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Ludwig van Beethoven: Things You Didn't Know About the World's Greatest Composer

People | December 12, 2019

German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), one of the most recognized and influential of western composers. [Cigaretten-Bilderdienst, Altona-Bahrenfeld, Hamburg, Germany, 1936]. Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Im

German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven is often called the greatest musical genius in history. Even those of us who don't know Strauss from Stravinsky can hum the opening bars to Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," and he's famous for the tragic irony of losing his hearing. There is a lot more to this complex genius than you learned middle school music class, however. Let's look at the things you didn't know about the world's greatest composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. 

Ludwig van Beethoven was a child prodigy. (commons.wikimedia.org)

A Musical Prodigy With An Alcoholic Father

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the German city of Bonn on December 16, 1770 to Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. Little Wiggy was named after his grandfather, who was a prominent musician, although Johann, try as he might, was average at best. He was employed as a court singer, but he was likely kept on mostly because he was a fun party guy, especially when he got drinking. Thus, when Johann van Beethoven saw a glimmer of musical talent in his young son, he sought to turn to lad into the great musician he could not be himself. 

Johann van Beethoven was a cruel, alcoholic, frustrated musician. (classicfm.com)

Abusive Music Lessons

Johann van Beethoven began giving his son music lessons when he was a young boy, perhaps as young as four years old. He was a wicked taskmaster, enforcing a grueling and rigorous training schedule that left no room for play time. According to stories, his father loomed over Ludwig as the boy stood at the piano, and every wrong note, hesitation, or break from proper technique resulted in a beating. Most days, young Ludwig sobbed through his lessons, and he was routinely deprived of food and sleep and locked in a closet as punishment. When Ludwig outgrew his father's musical knowledge, Johann arranged for the boy to take lessons from other musicians in town. They, too, recognized the extraordinary talents of Ludwig van Beethoven, though they were (hopefully) a bit gentler with him.

Johann van Beethoven hoped his son's musical talents would make him the next Mozart. (bbc.com)

Seven-Year-Old Beethoven's First Concert

Eager to show off his son's musical talents, Johann van Beethoven arranged for his son to perform his first public piano recital on March 26, 1778. Hoping to capitalize on the novelty of a child musical prodigy, Johann promoted the concert as starring a "little son of six years old" when Ludwig was, in fact, an old man of seven. Ludwig has been described as a shy and reserved lad, but he found that he very much liked to be in the spotlight. After that first successful concert, Ludwig continued his grueling training and performed private concerts for the city's elite. 

Traditional academics did not appeal to Beethoven. (bbc.co.uk)

Beethoven Wasn't Much Of A Student

Shortly after his first public concert, Johann van Beethoven felt it was time for his son to receive a basic education, so he enrolled him in a grade school. There, Ludwig failed to shine. He struggled with spelling, labored through reading, and gave up on math. His marks were so low that his classmates assumed he was an idiot, so Ludwig put an end to his torturous three-year academic career in 1781 at the age of 10. Instead, he became a full-time student of music under Christian Gottlob Neefe, the new court organist. 

Did we mention Johann Beethoven was an alcoholic? (custombottles.wordpress.com)

A 13-Year-Old Breadwinner

Eventually, no amount of drunken charisma could cover up the fact that Johann van Beethoven was starting to lose what little voice he had. As a result, he lost his job as a court singer. With no other source of income, Little Ludwig stepped up and petitioned the court to be appointed to the position of assistant court organist. His application was approved, and at the tender age of 13, Ludwig van Beethoven became the sole breadwinner for his family, which included his parents and two younger brothers. 

Emperor Joseph II. (biography.com)

At First, Beethoven Was A Failed Composer

As a young man, Ludwig van Beethoven was asked to compose a funeral cantata for the burial of Emperor Joseph II. He failed to meet the deadline, and a funeral is kind of a one-shot deal, so he suggested he compose a cantata for the ceremony installing Leopold II as the new emperor instead. Again, he failed to deliver the promised work. Music historians say that acts of carelessness like these put Beethoven in danger of ruining his reputation as a composer, but it was later discovered that Ludwig had, indeed, completed both pieces of music. They were too complex and difficult for the musicians to learn in time, however, which is why other works were used for these two events. Beethoven's "Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II" is considered a masterpiece. 

Ludwig van Beethoven. (biography.com)

Beethoven Was Emotionally Unstable

Ludwig van Beethoven was not considered a handsome man, and he was also socially awkward. He never married, never courted, and never fathered children, although he was secretly in love with an unknowing married woman whom he referred to as his "immortal beloved." He was suspicious of his family, friends, and housekeeping staff, often at odds with his brothers over family matters, and prone to angry outbursts. Although he counted Prince Lichnowsky as one of his closest friends, he once tried to crack a chair over the prince's head in a fit of anger. On another occasion, he publicly called the prince a donkey. 

Rumors persist that Beethoven may have been black. (blackhistory.com)

Beethoven May Have Been Black

A small but persistent group of Beethoven fans believe he was black, and although this claim has been largely dismissed by music historians, it's not as absurd as it might seem. Beethoven has been described as having a dark complexion, a wide nose, and hair that was "frizzy and woolly." His contemporaries referred to him as the "Black Spaniard" because his mother's family came from the region occupied by the Moors. Even his music hints at a cultural background expanding not just beyond Germany but beyond Europe. It shows a deep, innate understanding of polyrhythmic music structures, which are commonly found in African music but were uncommon in European music of the time. 

Beethoven lost his hearing. (factinate.com)

The Cruelest Fate For A Musician

Around the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven started having difficulty understanding voices in conversations. As his condition progressed, he came to the realization that he was going deaf. At first, he hid his affliction, shunning social gatherings where it would have been apparent (which was easy enough, as it doesn't seem like he ever enjoyed them to begin with). He confessed his hearing loss in a letter to a friend, writing that, as a musician, deafness is a "a terrible handicap." As his hearing declined, Beethoven increased his musical output, desperate to compose as much as he could while he could. It paid off: Many of his best-loved pieces were written as he was going deaf. 

Tags: 1700s | ludwig van beethoven | music

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.