Ludwig Van Beethoven is widely considered the most influential composer in history. Born in 1770, during the height of Mozart and Haydn’s popularity, Beethoven’s music is what we now think of as the bridge between the Classical period (ca. 1750-1800) and the Romantic period (ca. 1800-1900). The impact he had on the composers that came after him is immeasurable.
Studying with Haydn
As a young adult, Beethoven moved to Vienna, Austria, with the hopes of being Mozart’s composition student. Unfortunately, he was too late, so he studied with Franz Joseph Haydn instead. During this time, Beethoven’s music was very reflective of Haydn and Mozart’s work, while still maintaining originality.
Beethoven's Immense Suffering
Then, in 1802, Beethoven came upon an earth-shattering realization – the deafness he was experiencing, and hoped was temporary, was permanent. As a musician, one’s hearing is arguably the most important thing to have. Imagine composing something and not being able to hear it! Beethoven retreated to the countryside in Austria, to a place called Heiligenstadt, where he wrote the now famous Heiligenstadt Testament. This was a letter to his brother in which he described his crossroads: he could give up, or he could overcome. In addition to his loss of hearing, Beethoven suffered from incapacitating abdominal pain. His devoted group of friends often competed with each other to take care of him as his suffering intensified.
The premiere of his third Symphony in 1803 revealed which option he chose. The response was gigantic – the Western world was stunned and excited by such a new sound. The opening features the melody in the cellos rather than the usual violins. Furthermore, the duration of the piece was more than double a typical Haydn symphony – almost one hour! This expansive form allowed for unexpected, dramatic harmonies to unfold, telling a story of a hero’s struggle and triumph.
Nicknamed the Eroica, Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he saw as a hero of his time. Like the founding fathers of the United States, Beethoven supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, such as individualism and personal freedom. Once Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven famously scratched out Napoleon’s dedication. Beethoven arguably proved himself to be the true hero of the story. Not only did he hold fast to his progressive beliefs, but he also exhibited personal struggle and triumph in his monumental accomplishment through his growing deafness. Breaking norms was natural for Beethoven. Throughout his life, he expressed disdain for authority and was said to cut piano performances short if members of the audience were chattering or failed to give their full attention .
After the Eroica, and eventually the Ninth symphony, containing the famous “Ode to Joy” chorus, most composers tried to model their music after Beethoven’s. His individualism sparked a revolution in classical music; history would never be the same!