Ludwig van Beethoven was a brilliant and complex composer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He wrote magnificent masterpieces that are still popular today. However, even though he is seen as one of the most successful composers in history, he experienced a tumultuous life. He was often depressed and suffered deafness for much of his career. For a composer, little could be more maddening than not being able to hear. It’s no wonder Beethoven’s life was complex.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. Generally quiet, he was not born with the inclination to perform. As a 4-year-old, young Ludwig was forced to sit at the keyboard for long hours at a time—squirming as most children would. Ludwig’s teacher, who was also his father, drank heavily and leaned on his son to help pay the family bills. By age 7, young Beethoven was performing in public for wages. As a youth, Beethoven struggled with having little to no social graces (his appearance was usually disheveled, and his demeanor was awkward). As a young man, and throughout his life, Beethoven suffered rejection from women he loved. Through letters of uncertainty, he bared his tender heart. The most famous of these letters was to a woman he called his “immortal beloved.” Her identity is unknown, and the letter was never mailed. By his own admission, Beethoven remained an “unhappy” bachelor all his life.1
But more sorrowful than unrequited love would be Beethoven’s loss of hearing. His deafness came on slowly—starting in his late twenties with humming in his ears. Beethoven was afraid that others would dismiss him as not being a serious composer, so he hid his problem. Unfortunately, Beethoven’s growing loss of sound made him increasingly grumpy. He defended his shortcomings, writing: “Oh you who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. . . . Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once enjoyed in the highest perfection.”2
As Beethoven’s irritation and deafness worsened, he gave in to inventive hearing devices like ear horns, and tools that would vibrate from sound. At age 48 that Beethoven resorted to communicating with others through “conversation books.” These are little notebooks in which a conversation partner writes what they want to say, and you would then respond with speech. The pages are like a window, allowing us to peer into Beethoven’s quiet world. (They recently have been translated from German into English and are available online and in some libraries.)
One of the amazing things about Beethoven is that he composed nine symphonies with only a faint ability to hear or no ability at all! Eight symphonies were composed with partial deafness; the ninth and last, he would never hear—but it has remained his most famous. It is called “Ode to Joy.” The Third Symphony was originally written in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, but when Napoleon began to show himself a tyrant, Beethoven erased his name from the work! For the piano, Beethoven composed “Für Elise,” which translates as “For Elise.” It may have been written for a woman Beethoven loved.
Otherwise, Beethoven composed six concertos and 32 sonatas for the piano. (The piano was still somewhat new—Beethoven helped make it famous.) Beethoven’s most admired sonatas would include Pathétique (PATH THEY teek), Appassionata (AH PASS syaw nah ta), Farewell, and Moonlight. Each of these sonatas and its movements is completely different—thus representing the wide range of talent and emotion that Beethoven possessed.
Fortunately, Beethoven would reap the benefits of fame in his lifetime. His peers found him hard to get along with, but they and his audiences greatly appreciated his classical style. Beethoven was well paid for his hard work and when he died at 56, an estimated 20,000 mourners gathered for his funeral. His final resting place was the Central Cemetery in Vienna, near other leading composers. Is there more I can add to this story? Certainly, there is much more I could say about this masterful composer, but I would rather you listen to Beethoven’s works than listen to me. His music continues to speak for itself.
Enrichment Activities for All Ages
Pretend to conduct an orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a conductor’s baton. Your makeshift baton can be a chopstick, pencil, or other household item.
Middle Students—Conversation Book
Beethoven’s final eight years were silent. From age 48 to 56, he resorted to keeping conversation books to communicate with others. See what it’s like, carefully insert cotton in your ears and limit your conversation only to what you can write down. Use a notebook and pen.
Older Students—Like Music?
Choose other famous composers from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and write a one-page mini-biography on each. Other favorites of the Classical Era (c. 1750–1830) would include Christoph Willibald Gluck and Franz Joseph Haydn. The Romantic Age (c. 1850–1920), an era less strict than classical and more expressive, would include Franz Schubert, Vincenzo Bellini, Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Claude Debussy.
1. Beethoven wrote to his “immortal beloved”: “Your love has made me one of the happiest and, at the same time, one of the unhappiest of men — at my age.” From Michael Steen, The Lives and Times of the Great Composers. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 187.
2. Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 115.