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Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, to Johann van Beethoven (1740-1792), of Flemish origins, and Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven (1744-1787). Until relatively recently 16 December was shown in many reference works as Beethoven's 'date of birth', since we know he was baptised on 17 December and children at that time were generally baptised the day after their birth. However modern scholarship declines to rely on such assumptions.
Beethoven's first music teacher was his father, who worked as a musician in the Electoral court at Bonn, but was also an alcoholic who beat him and unsuccessfully attempted to exhibit him as a child prodigy. However, Beethoven's talent was soon noticed by others. He was given instruction and employment by Christian Gottlob Neefe, as well as financial sponsorship by the Prince-Elector. Beethoven's mother died when he was 17, and for several years he was responsible for raising his two younger brothers.
Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, where he studied with Joseph Haydn and other teachers. He quickly established a reputation as a piano virtuoso, and more slowly as a composer. He settled into the career pattern he would follow for the remainder of his life: rather than working for the church or a noble court (as most composers before him had done), he was a freelancer, supporting himself with public performances, sales of his works, and stipends from noblemen who recognized his ability.
Beethoven's career as a composer is usually divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods.
In the Early period, he is seen as emulating his great predecessors Haydn and Mozart, at the same time exploring new directions and gradually expanding the scope and ambition of his work. Some important pieces from the Early period are the first and second symphonies, the first six string quartets, the first two piano concertos, and about a dozen piano sonatas, including the famous 'Pathétique'.
The Middle period began shortly after Beethoven's personal crisis centering around deafness, and is noted for large-scale works expressing heroism and struggle; these include many of the most famous works of classical music. The Middle period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3 – 8), the last three piano concertos and his only violin concerto, six string quartets (Nos. 7 – 11), many piano sonatas (including the 'Moonlight', 'Waldstein', and 'Appassionata'), and Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.
Beethoven's Late period began around 1816 and lasted until Beethoven ceased to compose in 1826. The late works are greatly admired for their intellectual depth and their intense, highly personal expression. They include the Ninth Symphony (the 'Choral'), the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets and the last five piano sonatas.
Beethoven's personal life was troubled. Around age 28 he started to become deaf, a calamity which led him for some time to contemplate suicide. He was attracted to unattainable (married or aristocratic) women, whom he idealized; he never married. A period of low productivity from about 1812 to 1816 is thought by some scholars to have been the result of depression, resulting from Beethoven's realization that he would never marry. Beethoven quarreled, often bitterly, with his relatives and others, and frequently behaved badly to other people. He moved often from dwelling to dwelling, and had strange personal habits such as wearing filthy clothing while washing compulsively. He often had financial troubles.
It is common for listeners to perceive an echo of Beethoven's life in his music, which often depicts struggle followed by triumph. This description is often applied to Beethoven's creation of masterpieces in the face of his severe personal difficulties.
Beethoven was often in poor health, and in 1826 his health took a drastic turn for the worse. His death in the following year is usually attributed to liver disease.
Beethoven is viewed as a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history. As far as musical form is concerned, he built on the principles of sonata form and motivic development that he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart, but greatly extended them, writing longer and more ambitious movements. The work of Beethoven's Middle period is celebrated for its frequently heroic expression, and the works of his Late period for their intellectual depth.
Personal beliefs and their musical influence
Beethoven was much taken by the ideals of the Enlightenment and by the growing Romanticism in Europe. He initially dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica (Italian for 'heroic'), to Napoleon in the belief that the general would sustain the democratic and republican ideals of the French Revolution, but in 1804 crossed out the dedication as Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear, replacing it with 'to the memory of a great man'. The fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony features an elaborate choral setting of Schiller's ode An die Freude ('To Joy'), an optimistic hymn championing the brotherhood of humanity.
Scholars disagree on Beethoven's religious beliefs and the role they played in his work. For discussion, see Beethoven's religious beliefs.
Beethoven the Romantic?
A continuing controversy surrounding Beethoven is whether he was a Romantic composer. As documented elsewhere, since the meanings of the word 'Romantic' and the definition of the period 'Romanticism' both vary by discipline, Beethoven's inclusion as a member of that movement or period must be looked at in context.
If we consider the Romantic movement as an aesthetic epoch in literature and the arts generally, Beethoven sits squarely in the first half, along with literary Romantics such as the German poets Goethe and Schiller (whose texts both he and the much more straightforwardly Romantic Franz Schubert drew on for songs), and the English poet Percy Shelley. He was also called a Romantic by contemporaries such as Spohr and E.T.A. Hoffman. He is often considered the composer of the first Song Cycle, and was influenced by Romantic folk idioms, for example in his use of the work of Robert Burns. He set dozens of such poems (and arranged folk melodies) for voice, piano, and violin.
If on the other hand we consider the context of musicology, where 'Romanticism' is dated later, the matter is one of considerably greater debate. For some experts Beethoven is not a Romantic, and his being one is 'a myth'; for others he stands as a transitional figure, or an immediate precursor to Romanticism; for others he is the prototypical, or even archetypical, Romantic composer, complete with myth of heroic genius and individuality. The marker buoy of Romanticism has been pushed back and forth several times by scholarship, and remains a subject of intense debate, in no small part because Beethoven is seen as a seminal figure. To those for whom the Enlightenment represents the basis of Modernity, he must therefore be unequivocally a Classicist, while for those who see the Romantic sensibility as a key to later aesthetics (including the aesthetics of our own time), he must be a Romantic. Between these two extremes there are, of course, innumerable gradations.