Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born 17 December 1770. Died 26 March 1827.


The popular image of Beethoven as a morose individual who shunned society is only partly true. He did have a serious outlook on life, and in later years he had difficulty mixing with people because of his deafness, which emerged in his late twenties and gradually increased thereafter till his death. Yet he loved company, and had a ready wit. His letters contain many puns, and it was he who introduced the scherzo (literally, ‘joke’) into the symphony when he used one in his Symphony No. 2 instead of the customary minuet.

This Second Symphony already goes well beyond the models of Haydn and Mozart, the two chief influences on his style. Building on their example Beethoven continually strove to stretch the bounds of music to new limits, whether in his seven surviving concertos, 16 string quartets, 35 piano sonatas (including three very early ones) or other works.

Each of his nine symphonies (and an incipient tenth) is completely different from any previous one, and he showed similar originality in every major genre of the time, from his only opera Fidelio and his mighty Missa solemnis to his numerous settings of folk songs, which he treated in an entirely novel way. He achieved his goal through a combination of natural genius and sheer hard work: every one of his major compositions is the result of painstaking refinement, evident in the many thousands of pages of musical sketches that he wrote.

It is not always realised, however, that Beethoven was extraordinary in other ways too. Having no wife or family of his own, he spent enormous energy on helping his nephew, and he was deeply religious. Indeed his goodness and kindness were so evident to his contemporaries that at least three of them independently asserted that he was even greater as a human being than as a musician. Considering that many regard him as the greatest composer in history, such praise is astonishing.

Beethoven also responded strikingly to political upheavals – the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars. Although no political activist, he made his hatred of tyranny very plain in works such as Fidelio and his music for Goethe’s play Egmont.

Yet it is the quality of his music that has ensured his lasting reputation. Although its novelty initially puzzled some of his contemporaries, repeated hearings and study have shown that it is based on firm foundations. Its combination of beauty and unpredictability, extreme emotional depth and intellectual rigour, across so many genres, is unsurpassed and probably always will be.

Profile © Barry Cooper

Links & Information

BBC Reviews

  1. Review of Violin Sonatas (violin: Leonidas Kavakos, piano: Enrico Pace)

    Violin Sonatas (violin: Leonidas Kavakos, piano: Enrico Pace) 2013

    Reviewed by Graham Rogers
    This joyous set of Beethoven's sonatas takes its place among the very best.
  2. Review of The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 (feat. piano: Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

    The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 (feat. piano: Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra) 2012

    Reviewed by Graham Rogers
    The first step on what seems to be a joyous journey for the Norwegian pianist.
  3. Review of Complete Piano Sonatas – Volume 1: Heroic Ideals / Eternal Feminine Youth (piano: HJ Lim)

    Complete Piano Sonatas – Volume 1: Heroic Ideals / Eternal Feminine Youth (piano: HJ Lim) 2012

    Reviewed by Daniel Ross
    Pianist Lim tackles these pieces with invention as much as she does with respect.
  4. Review of The Symphonies (conductor: Riccardo Chailly; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig)

    The Symphonies (conductor: Riccardo Chailly; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig) 2011

    Reviewed by Daniel Ross
    Readings focused entirely on the composer, not on debating how things ‘should’ sound.
  5. Review of Fidelio (feat. Nina Stemme, Jonas Kaufman; Lucerne Festival Orchestra; conductor: Claudio Abbado)

    Fidelio (feat. Nina Stemme, Jonas Kaufman; Lucerne Festival Orchestra; conductor: Claudio Abbado) 2011

    Reviewed by Daniel Ross
    Elements combine effectively to highlight what a baffling composer Beethoven could be.
  6. Review of Complete Works for Violin & Orchestra (feat: violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja)

    Complete Works for Violin & Orchestra (feat: violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja) 2009

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    Kopatchinskaja has something genuinely individual to say about this masterpiece.
  7. Review of Piano Concertos 3, 4 & 5

    Piano Concertos 3, 4 & 5 2009

    Reviewed by Michael Quinn
    These studio readings exult in vital spontaneity and alert reciprocity
  8. Review of Cello Sonatas Vol 1

    Cello Sonatas Vol 1 2008

    Reviewed by Charlotte Gardner
    An expressiveness that borders on the sublime.
  9. Review of Piano Trios

    Piano Trios 2007

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    At last...after the Brahms, Dvorák, Schubert and Schumann Piano Trios, the Florestans...
  10. Review of Piano Sonatas

    Piano Sonatas 2007

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    'From the almost unfeasibly grave introduction to the 'Pathétique' to the torrential...
  11. Review of Piano Concertos 1 - 5

    Piano Concertos 1 - 5 2007

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    A 3-disc set of all five of Beethoven's Piano Concertos, bringing together renowned...
  12. Review of Complete Violin Sonatas

    Complete Violin Sonatas 2007

    Reviewed by Matthew Shorter
    A 3-cd set of all ten of Beethoven's sonatas for violin and piano, from outstanding...
  13. Review of Symphony no. 9 (Choral)

    Symphony no. 9 (Choral) 2006

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    ...truly celebratory...
  14. Review of Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3

    Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3 2004

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    In an ideal world, Beethoven would always feel as shockingly fresh as this.

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