Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827) is one of history’s most beethoven_1brilliant musical geniuses.

He was born into a musical family in Bonn, Germany. His grandfather (also Ludwig) was a bass singer for the court of the Elector of Cologne and eventually became its music director. Beethoven’s father, Johann was a tenor for the same court and taught keyboard and violin to supplement his income. He never became music director, however, perhaps because he descended into alcoholism when his wife died.

Beethoven’s life was riddles with terrible events, lucky breaks, and fantastic achievements.

Terrible and semi-terrible events:

Beethoven’s talent was recognized early. His father billed him as a child prodigy for his first public performance. He said his son was 6 on the posters… but he was 7.

Beethoven’s musical training was intense, often reducing the young Beethoven to tears. One of his teachers, Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, a family friend and insomniac would drag young Beethoven out of bed for midnight keyboard lessons. Beethoven’s own father would beat him if he didn’t perform well. If it happened today, Beethoven would have been placed in foster care while his father would have been thrown in jail.

Beethoven was supposed to study with Mozart, another musical genius, in Vienna when he was 16. He learned soon after arriving that his mother was sick and returned home, perhaps not even meeting Mozart. His mother died and his father hit the booze. Beethoven took care of his two younger brothers for the next 5 years.

In 1798 he claims to have fallen in a fit of rage only to find upon getting up that he couldn’t hear. His hearing came back some but he had problems with tinnitus and by 1814 his hearing was nearly entirely gone.

 

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All through his life he had serious issues with the class system of the time. He was a commoner and seemed to always fall in love with aristocrats. They never married “below” their class…

Mozart died in 1791, he would never study with him. His father died while he was studying with Haydn.

Beethoven Died on March 26th, 1827 – age 56. There are a number of possible causes though it seems likely that he was poisoned by his doctor with lead based treatments for something else.

Lucky Breaks:

His first three piano trios, written when he was 12, were dedicated to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich – a rich aristocrat. This same man subsidized Beethoven’s early education. It sometimes pays to kiss rich guys’ butts.

He was a friend of a number of aristocrats and royals because of his talent. Many of them patronized him over the years, and perhaps the most interesting thing in any of their biographies is that patronage.

He studied with Haydn from 1792 to 1794 in Vienna. Haydn wrote 106 symphonies, some of which are great. Beethoven wrote 9, all of which are great.

Fantastic Achievements:

Beethoven had numerous hurdles to jump throughout his life. There were years at a time in which he wrote very little and years in which he wrote his greatest works.

Beethoven was seen as the successor of Mozart as the world’s musical genius.

Among Beethoven’s works are 9 Symphonies,  12 concertos,  35 piano sonatas (he was a piano virtuoso), 16 string quartets, one opera, and hundreds of other works.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is perhaps the most recognizable piece of music ever written.

The Moonlight Sonata. Perfect.

Most people have heard Fur Elise but few know it’s Beethoven’s work.

Though he was a commoner within the class system of the day, he grew so popular that he was exempted from the rules of conduct that commoners were expected to follow!

 

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Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

Music has been evolving for as long as there has been language. At least that’s what some theorists think. A few think music is older than language and even facilitated the evolution of language itself.

mersennestarSince those long past days, music and language have continued to intermingle but have continued their development along separate paths. One of the main contributors to changes music has seen has been the music theorist.

Music theorists seldom reach the heights of adoration that composers and songwriters do, and I think that throughout history, they have been the most feared and hated of musicians, but they play a remarkably important role.

On the surface we might say that the music theorist simply follows the composer around and works to understand and explain the rules the composer followed to create her work. However, it’s more complicated than this.

On another level we might see the theorist as an oppressive force, setting down a series of rules that composers must follow. To destruction, some composers actually try following these rules, and this can be a creativity killer!

Finally, we come to what I think their most important role is – the archiver. They explore and document what composers do. This has a few different effects – some of which appear to be terrible.

First, by documenting, they drain the essence of spontaneity out of the compositional process, and I would argue that, at least in the short run, music may suffer. Composers, writing in a specific style, can easily fall into the trap of repeating old ideas. This is just part of the growth process.

Second, they reduce what we hear to a series of predictable events. This can kill the joy. When listening to a piece and hearing the chords you expect pass by, you lose interest because you remain unchallenged.

But, third, this all leads to a deeper understanding of the unofficial sonic boundaries we set for ourselves. After struggling with the rules, this drives some courageous composers to burst through those boundaries! This is how new styles and forms arise from the old. The documentarians, like the old map-makers, show us the territory we already instinctively know, helping us to also intellectually know it and preparing us for our journey into the sonic wild.

The caution should be placed on what we do with this knowledge. As we learn theory, many of us are, at least temporarily shackled by it. We need to understand that it’s a tool! It’s there to help us. We need to look at music theory as a map of what has been done and fight the misconception that it’s a documentation of the only realm of possibility. Zealots defend this idiotic notion to the detriment of many composers. Fight it!

I believe that music theory can be the destroyer, but only if we allow it. It is entirely our perception and understanding that will make it either a prison or a map to help us find greater creation.