Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the second-oldest child of the court musician and tenor singer Johann van Beethoven, was born in Bonn. Ludwig’s father drilled him thoroughly with the ambition of showcasing him as a child prodigy. Ludwig gave his first public performance as a pianist when he was eight years old. At the age of eleven he received the necessary systematic training in piano performance and composition from Christian Gottlob Neefe, organist and court musician in Bonn. Employed as a musician in Bonn court orchestra since 1787, Beethoven was granted a paid leave of absence in the early part of 1787 to study in Vienna under Mozart.
he was soon compelled to return to Bonn, however, and after his mother’s death had to look after the family.
For someone who was destined to be lionized by the aristocracy of his time, Beethoven’s start in life was inauspicious. He was born in Bonn on 17 December 1770, the son of an obscure tenor singer in the employ of the Elector of Cologne.
His father was said to be a violent and intemperate man, who returned home late at night much worse for drink and dragged young Ludwig from his bed in order to “beat” music lessons into the boy’s sleepy head. There are also stories of his father forcing him to play his violin for the amusement of his drinking cronies. Despite these and other abuses – which might well have persuaded as lesser person to loathe the subject – the young Beethoven developed a sensitivity and vision for music.
When, despite his father’s brutal teaching methods, Ludwig began to show signs of promise, other teachers were called in. By the age of seven he was advanced enough to appear in public. A year or so later the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe took over his musical training and progress thereafter was rapid. Ch. G. Neefe introduced Beethoven to the works of Bach and Mozart. Beethoven must have felt immense pride when his Nine Variations for piano in C minor were published, and was listed later in a prominent Leipzig catalogue as the work of ‘Louis van Betthoven (sic), aged ten’. (The former is an intentional misspelling)In 1787, Beethoven went to Vienna, a noted musical center, where then Count Waldstein engaged Beethoven was piano teacher and became his friend and patron. Beethoven must have felt a little out of his depth for he was clumsy and stocky; his manners were loutish, his black hair unruly and he habitually wore an expression of surliness on his swarthy face. It was here that Beethoven met the great Mozart, who was dapper and sophisticated. He received the boy doubtfully, but once Beethoven started playing the piano his talent was evident. “Watch this lad,” Mozart reported. “Some day he will force the world to talk about him.”In 1792 he chose Vienna as his new residence and took lessons from Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Schenck and Salieri. By 1795 he had earned a name for himself as a pianist of great fantasy and verve, admired in particular for his brilliant improvisations. Before long he was traveling in the circles of the nobility. They offered Beethoven their patronage, and the composer dedicated his works to them in return. By 1809 his patrons provided him with an annuity which enabled him to live as a freelance composer without financial worries. Beethoven was acutely interested in the development of the piano. He kept close contact with the leading piano building firms in Vienna and London and thus helped pave the way for the modern concert grand piano.
Around the year 1798 Beethoven noticed that he was suffering from a hearing disorder. He withdrew into increasing seclusion for the public and from his few friends and was eventually left completely deaf. By 1820 he was able to communicate with visitors and trusted friends only in writing, availing himself of “conversation notebooks”.
When Beethoven entered his thirtieth year, he began to suffer from an annoying roaring and buzzing in both ears. Soon his hearing began to fail and, for all he often would enjoy untroubled intervals lasting for months at a time, his disability finally ended in complete deafness. All the resources of the physician’s art were useless. At about the same time Beethoven noticed that his digestion began to suffer. …
At no time accustomed to taking medical advice seriously, he began to develop a liking for spirituous beverages, in order to stimulate his decreasing appetite and to aid his stomachic weakness by excessive use of strong punch and iced drinks. … He contracted a severe inflammation of the intestines which, though it yielded to treatment, later on often gave rise to intestinal pains and aching colics and which, in part, must have favored the eventual development of his mortal illness. –Andreas Wawruch, physician attending Beethoven’s final illness, 1827 My hearing has become weaker during the last three years. Frank wished to restore me to health by means of strengthening medicines, and to cure my deafness by means of oil of almonds, but, prosit! nothing came of these remedies; my hearing became worse and worse. … Then an Asinus of a doctor advised cold baths, a more skillful one, the usual tepid Danube baths. These worked wonders; but my deafness remained or became worse. This winter I was truly miserable; I had terrible attacks of Kolik, and I fell quite back into my former state. –Beethoven to Franz Wegeler, 1801 For the last six years I have been afflicted with an incurable complaint, made worse by incompetent doctors. From year to year my hopes of being cured have gradually been shattered … I must live like an outcast; if I appear in company, I am overcome by a burning anxiety, a fear that I am running the risk of letting people notice my condition. … How humiliated I have felt if somebody standing beside me heard the sound of a flute in the distance and I heard nothing. … I have such a sensitive body that any sudden change can plunge me from the best spirits into the worst of humors. …
When I am dead, request on my behalf Professor Schmidt, if he is still living, to describe my disease, and attach this written document to his record, so that after my death at any rate the world and I may be reconciled. … –Beethoven to brothers Karl and Johann, 1802 (Heiligenstadt Testament) Medical science is divided as to whether Beethoven’s deafness was due to direct damage to the auditory nerve (sensori-neural deafness) or to thickening and fixation of the bones which conduct sound through the middle ear (otosclerosis). … Otosclerosis is the commonest cause of deafness in a man of twenty-eight years, but the high-frequency hearing loss described by Beethoven is not typical of the condition and makes the diagnosis doubtful. …
Johann Wagner in his autopsy report identified the auditory nerves; he clearly thought they were implicated in the pathological process. The appearance of the auditory arteries seems more typical of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) than of endarteritis obliterans, which would have been seen in a chronic inflammatory condition such as syphilis. –John O’Shea, Was Mozart Poisoned? Medical Investigations into the Lives of the Great Composers, 1991 According to Huttenbrenner, who was in the room, there was a sudden flash of lightning which garishly illuminated the death-chamber–snow lay outside–and a violent thunderclap. At this startling, aweful peal of thunder, the dying man suddenly raised his head and stretched out his right arm majestically, ‘like a general giving orders to an army.’ This was but for an instant; the arm sank down; he fell back. Beethoven was dead. –A. W. Thayer, Life of Beethoven, 1866 The story of Beethoven apparently ‘shaking his fist at the heavens’ in one final act of defiance before oblivion has been dismissed as a romantic fiction by most Beethoven biographers. Surprisingly, it is an accurate clinical observation: people who die of hepatic failure often react in an exaggerated way to sudden stimuli such as bright light. This is due to the accumulation of toxic waste products normally excreted by the liver. Beethoven’s gesture may be seen as having been due to the cerebral irritation which accompanies hepatic failure, not as a conscious act.
The cause of Beethoven’s death–liver failure due to cirrhosis–was confirmed by the autopsy performed by Johann Wagner and Karl von Rokitansky. … The essential feature was macronodular cirrhosis of long standing with concomitant portal hypertension. Macronodular cirrhosis is less common than micronodular cirrhosis in alcoholic liver disease but certainly occurs frequently. … Chronic active hepatitis due to viral or auto-immune disease is a possibility, but it is not necessary to invoke this as an explanation in a patient known to have been drinking heavily over a thirty-year period. –O’Shea, 1991 Beethoven’s was a long-term hepatitis, as the history from 1821 shows, which had flared up after the exposure during the journey from Gneixendorf. Such a chronic active hepatitis associated with colitis, rheumatism, repeated catarrhs, abscesses, cryopathy (attacks precipitated by chilling), the ophthalmia, and the skin disorder are extremely suggestive of connective tissue immunopathy auto-immune disease: such a diagnosis explains all his numerous illnesses. Arterial disease is constant in immunopathy; the atrophy of the auditory nerves could be due to arterial disease. –Edward Larkin, Beethoven’s Medical History, 1970 Beethoven once had a terrible Typhus fever with clouding of the mind. From this time on dated the ruin of his nervous system and probably the ruin of his hearing, so calamitous in his case. –Aloys Weissenbach, surgeon and Beethoven’s friend, 1820 Beethoven may well have had the specific form of immunopathic disease known as Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, which typically commences in early adult life with a fever accompanied by mental confusion. Typical symptoms are destructive rash (‘lupus’) and redness (‘erythema’) of the butterfly area of the face. Any of the immunopathic disorders may occur, notably colitis. The excellent life-mask of 1812 shows an elongated atrophic scar particularly suggestive of Lupus. The portraits clearly show flushing of the cheekbones and nose. Beethoven’s high color was frequently commented on and may have aroused suspicions of heavy drinking. –Larkin, 1970The final years in the life of the restless bachelor (he changed living quarters no fewer than fifty-two times) were darkened by severe illness and by the struggle over the guardianship of his nephew Karl, upon whom he poured his solicitude, jealousy, expectations and threats in an effort to shape the boy according to his wishes. When the most famous composer of the age died, about thirty thousand mourners and curious onlookers were present at the funeral procession on March 26, 1827.
In the autumn of 1826, Beethoven took Karl to Gneixendorf for a holiday. The following is an account of Beethoven the possessed genius as he worked upon his last string quartet:At 5:30 A.M. he was at his table, beating time with handsand feet, humming and writing. After breakfast he hurried outside to wander in the fields, calling, waving his arms about, moving slowly, then very abruptly stopping to scribble something in his notebookIn early December Beethoven returned to Vienna with Karl and the journey brought the composer down with pneumonia. He recovered, only to be laid low again with cirrhosis of the liver, which in turn gave way to dropsy. His condition had deteriorated dramatically by the beginning of March and, sensing the worst, his friends rallied round: faithful Stephan brought his family and Schubert paid his respects.
Beethoven’s final moments, if a report by Schubert’s friend Huttenbrenner are to believed, were dramatic in the extreme. At about 5:45 in the afternoon of 26 March, 1827, as a storm raged, Beethoven’s room was suddenly filled with light and shaken with thunder:Beethoven’s eyes opened and he lifted his right fist for several seconds, a serious, threatening expression onhis face. When his had fell back, he half closed his eyes … Not another word, not another heartbeat.
Schubert and Hummel were among the 20,000 – 30,000 people who mourned the composer at his funeral three days later. He was buried in Wahring Cemetery; in 1888 his remains were removed to Zentral-friedhof in Vienna – a great resting place for musicians – where he lies side-by-side with Schubert.
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