In 2020 Beethoven celebrated his 250th birthday. He lived in an incredibly tumultuous time. Born in 1770, he was 19 at the start of the French Revolution, 20 when Joseph II died, and Napoleon became First Consul of the French Republic. Beethoven was a political junkie.
Unlike composers before him, political events and the changing social norms affected him both personally and musically. By the time he died in 1827 he had lived through the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna and its repercussions. Through all of this Beethoven completely changed the musical landscape of Western music taking it on an exciting new journey.
Part One ~ Beethoven and his deafness
How could Beethoven have written such fulfilling music without hearing it? What was the impact of Beethoven’s deafness on his music? The mental, physical and creative effects of going deaf on a composer of Beethoven’s stature were significant, including suicidal thoughts and difficult interpersonal relationships. Beethoven’s Conversation Books and Heiligenstadt Testament respectively reveal mechanisms for living with deafness and expressing despair.
Part Two ~ Beethoven and the aristocracy
Beethoven lived in a time when one’s social class indicated one’s place in society. But even with his revolutionary views fuelled by the French Revolution of 1789 and the rise of Napoleon, Beethoven knew that to succeed one needed the support, both financially and socially, of the upper classes. This created an interesting relationship with his ‘superiors’. He said "Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labour. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven."
Part Three ~ Beethoven’s legacy
Throughout his life Beethoven often wrote music which he knew people of his time would neither be able to play nor understand, once stating that a composition was not for ‘now’ but for future generations. In the Romantic period Beethoven was the composer others aspired to emulate. Some tried to copy his musical style while others saw his revolutionary thinking as a license to continue in a new musical direction. Liszt said, “New wine requires new bottles”. And in the 20th and 21st centuries he has become a cult hero.