Beethoven Beyond the Myths
Get to Know Beethoven in 2020
I’m sure there are a few things you could name about Ludwig van Beethoven off the top of your head: He’s one of the most famous composers of all time. He went deaf. His Symphony Number 9 is played in many movies and television shows… but there is so much more to Beethoven than you realize. We were lucky enough to visit Bonn, Germany this past month to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. On this trip, we learned about who Beethoven was as a person and how his environment and the political turmoil of his time affected him and his music.
We also learned that most people associate Beethoven with Vienna due to his career in Vienna; however, he was born in Bonn, and this is where he grew up and became a master of his music. While visiting the Beethoven House where he was born, the walking tours around Bonn, and the Bundeskunsthalle (which is now featuring a very elaborate exhibition on Beethoven), we realized just how much information was out there about Beethoven that we didn’t know. So, in honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth, here are some facts about Beethoven that you probably didn’t know so you can get to know much more about Beethoven that just his myths.
As mentioned above, Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany. He trained his whole life for music because both his father and his grandfather were professional musicians before him. So, he studied the family trade. He came to the public’s attention at the age of 12 when his first 3 piano sonatas were published.
Beethoven lived in 4 different homes in Bonn, but due to war times, only the house that he was born in remains standing. The Beethoven House is a great place to visit if you are in Bonn.
At the age of 14, in 1784 he became an assistant organist at the court. He was sent to Vienna in 1792, at the age of 22, to study music. However, in 1794, Bonn was occupied by France and was no longer a place Beethoven could return to; the political turmoil and war made it almost impossible for him to return home, which is why he never made it back to Bonn for the rest of his life. Another reason he never returned home was, in 1806, he was doing very well with his music. He was selling his work, and he was in the receipt of funding from Archduke Rudolf, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky on the condition that he remain in Vienna and not seek permanent employment. So, Beethoven stayed in Vienna.
On his path to success, Beethoven would play Mozart (who was already a famous composer) and the music of other great composers of the time at the beginning of his concerts to get people to attend. Then, once he had them there, he would add in his own works. That is how people began to recognize and appreciate his greatness in music.
Beethoven was a very opinionated and passionate man. This showed through in his messy drafts and compositions for his works. While working on music he would cross out and re-correct himself many times. But this showed his passion and intensity for what he was doing.
French horns nowadays have rotary valves. But, in Beethoven’s time, the entire valve/loop of the horn had to be removed and changed out to accomplish this task. So, he had to think about details such as this in his compositions and reflect the time to physically change out the valves in his music.
Many of the violins and other string instruments owned by Beethoven have his seal stamped on the back (the way you would stamp a letter in candle wax).
During the success of his career, one could be paid in a variety of international coins across Europe. However, Beethoven requested to be paid only in the gold coin with a knight on it, as it was the densest and therefore worth more than the rest of the coins he could be paid with.
During the last 10 years of his life, he was known as the most important living composer. He had fame all across Europe, but his deafness and many health problems made Beethoven withdraw and work less on his compositions. Some of Beethoven’s medical issues included chronic headaches, pulmonary disease, pneumonia, rheumatism, jaundice, gout, constant stomach and intestinal pains, and liver problems. It was also believed that he had smallpox as a child because of the pox marks seen on his face in his cast mold of his face that they made for his bust. Because of this he saw many doctors over his life and was constantly looking to new professionals for help.
Despite his passions and illnesses, Beethoven had many friends. Countless letters have been found between him and friends, as well as musical dedications to those he was close to.
1806 was the year Beethoven publicly announced his hearing loss. In the attempt to cure or improve his deafness, Beethoven tried many different instruments and “current trends”. Some of these methods seems rather horrible and torturous even, which shows the level of desperation he had in trying to cure it. He tried tea, ear trumpets, horseradish applied in the ear with a cotton cloth, Galvano therapy (which put an electric current directly into the ear), ear drops made of milk boiled with green walnut husks, almond oil ear drops, and the blistering application of toxic bark from spurge laurel to the arms and skin. A chair was also created to help deaf feel vibrations, and he experimented with that, as well.
Beethoven was a radical thinker who was ahead of his time. Perhaps he understood the suffering of people because he was born in a lower class, but he believed in the brotherhood of mankind. A letter was discovered five years ago that confessed this, and it was also shown in his 9th symphony. Beethoven believed in peace for all classes and races and saw that it was something that wouldn’t be achieved for centuries. We’re still not even completely there.
Beethoven passed away in November 1827, at the age of 56 and was mourned internationally.
As you can easily see, there is so much more to Beethoven than most people realize. And we strongly encourage you to make the trip out to Bonn, Germany this year to fully immerse yourself in the Bundeskunsthalle exhibit and all the glorious locations around Beethoven’s hometown. You will get to walk in his footsteps and see how Bonn inspired his career.
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