Historians agree that Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in December 1770 but recordkeeping in the 18th century was such that the exact date was not documented. Due to high rates of infant mortality, babies were usually baptized very soon after birth. Beethoven was baptized on December 17th, so one popular theory is that he was born on December 16th.
Well, he thought he knew his age but he believed himself to be two years younger than he actually was. The confusion stems from Beethoven’s first public performance at Cologne on March 27, 1778. Beethoven was 7 ½ years old but his father announced that he was 6 years old. Many believe that his father fibbed to further enhance the perception of Beethoven as being very advanced for his age.
The earliest known handwritten music sheets of Beethoven’s compositions- a set of nine variations for piano- date back to 1782 when Beethoven was 12. Even then, the youngster had begun to set himself apart in a major way: the music was composed in C minor, which was very unusual at the time and notoriously hard to play.
“Dear Diary, today I composed a masterpiece.” Ok, so we made that up but Beethoven did keep a diary. He chronicled his day-to-day activities from searching for a wig-maker, a piano and noting the address of a dance teacher. It would seem that he had quite some difficulty with housekeeping, logging many instances in which either he gave his housekeepers notice.
Back to Bach: Before he established himself as a famous composer, Beethoven was a piano virtuoso. In his early twenties, Beethoven often played piano in the salons of the Viennese nobility. Time and again, he went back into Bach’s catalogue, performing the preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.
In a tragically ironic twist of fate, Beethoven was already well established as a musical genius when he began to go deaf at the age of 25. In the less accepting society of the 1800s, Beethoven was afraid and ashamed. In 1801, he wrote in a letter to friend Karl Amenda: "I beg of you to keep the matter of my deafness a profound secret to be confined to nobody, no matter whom...". He thought, and possibly rightly so, that he would be ostracized by his friends and contemporaries if they ever found out about his loss of hearing. Eventually, his deafness could not be hidden and Beethoven communicated using conversation books, asking his friends to write down what they wanted to say so he could respond.
What’s in a name? Beethoven’s 1801 ‘Moonlight’ Sonata is one of his most famous piano works… but he had simply called it “Piano Sonata No. 14”. Fast-forward three decades to 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, when German poet Ludwig Rellstab said the first movement sounded like moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne. The name stuck.
Beethoven was a man of ideals and he very much admired those of the French Revolution: he dedicated his third symphony “Eroica” to Napoleon Bonaparte. But when Napoleon turned around and declared himself Emperor- the first Emperor of France in over 1000 years- Beethoven flew into a fit of rage: he tore out the first page of his manuscript, scratched out Napoleon’s name and exclaimed: "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" It was finally published with the title "Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man".
Beethoven was 30 when his first symphony was first performed in the Burgtheater in Vienna, and it went where no symphony had ever gone before. Symphonies were seen to be pretty light-hearted works, but Beethoven took this one step further with the introduction, which sounds so musically off-beam it’s often considered to be a joke!
The moving music from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is a perfect soundtrack to 2010 blockbuster smash, The King’s Speech, as George VI makes his address to the nation. You’ll also find hints of his fifth symphony in unexpected places, if you listen carefully – have you watched Saturday Night Fever recently…?
Symphony No. 9 is often nicknamed the ‘Choral’ symphony, although it’s only the finale that features a choir. Using singers in a symphony was a wild idea at the time, but it seems to have paid off – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony changed the face of classical music forever, and continues to inspire listeners and composers to this day!