Beethoven, Ludwig van, one of the greatest among the musicians of Germany, was born at Bonn on the Rhine on December 16th, 1770. His family was of Dutch extraction. He began his musical studies with his father, Johann, a tenor vocalist, in the year 1775. The tendency of his musical mind was discovered by his grandfather, after whom he was named, and to whom he was sincerely attached. The grandfather died when Beethoven was in his third year, and with his death ceased the only happy hours young Ludwig is said to have enjoyed in his life. His father Johann, who had unfortunately given way to habits of drunkenness, thought to make money out of the talents of his child, and kept him to his musical studies with a severity, not to say cruelty, which almost disgusted him with the very name of music. When he was nine years of age the father engaged a fellow vocalist and boon companion, called Pfeiffer; to help in the instruction of his child, and their united efforts certainly produced good results, for not only did the boy master all the technical difficulties of the violin and pianoforte, but his mind expanded, and he was able to give his thoughts expression at a very early age. He was wont to say in after years that he had learned more from Pfeiffer than from anybody else. He never received more than the simplest kind of school education, but his desire for knowledge was great, and even as a boy he sought to make acquaintance with the great writers of the chief European nations, and he acquired, almost without help, a smattering of Latin, French and German. The organ he learned from the Court organist, the Fleming Van den Eeden, an old friend and fellow countryman of his late grandfather. He continued his organ studies with Neefe, the successor of Van den Eeden, and even in his twelfth year was skilful enough to act as his deputy.
In 1787 he visited Vienna for the first time, and was introduced to Mozart, who, when he heard him play, said prophetically, "Take heed to this youth, one of these days he will make a noise in the world." Through the interest of his friend Count Waldstein, the Elector Max Franz sent Beethoven to Vienna in 1792 to continue his studies with Haydn, Salieri, and Albrechtsberger. He did not take kindly to the teaching of Haydn, for although he dedicated his three pianoforte sonatas (op. 2) to his master, he declined to insert on the title page "Pupil of Haydn," giving as his reason that "he had never learned anything of him." He took lessons from Salieri on the art of writing for the voice, and so highly did he value his teaching that he was never too proud to call himself his pupil. He passed through the drudgery of learning the art of counterpoint with Albrechtsberger with painstaking patience. He also learned to play the viola, the violoncello, the clarinet and the horn in his own obstinate, self-willed way; and although his teachers had a high regard for his genius he never succeeded in making himself agreeable to either of them. He visited Prague, Nuremburg, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin; was graciously received in the last named place by Frederick William II., and presented with a snuff-box full of gold pieces. "Not an ordinary snuff-box," he would say to his friends, "but one of the kind usually given to ambassadors." In 1800 he left the hospitable shelter of the Lichnowsky palace for lodgings, where he felt he could follow his career with greater freedom. In the year following he experienced the first symptoms of the malady which embittered his remaining years, for it never yielded to medical treatment, and in 1810 he became totally deaf. His position in the world of music was by this time assured, and his brothers Carl and Johann followed him to Vienna. The last named had acquired some property, and on one New Year's Eve sent his brother Ludwig a card on which he described himself as "Land owner." After having written on the back the words Ludwig van Beethoven, "Brain owner," he returned the card. By this it may be gathered that Beethoven had some appreciation of humour, though his deafness somewhat isolated him from the world and he appeared to be misanthropical. When the poet Goethe met him in 1812, he wrote to Zelter, his friend, "I made acquaintance with Beethoven at Toplitz. His marvellous talent astounded me. But, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed character. He is not indeed wrong in finding the world detestable. Still his finding it so does not make it any more enjoyable either to himself or to others." He became more and more secluded from the world, and when he took the guardianship of his nephew Carl in 1815 the extravagances and evil conduct of this young man so affected him that he became more and more retiring and engrossed in musical composition. He caught cold driving in an open chaise, and ultimately succumbed to an attack of inflammation of lungs and dropsy, dying during a thunderstorm on March 26th, 1827. He was buried in the Wahring Cemetery in Vienna. His remains were twice disturbed. They were exhumed and reburied October 13th, 1863, and on June 21st, 1888, they were removed to the Central Cemetery at Summering, where they now rest close to the graves of Schubert and Mozart.
In personal appearance Beethoven was of medium height, a broad and firm frame; his head large, his hair black and plentiful; he shaved close, though at times he allowed his beard to grow for several days; his eyes were large, black, and piercing; his voice rough, except when influenced by feeling, when it was soft and tender in tone.
As a composer his music is marked by deep and earnest thought. He always worked with an ideal in his mind, and his music is the expression of some mental imagery and poetical emotion. In his later years the strength of his utterances became deeper, more energetic, and appeals with power as great in its way to musicians as the words of Shakespeare among poets.
The wealth of imagery, the grandeur of his imagination, the character of gloom and melancholy which pervades certain of his music has been compared to the poetry of Dante, so that Beethoven as a musician is held to be as eminent as the greatest of poets.
His works, which comprise orchestral and symphonic compositions, chamber music, the opera Fidelio, two masses, and other vocal music with pianoforte pieces, and present differences of style varying according to the date of production, have been arranged in three periods, each the development and expansion of the other. The first period or style is found in his music produced up to the year 1800, when the sway of art as then known was greater than his own individuality. In the next, which began with his second and ended with his eighth symphonies (1814), the strength of his genius was more manifest. The third period (1815 to his death), which includes his ninth symphony, is that in which the most poetical and even prophetic sides of his genius were more powerfully displayed. His symphonies form the backbone of all good orchestral concerts, his chamber music is more popular than ever, his sonatas form the groundwork for study among pupils, and the opportunity for the display of the abilities of the best executants, and the influence of his music spreads wider every day. His compositions have been enumerated by Nottebohm, who has also given details concerning them. His life has been ably written by Schindler (translated by Moscheles), by H. A. Ruding (Sampson Low & Co.), by Sir George Grove (Dictionary of Music), and by others in French, German, and in English.