Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827), German composer, generally considered one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition. Born in Bonn, Beethoven went to Vienna in 1792 to study under Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. In Vienna, he dazzled the aristocracy with his piano improvisations and became a successful freelance composer.
In the first decade of the 19th century, Beethoven expanded the musical language bequeathed by Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and revealed his complete assimilation of the Viennese classical style. Beethoven’s fame reached its zenith during these years, but a hearing impairment he had first noted in 1798 steadily worsened.
He performed in public only rarely, making his last appearance in 1814. By 1818 Beethoven was virtually deaf. Although he withdrew from all but a steadily shrinking circle of friends, his prestige was still so great that during his last illness he received huge outpourings of sympathy.
Beethoven’s major output consists of 9 symphonies, 7 concertos, 17 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, 10 sonatas for violin and piano, 5 sonatas for cello and piano, an opera, 2 masses, several overtures, and numerous sets of piano variations.
His works of the decade from 1802 to 1812 represent an expansion of the tighter forms of Haydn and Mozart, as is apparent in the Eroica Symphony and the Piano Concerto no. 5 (Emperor, 1809), as well as in Symphony no. 5 (1808).
The few works of the years after 1812 revived and expanded the more relaxed musical structures Beethoven had employed in the 1790s. In 1818 he returned to the tightly structured heroic style in his Piano Sonata in B-flat Major op. 106 (Hammerklavier), a work of unprecedented length and difficulty.
The works of Beethoven’s last period are marked by an individuality that later composers would admire but could scarcely emulate. In the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis Beethoven gave expression to an all-embracing view of idealized humanity. In the five-string quartets of 1824 to 1826, Beethoven achieved an ideal synthesis between popular and learned styles and between the humorous and the sublime. Judged inaccessible in their time, the string quartets have become- as has so much of Beethoven’s output- yardsticks against which all other musical achievements are measured.
Beethoven towered over the 19th century, embodying the heroic ideal and the romantic perception of the composer as an artist who pursues a personal vision beyond the creation of music ordered by a patron. However, Beethoven’s immediate musical influence was limited. For some composers, Beethoven’s legacy was paralyzing. It was not until the late romantic symphonies of Austrian composers Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler that Beethoven’s symphonic ideal was carried to what is often regarded as its final stage of development. Today Beethoven’s works form the core of orchestral and chamber music repertoires worldwide.
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