Ludwig van Beethoven, his life story and music from the Bonn peroid.

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Ludwig van Beethoven

(b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827)

German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction -- deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships -- loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.

usic of the Bonn period.

1. Family background and childhood.

Three generations of the Beethoven family found employment as musicians at the court of the Electorate of Cologne, which had its seat at Bonn. The composer’s grandfather, Ludwig (Louis) van Beethoven (1712–73), the son of an enterprising burgher of Mechelen (Belgium), was a trained musician with a fine bass voice, and after positions at Mechelen, Leuven and Liège accepted in 1733 an appointment as bass in the electoral chapel at Bonn. In 1761 he was appointed Kapellmeister, a position which – although he seems not to have been a composer, unlike other occupants of such a post – carried with it the responsibility of supervising the musical establishment of the court.

With his wife Maria Josepha Poll, whom he had married in 1733, and who later took to drink, he had only one child that survived. Johann van Beethoven (c1740–1792) was a lesser man than his father. He, too, entered the elector’s service, first as a boy soprano in 1752, and continuing after adolescence as a tenor. He was also proficient enough on the piano and the violin to be able to supplement his income by giving lessons on those instruments as well as in singing. In November 1767 he married Maria Magdalena (1745–87), daughter of Heinrich Keverich, ‘overseer of cooking’ at the electoral summer palace of Ehrenbreitstein, and already the widow of Johann Leym, valet to the Elector of Trier; she was not yet 21. The couple took lodgings in Bonn at 515 Bonngasse. Their first child Ludwig Maria (bap. 2 April 1769) lived only six days; their second, also called Ludwig and the subject of this narrative, was baptized on 17 December 1770. Of five children subsequently born to the couple only two survived infancy: Caspar Anton Carl (bap. 8 April 1774) and Nikolaus Johann (bap. 2 October 1776). Both brothers were to play important parts in Beethoven’s life.

Inevitably the early years of the son of an obscure musician in a small provincial town are themselves sunk in obscurity, and though speculation and myth-making have both been productive, facts are rather scarce. It is clear that at a very early age he received instruction from his father on the piano and the violin. Tradition adds that the child, made to stand at the keyboard, was often in tears. Beethoven’s first appearance in public was at a concert given with another of his father’s pupils (a contralto) on 26 March 1778, at which (according to the advertisement) he played ‘various clavier concertos and trios’. A little later, when he was eight, his father is said to have sent him to the old court organist van den Eeden, from whom he may have received some grounding in music theory as well as keyboard instruction. He appears also to have had piano lessons from Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, who lodged for a while with the family, and informal tuition from several local organists. A relative, Franz Rovantini, gave the boy lessons on the violin and viola. His general education was not continued beyond the elementary school, but this was in accordance with the usual custom in Bonn at that time, only a few children going on to a Gymnasium (high school). The comparative brevity of Beethoven’s formal education, combined with the fact that most of his out-of-school hours must have been devoted to music, explains some of the gaps in his academic equipment, such as his blindness to orthography and punctuation and his inability to carry out the simplest multiplication sum.

In 1779 a musician arrived in Bonn who was to be Beethoven’s first important teacher. This was Christian Gottlob Neefe, who came as the musical director of a theatrical company that the elector took into his establishment. The point at which he began instructing Beethoven is not known. But in February 1781 Neefe succeeded to the post of court organist, a position that evidently required an assistant, and by June 1782, when Neefe left Bonn for a short period, Beethoven was acting as deputy in his absence; he was then 11½. Neefe’s estimate of his pupil is contained in a communication to Cramer’s Magazin der Musik dated 2 March 1783 – the first printed notice of Beethoven:

Louis van Beethoven, son of the tenor singer already mentioned, a boy of 11 years and of most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and I need say no more than that the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperirte Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe put into his hands … So far as his other duties permitted, Herr Neefe has also given him instruction in thoroughbass. He is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has had nine variations for the piano, written by him on a march [by Ernst Christoph Dressler], engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.

The reference to Mozart was presumably to the child prodigy and not to the mature composer whose years of fame in Vienna were yet to come; but Neefe’s affection for his young pupil and confidence in his ability are plain. The variations on Dressler’s march (woo63), published by Götz of Mannheim, were Beethoven’s first published work.

Further experience came to Beethoven via Neefe in 1783 when his teacher, overburdened with the work of the temporarily absent Kapellmeister Lucchesi, employed him as ‘cembalist in the orchestra’, not only a position of some responsibility but also one that will have enabled him to hear all the popular operas of the day. The autumn saw the publication of his first significant composition, the three piano sonatas dedicated to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich (woo47). Towards the close of the year Beethoven undertook a trip to Holland, where he is reported to have performed on numerous occasions, notably including an orchestral concert at The Hague (at which he probably played his Concerto in E flat, woo4).

2. Youth.

Although Beethoven by now enjoyed a sturdy reputation as a virtuoso in the regions surrounding Bonn, he still drew no salary from the court for his duties as Neefe's assistant. His petition (in February 1784) for an official position as assistant to the court organist was granted, but the elector died before his salary, if any, could be fixed. But the new elector, Maximilian Franz, brother of the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, instituted economies on his accession in 1784 that transferred some of Neefe's salary to his pupil. Beethoven’s salary as organist was thus fixed at 150 florins. Increased attention to his activities as a performer may have been a factor in his diminished output as a composer in the years from 1785 to 1789. Apart from a set of three piano quartets from 1785 (woo36), possibly intended for dedication to the new elector but not published until after Beethoven’s death, there exists little evidence of compositional activity during these years. About this time, too, he seems to have had violin lessons from Franz Ries, a good friend of the family, and to have begun giving piano lessons himself.

Neefe, as quoted above, had declared that the young genius should be given the chance to travel, and in the spring of 1787 Beethoven visited Vienna. In the absence of documents much remains uncertain about the precise aims of the journey and the extent to which they were realized; but there seems little doubt that he met Mozart and perhaps had a few lessons from him. It seems equally clear that he did not remain in Vienna for longer than about two weeks. The news of his mother’s deteriorating health precipitated his sudden journey back. He returned to Bonn to find his mother dying of tuberculosis, and his first surviving letter, to a member of a family in Augsburg that had befriended him on his way, describes the melancholy events of that summer and hints at his own ill-health, depression and lack of financial resources.

For the fortunes of the Beethoven family were in decline. This was not always the case. It is now known that Beethoven did not spend his early childhood in great poverty, as most biographers have assumed. Johann van Beethoven managed to support his family in reasonably moderate circumstances until the mid-1780s, when a series of misadventures severely reduced his capacity as breadwinner.

This is perhaps the place for a word or two about Beethoven’s parents. The personality of the mother whom he now mourned (she had died on 17 July 1787) does not emerge in very distinctive terms; the accounts speak in conventional phrases of her piety, gentleness and kindness, and of her gravity of manner. This is contrasted, again somewhat conventionally, with Johann van Beethoven’s harsher and perhaps even violent temperament. In these years the talents on which he relied to support his family, at no time outstanding, seem to have been observed to decline. An official report of 1784 described his voice as ‘very stale’, and for some time before his wife’s death he had begun to drink heavily, as his mother had done. In 1789, therefore, Beethoven – who was not yet 19 – took the extraordinary step of placing himself at the head of the family by petitioning for half his father’s salary to enable him to support his brothers; this was granted, and the old tenor’s services were dispensed with. The psychological significance of this act of self-assertion has not escaped his biographers.

The next four years, the last that Beethoven spent in Bonn, can be portrayed in a sunnier light. From 1789, when the musical life of the town under the new elector was fully resumed, Beethoven played the viola in the orchestras both of the court chapel and of the theatre, alongside such fine musicians as Franz Ries and Andreas Romberg (violins), Bernhard Romberg (cello), Nikolaus Simrock (horn) and Antoine Reicha (flute); some of these were to remain almost lifelong friends. He also began to be active again as a composer, producing, among other works, the most impressive composition of the Bonn years, the cantata on the death of the Emperor Joseph II (woo87).

Joseph II was not merely the elector’s elder brother but a powerful symbol of those intellectual, social and political ideas of the 18th century known as the Enlightenment (Aufklärung). His reformist ideas found a ready welcome in Bonn among Beethoven’s contemporaries and immediate superiors in age, so that the grief caused by the emperor’s death in Vienna on 20 February 1790 was no doubt more than merely formal. On hearing the news four days later the literary society (Lesegesellschaft) of Bonn at once planned a memorial celebration for 19 March. Beethoven was commissioned to produce a cantata, but for unknown reasons the work was not performed. It may be that there was insufficient time to rehearse it; that it was found unimpressive seems unlikely, since in the autumn a second cantata ‘On the Accession of Leopold II to the Imperial Dignity’ (woo88) was commissioned and completed – though that too seems not to have reached performance.

One further commission was undertaken to please Beethoven’s talented and powerful friend Count Ferdinand Waldstein: on 6 March 1791 the count produced a ballet in old German costume, performed by the local nobility, and the music for this Ritterballett (woo1) was by Beethoven, though his name was not made public. The dedication to the Countess von Hatzfeld of 24 variations for piano on the theme of Righini’s arietta ‘Venni amore’ (woo65), published in the summer of 1791, indicates another aristocratic connection.

But for Beethoven the chief excitements of this year may have been outside Bonn itself. As Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, the elector had to preside for many weeks over its sessions at Mergentheim, and he saw to it that he had his orchestra with him. The players’ journey up the Rhine was accompanied by much revelry and clowning; in later years Beethoven retained many happy memories of this, as well as one curious memento (a mock diploma). An ambitious series of concerts was given at Mergentheim, and Beethoven also seized the opportunity of going with friends to Aschaffenburg, a summer palace of the Electors of Mainz, to visit the famous pianist Sterkel. It is said that Sterkel’s light touch and graceful, fastidious style were a revelation to Beethoven. But when Sterkel challenged him to play his own Righini variations, doubting his ability to do so, it was Beethoven’s turn to cause amazement, particularly since he improvised extra variations in a style that imitated Sterkel’s.

By this time, it is clear, it was not only other professional musicians who recognized his worth or valued his friendship. He had formed a considerable circle of friends, drawn from some of the most discerning, progressive and respected families in Bonn. A few at least deserve mention here. Count Waldstein, eight years older than Beethoven, had come to Bonn from Vienna in 1788. A close associate of the elector and highly musical himself, he proved a devoted friend and patron of Beethoven, whom he came to know in the cultivated circle of the von Breuning family. Frau von Breuning, whose husband had died in a fire in 1777, had four children, all slightly younger than Beethoven: Eleonore, later to marry another friend of Beethoven’s Bonn and early Vienna years, Franz Gerhard Wegeler; Christoph; Stephan, a lifelong friend; and Lorenz, who died young. The young widow herself became something of a second mother to Beethoven and seems to have had a keen insight into his character. She used her authority to dissuade him from neglecting duties that he found tedious, while evidently recognizing his tendency to self-absorption, since she would often remark: ‘He has his raptus again’. She exercised some control, too, over his friendships; of the less suitable ones he remarked in later years: ‘She understood how to keep insects off the flowers’. This kindly supervision, and the provision of what became almost a second home, meant much to Beethoven, who in spite of his many admirers remained in some ways a solitary youth, and on occasion a painfully shy one.

There were other opportunities for agreeable social life in Bonn. The elector was often absent, leaving Beethoven free for musical activities unconnected with the court. He spent much of his time in a circle of aristocratic friends and prosperous citizens such as the Westerholts, the Eichhoffs and the Kochs. The Kochs ran a kind of social and political club, the Zehrgarten, that was a centre for intellectual life in Bonn, and a number of Beethoven’s early compositions were written for members of this circle.

It may have been Waldstein whose voice was decisive in the proposal that Beethoven should now go to Vienna to study with Haydn. When Haydn had passed through Bonn on his way to England in December 1790 he had met some of ‘the most capable musicians’, but it is not known whether Beethoven was among them. (Neefe, Beethoven's enthusiastic mentor, must surely have been.) But in July 1792, according to Wegeler, the electoral orchestra assembled at Godesberg to give a breakfast for Haydn, now on his journey back to Vienna, and Wegeler adds that on this occasion Beethoven showed him a cantata (doubtless woo87 or 88) and received Haydn’s commendation. More probably that had happened earlier, on Haydn’s outward journey. But it was now that the matter of Beethoven becoming Haydn’s pupil was no doubt raised; the elector, to whom it fell to pay for the journey and the living expenses in Vienna, in due course sanctioned the arrangement. Beethoven’s departure was fixed for the beginning of November. An album amicorum from this time records the good wishes of a large number of his friends, who had no reason to expect that he would be leaving Bonn for ever. None of the entries was more prophetic than that of Waldstein:

Dear Beethoven: You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes. The Genius of Mozart is still mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes once more to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands. Your true friend, Waldstein.

3. 1792–5.

Beethoven arrived in Vienna, the city that was to be his home for the rest of his life, in the second week of November 1792. He was not quite 22. His entry into Viennese circles was unobtrusive, and the sporadic entries in the little diary that he had started on his journey and kept at least until 1794 are the best guide to his immediate preoccupations. They show him looking for a piano and for a wig-maker, buying clothes, noting the address of a dancing-master, and the like. Later entries are concerned with the renting of some lodgings. And on the same page that records ‘on Wednesday, 12 December [1792], I have 15 ducats’, there is a variety of small sums of money set against the name of ‘Haidn’. Within weeks of his arrival, therefore, the instruction from Haydn which had been the purpose of his journey had already begun. Of another event of the same month, the death of his father in Bonn on 18 December, there is no mention in the diary.

Haydn’s tuition lasted for no longer than about a year; in January 1794 he left Vienna for his second London visit. The arrangement proved a disappointment to Beethoven, but he concealed this at the time from Haydn, and throughout 1793 the relations between pupil and teacher were outwardly cordial. Haydn appears to have had no corresponding misgivings – at any rate until later, when Beethoven had some very harsh things to say about him. Temperamentally, however, they were set for conflict. The childless Haydn no doubt wished for affection and even love from his most brilliant pupil – but that was the one thing that Beethoven was too mistrustful to give. Though he could write to the only moderately gifted (and no longer present) Neefe, ‘If ever I become a great man, yours will be some of the credit’, he was almost bound to feel the genius of ‘Papa’ Haydn standing in his way, one more father to be defied or circumvented. Beethoven’s unease crystallized into the groundless suspicion that his teacher ‘was not well minded towards him’ and was neglecting or perhaps even sabotaging his tuition. (The formal side of the instruction can be seen from the surviving exercises, which consist of strict species counterpoint; they are in Beethoven’s handwriting, with somewhat intermittent corrections by Haydn.) The lack of thoroughness on Haydn’s part formed one of Beethoven’s grievances. According to the composer Johann Schenk (whose testimony has, however, been contested), Beethoven secretly enlisted Schenk's help with these exercises.

It is not clear whether Haydn also instructed him in free composition. A clue here is provided by an episode that seems to reflect better on Haydn than on his pupil. Since leaving Bonn Beethoven had found himself with insufficient money for his living expenses. He continued, it is true, to receive his Bonn salary each quarter, and after his father’s death he had successfully petitioned the elector to double it; but some part of this must have gone to support his brothers, who were still in Bonn. For his subsistence in Vienna he had only 100 ducats (nearly 500 florins) per annum. He had hoped to receive the whole of it on his arrival in Vienna, at which time he had to make considerable outlays, but it seems to have been paid quarterly. The result was that he had to borrow. On 23 November 1793 Haydn wrote on his behalf to the elector, enclosing five pieces of music, ‘compositions of my dear pupil Beethoven’, whom he predicted would ‘in time fill the position of one of Europe’s greatest composers’. He added (with characteristic generosity): ‘I shall be proud to call myself his teacher; I only wish that he might remain with me a little while longer’. Haydn’s letter next turned to the question of Beethoven’s subsidy; it described the elector’s 100 ducats as a sum quite inadequate to Beethoven’s needs, pointed out that he himself had had to lend him 500 florins, and ended by suggesting that the elector might do well to increase the subsidy to 1000 florins in the coming year. The elector’s reply was both accurate and icy. Four of the five submitted works had been composed and performed in Bonn long before the move to Vienna, and were therefore no evidence of progress. Moreover Beethoven was being paid not only the 100 ducats but also his ordinary salary of 400 florins, so had no reason to be in particular difficulty. The elector concluded:

I am wondering if he would not do better to begin his return journey, in order to resume his duties here; for I very much doubt whether he will have made any important progress in composition and taste during his present stay, and I fear he will only bring back debts from his journey, just as he did from his first trip to Vienna.

It looks as though Beethoven had misled Haydn in respect of his total income, and thus exposed Haydn to the elector’s withering reply. He may also have misled Haydn as to the dates of the works the latter submitted to the elector, although it is hard to know whether Haydn actually thought that they were new works or knowingly submitted them as newly revised works. In any event, this suggests that Beethoven completed hardly anything new under Haydn’s immediate supervision, though he seems to have revised and polished several of the later Bonn works.

When Haydn left for England in 1794, he passed Beethoven on to another tutor, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, the Kapellmeister at the Stephansdom and the best-known teacher of counterpoint in Vienna. The lessons, three times a week, started after Haydn’s departure and continued throughout 1794 to the spring of 1795. They were more thorough-going than Haydn’s had been, and covered not only simple counterpoint but contrapuntal exercises in free writing, in imitation, in two-, three- and four-part fugue, choral fugue, double counterpoint at the different intervals, double fugue, triple counterpoint and canon – at which point they were broken off. Albrechtsberger proved a most conscientious, though at the same time very dry, teacher.

A third name is often linked with Haydn’s and Albrechtsberger’s: that of the imperial Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. It was Salieri’s genial custom to offer free tuition to impecunious musicians, especially in the setting of Italian words to music; and it is usually stated that Beethoven availed himself of this informal help soon after his arrival in Vienna. The only surviving evidence of any serious study with Salieri, however, dates from the years 1801–2, when he set a large number of unaccompanied partsongs with Italian words and a scena and aria for soprano and string orchestra (woo92a). These were followed in 1802 by two final pieces scored for orchestra, the terzetto Tremate, empi, tremate (op.116) and the duet Ne’ giorni tuoi felici (woo93). They are more than exercises and may have been intended for a concert. In spite of Salieri’s help Beethoven never fully mastered Italian prosody, though something had no doubt been gained in the skill of setting words by the time that he turned in the direction of opera.

But that is to jump far ahead. Aside from his studies, Beethoven’s first task in Vienna was to establish himself as a pianist and composer. This was something that he achieved both rapidly and with remarkable success. His gifts apart, there were at least two reasons for this, and they not only helped to launch him but continued to sustain him after he had gained an ascendant position. The first was his immediate contacts with aristocratic circles. He had arrived from Bonn as the court organist and pianist to the Emperor Franz’s uncle, and with a reputation already spread by high-born Viennese who had heard him while visiting the elector; he was a protégé of Count Waldstein, who was connected by birth or by marriage with several of the greatest houses of the Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian nobility; and he was the pupil of Haydn. Thus he was in the strongest possible position to be introduced into the best aristocratic circles.

The second reason had to do with the character of the circles themselves. The aristocracy based on the Austrian capital surpassed all others of Europe in its devotion to music, and much of its time and a considerable part of its fortunes – a ruinous amount in some cases – was spent in the conspicuous indulgence of this taste. Not only did these aristocrats welcome virtuosos to their town palaces and country estates, but some of them, such as Prince Lobkowitz, kept private orchestras and even – like the Esterházys – opera companies as well. If their support was not on quite so lavish a scale, at least they employed a wind band or, like Prince Karl Lichnowsky and the Russian Count Rasumovsky, a quartet of string players. The Court Councillor von Kees was among the many who organized private concerts; a large library of music was assembled by the Baron van Swieten, a patriarch whose distinction it was to cultivate the music of Bach and Handel and introduce it to Viennese audiences. The names of van Swieten and some of these others are found in the records of Mozart’s and Haydn’s lives; and they now gave a welcome to Beethoven.

He certainly needed more than their mere approval. His salary from Bonn was paid only until March 1794, and in a list of the elector’s musicians from the autumn of the year he was entered as ‘Beethoven, without salary in Vienna, until recalled’. (The elector now had his own difficulties as a result of the military victories of the neighbouring French. He had visited Vienna in January 1794, and Beethoven may have called on him and discussed his position.) Since many of the aristocracy had spacious accommodation or several houses, it was natural for them to provide Beethoven with lodging. One of the first houses in Vienna (if not the very first) in which he had rooms was owned by Prince Lichnowsky, who soon established himself as a leading patron of the composer. Both he and his wife Princess Christiane (née Thun) were intensely musical, and lavished a steady stream of kindnesses on him. But others were scarcely less generous or hospitable, so that it is no surprise to find Beethoven setting off in June 1793 for Eisenstadt, where Haydn was staying; doubtless the Esterházys looked after him. Another early supporter who became a lifelong friend was the Hungarian Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. A capable amateur cellist and composer of quartets, he ardently promoted performances of Beethoven’s music and continually rendered him small services, including the provision of quill pens, which Beethoven could never cut properly himself.

Beethoven’s instant and striking successes as a virtuoso were at first confined to performances in private houses. Regular public concerts of the sort given throughout the season in London and Paris were not then a feature of Viennese musical life; there were only a few annual charity concerts and an occasional subscription concert of a virtuoso or Kapellmeister. But in the salons the stunning effect of Beethoven’s solo playing, and particularly perhaps of his improvising, was immediately recognized. A glimpse of what this aspect of his life was like to Beethoven is to be found in one of his letters to Eleonore von Breuning in Bonn, to whom – because of a quarrel before his departure from there – he did not write until he had been in Vienna for almost a year. He had dedicated to her the first of his works to be published in Vienna (composed in part in Bonn), his variations for violin and piano on Mozart’s ‘Se vuol ballare’ (woo40), and in alluding to the difficult trills in the coda confessed to her:

I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize one evening would next day note down several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall those people. But there was another reason, too; my desire to embarrass those Viennese pianists, some of whom are my sworn enemies. I wanted to revenge myself on them in this way, because I knew beforehand that my variations would here and there be put before the said gentlemen and that they would cut a sorry figure with them.

The pugnaciousness of the virtuoso is characteristic, and it was not long before he displayed his powers before wider audiences.

An early opportunity came at a charity concert in the Burgtheater on 29 March 1795. Beethoven appeared as composer as well as virtuoso, for he played a piano concerto of his own, probably the work in B flat, later published as the Second Concerto (op.19). His old friend from Bonn, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, who was in Vienna from October 1794 to the summer of 1796, witnessed the preparations for this concert – or it may have been the one nine months later in December and the concerto may have been the First (op.15) in C – and relates how Beethoven completed the finale only at the very last moment while suffering from severe abdominal pains. At a second charity concert the next day Beethoven again appeared on the platform; this time he gave an improvisation. And on 31 March he played for the third time in three days at a performance of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito organized by his widow; this time the concerto was one of Mozart’s.

Apart from the variations dedicated to Eleonore von Breuning he had not yet published anything in Vienna. The decision was deliberate, for his op.1 was intended to be an event. He chose a set of three piano trios, a genre dear to aristocratic devotees of chamber music, and he dedicated it to Prince Lichnowsky. The trios had already been heard and admired, possibly in earlier versions. There is a well-known story of what purports to have been their first performance at a soirée of Lichnowsky’s at which Haydn was present; although he praised them, he is said to have advised Beethoven not to publish the third of them, in C minor. If this story is true down to the details, the soirée must have taken place before Haydn’s departure for England in January 1794, for when he returned to Vienna in August 1795 op.1 had just been published. But it seems more likely that he heard the trios only on his return, and expressed regret about the inclusion of the C minor one. Since the third trio ultimately proved the most successful, Beethoven suspected malice on Haydn’s part; years later Haydn confirmed that he had had misgivings about its publication, adding that he had not believed it would be understood and received so well. Beethoven published his op.1 by subscription, the edition being produced by the publisher Artaria. The subscription list contained 123 names (many of them recruited by Lichnowsky), and the subscriptions amounted to 241 copies at one ducat (roughly four and a half florins) each; since Beethoven paid the publisher only a florin per copy he made a handsome profit.

According to Wegeler, Haydn’s return to Vienna was marked by the performance at Lichnowsky’s of another substantial composition by Beethoven: the three piano sonatas that he subsequently published in March 1796 as his op.2 and dedicated to Haydn. It is said that Haydn had hoped Beethoven would append to his name on the title-pages of his earliest works the words ‘pupil of Haydn’ – a common enough custom – and that Beethoven declined to do so, privately declaring that although he had had some lessons from Haydn he had never learnt anything from him. At all events the sonatas (like the trios before them) were published without any acknowledgment of pupillage.

Outwardly, however, relations between the two did not appear to be strained. On 18 December 1795 Beethoven made his second public appearance in Vienna as a composer-virtuoso, playing a piano concerto at a concert which Haydn organized and which included three of his latest symphonies, written for London. It is probable that this was the first performance of the C major concerto. Another sign of Beethoven’s growing popularity was the invitation this year to write the minuets and German dances for the November ball held in the Redoutensaal by the Pensionsgesellschaft Bildender Künstler.

4. 1796–1800.

Beethoven’s sights were now set on still wider audiences. His youngest brother Nikolaus Johann had arrived from Bonn at the very end of 1795 and had found employment in an apothecary’s shop; and Caspar Carl, the other brother, had been in Vienna from the middle of 1794, apparently supporting himself by giving music lessons. With his brothers thus established in Vienna, Beethoven now felt able to embark on a concert tour. In February 1796 he set out for Prague, travelling (as Mozart had done seven years earlier) with Prince Lichnowsky. Writing from Prague to his brother Johann in Vienna he announced his intentions of visiting Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, and added: ‘I am well, very well. My art is winning me friends and respect, and what more do I want? And this time I shall make a good deal of money’. On 11 March he gave a concert in Prague; on 29 April he played before the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. On reaching Berlin, he appeared several times before the King of Prussia (Friedrich Wilhelm II), and with the king’s first cellist, Jean Louis Duport, he played the two op.5 cello sonatas, written for this performance. Another pièce d’occasion was the set of 12 variations for cello and piano on a theme of Handel; the cello was of course the king’s instrument, and the choice of theme (‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’) may have contained a courteous nod towards the throne. The king gave Beethoven a gold snuffbox filled with louis d’ors: ‘no ordinary snuffbox’, Beethoven later declared with pride, ‘but such a one as it might have been customary to give to an ambassador’. He seems to have stayed for about a month in Berlin, making the acquaintance of the Kapellmeister, Himmel, as well as of Zelter and Fasch, and twice giving improvisations before the Singakademie.

By the time that Beethoven returned to Vienna his friend Wegeler had gone back to Bonn, together with Christoph von Breuning, though Christoph’s brother Lorenz remained in Vienna. Beethoven and Wegeler – who completed his studies in medicine, married Eleonore von Breuning in 1802, and set up practice in Koblenz – never met again, but they remained friends and exchanged letters from time to time. Wegeler’s contribution to the Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven that he compiled with Ferdinand Ries after Beethoven’s death and published in 1838 (with a supplement, 1845) is a valuable source of information on Beethoven’s childhood and adolescence in Bonn and on his life in Vienna up to 1796.

At the end of 1796 Beethoven again travelled. He played at a concert at Pressburg (now Bratislava) on 23 November. The next year, 1797, is almost devoid of incidents that have left any record. At the end of May he wrote to Wegeler that he was doing well – in fact, better and better; on 1 October he penned some warm lines in the album of Lorenz von Breuning, who was leaving Vienna to return to Bonn. Between those dates nothing is known, and it is even possible that he was seriously ill at that time. One source assigns such an illness to the second half of the previous year, where there is also a gap in the records (from July to November). The year 1797 saw the publication of several compositions: his opp.5–8, the most important of which were the E flat Piano Sonata (op.7) and the cello sonatas written for Berlin (op.5), as well as the song Adelaide (op.46), dedicated to the author of its words, the poet Matthisson. The publications of 1798 were even more assured, including the three op.9 string trios, his most impressive chamber works to date, and the three op.10 piano sonatas. The trios were dedicated to Count Johann Georg von Browne, a patron whom Beethoven described in the dedication as the ‘first Maecenas of his Muse’, while op.10 was dedicated to Browne’s wife.

Early in 1798 considerable interest was aroused by the arrival in Vienna of the emissary of the French Directoire, General Bernadotte; in his retinue was the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. Both were only a few years older than Beethoven, whose acquaintance they made. Bernadotte’s sojourn in Vienna was brief, but he is said to have suggested to Beethoven the idea of writing a ‘heroic’ symphony on the theme of the young General Bonaparte.

Later in the year (the exact date is unknown) Beethoven visited Prague and gave two public concerts, as well as a private recital. They were attended and described in some detail by the Bohemian composer Václav Tomášek (Wenzel Tomaschek). He heard Beethoven play the Adagio and Rondo from the Piano Sonata in A op.2 no.2, improvisations on ‘Ah perdona’ from Mozart’s Tito and on ‘Ah vous dirai-je maman’, and both the B flat and C major piano concertos (Tomášek described the former as having just been written for Prague, so it was probably a revised version that was performed). For Tomášek, who by the end of his life had heard all the outstanding virtuosos from the age of Mozart to the 1840s, Beethoven remained the greatest pianist of all – though Beethoven the composer came in for more criticism. Only in 1798–9, in fact, did Beethoven’s virtuosity, which seems until then to have had no serious rivals in Vienna, come under challenge from the Salzburg-born pianist Joseph Wölfl (with whom Beethoven directly engaged in a piano duel) and from Johann Baptist Cramer of London; both were about his age. The stimulus of competition from two such excellent players, whose strengths were nevertheless rather different from his own, could only have had a salutary effect on his playing, which he was to describe in 1801 (to a correspondent who had not heard him for two years) as having ‘considerably improved’.

It was probably a living composer whose challenge Beethoven was finding more dispiriting. In 1795–6 he had reacted to the brilliant symphonies that Haydn had brought back from London by attempting to write a symphony of his own in C major, but although he worked at it vigorously it remained unfinished and was abandoned. Now, in April 1798, Haydn gave private performances of his new oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation), and Beethoven might well be excused for believing his old teacher’s confession that the inspiration for some passages was more than human. Furthermore, Haydn continued to produce masterly string quartets with unabated vigour: six had been written in 1793 and six more in 1797. Although all the works with opus numbers that Beethoven had so far published in Vienna, apart from the piano sonatas, could loosely be called chamber works, the particular genre that was most closely associated with Haydn, and indeed with Mozart as well – the string quartet – was noticeably unrepresented. That Beethoven was only too aware of their formidable example there can be no doubt, and he copied out movements from several of their quartets in score for closer study. Still, the challenge was one for which he now felt himself ready, and in the second half of 1798 and through the winter and spring he worked on a set of quartets.

It is tempting to draw a connection between the selfconsciousness of this undertaking and a change in his working methods which coincided with it. Beethoven had always made sketches of the compositions that he was engaged in writing, and as time went on they became more voluminous. But hitherto they had been written on loose single leaves or bifolia of music paper. From the middle of 1798 he began to make his sketches in books of music paper. The first two of the sketchbooks contain sketches for four of the quartets that he was now writing, as well as for a considerable number of other works that he completed, revised or attempted to write in the same months. (The completed works include a song, La tiranna woo125, which he wrote to English words, working in part from a phonetic transcription.) The sketchbooks evidently retained some value for him long after they had been filled up, for he kept them by him and preserved most of them in a growing pile for the rest of his life. Some aspects of their importance, a particular preoccupation of Beethoven scholarship in recent years, are discussed below in §19.

In 1798 Karl Amenda, a student of theology and a competent violinist, arrived in Vienna from his native Courland (Latvia), and became tutor to Prince Lobkowitz’s children and music teacher at the home of Mozart’s widow. He and Beethoven soon became fast friends; indeed they were almost inseparable. But in the late summer of 1799 Amenda was obliged to depart again for Courland, and on 25 June 1799 Beethoven gave him a copy of a quartet ‘as a small memorial of our friendship’. This quartet was later published in a somewhat altered form as the first of the op.18 quartets. It is not clear how many of the six quartets had been completed by the end of 1799; but the ones written first were in any case revised later before being sent to the publisher.

Other friendships formed around this time were ultimately more fateful for Beethoven. In May 1799 the Countesses Therese and Josephine von Brunsvik, then 24 and 20, came to Vienna from Hungary on a short visit with their widowed mother, who wished them to take lessons from Beethoven. He was charmed by them, proved a very attentive teacher, and for their album composed a ‘musical offering’ consisting of a song with some variations for piano duet (woo74). Through them he became friends with the other members of the family, their brother Franz and their youngest sister Charlotte; Julie (Giulietta) Guicciardi, who came to Vienna from Trieste with her parents in 1800, was their very young cousin. Beethoven was soon a welcome guest on visits to their estates in Hungary. But the short trip to Vienna had unhappy consequences for Josephine. The family made the acquaintance of Count Joseph Deym (or Herr Müller; he had been exiled after a duel and returned under a pseudonym); Deym was the proprietor of a famous museum of waxworks, and although he was almost 30 years older than Josephine, her mother pressed his claim as a suitable husband for her, partly no doubt in an attempt to redeem the family fortunes. Josephine reluctantly assented, and they were quickly married; but Deym was in fact badly in debt, so that even financially the match had nothing to be said for it. The visits of Beethoven to the wing of the 80-room museum house in Vienna in which the Deyms lived must have afforded some consolation to the unhappy young countess.

On 2 April 1800 Beethoven gave his first concert for his own benefit, in the Burgtheater. The music included, besides a Mozart symphony and numbers from Haydn’s Creation, two new works by Beethoven, the Septet (op.20) and the First Symphony. The former soon became one of his most popular works; the reception of the latter was appreciative, although the heavy scoring for the wind was remarked on. His piano playing was on display in an improvisation and a piano concerto – probably the C major. No doubt he had planned to produce a new concerto, the Third, in C minor, written around this time but not performed until the spring of 1803 (the score, with a heavily revised solo part, is dated ‘1803’). Perhaps, then, the C minor concerto could not be completed in time for the concert. For his appearance later in the same month with the Bohemian horn player Johann Wenzel Stich (or ‘Giovanni Punto’, the name that Stich preferred to use) he very rapidly wrote a horn sonata (op.17); they gave a second concert three weeks later in Pest. Beethoven may have spent part of the summer of 1800 with the Brunsvik family in Hungary.

The second half of 1800 was outwardly uneventful; it doubtless saw the final revision of the op.18 string quartets, and the writing of the B Piano Sonata (op.22) and of the A minor and F major violin sonatas (opp.23, 24). There was less inducement to prepare new works for a possible concert in the following spring, since he had received an important commission for the court stage: he was to write the music for a ballet designed by the celebrated ballet-master Salvatore Viganò, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (op.43). This was given its first performance at the Burgtheater on 28 March 1801 and was successful enough to be repeated more than 20 times. Only a sketch of the scenario survives. In the finale Beethoven used a melody that evidently came to assume a certain emotional importance for him, perhaps even embodying something of his spirit of determination and heroism in battling against difficulties, for he used it again as the theme for two important and challenging sets of variations completed in 1802 and 1803: the op.35 piano variations and the variation-finale of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony.

By this time several publishers were competing for Beethoven’s newest works, and though a number of important compositions had lately appeared – the highly individual Sonate pathétique (op.13), for instance, dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, at the very end of 1799 – others had not yet found a buyer. An entertaining correspondence with the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister, who had lately moved from Vienna to Leipzig, dates from around this time. Hoffmeister finally bought several works beginning with the First Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto, the Septet and the B Piano Sonata.

It comes as a surprise to find that Beethoven was intending to dedicate the symphony to his former overlord and employer, the Elector of Cologne. The preceding years had been harsh to Maximilian Franz. After being forced by French military successes to leave Bonn in October 1794, and having stayed for a while in various cities, he had finally returned to Vienna in April 1800 and settled in Hetzendorf just outside the city. Beethoven is believed to have spent some time in summer 1801 in and around Hetzendorf, and may well have called on the elector and paid his homage or made his peace with him, for the instructions for the symphony’s dedication are contained in a letter to Hoffmeister written about 21 June 1801. Beethoven’s wishes were not to be carried out, for the elector died on 26 July and the symphony was subsequently dedicated to Baron van Swieten.

5. 1801–2: deafness.

At a time of personal crisis it was natural for Beethoven’s thoughts to turn to his last years in Bonn and to the friends he still had there. One of these – his friend of longest standing, trained in medicine, discreet, remote from Vienna – was particularly suited to be the first recipient of a secret that Beethoven had kept to himself for some years and that had not yet been guessed by his circle of friends in the capital: the appalling discovery that he was going deaf. These tidings were now conveyed to Wegeler in Bonn in a letter of 29 June 1801, and to another absent friend, Karl Amenda in Courland, two days later.

Exactly when Beethoven first detected some impairment in his hearing cannot be determined. Perhaps he did not quite know himself, for no doubt its onset was insidious, and he probably did not regard any temporary periods of deafness or diminished hearing as sinister, especially since he had long become used to spells of fever, abdominal pain and episodes of ill-health. A young man does not expect to go deaf, and although in one account he implied that he had noticed the first symptoms in 1796, other statements set the date somewhat later, and the crisis came only with the growing realization that his deafness was progressive and probably incurable. From the descriptions of his symptoms there is general agreement among modern otologists that his deafness was caused by otosclerosis of the ‘mixed’ type, that is, the degeneration of the auditory nerve as well – by no means a rare condition.

At this time Beethoven had not yet given up hope that his doctors could do something for his hearing, but he could already foresee incalculable troubles both for his professional life and – what it is easy to forget was equally important to him – for his social life. As he wrote to Wegeler:

I must confess that I am living a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, what would they say?

To Amenda he wrote in similar terms: ‘Your Beethoven is leading a very unhappy life, and is at variance with Nature and his Creator’, but he added that when he was playing and composing his affliction still hampered him least – it affected him most when he was in company. A curious feature of these letters, in fact, is that each includes not only a melancholy account of the despair which his deafness had brought about but also an almost lyrical portrait of his professional and financial successes. Lichnowsky had agreed to pay him an annuity of 600 florins for some years; six or seven publishers were competing for each new work; he was often producing three or four works at the same time; his piano playing had considerably improved: ‘why, at the moment I feel equal to anything’.

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Four and a half months later Beethoven again wrote at length to Wegeler: his doctors had been unable to help his hearing, but he was leading a slightly more pleasant life.

You can scarcely believe what an empty, sad life I have had for the last two years. My poor hearing haunted me everywhere like a ghost; and I avoided all human society. I was forced to seem a misanthrope, and yet I am far from being one. This change has been brought about by a dear charming girl who loves me and whom I love … and ...

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