1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beethoven, Ludwig van
|←Beet||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 3
Beethoven, Ludwig van
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BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN (1770-1827), German musical composer, was baptized (probably, as was usual, the day after birth) on the 17th of December 1770 at Bonn. His family is traceable to a village near Louvain, in Belgium, in the 17th century. In 1650 a lineal ancestor of the composer settled in Antwerp. Beethoven's grandfather, Louis, quarrelled with his family, came to Bonn in 1732, and became one of the court musicians of the archbishop-elector of Cologne. He was a genial man of estimable character, and though Ludwig van Beethoven was only four years old when his grandfather died, he never forgot him, but cherished his portrait to the end of his life. Beethoven's father, a tenor singer at the archbishop-elector's court, was of a rough and violent temper, not improved by his passion for drink, nor by the dire poverty under which the family laboured. He married Magdelina Leim or Laym, the widow of a valet-de-chambre of the elector of Trier and daughter of the chief cook at Ehrenbreitstein. Beethoven's father wished to profit as early as possible by his son's talent, and accordingly began to give him a severe musical training, especially on the violin, when he was only five years old, at about which time they left the house in which he was born (515 Bonngasse, now preserved as a Beethoven museum, with a magnificent collection of manuscripts and relics). By the time Beethoven was nine his father had no more to teach him, and he entered upon a perhaps healthier course of clavier lessons under a singer named Pfeiffer. A little general education was also edged in by a certain Zambona. Van den Eeden, the court organist, and an old friend of his grandfather, taught him the organ and the pianoforte, and so rapid was Beethoven's progress that when C. G. Neefe succeeded to Van den Eeden's post in 1781, he was soon able to allow the boy to act as his deputy. With his permission Beethoven published in 1783 his earliest extant composition, a set of variations on a march by Dressler. The title-page states that they were written in 1780 “par un jeune amateur Louis van Beethoven âgé de dix ans.” Beethoven's father was very clumsy in his unnecessary attempts to make an infant prodigy of his son; for the ante-dating of this composition, implying the correct date of birth, contradicts the post-dating of the date of birth by which he tried to make out that the three sonatas Beethoven wrote in the same year were by a boy of eleven. (Beethoven for a long time believed that he was born in 1772, and the certificate of his baptism hardly convinced him, because he knew that he had an elder brother named Ludwig who died in infancy.) In the same year, 1783, Beethoven was given the post of cembalist in the Bonn theatre, and in 1784 his position of assistant to Neefe became official. In a catalogue raisonné of the new archbishop Max Franz's court musicians we find “No. 14, Ludwig Beethoven” described “as of good capacity, still young, of good, quiet behaviour and poor,” while his father (No. 8) “has a completely worn-out voice, has long been in service, is very poor, of fairly good behaviour, and married.”
In the spring of 1787 Beethoven paid a short visit to Vienna, where he astonished Mozart by his extemporizations and had a few lessons from him. How he was enabled to afford this visit is not clear. After three months the illness of his mother, to whom he was devoted, brought him back. She died in July, leaving a baby girl, one year old, who died in November. For five more years Beethoven remained at Bonn supporting his family, of which he had been since the age of fifteen practically the head, as his father's bad habits steadily increased until in 1789 Ludwig was officially entrusted with his father's salary. He had already made several lifelong friends at Bonn, of whom the chief were Count Waldstein and Stephan Breuning; and his prospects brightened as the archbishop-elector, in imitation of his brother the emperor Joseph II., enlarged the scale of his artistic munificence. By 1792 the archbishop-elector's attention was thoroughly aroused to Beethoven's power, and he provided for Beethoven's second visit to Vienna. The introductions he and Count Waldstein gave to Beethoven, the prefix “van” in Beethoven's name (which looked well though it was not really a title of nobility), and above all the unequalled impressiveness of his playing and extemporization, quickly secured his footing with the exceptionally intelligent and musical aristocracy of Vienna, who to the end of his life treated him with genuine affection and respect, bearing with all the roughness of his manners and temper, not as with the eccentricities of a fashionable genius, but as with signs of the sufferings of a passionate and noble nature.
Beethoven's life, though outwardly uneventful, was one of the most pathetic of tragedies. His character has had the same fascination for his biographers as it had for his friends, and there is probably hardly any great man in history of whom more is known and of whom so much of what is known is interesting. Yet it is all too much a matter of detail and anecdote to admit of chronological summarizing here, and for the disentangling of its actual incidents we must refer the reader to Sir George Grove's long and graphic article, “Beethoven,” in the Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and to the monumental biography of Thayer, who devoted his whole life to collecting materials. These two biographical works, read in the spirit in which their authors conceived them, will reveal, beneath a mass of distressing, grotesque and sometimes sordid detail, a nobility of character and unswerving devotion to the highest moral ideas throughout every distress and temptation to which a passionate and totally unpractical temper and the growing shadow of a terrible misfortune could expose a man.
The man is surpassed only by his works, for in them he had that mastery which was denied to him in what he himself calls his attempt to “grapple with fate.” Such of his difficulties as lay in his own character already showed themselves in his studies with Haydn. Haydn, who seems to have heard of him on his first visit to Vienna in 1787, passed through Bonn in July 1792, and was so much struck by Beethoven that it was very likely at his instigation that the archbishop sent Beethoven to Vienna to study under him. But Beethoven did not get on well with him, and found him perfunctory in correcting his exercises. Haydn appreciated neither his manners nor the audacity of his free compositions, and abandoned whatever intentions he may have had of taking Beethoven with him to England in 1794. Beethoven could do without sympathy, but a grounding in strict counterpoint he felt to be a dire necessity, so he continued his studies with Albrechtsberger, a mere grammarian who had the poorest opinion of him, but who could, at all events, be depended on to attend to his work. Almost every comment has been made upon the relations between Haydn and Beethoven, except the perfectly obvious one that Mozart died at the age of thirty-six, just at the time Beethoven came to Vienna, and that Haydn, as is perfectly well known, was profoundly shocked by the untimely loss of the greatest musician he had ever known. At such a time the undeniable clumsiness of Beethoven's efforts at academic exercises would combine with his general tactlessness to confirm Haydn in the belief that the sun had set for ever in the musical world, and would incline him to view with disfavour those bold features of style and form which the whole of his own artistic development should naturally have predisposed him to welcome. It is at least significant that those early works of Beethoven in which Mozart's influence is most evident, such as the Septet, aroused Haydn's open admiration, whereas he hardly approved of the compositions like the sonatas, op. 2 (dedicated to him), in which his own influence is stronger. Neither he nor Beethoven was skilful in expressing himself except in music, and it is impossible to tell what Haydn meant, or what Beethoven thought he meant, in advising him not to publish the last and finest of the three trios, op. 1. But even if he did not mean that it was too daring for the public, it can hardly be expected that he never contrasted the meteoric career of Mozart, who after a miraculous boyhood had produced at the age of twenty-five some of the greatest music Haydn had ever seen, with the slow and painful development of his uncouth pupil, who at the same age had hardly a dozen presentable works to his credit. It is not clear that Haydn ever came to understand Beethoven, and many years passed before Beethoven realized the greatness of the master whose teaching had so disappointed him.
From the time Beethoven settled permanently in Vienna, which he was soon induced to do by the kindness of his aristocratic friends, the only noteworthy external features of his career are the productions of his compositions. In spite of the usual hostile criticism for obscurity, exaggeration and unpopularity, his reputation became world-wide and by degrees actually popular; nor did it ever decline, for as his later works became notorious for their extravagance and unintelligibility his earlier works became better understood. He was no man of business, but, in a thoroughly unpractical way, he was suspicious and exacting in money matters, which in his later years frequently turned up in his conversation as a grievance, and at times, especially during the depreciation of the Austrian currency between 1808 and 1815, were a real anxiety to him. Nevertheless, with a little more skill his external prosperity would have been great. He was always a personage of importance, as is testified by more than one amusing anecdote, like those of his walks with Goethe and his half-ironical comments on the hats which flew off more for him than for Goethe; and in 1815 it seemed as if the summit of his fame was reached when his 7th symphony was performed, together with a hastily-written cantata, Der glorreiche Augenblick and the blazing piece of descriptive fireworks entitled Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria, once popular in England as the Battle Symphony. The occasion for this performance was the congress of Vienna; and the government placed the two halls of the Redouten-Saal at his disposal for two nights, while he himself was allowed to invite all the sovereigns of Europe. In the same year he received the freedom of the city, an honour much valued by him. After that time his immediate popularity, as far as new works were concerned, became less eminent, as that of his more easy-going contemporaries began to increase. Yet there was, not only in the emotional power of his earlier works, but also in the known cause of his increasing inability to appear in public, something that awakened the best popular sensibilities; and when his two greatest and most difficult works, the 9th symphony and parts of the Missa Solemnis, were produced at a memorable concert in 1824, the storm of applause was overwhelming, and the composer, who was on the platform in order to give the time to the conductor, had to be turned round by one of the singers in order to see it.
Signs of deafness had given him grave anxiety as early as 1798. For a long time he successfully concealed it from all but his most intimate friends, while he consulted physicians and quacks with eagerness; but neither quackery nor the best skill of his time availed him, and it has been pointed out that the root of the evil lay deeper than could have been supposed during his lifetime. Although his constitution was magnificently strong and his health was preserved by his passion for outdoor life, a post-mortem examination revealed a very complicated state of disorder, evidently dating almost from childhood (if not inherited) and aggravated by lack of care and good food. The touching document addressed to his brothers in 1802, and known as his “will,” should be read in its entirety, as given by Thayer (iv. 4). No verbal quotation short of the whole will do justice to the overpowering outburst which runs almost in one long unpunctuated sentence through the whole tragedy of Beethoven's life, as he knew it then and foresaw it. He reproaches men for their injustice in thinking and calling him pugnacious, stubborn and misanthropical when they do not know that for six years he has suffered from an incurable condition, aggravated by incompetent doctors. He dwells upon his delight in human society, from which he has had so early to isolate himself, but the thought of which now fills him with dread as it makes him realize his loss, not only in music but in all finer interchange of ideas, and terrifies him lest the cause of his distress should appear. He declares that, when those near him had heard a flute or a singing shepherd while he heard nothing, he was only prevented from taking his life by the thought of his art, but it seemed impossible for him to leave the world until he had brought out all that he felt to be in his power. He requests that after his death his present doctor, if surviving, shall be asked to describe his illness and to append it to this document in order that at least then the world may be as far as possible reconciled with him. He leaves his brothers his property, such as it is, and in terms not less touching, if more conventional than the rest of the document, he declares that his experience shows that only virtue has preserved his life and his courage through all his misery.
And, indeed, his art and his courage rose far above any level attainable by those artists who are slaves to the “personal note,” for his chief occupation at the time of this document was his 2nd symphony, the most brilliant and triumphant piece that had ever been written up to that time. On a smaller scale, in which mastery was the more easily attainable as experiment was more readily tested, Beethoven was sooner able to strike a tragic note, and hence the process of growth in his style is more readily traceable in the pianoforte works than in the larger compositions which naturally represent a series of crowning results. Only in his last period does the pianoforte cease to be Beethoven's normal means of expression. Accordingly, if in the discussion of Beethoven's works, with which we close this article, we dwell rather more on the pianoforte sonatas than on his greater works, it is not only because they are more easily referred to by the general reader, but because they are actually a key to his intellectual development, such as is afforded neither by his life nor by the great works which are themselves the crowning mystery and wonder of musical art.
Deafness causes inconvenience in conversation long before it is noticeable in music, and in 1806 Beethoven could still conduct his opera Fidelio and be much annoyed at the inattention to his nuances; and his last appearance as a player was not until 1814, when he made a great impression with his B flat trio, op. 97. At the end of November 1822 an attempt to conduct proved disastrous. The touching incident in 1824 has been described, but up to the last Beethoven seems to have found or imagined that ear-trumpets (of which a collection is now preserved at Bonn) were of use to him in playing to himself, though his friends were often pained when the pianoforte was badly out of tune, and were overcome when Beethoven in soft passages did not make the notes sound at all. The instrument sent him by Broadwood in 1817-1818 gave him great pleasure and he answered it with a characteristically cordial and quaint letter in the best of bad French. His fame in England was often a source of great comfort to him, especially in his last illness, when the London Philharmonic Society, for which the 9th symphony was written and a 10th symphony projected, sent him £100 in advance of the proceeds of a benefit concert which he had begged them to give, being in very straitened circumstances, as he would make no use of the money he had deposited in the bank for his nephew.
This nephew was the cause of most of his anxiety and distress in the last twelve years of his life. His brother, Kaspar Karl, had often given him trouble; for example, by obtaining and publishing some of Beethoven's early indiscretions, such as the trio-variations, op. 44, the sonatas, op. 49, and other trifles, of which the late opus number is thus explained. In 1815, after Beethoven had quarrelled with his oldest friend, Stephan Breuning, for warning him against trusting his brother in money matters, Kaspar died, leaving a widow of whom Beethoven strongly disapproved, and a son, nine years old, for the guardianship of whom Beethoven fought the widow through all the law courts. The boy turned out utterly unworthy of his uncle's persistent devotion, and gave him every cause for anxiety. He failed in all his examinations, including an attempt to learn some trade in the polytechnic school, whereupon he fell into the hands of the police for attempting suicide, and, after being expelled from Vienna, joined the army. Beethoven's utterly simple nature could neither educate nor understand a human being who was not possessed by the wish to do his best. His nature was passionately affectionate, and he had suffered all his life from the want of a natural outlet for it. He had often been deeply in love and made no secret of it; but Robert Browning had not a more intense dislike of “the artistic temperament” in morals, and though Beethoven's attachments were almost all hopelessly above him in rank, there is not one that was not honourable and respected by society as showing the truthfulness and self-control of a great man. Beethoven's orthodoxy in such matters has provoked the smiles of Philistines, especially when it showed itself in his objections to Mozart's Don Giovanni, and his grounds for selecting the subject of Fidelio for his own opera. The last thing that Philistines will ever understand is that genius is far too independent of convention to abuse it; and Beethoven's life, with all its mistakes, its grotesqueness and its pathos, is as far beyond the shafts of Philistine wit as his art.
At the beginning of 1827 Beethoven had projects for a 10th symphony, music to Goethe's Faust, and (under the stimulus of his newly acquired collection of Handel's works) any amount of choral music, compared to which all his previous compositions would have seemed but a prelude. But he was in bad health; his brother Johann, with whom he had been staying, had not allowed him a fire in his bedroom, and had sent him back to Vienna in an open chaise in vile weather; and the chill which resulted ended in a fatal illness. Within a week of his death Beethoven was still full of his projects. Three days before the end he added a codicil to his will, and saw Schubert, whose music had aroused his keen interest, but was not able to speak to him, though he afterwards spoke of the Philharmonic Society and the English, almost his last words being “God bless them.” On the 26th of March 1827, during a fierce thunderstorm, he died.
- (D. F. T.)
Authorities. — A. W. Thayer, Beethovens Leben (1866-1879); L. Nohl, Life of Beethoven (Eng. trans., 1884), and Letters (Eng. trans., 1866); Sir G. Grove, Beethoven and his Symphonies (1896), and in Grove's Dictionary of Music.