Ludwig van Beethoven

Monday, July 28, 2014

My favorite composer is someone I wouldn’t have wanted to know.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December 1770. We don’t know his actual birthdate, but he was baptized on December 17 and the custom was to baptize infants within 24 hours. His birthplace was Bonn, in what is now Germany.

Growing up, Beethoven’s family consisted of his father, Johann, his mother, and his two younger brothers. Beethoven’s father was an alcoholic who taught his eldest son music by beating it out of him, locking him in the cellar, and making him practice when his body craved sleep.

By the time Beethoven was fourteen, his father’s alcoholism had gotten so bad that he couldn’t provide for his family. So Beethoven took a job as assistant court organist at a modest salary to support his mother and younger brothers.

When Beethoven was seventeen, his patron sent him to Vienna to study with Mozart. Unfortunately, Beethoven’s mother fell ill, and he went home. She died several months later but Beethoven stayed in Bonn for several more years.

Beethoven returned to Vienna to stay in 1792, when his patron arranged for him to study with Papa Haydn. (Mozart had died in the meantime.) Unfortunately, Beethoven was not a model student. When Papa Haydn gave him homework, Beethoven either used something he had written earlier or paid someone else to do it. Even worse, he kept “borrowing” money from the softhearted Haydn, claiming that the stipend he received from his patron wasn’t enough to live on. Haydn learned the truth when he wrote the patron (without Beethoven’s knowledge), begging the patron to increase the stipend. That’s when Haydn discovered that Beethoven was also receiving a salary and when the patron discovered he was wasting his money.

But that isn’t the only reason I dislike Beethoven as a person. After his brother Kasper died, Beethoven tried to wrench his nephew Karl away from Karl’s mother, Johanna. Beethoven filed for sole custody of his nephew, and years of litigation followed. Johanna may not have had the strongest morals, but there is no evidence that she was an unfit mother. Still, Beethoven had important connections, and Johanna was only a woman. (That made a difference at the time.) So even though Johanna fought her brother-in-law—and even regained custody for one brief period—she eventually lost all legal rights to her son.

Johanna wasn’t the only loser. Within months after his father died, the nine-year-old Karl was forcibly taken from his mother and sent to a boarding school. He ran away and returned to his mother, only to be forcibly removed again. At one point, Karl attempted suicide, and his relationship with his uncle was tumultuous all the way up to Beethoven’s death.

A brilliant but disturbed man, Beethoven’s life was filled with delusions. Johann wasn’t really his father: Beethoven was the illegitimate son of royalty. He wasn’t born until two years after the date on his baptismal certificate. Eventually he even came to believe that Karl was his son. Most of these delusions had been shattered by the time he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1827.

When Beethoven was twenty-six, he began losing his hearing. That was a disaster for a pianist and composer, and he hid it as long as he could. Beethoven was clinically deaf by 1818, yet he composed his most masterful works after that date.
Beethoven longed for love but never married, although he did have a love affair (possibly plutonic) with a married woman. He was known for his mood swings and his temper. He may have had bipolar disorder, and no one can claim that he had an idyllic childhood. Even so, I’m glad I didn’t know the man.

But I love his music.


* The 1820 portrait is by Karl Steiler.

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