Ludwig van Beethoven

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Beethoven, Ludwig van

Beethoven, Ludwig van (lŭdˈwĭg văn bāˈtōvən, Ger. lo͝otˈvĭkh fän bātˈhōfən), 1770–1827, German composer. He is universally recognized as one of the greatest composers of the Western European music tradition. Beethoven's work crowned the classical period and also effectively initiated the romantic era in music. He is one of the few artists who genuinely may be considered revolutionary.


Born in Bonn, Beethoven showed remarkable talent at an early age. His father, a court musician, subjected him to a brutal regimen, hoping to exploit him as a child prodigy. While this plan did not succeed, young Beethoven's gifts were recognized and nurtured by his teachers and by members of the local aristocracy. In 1787 Beethoven first visited Vienna, at that time the center of the music world. There he performed for Mozart, whom he greatly impressed.

In 1792 Haydn invited him to become his student, and Beethoven returned to Vienna, where he was to remain permanently. Beethoven's unorthodox musical ideas offended the old master, however, and the lessons were terminated. Beethoven studied with several other eminent teachers, including Antonio Salieri, but was developing according to his own singular genius and could no longer profit greatly from instruction.

Both his breathtaking piano virtuosity and his remarkable compositions won Beethoven favor among the enlightened aristocracy congregated at Vienna, and he enjoyed their generous support throughout his life. They were tolerant, too, of his notoriously boorish manners, careless appearance, and towering rages. His work itself was widely accepted, if controversial, and from the end of the 1790s Beethoven was not dependent on patronage for his income.

The year 1801 marked the onset of Beethoven's tragic affliction, his deafness, which became progressively worse and, by 1817, total. Public performance eventually became impossible; but his creative work was not restricted. Beethoven never married; however, he was stormily in and out of love all his life, always with women unattainable because of marriage or station. His personal life was further complicated when he was made the guardian of his nephew Karl, who caused him much anxiety and grief but to whom he nevertheless remained fondly attached. Beethoven died, after a long illness, in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm, and legend has it that the dying man shook his fist in defiance of the heavens.


By the 19th cent., Beethoven's work could already be divided into three fairly distinct periods. The works of the first period include the First (1800) and Second (1802) Symphonies; the first three piano concertos (1795–1800); the first group of string quartets (1800); and a number of piano sonatas, among them the Pathétique (1798) and the Moonlight Sonata (1801). Although the compositions of the first period have Beethoven's unmistakable breadth and vitality, they are dominated by the tradition of Haydn and Mozart.

Beginning about 1802, Beethoven's work took on new dimensions. The premiere in 1805 of the massive Third Symphony, known as the Eroica (composed 1803–4), was a landmark in cultural history. It signaled a definitive break with the past and the birth of a new era. The length, structure, harmonies, and orchestration of the Eroica all broke the formal conventions of classical music; unprecedented too was its intention—to celebrate human freedom and nobility. The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, who at first symbolized to Beethoven the spirit of the French Revolution and the liberation of mankind; however, when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, the disillusioned composer renamed his work the “Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

The works of Beethoven's middle period, his most productive, include the Piano Concertos No. 4 (1806) and No. 5 (Emperor Concerto, 1809); the Razumovsky Quartets (1806); his Ninth Sonata for violin, the Kreutzer Sonata (1803), and his one Violin Concerto (1806); the Fourth through Eighth Symphonies (1806–12); a number of piano sonatas, among them the Waldstein and the Appassionata (both 1804). His sole opera, Fidelio, was produced in its first version in 1805 and in its final form in 1814. Beethoven wrote four overtures for the opera, three of them known as the Leonore Overture. He also composed overtures to Collin's Coriolan (1807) and to Goethe's Egmont (1810). From about 1813 to 1820 there was some slackening in Beethoven's productivity, probably due in part to difficulties concerning his nephew.

Beethoven's final period dates from about 1816 and is characterized by works of greater depth and complexity. They include the demanding, nearly symphonic Hammerklavier sonata (1818) and the other late piano sonatas; the monumental Ninth Symphony (1817–23) with its choral finale based on Schiller's Ode to Joy; and the Missa Solemnis (1818–23). The last five string quartets and the Grosse Fuge (also for quartet), composed in his last years, are considered by many music lovers to be Beethoven's supreme creations, and by some the most sublime music ever composed.

An extraordinarily prolific composer, Beethoven produced, in addition to the works mentioned, sonatas for violin and piano and for cello and piano; string and piano trios; music for wind instruments; miscellaneous piano works, including the popular bagatelle Für Elise (1810); over 200 songs; a number of shorter orchestral works; and several choral pieces.

Beethoven's influence on subsequent composers has been immeasurable. Aside from his architectonic innovations and expansion of the classical sonata and symphony, he brought to music a new depth and intensity of emotion that was emulated by later romantic composers but probably never surpassed.


See his letters, ed. by E. Anderson (3 vol., tr. 1961); H. C. R. Landon, ed., Beethoven: A Documentary Study (1970); biographies by A. F. Schindler (tr. 1966), A. W. Thayer (rev. and ed. by E. Forbes, 2 vol., 1967), W. Kinderman (1995), M. Solomon (rev. ed. 1998), L. Lockwood (2002), J. Suchet (2013), and J. Swafford (2014), and M. Cooper, Beethoven's Last Decade (1985); studies by D. F. Tovey (1945), D. Arnold and N. Fortune, ed. (1971), W. S. Newman (1971), M. Solomon (1988 and 2003), R. Kamien (1992), S. Burnham (1995), S. Rumph (2004), and N. Mathew (2013); C. Rosen, The Classical Style (expanded ed. 1997).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Beethoven, Ludwig Van


Baptized Dec. 17, 1770, in Bonn; died Mar. 26, 1827, in Vienna. German composer.

Beethoven was born into a family of Flemish origin. His grandfather was director of the Bonn court choir, and his father was a court singer. As a child Beethoven learned to play the harpsichord, organ, violin, viola, and flute. Beginning in 1781, Beethoven’s studies were guided by C. G. Neefe, a composer, organist, and prominent aesthetician. Soon Beethoven became concertmaster at the court theater and assistant organist of the choir. In 1789 he attended lectures on philosophy at the University of Bonn. Beethoven’s views on political and social phenomena were characterized by militant democratism and love of freedom. In the formation of the composer’s republican convictions an enormous role was played by the revolutionary events in France in 1789 and the antifeudal movement in the Rhineland. Beethoven’s enthusiasm for the music of revolutionary France had an important influence on his work.

Beethoven’s career as a composer began in 1782 (Variations for Piano on a March by E. C. Dressier). Two cantatas (1790) are the first vocal symphonic compositions by Beethoven. In 1787 the young composer visited Vienna and took several lessons with Mozart. In 1792 he left his homeland forever and moved to Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life with the exception of a few trips. Beethoven’s main purpose in moving to Vienna was to improve his composition under the guidance of J. Haydn. However, the lessons with Haydn did not last long. J. G. Albrechtsberger and A. Salieri were also among his teachers. Beethoven quickly won fame and renown, first as the best pianist in Vienna and as an inspired improviser and later as a composer. Beethoven’s brilliant, innovative work provoked fierce disputes. His playing combined a profound, stormy, dramatic quality with a broad, singing cantilena.

At the height of his creative powers Beethoven showed a tremendous capacity for work. Between 1801 and 1812 he composed such outstanding works as the Sonata in C sharp minor (“Moonlight,” 1801); the young, joyous Second Symphony (1802); the “Kreutzer” Sonata (1803); the Third Symphony (“Eroica”); the “Aurora” (Waldstein) and “Appas-sionata” sonatas (1804); the opera Fidelio (1805); and the Fourth Symphony (1806), which expresses a romantic perception of nature. In 1808, Beethoven finished one of his most popular symphonic works, the Fifth Symphony; at the same time, he finished the Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”). In 1810, he composed the music for Goethe’s Egmont and in 1812 he completed the Seventh Symphony (called the “apotheosis of the dance” by R. Wagner) and the Eighth Symphony (called the “humoristic” symphony by R. Rolland).

Beginning at age 27, Beethoven suffered from deafness, which grew progressively worse. This ailment, serious for a musician, limited his communication with people, made his piano recitals difficult, and finally forced him to stop giving recitals.

The years 1813–17 were marked by a decrease in Beethoven’s creative activity. However, beginning in 1818 there was an upsurge in his creativity. He composed the last five piano sonatas (1816–22) and five string quartets (1823–26). The height of Beethoven’s later creative activity is the Ninth Symphony (1824).

Toward the end of his life Beethoven experienced serious financial need and loneliness. He could not hear even the loudest sounds of the orchestra, and he used notebooks to communicate with people. The composer found support only among a small circle of friends who shared his advanced views.

The instrumental and, above all, the symphonic works of Beethoven have a brilliantly expressed programmatic character. The basic content of his works, which are heroic in their concepts, may be expressed in the words “Through struggle to victory.” The dialectical struggle of life’s contradictions found a vivid artistic embodiment in Beethoven’s works, especially those which are in sonata form—the symphonies, overtures, sonatas, quartets, and so forth. Beethoven extensively developed the principle of sonata form based on the juxtaposition and development of contrasting themes and contrasting elements within the individual themes. Compared with the works of his immediate predecessors in the Viennese classical school—Mozart and Haydn—Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas are distinguished by the larger scale of their structure. The basic thematic material undergoes an intensive, prolonged development; the connection between the movements of the form is deepened; and the contradictions among contrasting episodes and themes are sharpened. Beethoven started with the makeup of the orchestra established by Haydn and broadened it very slightly. However, he did achieve a very powerful orchestral sound and vivid contrasts. He transformed the old-fashioned minuet, which had been included in symphonies and sonatas, into a scherzo; he gave this musical “joke” a wide, expressive range—from powerful, sparkling merriment (in the Third Symphony) to an expression of alarm and anxiety (in the Fifth Symphony). Beethoven assigned a special role to finales in symphonies and codas (conclusions) in overtures, symphonies, and sonatas; in them he expressed triumphant feelings.

Beethoven was the greatest symphonic composer. He created nine symphonies, 11 overtures, five concertos for piano and orchestra, a violin concerto, two masses, and other symphonic compositions. The Third (“Eroica”) and the Fifth symphonies are among the highest achievements of Beethoven’s symphonic art. The idea of the Fifth Symphony was expressed by the composer in the words “the struggle with fate.” The Fifth Piano Concerto, composed at the same time as the Fifth Symphony, has an active, heroic quality. The Sixth Symphony, which contains a series of realistic pictures of country life, reflects Beethoven’s enthusiastic love of nature.

The height of Beethoven’s entire creative life is his Ninth Symphony. He was the first in the history of this genre to write a choral finale (with words taken from F. Schiller’s Ode to Joy). The development of the basic form of the symphony proceeds from the menacing and implacably tragic theme of the first movement to the theme of radiant joy in the finale. The Missa solemnis is close to the Ninth Symphony in its concept. It is a stately, monumental, philosophical work and has little connection with traditional religious music.

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (produced in 1805 in Vienna; second version, 1806; third version, 1814), is devoted to the heroic action of a woman who saves her husband—a victim of a vindictive and arbitrary governor—from death and exposes the tyrant to the people. Stylistically, Fidelio is one of the rescue operas, which came into being during the Great French Revolution. In addition, Fidelio led the way to the composition of operas in more or less symphonic form. Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (produced by S. Vigano, 1801) also had a heroic theme.

Beethoven’s chamber music includes 32 piano sonatas (not counting six early sonatas written in Bonn), ten sonatas for violin and piano, 16 string quartets, seven piano trios, and many other ensembles (such as the string trios and a septet for mixed ensemble). His best chamber compositions—the “Pathétique” and “Appassionata” sonatas for piano, the “Kreutzer” Sonata for violin and piano, and others—are distinguished by the scope of their concepts, their passionate, tense, dramatic quality, and the bold expansion of the expressiveness of the instruments. The three quartets, Opus 59 (commissioned by the Russian ambassador to Vienna, A. K. Razumovskii), hold a central place among Beethoven’s quartets. They combine a pervading lyricism with bright folk forms. (In two of these quartets, melodies from Russian folk songs were used.) In his last chamber compositions—the sonatas for piano Nos. 28–32 and the quartets Nos. 12–16—Beethoven began to strive for a profound, concentrated expressiveness, a fantastic quality of the forms, and a subjective contemplativeness that anticipated the art of the romantic composers.

The novelty and importance of Beethoven’s music caused the expansion of the framework of existing musical forms and the thorough transformation of all types of musical works. A decisive phase in the historical development of the concerto was reached in his Fourth and Fifth piano concertos and in his Violin Concerto, which are syntheses of the symphony and the concerto. Important changes were also made in the variation form, which took first place in Beethoven’s works after the sonata (an outstanding example is the 32 Variations in C minor for Piano).

Beethoven created a completely new genre, the instrumental miniature, based on dances and other small pieces from the old-fashioned suite; he called them bagatelles (minutiae; trifles).

Beethoven’s legacy of vocal music includes songs, more than 70 choral works, and canons. Working at first with couplet songs, arias, and odes, in which the text played a subordinate role, he gradually developed a new type of song in which each stanza of the poetic text corresponded to new music (for example, the songs based on words by Goethe, including Mignon; “Flow Again, Tears of Love;” “Heart, My Heart;” and others). In Beethoven’s works one finds for the first time the unification of a series of romances in a song cycle with a sequentially unfolding theme (To the Distant Beloved, based on texts by A. Jeitteles, 1816). “The Song of the Flea” is the only text from Goethe’s Faust set to music by Beethoven, although to the end of his life the composer never abandoned the idea of writing music for Faust. He adapted 188 songs of various nationalities for voice with instrumental accompaniment; and he made piano transcriptions of folk songs (including Russian and Ukrainian songs). Beethoven introduced folk melodies into many instrumental works.

Beethoven’s work is one of the high points in the history of world art. His entire life and work reveal the composer’s titanic personality, which combined musical genius with a seething, rebellious temperament. Beethoven had an unbending will and a capacity for tremendous inner concentration. High idealism based on a consciousness of social duty was an outstanding trait of Beethoven as a musician and citizen. A contemporary of the Great French Revolution, he reflected the great popular movements of this period and its most progressive ideas in his work. The revolutionary age determined the content and the innovative direction of his music. Revolutionary heroism was reflected in one of Beethoven’s principal artistic images—the heroic individual who struggles, suffers, and finally triumphs.


Ludwig van Beethovens Werke, vols. 1–25. Leipzig, 1864–88.
Beethovens Sämtliche Briefe, vols. 1–5. Critical edition with explanations by A. Kalischer. Berlin-Leipzig, 1906–08. Second edition, vols. 1–3. Revised by T. Frimmel. Berlin, 1911.
Leitzmann, A. Ludwig van Beethoven. Berichte der Zeitgenossen. Briefe und persönliche Aufzeichnungen, vols. 1–2. Leipzig, 1921.
The Letters of Beethoven, vols. 1–3. Edited by E. Anderson. London, 1961.
In Russian translation:
Pis’ma. Translation and notes by V. D. Korganov. St. Petersburg, 1904.


Serov, A. Izbrannye stat’i (“Tematizm uvertiury ’Leonora’,” “De-viataia simfoniia Betkhovena,” and others), vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1950–57.
Korganov, V. D. Betkhoven: Biograficheskii etiud. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Russkaia kniga o Betkhovene: K stoletiiu so dnia smerti kompozitora. Edited by K. Kuznetsov. Moscow, 1927.
Problemy betkhovenskogo stilia: Sb. statei. Edited by B. S. Pshibyshevskii. Moscow, 1932.
Rolland, R. Zhizn’ Betkhovena. Leningrad, 1937. (Translated from French.)
Herriot, E. Zhizn’ Betkhovena. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from French, with an introduction by I. F. Belza.)
L. van Betkhoven: Kniga eskizov za 1802–1803 gody. Interpretation and research by N. L. Fishman. Moscow, 1962.
Al’shvang, A. Betkhoven: Ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1966.
Ludwig van Beethovens Konversationshefte. Published by W. Nohl. Munich, 1924.
Schünemann, G. Ludwig van Beethovens Konversationshefte, vols. 1–3. Berlin, 1941–43.
Nottebohm, G. Beethoveniana. Leipzig-Winterthur, 1872.
Nottebohm, G. Zweite Beethoveniana. Leipzig, 1887.
Kinsky, G. Das Werk Beethovens: Thematisch-bibliographisches Verzeichnis seiner sämtlichen vollendeten Kompositionen. Published by H. Halm. Munich-Duisburg, 1955.
[Based on A. A. Al’shvang’s article, Bol’shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia, 2nd ed.]
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.