Updated: Jun 19
Beethoven As Experienced Through Works From Across His Life: Early Period (1770 to 1800)
Today, we celebrate the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth. Although, we do not know his exact birthday, we do know that he was baptized on Dec. 17, 1770. He is known for his musical masterpieces which bridge the era of what we call "Classical music," the music of composers such as Mozart and Haydn, with the era we call "Romantic music," the music of composers such as Chopin and Liszt. Beethoven's music is often considered to be deeply emotional and personally expressive, qualities that influence the music throughout the 19th century. He composed many significant works, including nine epic symphonies, 16 string quartets, five piano concertos, one opera, 32 piano sonatas that remain requisite for Classical piano students today, among many other works. He is most likely that most admired composer in the history of Western art music.
In this post, we will explore three of Beethoven's works from his Early period in the context of the composer's life. Visit https://www.perennialmusicandarts.com/post/happy-250th-ludwig-part-2 for part 2 and https://www.perennialmusicandarts.com/post/happy-250th-ludwig-part-3 for part 3.
Family History and Life in Bonn
Ludwig was born in Bonn, Germany into a family of professional musicians. His grandfather, Ludwig (Louis) van Beethoven (1712 – 1773) was a trained musician and skilled bass vocalist, who had had positions at Mechelen, Belgium; Leuven, Belgium, and Liège, Belgium and moved to Germany in 1733 for an appointment as bass in the electoral chapel at Bonn. In 1761, Louis was appointed Kapellmeister (German for Chapel master to Choirmaster) where he was not a composer, although many in this position were, he supervised the musical activities of the court. Louis married Maria Josepha Poll (c. 1714 – 1775) in 1733 and had one surviving child, Beethoven's father, Johann van Beethoven (c. 1740 – 1792). Johann followed his father lead and entered the court's service as a boy soprano and later as a tenor. He was never as successful as his father but managed to supplement his income by teaching instrumental as well as vocal music. Johann married widow Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746 – 1787) in 1767, and the couple had three sons that survived to adulthood, Ludwig, and his two brothers, Kaspar Anton Karl van Beethoven (bap. April 8, 1774 – Nov. 15, 1815) and Nikolaus Johann van Beethoven (bap. Oct. 2, 1776 – Jan 12, 1848).
Beethoven's showed his natural musical talent for music at a young age and his father was quick to try to capitalize on his son's talents. Europe had recently been a-buzz for a child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Jan. 27, 1756 – Dec. 5, 1791), whose father, Johann Georg Leopold Mozart (Nov. 14, 1719 – May 28, 1787), arranged a three-year-long "Grand Tour" across for the continent for the boy and his also talented sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (July 20, 1751 – Oct. 30, 1829) called 'Nannerl,' who were seven and 11 years old respectively when the tour began. Johann believed young Ludwig had the talent to match and forced him to perform and would physically abuse young Ludwig if he failed to perform to his high standards. Johann van Beethoven went as far as to take two years off of Beethoven's age to exaggerate how advanced Ludwig was compared to other children of his age. In fact, Ludwig spent many years of his life thinking he was in fact two years younger than he actually was. He performed his first public performance March 26, 1778 in Cologne, Germany where he played 'various clavier concertos and trios'.
Johann was a severe teacher and an abusive parent, however, he was able to recognize that Ludwig needed to music with other capable teachers, including court organist Gilles van den Eeden (b. 1708 – June 17, 1782), vocalist Tobias Pfeiffer, and violinists Franz Georg Rovantini (1757 – 1781) and Franz Anton Ries (Nov. 10, 1755 – Nov. 1, 1846). Beethoven's first full-time music teacher was court organist for the elector Gottlob Neefe (1742 – 1798). Neefe taught Ludwig both piano and composition and instructed him through J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier, as well as works by Bach's son C.P.E. Bach and Mozart. Recognizing Beethoven's potential and wrote,
"This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun."
In 1782, Neefe assigned Beethoven to compose variations based on a march theme in C minor by an obscure composer and singer named Ernst C. Dressler (1734 – 1779). Neefe was so impressed bu Ludwig's composition that he reached out to a publisher in Mannheim, Germany to publish it. It was published with a French title page reading, Variations pour le Clavecin sur une Marche de Mr Dresler Composées…par un jeune amateur Louis van Beethoven âgé de dix ans. In English, Variations for the Clavier on a March Theme Composed by Mr Dresler...by the Young Amateur Ludwig van Beethoven 10 years of age. Even though he was actually 12, not 10 when the work was published, it is still an amazing accomplishment for a composer of any age, especially a pre-teen!
Even though this is Ludwig's first published work, it features many "Beethovian" elements, such as the move from c minor to C major which he did in later works, including the Fifth Symphony. Variation VIII foreshadows his Sonata No. 13 in C minor, known as the "Pathétique."
Listen to the Variations in the video below and follow along with the score. Notice how he uses and repurposes the themes, the rhythms, the harmonies, etc. to create a consistent work.
Nine Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63 (1782, revised 1803)
In 1784, Beethoven earned his first appointment as the second organist under Neefe at the court. At the end of 1786, Beethoven traveled to Vienna to study under Mozart and lived there from Jan. to April 1787. While it is likely that he did meet Mozart, there is no documentation of the encounters. Mozart is reported to have said about Beethoven,
“Watch this young man; he will yet make a noise in the world."
Off to Vienna and his Early Period
In May 1787, Beethoven returned to Bonn from Vienna and continued to compose for the elector. In 1791, Beethoven ghost-composed music for a ballet Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein (1762 – 1823) was producing, Ritterballet ( WoO 1), which the Count to pass off as his own work. It remained a well-kept secret; musicologists did not confirm that Beethoven had composed the work until the later 20th century! It is thought that Beethoven used this clandestine commission as a bargaining tool in his persistence to return to Vienna. The elector released Beethoven to return to Vienna in 1792 to study with Franz Joseph Hadyn (March 31, 1732, – May 31, 1809). Count Waldstein was a lover and patron of the arts and had a prophetic belief in Beethoven's abilities and his future career. He signed Ludwig's autograph book that his friends signed when he left for Vienna to study with Haydn in November 1792. Waldstein wrote,
"May you receive the spirit of Mozart through the hands of Haydn."
Beethoven studied with Haydn until Haydn left for London in early 1794, and then he studied harmony and counterpoint under composer, music theorist, and organist Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (Feb. 3 1736 – March 7, 1809). With the recommendations from Count Waldstein, Beethoven was soon accepted into Vienna's aristocratic circles. In 1792, he had also begun studying vocal composition under Mozart's contemporary Antonio Salieri (Aug. 8, 1750 – May 7, 1825). In a short time, Beethoven became a sought-after composer and through the support of his patrons, he was able to work as an independent composer.
Ludwig's first public performance in Vienna was on March 29, 1795. It was a piano concert, held at Vienna's Burgtheater. It was part of an event, organized by Haydn. Ludwig most likely performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15.
Listen to the concerto in the video below and follow along with the score. Notice the way Beethoven uses off-beats to create suspense and notice how the orchestra and piano seem to have a conservation between each other.
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1795)
Beethoven's works from 1795 to 1800 were more large-scale than was the typical for the time. He composed sonatas in four movements, rather than the traditional three, and he included a movement he called a "scherzo and trio" (from Italian for "joke") rather than the common minuet and trio. Beethoven made the most of the emotion impact from extreme dramatic expressive dynamic range, tempi, and chromatic harmony. In some cases, his revolutionary music was more than listeners at the time could comprehend. During the time, he composed his first three piano sonatas, Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Sonata No. 2 in A major, and Sonata No. 3 in C major. The three were published together in 1796 as Op. 2 and dedicated to his teacher, Haydn.
Listen to the Sonata No 1 in F minor in the video below and follow along with the score. Notice the way that Beethoven uses simple motives and ideas, such as arpeggiated chords, repeated ornaments and turns, and short rhythmic figures, to masterfully create a cohesive work that is both distinctive and memorable.
Sonata in F minor, Op 2. 1 (1790 – 1795)
Closing Questions for the Early Period
How do you think Beethoven's family profession influenced his career?
How do you think Beethoven's education influenced his work? Would he have been able to succeed as a composer without his music educators?
Do you think Beethoven's tumultuous childhood is revealed in his work? In what ways?
What musical elements do you notice throughout Beethoven's early works?
In our next post, we will continue to explore Beethoven's life and how it influenced his music as we celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig!
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LV Beethoven. https://www.lvbeethoven.de (Accessed 16 Dec. 2020).
Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online: Beethoven. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000040026 (Accessed 16 Dec. 2020).
Popular Beethoven. https://www.popularbeethoven.com (Accessed 16 Dec. 2020).