Beethoven's Life and Music

by Steven J. Miller
Beethoven set the stage for future composers.

Beethoven set the stage for future composers.

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Beethoven was born on December 17th, 1770. His music paralleled the rhetoric of speech more than any other composer's music of his time with its subtle nuances and highly expressive melodic material. The recitatives of his "9th Symphony" illustrate his ability to create a musical language that rivals spoken language. Beethoven served as a bottleneck and suppressed new compositional tendencies between the Classical and Romantic periods. Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt flowered as composers only after his death on March 26, 1827.


Beethoven had a relentless, painful struggle with each of his compositions. He sketched out his melodies in books and worked them out in extreme detail before considering them for use in a composition. He was always working on several ideas and never settled on a single composition. Beethoven crafted, edited and worked each melody to perfection through a painstaking and frustrating process. Beethoven's sketchbooks and compositions show signs of severe editing and contain several erasures and fragments of ideas.

Early Period

Beethoven's early period was an attempt to understand the style of the time. His first and second symphonies are almost indistinguishable from Mozart and Haydn. His early symphonies depict a composer learning to master the Classical music style, but they provided no hint of what was to be Beethoven's future characteristic style. He lived primarily in Bonn, Germany during this time. In 1792, a decade before the end of his early period, Beethoven moved to Vienna to study music with Haydn. Beethoven had originally wanted to study with Mozart, but Mozart died before he had a chance to do so.

Middle "Heroic" Period

Beethoven's middle period contains the meat of his musical achievements. He began to develop his own voice and compositional characteristics. During this time, Beethoven emerged as a powerful force and began to concentrate intently on large orchestral symphonies. Beethoven remarked to a friend that "from this day on, I shall take a new way." Works from this period include the "Eroica" 3rd Symphony and the only opera he ever wrote, "Fidelio."

Late Period

Beethoven's mental and physical well-being took a turn for the worse in his late period. He discovered that he was losing his hearing and made several attempts to improve his ability to hear his piano. At one point, it is reported that he even cut the legs off his piano and placed it on a hard floor to feel the vibrations. Beethoven's final period gave rise to his "Missa Solemnis," "9th Symphony" and his late string quartets. These late quartets were highly chromatic and uncomfortable to listeners of the time. He defended them, saying that he was writing these quartets for a later generation.

Immortal Beloved

It was in 1815 when Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" caused great turmoil in his life. Scholars still debate who his "Immortal Beloved" was. According to author Lewis Lockwood, Elliot Forbes listed four possible candidates: Giulietta Guicciardi, Amalie Sebald, Therese von Brunsvik and Josephine von Brunsvik-Dem-Stakelberg. However, the strongest potential candidate is Antonie Brentano. She was already married by the time Beethoven met her, and it would have been impossible for her to break the marriage off. She characterized him as "greater a human being than as an artist." In his book, Lockwood points out that nobody in Beethoven's circle of friends ever spoke that way about Beethoven.


In Beethoven's final days, he continued to work on his final quartet, Opus 135. There are unsubstantiated claims that he worked on the quartet until 12 days before he died. However, there is no way to verify this claim, which was made by Anton Schindler in his biography, "Beethoven as I Knew Him: A Biography." Beethoven died on March 26, 1827 during a fierce thunderstorm in Vienna. Officially, he died of liver failure, but no one knows what illness led him to this fate. There are two theories behind the cause of his illness: accidental lead poisoning or alcohol consumption. Scientists have discovered an unusually large amount of lead in his system, so the lead poisoning theory has some credence.


About the Author

Steven Miller graduated with a master's degree in 2010. He writes for several companies including Lowe's and IBM. He also works with local schools to create community gardens and learn environmentally responsible gardening. An avid gardener for 15 years, his experience includes organic gardening, ornamental plants and do-it-yourself home projects.

Photo Credits

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