“Beethoven’s music… opens up to us the kingdom of the gigantic and the immeasurable… [it] moves the lever controlling horror, fear, dread, pain and awakens that infinite longing that is the essence of Romanticism.” So wrote the author ETA Hoffmann in 1810, after falling under the spell of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No 5.


This assessment might have been news to the composer. He had come of age during the Aufklärung, the age of Reason (when scepticism, rationality and an adherence to the laws of science became the west’s dominant philosophy). Yet today, as the world celebrates the 250th anniversary of his birth, Beethoven can seem more a creature of the Romantics (a new wave of artists who celebrated emotion, nature and the past) than he would ever have considered himself. He was both a pioneer of his art and inescapably a child of his time.

Musical heritage

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn on (probably) 16 December 1770, the eldest surviving son of Johann van Beethoven, a musician employed by the archbishop of Cologne. Ludwig’s Flemish-born grandfather, also called Ludwig, had been Kapellmeister in Bonn, head of music to the town, an influential figure of whose heritage his youthful namesake was proud.

The younger Ludwig had far less confi-dence in his father, though. Johann tried to turn the gifted lad into a performing prodigy; no wonder Beethoven later had a problem with authority figures attempting to coerce him to a piano. Ludwig did, though, receive valuable support from his composition teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, and the Elector Max Franz, who funded a trip to Vienna so that Ludwig could audition for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In Vienna, any plans Beethoven had to study with Mozart were soon shattered: upon hearing that his mother was gravely ill, Beethoven rushed back to Bonn to be with her. After her death his father lapsed into alcoholism; his two younger brothers were still schoolboys, and the 17-year-old musician had to take charge of the family and its finances. By the time he returned to Vienna in 1792, Mozart, too, had died. Count Waldstein, a crucial patron in Bonn, sent Beethoven on his way to study instead with Joseph Haydn, exhorting him to “receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn”.

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Beethoven loved his native town, with its spacious university, intellectual population and broad, open-hearted riverscapes. But he never saw it again.

Two years later, in 1794, Napoleon Bonaparte counted Bonn among his conquests and absorbed it into the first French empire. It seems all the more extraordinary, then, that Napoleon remained for some while Beethoven’s personal hero. It is not that the composer approved of the French Revolution’s bloody aftermath. It was more that he admired Napoleon as a powerful self-made leader and free man, the type of individual Beethoven himself aspired to be.

Beethoven certainly espoused the ideals of liberté and fraternité – and he was more concerned with égalité than has sometimes been recognised. In a 1795 letter that has only come to light recently, the composer wrote to a friend who was travelling to Russia: “So you are now in the cold land where mankind is still treated so much beneath its dignity… you will encounter many things there which are contrary to your way of thinking… When will the time come when there will only be people? [ie, without such divisions in society.]” That time seemed further away than ever when Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804; Beethoven appears to have been much disillusioned.

Sporting high ideals and self-belief to match, the straight-talking, hot-tempered young musician from the Rhineland settled in Vienna, the Habsburg capital: a city of palaces and princes, where social graces and pretensions were paramount.

By now Europe was waking up to Beethoven’s genius, and he was widely spoken of as the successor to Mozart. However, to the aristocratic patrons in whose salons he first established himself, his uncouth ways – no wig, no respect for mealtimes – appeared alien. The distaste was mutual. Beethoven lived in Vienna for more than 30 years, loathing it. “From the emperor to the bootblack, all the Viennese are worthless,” he opined. He regarded them as dishonest, mean and unappreciative – even when newspapers called him “Europe’s greatest composer”.

The matter of how exactly to live as a ‘great composer’ at the 19th century’s outset posed its own problems. Like Mozart, Beethoven rejected the typical status of the musician as a liveried court servant; he was determined to pursue an independent life as a proud freelancer. Yet this left him beholden to many different patrons, rather than just one, while the gulf between the nobility and commoners, entrenched via Austria’s dual legal system – one law for aristocrats, another for everyone else – often proved the bane of his life.

An incident in 1806 highlights the problem. While Beethoven was staying at his patron Prince Lichnowsky’s country palace, the aristocrat tried to force him to perform at a social function against his will. Beethoven stormed out, leaving a note: “You are a prince through circumstance of birth. I am what I am through myself alone. There are and have been thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.” This fit of ego-fuelled rage lost him a quarter of his income – Lichnowsky had been paying him an annual stipend.

Beethoven resolved to “seize fate by the throat”. The result was the birth of Romanticism in classical music

If Beethoven’s resilience had been tested in Bonn too heavily, too young, a further, even more terrible blow awaited. In 1802 he spent the summer in the village of Heiligenstadt, lodging behind the bakery, and here wrote a document that was not revealed until after his death. The ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ is partly a will, partly an outpouring of despair, addressed to his two brothers. The composer, still only in his early thirties, explains that he is going deaf and there might be no remedy (today, many believe he was suffering from a condition called Otosclerosis). His entire vocation depends upon his sense of hearing. He has contemplated suicide: “Only my art held me back,” he wrote.

Having then resolved, as he earlier told a childhood friend, to “seize fate by the throat”, Beethoven successfully rallied. He jettisoned his old methods of composition to seek “a new path” – one that would lead to the birth of Romanticism in classical music – which became known as his ‘heroic’ period. Its first manifestation was his Symphony No 3, the Eroica. Moreover, as composer-in-residence at the Theater an der Wien, he was throwing his energies into an opera, Fidelio, the story of a devoted wife who saves her husband from political imprisonment and murder.

An ardent courtship

Hope rose again in Beethoven’s personal life, though too briefly. In 1799, two young Hungarian countesses, Therese and Josephine von Brunsvik, visiting Vienna with their mother, had approached Beethoven for piano lessons. The 20-year-old Josephine caught his eye, but weeks later she was married off to Count Joseph Deym, owner of a waxworks museum. During these years the friendship continued; Deym even commissioned music from Beethoven for a mechanical organ in his gallery.

After Deym died in 1804, leaving Josephine widowed with four small children, Beethoven rushed into an ardent courtship. In 1957, 13 of his love letters to her were published for the first time, demonstrating a desperate infatuation. Josephine was nevertheless obliged to reject him; had she married a commoner, the aristocratic law would have removed her custody of her children.

By the time the censors cleared Fidelio for performance in 1805, Napoleon had invaded Vienna. The opera was premiered to less than sterling success and – with many of Vienna’s residents having fled the city – and only a smattering of listeners. The next day, Beethoven’s friends and patrons gathered to beg him to rework it; only when Prince Lichnowsky’s mother went down on bended knee did he agree. Though the new version, Leonore, was performed in 1806, the work did not reach its final form until 1814. By then, the world had changed almost beyond recognition; Beethoven was obliged to change with it.

Under Napoleon’s thumb

In 1809 Napoleon’s armies invaded Vienna again, and this time French forces bombarded the city walls with 20 howitzers. The appalling noise sent the composer rushing to safety in his brother’s basement, where he pressed pillows over his ears to protect what was left of his hearing. But more still was at stake, for Napoleon was overturning the world order of a thousand years. The Holy Roman Empire was finished, Emperor Francis II was deprived of much of his power, and Austria was under Napoleon’s thumb, obliged to contribute thousands of men to his armies, including for the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812.

Amid the turbulence, runaway inflation led in 1811 to the devaluation of the Austrian paper currency to a fifth of its former worth. Beethoven had depended since 1809 on an annual stipend provided jointly by Prince Kinsky, Prince Lobkowitz and the Archduke Rudolph, but now at least two of them had been virtually ruined. Travelling in summer 1812 to the spa town of Teplitz on medical advice, Beethoven stopped in Prague, where he met Prince Kinsky and achieved an advance of 600 florins. There, on 3 July, he cancelled dinner with a friend due to unexpected circumstances, for which we must turn again to the strange case of Josephine Deym.

As Napoleon’s guns bombarded Vienna, Beethoven pressed pillows over his ears to protect what was left of his hearing

Josephine had been seduced by her sons’ tutor, Baron Christoph von Stackelberg, and fell pregnant out of wedlock. Reluctantly she married Stackelberg in 1810, but the couple fell upon hard times and by summer 1812 the marriage was on the rocks.

On 6 July Beethoven wrote an extraordinary love letter. It was discovered, together with the Heiligenstadt Testament, in his apartment after his death. It is addressed only to someone he terms his “Immortal Beloved”. Nine months later, on 8 April 1813, Josephine gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Minona. Photographs of her reveal a startling likeness to portraits of Beethoven.

Josephine was unable to free herself from her marriage – and that had a terrible impact on her health and her finances. She died in 1821, aged 42.

Sour notes

Beethoven’s entire modus vivendi was being upended by these seismic events, political and personal. Depressed, frequently ill and short of funds, to make ends meet he had to fulfil paid commissions or attempt works with overt popular appeal. Thus the prospect of 1814–15’s Congress of Vienna (when statesmen discussed Europe’s future following the Napoleonic Wars) propelled him into writing short-lived material such as a cantata entitled ‘Der glorreiche Augenblick’ (The Glorious Moment). This was conceived for a mechanical instrument known as a ‘panharmonicon’, developed by the inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. Technology was galloping ahead in music as much as in other fields, from the design of pianos, which were becoming bigger and more powerful, to Mälzel’s metronome, which enabled a piece’s speed to be precisely indicated. Mälzel also developed ear trumpets, which Beethoven used as hearing aids.

He could no longer afford the Pasqualati House apartment and after 1815 took a seemingly endless series of smaller lodgings, sometimes moving on after only weeks. To make matters worse, following his brother’s death in 1815 he embarked upon an ill-fated battle to adopt his nephew Karl, possibly attempting to fill the void left by the fact that he could not be a father to his natural child. The court case against his sister-in-law absorbed much energy over the next five years – and yet again the legal system’s division of commoners and aristocracy proved his Achilles heel. For some reason, he had taken the case to the Landrecht, the Austrian aristocratic court, but while speaking there about Karl’s schooling, he let slip that he would have liked to have sent him to a particular institution had the boy been of noble birth. Vienna was aghast at the public revelation that the celebrated Ludwig ‘van’ Beethoven was not in fact a noble-born ‘von’.

In 1815, Beethoven became embroiled in an ill-fated battle to win custody of his nephew Karl, shown below. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
In 1815, Beethoven became embroiled in an ill-fated battle to win custody of his nephew Karl, shown below. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

But against this hidebound hinterland, nascent cultural forces were on the rise, more sympathetic to Beethoven’s outlook and first detectable more in literature than music – for Beethoven was an avid reader. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of seminal works such as Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, featured strongly among his literary influences. Others ranged from Shakespeare to Indian legends; from Christian Christoph Sturm, who praised God through the miracles of nature, to Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Practical Reason (1788) held a quote close to Beethoven’s heart: “Two things awe me most: the starry sky above, the moral law within.” Drama, religious awe, a passion for nature, a fascination with the exotic, and the overwhelming forces of emotion: these influences help to trace Beethoven’s own path from the old world to the new.

Beethoven’s music in his final eight years – including his last piano works, the Symphony No 9, the ‘Missa Solemnis’ and his five late string quartets – broke wholly new ground in terms of scale and ambition. Long before, he’d rejected his old methods in order to develop ‘a new path’. Now it was as if he had rejected any path in favour of the freedom of the skies. Whether isolation within his deafness was partly responsible is still debated today.

No music like this had been heard before; little has matched it since. Perhaps this unique strength is what ultimately marks out Beethoven, with hindsight, as the first incarnation of Romanticism in music. Either way, the effect remains awe-inspiring. By the time he died of liver disease in 1827, aged 56, the stage was set for a century of musical creation transformed forever by his touch.

Jessica Duchen is a journalist and author. She is working on a novel about Beethoven, entitled Immortal, due to be published later this year


This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine