Musical Focus: Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827, German)

Biographical Notes
Beethoven’s mother died in his youth. His father was a court musician. He appreciated Ludwig’s talent and set up a regime whereby he might benefit financially from his son being recognized as a "child prodigy.” The young Beethoven was required to practice for long periods of time. Beethoven’s father was also an alcoholic. Beethoven had a very difficult childhood, but was blessed with world class musical talent.

While Mozart wrote music at lightning speed, Beethoven was slow and meticulous. He was able to support himself with his performances and compositions. His skills as a conductor, pianist, and composer were in great demand. While his career was making excellent progress, however, he experienced a tragedy: he was going deaf. He began to withdraw socially. He was overcome with grief, but his stubbornness and genius prevailed, and his career continued to soar even though he was not able to hear his own compositions. He said, "I will struggle with fate; it shall never drag me down. (Beethoven)” To continue composing, at first he focused on the vibrations of his pianos and later relied on his mental understanding of his music.

He wrote music with little regard for established "conservative” rules. He increased the size of his orchestra to fit his musical taste. He was very concerned that his intended tempo and dynamics were recognized as fundamental to the music. In his 9th Symphony he added a choir with soloists. This had never been attempted in a symphony. He wanted his music to be powerful. The "Ode to Joy” in his 9th Symphony reflects this attitude. He also wanted his music to participate in the political struggles of his day (the birth of democracy in the United States and the democracy movement throughout Europe); thus, the claim in the 9th Symphony that "all men are brothers.” He was very critical of the old political hierarchy with its kings and queens, and of the authoritarianism of Napoleon. He viewed himself as a musical revolutionary and challenged the world to establish a new age of liberty.

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, five piano concertos, one violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas (including the Moonlight) and many other pieces including masses, overtures, and songs. His contributions provided the "Classical” period of music (1730 – 1820) with an exalted concluding moment, and his focus on emotional expression through sophisticated harmonies, chord progressions and local folk traditions ushered in the "Romantic” period of music (1815-1910.)

Personal Information
Beethoven was a court organist when he was twelve. He became one of the finest pianists of his time. This component of his career, however, was abbreviated when he became deaf. As an adult his secretary and friends set up rotations to clean his apartment and to take care of his dirty laundry. He was once detained and charged with vagrancy. He wrote music whenever and wherever the inspiration came to him. He had very messy handwriting. He never married, but got into a protracted and expensive custody battle over his nephew. He died at the age of 57. During his funeral so many Viennese crowded the streets to pay their last respects that the funeral procession became gridlocked, hardly able to move through the streets.

U.S. and California History in Beethoven’s Lifetime
  • Russians built Fort Ross
  • California became part of "New Spain”
  • The United States is born. The dream of freedom and democracy swept Europe. The French King Louise XVI and Queen, Marie Antoinette, were removed and beheaded.
  • The United States makes the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • Spain cedes Florida to the U.S.
  • The Star Spangled Banner is written
  • First Italian opera comes to New York
  • Mexico gains its independence from Spain
  • Napoleon invades Russia and fails; he is later crushed by England, Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Five Recommended CD’s
1. Beethoven’s Greatest Hits includes parts of various symphonies and Minuet in G, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata (part), The Turkish March, etc. by Sony Classical. This inexpensive CD is an excellent source for demonstrating the range of Beethoven’s compositions and their diversity.
2. Beethoven’s Pastoral (No.6) Symphony. The Columbia Orchestra provides a very fine recording.
3. Moonlight Sonata, Pathetique Sonata, etc. by Arthur Rubenstein
4. The 5th Piano Concerto by Leon Fleisher, with Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra
5. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with Mackerras conducting the Royal Liverpool Orchestra or Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Beethoven Lives Upstairs: An award winning children’s film. There are also quite a few other films not designed for children that an educator may find helpful, the most recent being Copying Beethoven.

My Experiences
Children love Beethoven! His Pastoral Symphony with its thunder and lightening are easily understood and enjoyed. Children especially enjoy the Moonlight Sonata on the Greatest Hits CD was enjoyed for its very peaceful and unhurried performance. "Fur Elise” and "The Turkish March” were equally popular. They develop empathy for his life with an alcoholic father and seemed to have complete respect for his perseverance in his commitment to music in spite of his hearing loss. They celebrated his stubbornness, messy handwriting, commitment to "powerful” music, and his revolutionary-type personality.