Possibly the greatest composer of all time and certainly the most revolutionary was Ludwig van Beethoven. Before Beethoven classical music was genteel, calm, structured according to strict rules and designed to please wealthy patrons. Beethoven introduced the Romantic Movement with music that was powerful, disturbing and passionate. He composed nine symphonies, five piano concertos, one violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. He also composed chamber music, an opera, choral works including the celebrated Missa solemnis, and songs. He pushed the boundaries of music and changed the way it was composed and listened to.
Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn in Germany. He was one of seven children but only he and two younger brothers survived childhood. His outstanding musical talent was obvious at a young age. His father was ambitious to exploit Ludwig as a child prodigy. The boy was a brilliant pianist and at the age of 13 he was appointed organist of the court of Maximillian Franz, the Elector of Cologne. In 1792 he moved to Vienna where he met Mozart and Haydn both of whom influenced the nature of his early musical compositions. He went on to develop his own kind of musical style in what is known as his heroic period. Beethoven said, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” He composed a large number of original works on a grand scale. The first major work in his new style was the Third Symphony in E flat, known as the Eroica. It was longer and more ambitious than any previous symphony. It received a mixed reception at its premiere in 1805. Many listeners disliked its length or misunderstood its structure, but some recognised it as a masterpiece.
Beethoven had to battle a terrible affliction. At the age of 26 he began to lose his hearing. This was a dreadful blow for a professional musician. It caused him profound depression and he even considered suicide. He became completely deaf but this adversity impelled him to an intense level of creativity. Beethoven’s late period from 1815 until his death in 1827 is characterised by compositions of great innovation, power and intellectual depth.
He was acknowledged as a genius during his lifetime. 20,000 people lined the streets at this funeral in Vienna. He was a social revolutionary who deliberately broke normal conventions. Before Beethoven’s time musicians were paid servants of rich patrons. He demanded and received high fees. He disdained authority and social rank. He stopped performing at the piano if the audience were inattentive or chatted among themselves.
He supported the ideals of liberation and the French Revolution. He dedicated one symphony to Napoleon but revoked the dedication when Napoleon declared himself Emperor. The fourth movement of his ninth and final symphony contains a choral setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, an anthem to the brotherhood of humanity.
Beethoven used the affliction of deafness as a spur for even greater and more intense musical innovation. He transformed musical forms and defied social and artistic conventions. Beethoven knew that he was writing for posterity. When musicians complained that they found his music too difficult, he answered, “Do not worry, this is music for the future.”
Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.