c.16 December 1770
The story begins
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, to Johann and Maria van Beethoven. Johann was a singer and instrumentalist at the court of Clemens-August, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, where his father had been a respected Kapellmeister.
Ludwig’s talent was evident early on – Johann attempted with limited success to turn him into a performing prodigy – and by the age of ten he began to study composition with Christian Gottlob Neefe.
The Elector Maximilian Friedrich expressed interest and funded his musical studies. Beethoven’s first publication, a set of piano variations (Dressler Variations WoO 63), emerged when he was 12. By 14 he was a working musician at the court chapel.
A meeting with Mozart
The 16-year-old Beethoven departed for Vienna in early 1787. There, he auditioned for Mozart, whom he revered and who agreed to accept him as a pupil. But news reached the young musician that his mother was gravely ill, so he quickly returned to Bonn. She died soon afterwards, after which Johann succumbed to alcoholism, rendering Ludwig responsible for his two younger brothers.
By the time he made it back to Vienna, five years had elapsed and Mozart, too, had died. Beethoven was now due to study with Haydn. Count Waldstein, an early patron and supporter, sent him a farewell note: ‘Through uninterrupted diligence, you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.’
At odds with Haydn
Late summer saw the first performance of Beethoven’s Op. 1 Piano Trios at the home of Prince Lichnowsky, the patron to whom Count Waldstein had introduced Beethoven and with whom he lodged upon arrival in Vienna. The trios were published by Artaria on a subscription basis. Haydn, who had recently returned from London, was in the audience and praised the first two trios, but was perturbed by the third, which happened to be Beethoven’s favourite.
Beethoven was champing at the bit in general against Haydn, and later reported that he learned nothing from him. By the time Haydn died in 1809, however, the mature Beethoven had fully acknowledged his mentorship.
2 April 1800
A successful symphonic start
The premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 at Vienna’s Burgtheater was described by one reviewer as ‘the most interesting concert in a long time’. Beethoven was fast becoming the most sought-after young musician in Vienna, admired for his remarkable piano playing and, in particular, his improvisations.
He was ambitious, organised and canny, working hard to produce saleable works. He was also at ease in the city’s aristocratic salons and mixed in princely circles, some of whom believed that his ‘van’ indicated he was of noble extraction. Among his pupils was the young Countess Josephine Deym, née Brunsvik.
6 October 1802
A painful realisation
Beethoven retreated in the summer of 1802 to the village of Heiligenstadt, lodging behind the bakery. His stay was eventful partly for a fallout with his brother Karl, his business manager – they ended up fighting in the street – but chiefly because he was facing a crisis. It was evident, after years of increasing anxiety and visits to doctors, that he was losing his hearing.
At the beginning of October, he wrote a will of sorts – in fact a long letter to his brothers – known today as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In it, he revealed he considered suicide, but was held back by a sense of responsibility to his art: he couldn’t leave the world until he had brought forth everything that was within him.
9 June 1804
The Eroica marks a turning point
The private premiere of Symphony No.3, Eroica, took place at Prince Lobkowitz’s palace in Vienna. It represented a vital turning point. Having told his friend Franz Wegeler he intended to ‘seize fate by the throat’, Beethoven was determined to put his old life and methods behind him and find a ‘new path’.
The Eroica was originally intended as a programmatic symphony entitled ‘Bonaparte’, though Beethoven’s personal admiration of Napoleon as a self-made hero did not go down that well in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.
When Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, Beethoven was bitterly disillusioned. He destroyed the dedication and instead wrote: ‘Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’.
20 November 1805
Fidelio stumbles on its first night
Circumstances could not have been less auspicious for the first performance of Beethoven’s opera Leonore at the Theater an der Wien, where he was composer in (literal) residence. Following Napoleon’s first invasion of Vienna, most of the likely audience had fled the city, so the premiere was attended by French soldiers and a handful of other observers. The response was not enthusiastic.
In the following days, some of Beethoven’s friends pleaded with him to revise the work, with Prince Lichnowsky’s mother even going down on bended knee to persuade him. Eventually, he agreed. A run of this revised version in 1806 ended abruptly, though, when Beethoven became convinced the theatre was swindling him, and he snatched back the score. The opera didn’t reach its final form, now retitled Fidelio, until 1814.
Falling out with a royal patron
Despite his financial dependence on princely patrons, Beethoven took exception at being asked to perform at their social functions. Towards the end of a stay at Prince Lichnowsky’s country palace in Silesia, his host tried to force him to perform to a social gathering, possibly including French military personnel. Beethoven stormed out, walked for hours in the pouring rain and did not go back.
He had with him the manuscript of the Appassionata Sonata (which still bears the water stains). ‘There are many princes; there is only one Beethoven,’ he later wrote. Their relationship never mended – but later Lichnowsky would often go to sit outside Beethoven‘s apartment door unobserved, listening to him at work.
A composer’s overtures are rejected
Four months after that rain-drenched walk in Silesia, the Appassionata Sonata was sent to the publishers. It was dedicated to Count Franz Brunsvik, a close friend of Beethoven’s and the brother of Josephine Deym. In 1804 Josephine was widowed aged 25, with four small children. Beethoven had been paying intense court to her, writing a series of impassioned love letters.
He may have composed the three Op. 31 piano sonatas for her, as well as the Andante favori. Eventually she rejected him, fearing she would lose custody of her children by marrying a commoner. These dedications may have been farewell gifts.
22 December 1808
Four, Five, Six… and more besides
Why stage just the one premiere when you can have four? Over the course of a benefit concert in the Theater an der Wien, Beethoven conducted the world premieres of Symphonies Nos 5 and 6 plus the Piano Concerto No. 4 (performing as the soloist) and the Choral Fantasia; the programme also included parts of his Mass in C, the concert aria Ah, perfido and some piano improvisations. It was a very cold night, the concert lasted more than four hours and by the end most of the audience had left.
Not long afterwards, however, the Fifth Symphony attracted the attention of the author ETA Hoffmann, who wrote: ‘Beethoven’s music moves the lever controlling horror, fear, dread, pain and awakens that infinite longing that is the essence of Romanticism.’
10 May 1809
The return of Napoleon
Napoleon’s second invasion of Vienna saw his army laying siege to the city with howitzers; Beethoven, who lived beside the city walls in an apartment block called the Pasqualatihaus, took shelter in his brother Johann’s cellar, pressing pillows to his ears to protect what remained of his hearing.
Soon after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805, the Holy Roman Empire had been dissolved and the Austrian currency collapsed in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Beethoven was seriously affected; for several years he had depended on a stipend provided by a consortium of princes, some of whom now defaulted on payments and one of whom, Prince Kinsky, died after a riding accident.
6 July 1812
Beethoven pours his heart out
Beethoven’s ‘Letter to the Immortal Beloved’ was evidently written after an affair, but seemingly never sent. Passionate and intimate, it was penned in Teplitz after a visit to Prague, where Beethoven cancelled an evening appointment at short notice, possibly because of a surprise encounter. He named no intended recipient. Proof of the woman’s identity has since proved impossible, probably because Beethoven was careful to protect her.
Over the years impassioned cases have been made for several individuals, chiefly Josephine Deym (Baroness Stackelberg after remarrying in 1810) and Antonie Brentano (whose husband, however, was a close friend of Beethoven’s). Complicating matters, Antonie gave birth in March 1813; and in early April, so did Josephine.
8 December 1813
The triumph of the Seventh
At a giant concert at Vienna University, Beethoven conducted the world premieres of his Symphony No. 7 and the Battle Symphony (or Wellington’s Victory), which celebrated the British defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Vitoria. Raising money for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau, the concert was one of his most successful.
In rehearsal, the orchestra grumbled that the music was difficult to play. Beethoven made the audacious suggestion that they take their parts home to practise. They did, with splendid results. Among the players were numerous superstar musicians, including Ignaz Schuppanzigh (leading the orchestra), Louis Spohr (violin) and Domenico Dragonetti (leading the double basses), while Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Giacomo Meyerbeer turned their skills to the drums. Both symphonies were later performed during the Congress of Vienna.
15 November 1815
The struggle for custody begins
Dying of tuberculosis, Beethoven’s brother Kaspar Karl van Beethoven named the composer in his will as joint guardian of his son – also named Karl – together with Karl’s mother, Johanna. Beethoven detested Johanna, who had been tried, convicted and imprisoned for embezzlement and calumny in 1811. He therefore attempted from the start to gain sole custody of his nephew.
At first he succeeded, but the ensuing legal tug-of-war continued for five years, causing all involved considerable suffering. During the course of it, in 1818, Beethoven – who had taken the case to the Landrechte, the aristocratic court – accidentally let slip that his family were not of noble birth. The case was transferred to the commoners’ Vienna Magistracy.
27 December 1817
A welcome arrival from England
When, at the end of 1817, John Broadwood of London sent Beethoven a new fortepiano, the largest and strongest instrument he had yet owned, it provided a crucial spur for him to finish his largest piano work to date: the Sonata in B flat, Op. 106, the Hammerklavier.
Beethoven had been suffering bouts of ill health, as well as emotional distress caused by the ongoing situation over Karl and possibly the final collapse of the relationship with the ‘Immortal Beloved’; his rate of composition suffered badly. This mighty sonata, lasting some 50 minutes, seemed to rejuvenate him, breaking new ground and pointing the way forward into his ‘late’ works. He was by now stone deaf.
Arrested and unrecognisable
Commissioned to write three piano sonatas, Beethoven had already completed the first, Op. 109, but then faced a fresh crisis of ill health and depression during the course of 1821 which held up Opp. 110 and 111. He composed little for the rest of the year. One autumn day he set out for a walk along the Danube Canal, lost track of time and found himself far from home after dark, hungry and tired.
Local residents complained that a dissolute-looking stranger had been peering in through their windows and the police duly arrested him as a tramp. They refused to believe that he really was Ludwig van Beethoven until a university professor was summoned from a nearby tavern to identify him.
7 April 1824
The Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s most ambitious choral work, was premiered just before Easter in St Petersburg, Russia, under the auspices of his patron Prince Galitzin. Its composition had occupied much of Beethoven’s time from 1819-23 and it showed him, as ever, somewhat unwilling to compromise on his immense demands upon the singers.
One month later, on 7 May, the premiere of his ‘Choral’ Symphony No. 9 took place at the Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna. The composer was supposedly conducting, but could not hear the performers in front of him and continued to conduct after they had finished. The contralto soloist, Caroline Unger, gently turned him round so that he could see the wild ovation taking place in the auditorium.
A fugue too far
Premiered by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130 – the second of his final five – was rounded off by a gigantic fugue. The work was reasonably well received, but the fugue was deemed by one critic ‘incomprehensible, like Chinese’. Karl Holz, the second violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, told Beethoven that the two central movements were encored whereas the fugue was not; Beethoven reacted angrily, pronouncing his listeners ‘Cattle! Asses!’.
Subsequently the publisher Artaria asked Holz to persuade the composer to write a more user-friendly last movement. Extraordinarily, Beethoven agreed to this the next day, perhaps because Holz assured him he would receive handsome financial recompense. The Grosse Fuge was published separately as Op. 133.
29 July 1826
Karl tries to end it all
On reaching university age, Beethoven’s nephew Karl revealed that he wished to
go into the military instead. Beethoven was horrified by this choice, and a massive row ensued between the two. After enduring many years of strife over his custody, Karl could take no more. From the resort of Baden a little way outside Vienna, he walked along the beautiful Helenental to the ruined castle of Rauhenstein and there attempted to shoot himself.
He was not killed, but injured; and when he was found by the police he asked to be taken not to Beethoven’s home, but to his mother, Johanna. Questioned about his actions, he placed the blame squarely upon his uncle for having pushed him too far. This was devastating to Beethoven, whose health was already seriously declining.
26 March 1827
The final delivery
Beethoven died after a long illness, probably sclerosis of the liver, at the last of his many homes in Vienna, the Schwarzspanierhaus. Among the various accounts of his death, perhaps the most convincing is that in which news arrived that the publishers Schott’s of Mainz had sent him a case of the Rhineland wine he loved: ‘Too late,’ he lamented. His funeral attracted crowds of 20,000, and among the pallbearers was Franz Schubert.
After Beethoven’s death his former secretary, Anton Schindler, and his friends Stephan von Breuning and Karl Holz searched in his apartment for the bank bonds he bequeathed to Karl. While doing so, they discovered a drawer containing miniature portraits of two unknown women, the Heiligenstadt Testament and the ‘Letter to the Immortal Beloved’.