Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven : 10 (little) things you might not know about the composer

Who better than Beethoven incarnates the figure of the misunderstood and tormented artist? The image of a solitary and irascible genius still goes with the name of this legendary composer. But we would be wrong to reduce Beethoven and his music to only one trait de character…

Born on the 17th of December 1770 in Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven led until his death, at the age of 56, a fight against his modest origins and his premature deafness. Suffering from a reputation of a misanthropist, the author of the most famous Ninth Symphony was indeed temperamental, but he was also a humanist, romantic, combative and spectacular. Here are ten little things to convince you. 

Maison où est né Beethoven, à Bonn
Maison où est né Beethoven, à Bonn

You shall be the new Mozart my son

As soon as he detected his son's gifts, Beethoven's father, a modest musician, brutal and alcoholic, only had one goal: turn his son into a virtuoso. Therefore, Beethoven was forced to practice the piano and the violin and had to leave school at the age of eleven to meet his father's ambitions. To make sure his son would be seen more brilliant and more precocious than he already was, his father lied about his age, claiming he was two years younger. Ludwig would stay duped by this lie for a very long time.

A life a love disappointments

Eleonore von Breuning, Giuletta Guicciardi, the von Brunsvik sisters, Magdalena Willman, Antonie Brentano… Beethoven fell pretty easily in love. But his modest origins as well as his instable character prevented every wish for mariage he made. Of those women he loved, we especially remember the name of Joséphine von Brunsvik who inspired him for the writing of his opera Fidelio or the Triumph of the Marital Love. But the girl's family opposed the wedding of their daughter and that commoner musician. The mystery of the eternal beloved remains: Beethoven wrote three passionate letters to the woman but her identity is still unknown today...

Beethoven was not angry with the rest of humanity

We picture too easily Beethoven as a misanthropist person. And even if he was capable of impressive bursts of rage, he could also be light, funny and altruistic. In reality, Beethoven considered himself as the carrier of a divine mission. He composed for the nobles' entertainment as he did for charity causes, but also for the generations yet to come: he used to answer to the ones who criticized his music "they would enjoy it later".

The ears that burn

"O men that declare me hateful, sour or misanthropist, you do not know the secret reason of what you think you see" : Beethoven suffered terribly from his deafness. Not that he was afraid to become unable to compose - on the contrary, his music became his only reason to live - but because he feared his ache would be discovered by his ennemies and damage his profession. That is why he tried to hide for so long his auditive troubles, until eventually he completely lost his hearing. Therefore, he appeared distant and cold when in truth the poor man could hardly hear anything.

Scène du film Immortal Beloved, de Bernard Rose
Scène du film Immortal Beloved, de Bernard Rose

A dispute between Beethoven and Goethe

Even if the composer admired Goethe, he was properly scandalized by the most reverential attitude showed by the poet towards the imperial family and the nobility of Vienna. He wrote to their common friend Bettina Brentano: "Goethe likes too much the air in court. More that it suits a poet". Beethoven didn't hesitate to confess his disapproval to his compatriot who chose to ignore the composer until the end of his life, despite the many partitions that were sent to him.

Ugly but fascinating

"He is small, brown and carries the marks of the small pox […] dark hair, very long, that he throws back […] his clothes are torn, he looked completely tattered": here is what Bettina Brentano wrote about Beethoven while confessing at the same time she is literally hypnotized by the man. For Beethoven left no one indifferent. When he started to play the piano and composed a piece, "the muscles of his face inflate" and his "untamed gaze rolls with violence": Beethoven is like a frighting and strange magician, but that still want to stare at. 

Portrait de Beethoven jeune homme
Portrait de Beethoven jeune homme

A genius of improvisation

Beethoven's rebelliousness infuriated all his teachers... Haydn, his music master in Vienna, recognized his talent but found him way too undisciplined. Albrechtsberger, who taught him composition, even said to his student: "He is an exalted music free-thinker, don't mix with him: he has learnt nothing and won't ever do something worthy". But Beethoven - who, a few years later would already be unbeatable at the pianistic improvisations duel, then so popular in the Viennese salons - never gave importance to those critics and History is apparently on his side...

There should have been a Tenth Symphony...

At the age of 56, Beethoven, while dying in his bead, handed one last time his fist towards the sky, tragically defying death and fate. For the composer never had so many projects in mind: a requiem, an oratorio, and an opera on the poem of Faust are still to be made. Incidentally, he just put the final touched to his tenth symphony. But it has mysteriously never been kept by his executors... One last masterpiece, lost forever.

Manuscrit de la Neuvième Symphonie, acquis en 2003 par l'UNESCO
Manuscrit de la Neuvième Symphonie, acquis en 2003 par l'UNESCO

A very low composer

Bothered by the terrible pains and tinnitus as soon as he was 26, Beethoven became nearly deaf five years later. More than ever determined to keep on composing, he then found the most original technique to counterbalance his deafness: sitting on the floor facing a feet-less piano, he felt the vibrations of music in the ground.

The revolutionary spirit

Beethoven never hid his liberal ideas and his revolutionary thoughts. He gave up the traditional bourgeoise wig, the trousers and silk stockings - at the risk of shocking the pretty society of the Viennese salons - and started to mix with the Jacobin clandestines groups, whose ideas are inspired by the French Revolution. Some even said he was a freemason. Terribly disappointed by Napoleon Bonaparte when he was declared Emperor and started his conquests, Beethoven erased the mention he had saved for the general on the partition of his Heroic Symphony. As a matter of fact, it was not him who chose the title Emperor Concerto for his Piano Concerto No. 5. But even then, it would appear the term "emperor" would be a reference to the idea of "majestic" and to the "most beautiful concerto" and not to Napoleon.

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