Ludwig van Beethoven

Composer Ludwig van Beethoven

The most famous and influential composer in music history. His life and music provided the template for musical Romanticism.

Vital Statistics
Dec. 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Mar. 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria, of cirrhosis of the liver and lead poisoning
Performed As:
Pianist (soloist)
During Lifetime:
The American and French Revolutions, and Napoleonic Wars took place.
Biographical Outline
  • First gig: Assistant court organist, Bonn, ages 14-22.
  • Vienna: Moves there in 1792 to study with Haydn. Establishes himself as a star pianist.
  • Deafness: In 1801, Beethoven confides to a couple of trusted friends that he is experiencing deafness. By 1818, he is totally deaf.
  • Heroic decade: 1802-1812: Beethoven produces many of his most famous compositions. His “heroic style” expands and, in some ways, redefines the instrumental genres of his time.
  • High-level contacts: Beethoven dedicates many of his famous works to his major aristocratic patrons. These include Count Waldstein, Count Rasumovsky, Prince Karl Lichnowsky and, later on, the Archduke Rudolph.
  • Resurgence: After a creative trough, Beethoven forges a distinctive late-period style, beginning with the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata (1818).
  • The Ninth: Beethoven had long wanted to set the poet Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music. In 1823, he finally accomplishes that goal by finishing the Ninth Symphony. It is first performed on May 7, 1824, conducted by Beethoven.
  • Quartet consolation: Though Beethoven is beset with illness in his last years, he composes a final series of five string quartets in 1822-26.
Fun Facts
  • Poor Education: Beethoven was not well-educated, nor was he good-looking. He had a forceful, magnetic personality and many friends, but was hot-tempered, often ill-mannered, and suspicious.
  • Politics: Beethoven was initially a supporter of Napoleon, and meant to dedicate the Third Symphony to him. The dedication was angrily crossed out when Napoleon declared himself Emperor, in 1802. Beethoven remained loyal to his friends in the high Austrian nobility.
  • Unrequited love:The “Immortal Beloved” addressed in an 1812 letter that Beethoven saved but never sent, was Antonie Brentano, wife of a Frankfurt businessman.
  • Hearing loss:As he grew more deaf, visitors to Beethoven wrote their conversation down for him to read. About 140 “conversation books” are known to exist, though Beethoven’s personal secretary destroyed some of them and tampered with others after the composer’s death.
  • Auctioned works:Beethoven’s estate, including his music sketchbooks and manuscript scores, were auctioned off after his death. Together, they brought a moderate amount of money, 1,140 florins (about 17,600 modern Euros).
  • Funeral:Beethoven’s funeral procession, on March 29, 1827, was witnessed by 10,000 or more people.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • A list of non-masterpieces by Beethoven would be much shorter than the list of famous works. Musicians are familiar with most of his lesser works. To do, once before you die: Hear the Ninth Symphony live in concert
Recommended Websites
  • Symphonies: Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies, all of them famous. Here are recommendations for a complete set, followed by individual recommendations.
    • Beethoven Symphonies, North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Günter Wand, cond. (RCA 2004) (Rhapsody)
    • No. 3, in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”
    • Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, cond. Simax (2006)
    • Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, Sony Essential Classics (ADD, 2002) (Rhapsody)
    • No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
    • Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, cond. DG “The Originals” (Rhapsody)
    • Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, cond. Simax (2006)
    • No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral”
    • Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Sony Essential Classics (ADD, 2002). (Rhapsody)
  • Overtures:
    • Especially Leonore No. 3, Egmont & Fidelio
    • Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond. (Teldec, 1996).
    • Piano Concertos:
      • No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
      • Murray Perahia/ Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. (Sony, 1990)
      • No. 4
      • Leon Fleisher/ Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. (Sony, 1992, ADD)
      • No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
      • Murray Perahia/ Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. (Sony, 1990)
      • Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
      • Jascha Heifetz/ Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. (RCA Living Stereo, 1998)
      • Christian Tetzlaff/ Tonhalle Zurich Orchestra, David Zinman, cond. (Arte Nova, 2006)
    • String Quartets:
      • Op. 59, Nos, 1-3, “Rasumovsky Quartets”
      • Tokyo String Quartet (Harmonia Mundi, 2005)
      • Takács Quartet (Decca/London, 2002)
    • Late Quartets
      • Takács Quartet (Decca/ London, 2005)
      • Guarneri Quartet (RCA 1990, ADD)
      • Violin Sonatas No. 5 in F Major, “Spring,” and No. 9 in A Major, “Kreutzer”
      • Itzhak Perlman, violin/ Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano (Decca “The Originals, 2006)
    • Piano Trios No. 7 in B-flat Major, “Archduke;” No.5 in D Major, “Ghost”
    • Itzhak Perlman, violin/ Lynn Harrell, cello/ Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano (EMI, “The Perlman Edition,” 2004)

    • Piano Sonatas
      • Esp. No. 8, “Pathetiquè”; No. 14, “Moonlight”; No. 21, “Waldstein”; No. 23, “Appassionata”; No. 29, “Hammerklavier”
      • Complete sonatas: This is the definitive collection
      • Richard Goode (Nonesuch, 1993)
      • Stephen Bishop Kovacevich (EMI, 2004) (also available as single discs)
      • Nos. 8 &14
      • Emil Gilels (DG 1990)
      • Nos. 21 & 23
      • Emil Gilels (DG 1990)
      • No. 29
      • Rudolf Serkin (Sony, 1992, ADD)

    • Major vocal works:
      • Fidelio (opera, 1805, rev. 1814)
      • Gundula Janowitz/ Rene Kollo/ Manfred Jungwirth/ Hans Sotin; Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. (DG, 2005); DVD (DG 2007)
      • Christa Ludwig/ Jon Vickers/ Gottlob Frick/ Walter Berry; Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer cond. (EMI 1994)
      • Missa solemnis (Solemn Mass, 1823)
      • Edda Moser/ Hanna Schwarz/ Rene Kollo/ Kurt Moll; Concertgebouw Orchestra and Hilversum Radio Chorus, Leonard Bernstein, cond. (DG Galleria, 2000)
      • Charlotte Margiono/ Catherine Robbin/ William Kendall/ Alastair Miles; English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, cond. (DG Arkiv, 1991)