Ludwig van Beethoven, the World’s Greatest Composer

When I was taking violin lessons, I found it much easier to learn a song if it had some context for me. Maybe I’d heard the song already. Maybe I recognized the composer’s name. Maybe the song had a fun title or story behind it. As Sunshine has started violin, I’ve tried to encourage her musical interest by telling her stories about various composers. When she’s learning songs they’ve written, she can think about the person who wrote it. One of our favourite composers is Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven, the World's Greatest Composer

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770, in Bonn (then part of the Holy Roman Empire, now Germany). He was the oldest of seven children (although four died in childhood). His father was the court musician and an alchoholic. His mother was a devout, gentle woman with a warm heart, who was very close to Ludwig.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Early Life

Beethoven did not have an easy childhood. His father was abusive. Beethoven’s grandfather had been a prosperous and eminent musician, but Beethoven’s father was only a mediocre singer. He began teaching Beethoven music at a very young age, beating him for every mistake he made. Beethoven learned both violin and clavier from his father. He also took organ lessons from various organists.

Young Ludwig was very good at music. He gave his first public recital at age 7. However, he was less successful at school. He struggled with math and spelling for his whole life. At age 10, Ludwig left school to study under a new court organist and often played the organ during early morning Mass. This teacher introduced him to Johann Sebastien Bach.

At age 12, he wrote his first piece of music, a set of piano variations. Despite this, few people recognized his genius yet. Perhaps his father had pushed him in his lessons because of the example of Mozart’s early talent. Beethoven’s great talent would come later.

A Brilliant Musical Career

When Beethoven was 14, he took a job as Assistant Court Organist to support his family. His father’s alcoholism made him no longer able to work as court musician. Beethoven’s patron, Elector Maximilian (brother to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) sent Beethoven to Vienna to study. However, the young musician returned home within a few weeks because of his mother’s poor health.

Beethoven returned to Vienna several years later, at age 22. Mozart was then dead and Haydn was considered the greatest composer in Europe. Beethoven began to study piano under him while also taking lessons with other noted musicians. He became known as a piano virtuoso and was a sought-after teacher, though he never liked teaching. His talent and the support of Elector Maximilian soon won him many wealthy patrons in Vienna, enabling him to live a life of ease.

In March of 1775, he made his public debut in Vienna. He then published three piano trios as his Opus 1. These were followed five years later by his Symphony No. 1. He continued writing pieces while watching Napoleon’s rise to power. Both Napoleon and Beethoven were young men with astonishingly capabilities, taking their worlds by storm. In 1804, Beethoven published his Symphony No. 3 in Napoleon’s honour—but then renamed it when Napoleon was defeated.

The Composer Goes Deaf

While Beethoven’s musical career was, on the surface, flourishing, the composer was hiding a terrible secret. He was going deaf. His loss of hearing began when he was 30 and is attributed to an illness which affected his ears. He began to withdraw from social functions because he couldn’t hear conversations. His deafness also drove him to melancholy and despair:

“O you men 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 and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” ~ Beethoven, The Heiligenstadt Testament, 1802

Beethoven at times found solace for his suffering in his faith. Michael de Sapio notes that some of his “quotations about God—particularly those written during the agonizing onset of his deafness—emphasize his nearness and his understanding of suffering, in language that often recalls the Psalms. Christ is invoked as a suffering fellow-man (if not as Son of God).”

Despite his deafness, Beethoven kept playing and writing music. Perhaps he felt a desperation to get the music out before he could no longer hear it. He saw several specialists for his hearing loss, including a Catholic priest known for his work with the deaf.

As captured so well in the CD Beethoven Lives Upstairs, he was a lonely and short-tempered man. He fought with friends and family and even those who supported his music. He never married, but did take custody of his nephew after his brother’s death in 1815. Theirs was a rocky relationship, however,

A Return to His Catholic Roots

Some of Beethoven’s greatest pieces were written towards the end of his career, including two Masses. He spent two years composing his “Missa Solemnis” in D major. In order to write this piece, he studied old Church music, Latin Mass texts, and liturgical music treatises.

“The resulting Mass was saturated with Catholic tradition, rich with musical-religious symbolism and references to the shape of the rite itself. To cite just a few some examples: fluttering flute bird-calls representing the Holy Spirit, a hovering violin suggesting Christ’s presence on the Eucharistic altar, and imitations of organ preluding during the Eucharistic rite.” ~ Michael de Sapio, Crisis Magazine

However, his Masses are rarely used in liturgical settings, due to their length and individuality. The music draws attention to itself rather than to God.

Performed under proper conditions in the concert hall, [the Missa Solemnis] is a mighty profession of faith in a personal God by one of the greatest geniuses of all times, who composed it in the midst of the growing doubt and impending moral and spiritual disintegration of his age. ~ Catholic Encyclopedia

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Death and Legacy

The deaf composer died on March 26, 1827, after receiving Last Rites. He was only 56. He was given a Catholic burial with a high requiem Mass. All Vienna mourned their beloved composer’s death.

Today Ludwig van Beethoven is widely considered the greatest composer of all time. His body of music rivals the body of literature written by Shakespeare. Beethoven’s influence stretches beyond just the music he wrote.

“The professional orchestra arose, in large measure, as a vehicle for the incessant performance of Beethoven’s symphonies. The art of conducting emerged in his wake. The modern piano bears the imprint of his demand for a more resonant and flexible instrument. Recording technology evolved with Beethoven in mind: the first commercial 33⅓ r.p.m. LP, in 1931, contained the Fifth Symphony, and the duration of first-generation compact disks was fixed at seventy-five minutes so that the Ninth Symphony could unfurl without interruption. After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty.” ~ Alex Ross, The New Yorker

Beethoven’s music remains popular with musicians around the world. Many of his songs—such as the music for “Ode to Joy” and the opening lines of his Fifth Symphony—are well known. Despite a difficult life, beset by abuse and illness, Beethoven created some of the most beautiful, original music ever known.

Resources about Beethoven for Children

Here are some ideas for sharing Ludwig van Beethoven’s story with your children (these are affiliate links):

Do your children take music lessons? How do you inspire them to practice and learn? What do you know about the life of Ludwig van Beethoven?

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