such a cruel fate did not keep him from making complex, influential and lasting music. Housekeepers recalled him sitting at the piano with a pencil in his mouth that he would touch to the soundboard so he could feel the notes vibrate. And he often pounded on the keys so hard in an attempt to hear the notes that he destroyed the instruments. He eventually had to stop playing in public, but he didn’t stop performing. He demanded that he conduct the orchestra for the premiere of Symphony No. 9 in 1824, when he was 53. Legend has it that with the music no longer playing, a still-conducting Beethoven was stopped and turned around — to see an adoring, applauding audience.
Beethoven was an innovator. When he began composing, the harpsichord was the instrument of the day, but Beethoven preferred the piano and was the first to write complete pieces for it. Additionally, An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), is considered the first of the Romantic song cycles and one of his most influential works. Beethoven stuck by his principles. After initially dedicating his Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) to Napoleon, he removed the dedication upon the French general declaring himself “Emperor.” Beethoven is a man of many monuments. Among the more well-known are statues in his hometown of Bonn, Germany (right), and Vienna, but he also is immortalized with a statue in the reading room at the Library of Congress.
Music A pair of songs 46 years apart illustrates the enduring and wide-ranging influence of Beethoven. “Roll Over Beethoven,” one of the biggest hits from rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, was released in 1956. In 2002, rapper Nas released “I Can,” a song about empowering young, Black girls that sampled “Fur Elise.” Movies Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is so transcendent that it appears in a movie about disco. The “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack includes Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” and the song plays during a scene from the iconic 1977 film featuring John Travolta. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 shows up in numerous movies, most notably in the Stanley Kubrick 1971 dystopian drama “A Clockwork Orange.” The main character, Alex, has his love for “Ludwig Van” used against him when authorities employ Beethoven’s music in an attempt to rehabilitate the ruthless criminal (inset). Comics, etc. In the comic strip “Peanuts,” Beethoven is the obsession of piano-playing character Schroeder. Charles Schulz, the comic’s creator, got the idea after seeing how much his daughter loved her toy piano. Relevant into the 21st century, there’s even a Beethoven podcast. “The 5th” is a miniseries dedicated to the composer’s work.
Symphony No. 5
The opening notes are iconic. “Ba-ba-ba-bum!” It’s a simple, profound motif that Beethoven built an entire symphony around, a symphony he wrote over the course of four years, all the while knowing he was going deaf.
The work did not receive much fanfare immediately after its 1808 premiere, but it wasn’t long before its artistic brilliance began to take hold. In a review a year and a half later, German artist E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote, “Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism.”
The ominous opening has come to be interpreted as a manifestation of fate knocking at one’s door. Whether Beethoven intended this, as he grappled with his own fate and mortality regarding his hearing loss, remains unknown.
But to this day, that simple beginning (three Gs and a sustained E-flat played back to back) is known the world over, and the symphony it spawned is the foundation of Beethoven’s sustained musical and cultural influence more than two centuries later.
Symphony No. 9
A grand piece in four movements considered Beethoven’s greatest work, it was the first to include a movement with a full chorus and vocal soloists. That fourth and final movement sets to music Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven’s notebooks suggest he agonized over figuring out the best way to do this, with references to more than 200 different versions. By 1812, he had determined he would place his interpretation within a symphony. He completed the task 12 years later. Symphony No. 9 is often called the Choral Symphony. Because of Beethoven’s innovative use of the human voice, his final complete symphony represented a bridge between the classical and romantic periods of Western music.
Beethoven only knew this work by its given name, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2. It wasn’t given its nickname until after Beethoven’s death, when romantic poet Ludwig Rellstab, in a review of the work, compared the first movement to a boat floating in the moonlight on Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne.
Beethoven broke the mold of the typical piano sonata with this piece. Instead of the typical structure of a strong theme in the first movement, a lighter second movement and a vibrant third movement, “Moonlight” begins light and dreamy, picks up the pace in the second movement and explodes in the third movement. Beethoven snapped a number of piano strings during its premiere.
Fur Elise (For Elise)
Beethoven would be surprised that this small piano piece became one of his more well-known and oft-played works. He named it Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor. A bagatelle is a light piece of music, but the word itself is defined as “a thing of little importance.” The A Minor key gives it a wistful sound. It is a five-part rondo in the form of ABACA. The repeating A section is instantly recognizable, and the piece is a staple of piano lessons for early and mid-level study.
1778 Holds his first public performance, at Cologne, Germany