The name most commonly brought into any classical music conversation is Mozart or Beethoven. Ludwig van Beethoven was actually born in Belgium in 1770, the second oldest child of Johann van Beethoven, a court musician and tenor singer. He was baptized a Roman Catholic. His father began showcasing Ludwig as a child prodigy on the piano. He gave his first public performance by the age of eight. At age eleven, he became a pupil of Christian Gottlob Neefe in both piano and composition. At the age of seventeen, Ludwig was employed by the Bonn court orchestra, but shortly was granted a paid leave to study under Mozart in Vienna From 1792, he also took lessons from Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, and Salieri. By 1809, he had so many patrons he could become a freelance composer without financial worries. He also took violin lessons, and focused on counterpoint.
Around 1798, Beethoven began to have hearing problems. He went into seclusion, and eventually became completely deaf. The deafness ended his piano career, and forced him to focus on composition. He was considered the most influential figure between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western classical music. By 1820, he communicated only in writing with friends and family. He continued to compose, conduct and perform while completely deaf. He remained a bachelor his entire life, with a penchant for changing residences no fewer than 52 times. When the most famous composer of his period died, over thirty thousand mourners were present at his funeral in 1827.
But moving on to his famous symphonies, most of you have heard or recognize his 5th. Although well-known, it was not his best nor his favorite. My favorites are No. 3, Eroica, and No. 9, Ode to Joy. I actually played Eroica in high school in a concert band competition. We gathered a second place, primarily since our oboe player missed her cue on another piece that we performed. That would have been the highlight of my rather brief and certainly not very noteworthy musical career.
Another favorite of mine, along with many others, is Piano Sonata No. 14, more commonly known as Moonlight Sonata. Also completed in 1801, Sonata has three movements. My other favorite is Fur Elise, or Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano. The score was not published until 1867, or forty-two years after his death. It is a common piece for intermediate level aspiring pianists. It was written in 3/8 time, and can be played in a variety of tempos, and contains a section where the right hand plays the melody over left hand arpeggios.
Today, Symphonies No 1, and 2 are performed by the San Francisco Symphony, under the direction of Marek Janowski. His Triple Concerto will be performed by a trio of soloists. Beethoven himself said that his symphonies best represented his true self, as “I always hear within me the sounds of a great orchestra”. Some experts judge his symphonies only as a total body of work, while others critique each one or grouping of several symphonies by period. I seem to recall past studies that seemed to elevate the odd-numbered symphonies in higher regard.
Symphony No. 1 was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of his early patrons. It was published in 1801. This symphony is clearly indebted to his mentor, Haydn. The premier took place in Vienna, and was accompanied by a Mozart symphony and a Haydn oratorio. The concert introduced Vienna to his talent. The piece is considered tame, but begins on a dissonant chord.
Symphony No. 2 in D major was written between 1801 and 1802, and dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky. Beethoven wrote it during his stay in Heiligenstadt, when his deafness became more apparent, and he realized it was not curable. It was the last of his “early period” works. Of note, the Second does not contain a minuet, instead a scherzo in its place, to give the symphony greater scope and energy. The four movements generally run from 33 to 36 minutes.
Below is a link to Moonlight Sonata on guitar, a particularly enjoyable piece:
For those of you who play the piano, free sheet music for Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos are available on the internet. You have no excuse now but to play and enjoy!