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Beethoven

A Life in Nine Pieces

By Laura Tunbridge
18-minute read
Audio available
Beethoven by Laura Tunbridge

Beethoven (2020) takes a unique look at the legendary composer by digging into nine specific compositions that offer fresh insights on key moments in his life. The author challenges popular misconceptions of Beethoven as the reclusive, tortured, misanthropic genius – instead portraying an artist who values friendships, longs for love, and isn’t above haggling over publishing deals.

  • Music aficionados
  • Anyone who likes learning about the lives of artists
  • People interested in what makes a genius tick

Laura Tunbridge is a scholar of German Romanticism and nineteenth-century music. She has written three monographs, including one on German composer Robert Schumann, and is currently a Professor of Music and a Henfrey Fellow at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.

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Beethoven

A Life in Nine Pieces

By Laura Tunbridge
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Beethoven by Laura Tunbridge
Synopsis

Beethoven (2020) takes a unique look at the legendary composer by digging into nine specific compositions that offer fresh insights on key moments in his life. The author challenges popular misconceptions of Beethoven as the reclusive, tortured, misanthropic genius – instead portraying an artist who values friendships, longs for love, and isn’t above haggling over publishing deals.

Key idea 1 of 11

Early Recognition

The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth. The exact day of his birth is uncertain, as is the case with many people born in the eighteenth century. But there is a record of his baptism; it took place on December 17, 1770.

Beethoven was one of the few surviving children of Johann van Beethoven and his wife, Maria. The family, which included Beethoven’s grandfather (also named Ludwig), lived in Bonn, Germany, and worked for the court. It was a musical family.

Beethoven’s grandfather and namesake was the director of court music. He was also a wine merchant, and Johann, a court singer, was known to be an alcoholic. Since Beethoven’s grandfather died just three years after his grandson’s birth, Beethoven was raised by his father, who was demanding and sometimes abusive. Johann wanted his son to be nothing less than a Mozart-like musical prodigy. The sad irony was that the relationship between father and son only grew more tense as Beethoven quickly surpassed the talents of his father.

Beethoven’s family wasn’t one of nobility. This was often a topic of some confusion throughout Beethoven’s life. In Germany and Austria, having the word “von” in your name implies noble lineage, and many assumed that having a “van” in your name implied the same. But Beethoven’s grandfather was Belgian, and the Flemish “van” had nothing to do with noblesse.

Nevertheless, due to the family’s proximity to the court in Bonn, young Ludwig gained notoriety among noblemen who would prove to be influential patrons and benefactors in his career. At the age of thirteen, Beethoven became a substitute organist for the court. Soon after, he joined the chamber music ensemble of Archduke Maximilian Franz – his first benefactor. 

Beethoven quickly learned the importance of pleasing his patron. His first compositions purposefully highlighted the viola, Maximilian’s instrument. In 1786, Maximilian sponsored Beethoven’s first trip to Vienna, where he impressed Mozart with some improvisational playing – not an easy feat. Mozart didn’t make a habit of being wowed by piano-playing teenagers.

A second trip to Vienna in 1792 found Beethoven under the tutelage of another legendary composer, Joseph Haydn. A year later, Haydn was so impressed that he wrote to Maximilian saying that it would only be a matter of time before Beethoven joined the ranks of Europe’s greatest musical talents.

At this time, and many others, war would play a role in Beethoven’s career. The end of the eighteenth century was also the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1794, Napoleon’s army took Vienna, and all plans to return to Bonn were put aside. Though no one could have predicted it at the time, as it turned out, Beethoven would remain in Vienna until his dying day.

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