A Real Genius
Luwig van Beethoven stepped out before the orchestra and raised his hands. Gradually, the Royal Imperial Court Theatre fell silent. He gritted his teeth. This was it. The biggest test of his life so far. The audience had applauded Ludwig’s piano concerto. They had liked his chamber music too. But would they approve of his symphony? In style it was quite like the Haydn and Mozart pieces that had been played earlier. Yet this was different — less bouncy, more romantic. Luwig paused for an instant. If the audience did not like his symphony, all the hours, days and weeks he had slaved over the work would be in vain. All the money he had spent hiring the concert hall would be wasted. He would be a failure.
Putting such thoughts behind him, Ludwig nodded towards the orchestra, smiled and brought his right hand sharply down as a signal to them to start. Ludwig van Beethoven’s First Symphony had begun. Ludwig need not have worried. As the music ended, the audience broke into loud applause. The composer turned and bowed. A gentleman in the stalls waved his arms wildly. “Bravo!” he shouted. “Brilliant, Ludwig!” It was Ludwig’s lively young brother. The composer smiled. Trust Nikky to make an exhibition of himself!
Later, when most of the audience had left, Ludwig was still surrounded by friends and well-wishers. Nikolaus was there, as was his other brother, Caspar. In the crowd, a tall man with a wispy beard was explaining how he too had written a symphony… Ludwig stopped listening. His attention had been caught by a couple on his left. “Yes, it really was interesting!” said the woman. “It was not just interesting,” exclaimed her husband. “That van Beethoven is a genius — a real genius. One day he’ll amaze the world!”
The Beethovens were a musical family. Ludwig’s grandfather was a member of the Archbishop of Cologne’s choir in Bonn. Ludwig’s father, Johann, sang in the same choir. He and his wife Maria Magdalena had six children. Only Ludwig, the red-headed Caspar (born in 1774) and Nikolaus (born in 1776) survived. Ludwig was the most talented of the three. His father put pressure on his son to do well. He wanted Ludwig to tour Europe, making as much money as Mozart. Johann van Beethoven was disappointed when this did not happen.
Beethoven was rarely in good health. He frequently suffered from stomach upsets that lasted for months. His deafness, however, was far more serious. It began as a constant noise in the ears (now known as ‘tinnitus’) As time went on, Beethoven became unable to hear high-pitched sounds. The doctors of the day had no real idea what to do. None of the treatments they suggested did any good at all.
The Romantic movement in the arts (painting, music, literature, etc) lasted from about 1770 to 1830. It stressed the importance of inner feelings, nature and the imagination. In music, Beethoven was at the head of this movement. The music he wrote after arriving in Vienna moved further and further from the formal, ordered style of his mentors, Haydn and Mozart.
Beethoven had mastered a number of musical instruments, but his favourite was the piano. The instrument was developed from the harpsichord in Italy in the early 18th century. Its full name, ‘pianoforte’ means soft-loud. Unlike a harpsichord player, a pianist can play loud and soft notes by touch. This made Beethoven’s remarkable piano playing and compositions all the more fresh and exciting.
In Beethoven’s time, a sonata was a piece of music for the solo piano or for another instrument accompanied by the piano. It was generally in three sections, called movements; the second movement was normally slower. Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, including the famous Moonlight Sonata, which he dedicated to Giulietta Guicciardi. They are widely considered to be some of the finest pieces of piano music ever written. His variations on original themes are full of imagination and reflect his superb technical skill as a pianist.
In Beethoven’s day large-scale serious music was played by an orchestra. This consisted of four sections:
1. Strings (such as violins and cellos)
2. Woodwind instruments (such as flutes and clarinets)
3. Brass (such as horns and trumpets)
4. Percussion (such as drums and cymbals)
Beethoven experimented with the traditional roles given to the instruments. In his Third Symphony, for example, he gave the horns special importance. And he composed his famous Ninth (and last) Symphony for an orchestra and chorus.
Before the days of broadcasts and recordings, composers found it very difficult to make a living. They were commissioned (paid) to write music for special occasions and drew salaries from positions they held. Beethoven though this made composers slaves of the wealthy. He wanted to be free to compose the music he needed to compose. So, he organized his own concerts and tried to publish as much of his music as possible. Although he had several women friends after Giulietta, Beethoven never married and had no children. As he grew older and his hearing worsened, Beethoven became more depressed and difficult to get on with. Sadly, he died of pneumonia in 1827, when he was only 57. He died a poor man, but he was the first major composer to try to make an independent living.
When he was refused permission to marry Giulietta in 1801, Beethoven’s music was entering a new, exciting phase. Breaking away from old forms of music by Haydn and Mozart, he was creating a new style of music. It was tuneful, passionate and often thrilling to listen to. Some of the best examples are his Fifth Symphony, his Fifth Piano Concerto and the Ninth (Choral) Symphony. As he grew older, his music became more complicated. Even so, many experts believe his last string quartets are some of the finest pieces of music ever written.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 “Choral”
Beethoven Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 ‘Choral’ (3)
Although Beethoven could have given in to his despair, he worked hard to remain optimistic. These hopeful feelings come through in the famous “Ode to Joy” chorus that he wrote for his ninth, and final, symphony. The words come from the German Poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), but they must have resonated with Beethoven. The work concludes,” Be embraced, Millions! Take this kiss for all the world! Brothers, surely a loving Father dwells above the canopy of stars. Do you sink before him, Millions? World, do you sense your Creator? Seek him then beyond the stars! He must dwell beyond the stars.”
It was as though Beethoven himself was pleading with his audience to have faith in others, in all creation, and in God. A stirring, powerful melody adds to the emotional energy of the piece. It is no wonder that the chorus is now a popular work for important celebrations.