The Life of Ludwig Van Beethoven


The rise of Ludwig van Beethoven into the ranks of
history's greatest composers was paralleled by and in some
ways a consequence of his own personal tragedy and despair.
Beginning in the late 1790's, the increasing buzzing and
humming in his ears sent Beethoven into a panic, searching
for a cure from doctor to doctor. By October 1802 he had
written the Heiligenstadt Testament confessing the
certainty of his growing deafness, his consequent despair,
and suicidal considerations. Yet, despite the personal
tragedy caused by the "infirmity in the one sense which
ought to be more perfect in [him] than in others, a sense
which [he] once possessed in the highest perfection, a
perfection such as few in [his] profession enjoy," it also
served as a motivating force in that it challenged him to
try and conquer the fate that was handed him. He would not
surrender to that "jealous demon, my wretched health"
before proving to himself and the world the extent of his
skill. Thus, faced with such great impending loss,
Beethoven, keeping faith in his art and ability, states in
his Heiligenstadt Testament a promise of his greatness yet
to be proven in the development of his heroic style.
By about 1800, Beethoven was mastering the Viennese
High-Classic style. Although the style had been first
perfected by Mozart, Beethoven did extend it to some
degree. He had unprecedently composed sonatas for the cello
which in combination with the piano opened the era of the
Classic-Romantic cello sonata. In addition, his sonatas for
violin and piano became the cornerstone of the sonata duo
repertory. His experimentation with additions to the
standard forms likewise made it apparent that he had
reached the limits of the high-Classic style. Having
displayed the extended range of his piano writing he was
also begining to forge a new voice for the violin. In 1800,
Beethoven was additionally combining the sonata form with a
full orchestra in his First Symphony, op. 2. In the arena
of piano sonata, he had also gone beyond the three-movement
design of Haydn and Mozart, applying sometimes the
four-movement design reserved for symphonies and quartets
through the addition of a minuet or scherzo. Having
confidently proven the high-Classic phase of his sonata
development with the "Grande Sonate," op. 22, Beethoven
moved on to the fantasy sonata to allow himself freer
expression. By 1802, he had evidently succeeded in
mastering the high-Classic style within each of its major
instrumental genres-the piano trio, string trio, string
quartet and quintet, Classic piano concerto, duo sonata,
piano sonata, and symphony. Having reached the end of the
great Vienese tradition, he was then faced with either the
unchallenging repetion of the tired style or going beyond
it to new creations.
At about the same time that Beethoven had exhausted the
potentials of the high-Classic style, his increasing
deafness landed him in a major cycle of depression, from
which was to emerge his heroic period as exemplified in
Symphony No. 3, op. 55 ("Eroica"). In Beethoven's
Heiligenstadt Testament of October 1802, he reveals his
malaise that was sending him to the edge of despair. He
speaks of suicide in the same breath as a reluctance to
die, expressing his helplessness against the inevitability
of death. Having searched vainly for a cure, he seems to
have lost all hope-"As the leaves of autumn fall and are
withered-so likewise has my hope been blighted-I leave
here-almost as I came-even the high courage-which often
inspired me in the beautiful days of summer-has
disappeared." There is somewhat of a parallel between his
personal and professional life. He is at a dead end on both
cases. There seems to be no more that he can do with the
high-Classic style; his deafness seems poised inevitably to
encumber and ultimately halt his musical career. However,
despite it all, he reveals in the Testament a
determination, though weak and exhausted, to carry on-"I
would have ended my life-it was only my art that held me
back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world
until I had brough forth all that I felt was within me. So
I endured this wretched existence..." Realizing his own
potential which he expressed earlier after the completion
of the Second Symphony-"I am only a little satisfied with
my previous works"-and in an 1801 letter-"I will seize Fate
by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me
completely"- he decides to go on. At a time when Beethoven
had reached the end of the musical challenge of the day, he
also faced what seemed to him the end of hope in his
personal life. In his Testament, death seems imminent-"With
joy I hasten to meet death"-but hope and determination,
though weak and unsure, are evident.
In the Heiligenstadt Testament the composer comes to terms
with his deafness and leaves what is beyond his control to
what must be, trying to make a fresh start. It is quite
evident that the Testament is filled with a preoccupation
with death-he writes as though death were at his doorstep,
waiting for him to finish his letter-"Farewell...How happy
I shall be if I can still be helpful to you in my
grave...With joy I hasten to meet death. Come when thou
wilt, I shall meet thee bravely." He has set his old
self-the almost-deaf, tired, hopeless Ludwig- to rest
through the Testament so that he may rise and live again.
Beethoven had stated previously that he has not yet
revealed all of which he is capable. Coming to terms with
his condition, he moves on to "develop all my artistic
capacities." This eventually leads to his heroic period in
which Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica") composed in 1803
became one of the early principal works. The work broke
from the earlier Vienese high - Classic style; many older
composers and music pedagogues, not able to accept his new
style, called it "fantastic," "hare-brained," "too long,
elaborate, incomprehensible, and much too noisy." In fact
the style drew much from contemporary French music-the
driving, ethically exalted, "grand style" elements combined
with the highly ordered yet flexible structure of sonata
It seems undeniable then that the Heilingenstadt Testament
in which Beethoven came to terms with and put to rest the
incurable tragedy of his growing deafness, also set forth a
determination to prove his skills before death should take
him. This quest coincided with and perhaps led to his
graduation from the Vienese hi-Classic style to the
development of his own unique heroic style, a blend of
French and Vienese elements. The "Eroica" can be viewed as
a deliverance of both his life and his career from despair
and futility. Beethoven recreates himself in a new guise,
self-sufficient and heroic. The Testament thus is likened
to a funeral work. The composer sets himself up as the
tragic hero-"my heart and soul have been full of the tender
feeling of good will, and I was ever inclined to accomplish
great things"-withdrawn from the company of men, tortured
by his growing deafness, tempted with thoughts of suicide,
overcoming despair by the pure strength of faith in his own
music, searching for "but one day of pure joy." In a
musical perspective, the "Eroica" Symphony established a
milestone in Beethoven's development and in music history.
His manipulation of sonata form to embrace the powerful
emotions of heroic struggle and tragedy went beyond Mozart
or Haydn's high-Classic style. Beethoven's new path
reflected the turbulence of the developing politics of the
day (especially the Napoleonic Wars), ignited perhaps by
the hopelessness he felt in himself. He took music beyond
the Vienese style which ignored the unsettling currents of
Beethoven's terror, anxiety, and death. Indeed he placed
tragedy at the center of his heroic style, symbolizing
death, despair, and loss-paralleling his own sense of loss,
pain and strife. But in addition, like his own triumph over
suffering, there is hope, triumph and joy as expressed in
the finale of the "Eroica." 
The Heiligenstadt Testament is a prophecy of the greatness
to come of Ludwig van Beethoven. At a time in his life
where he had exhausted the musical possibilities of the
Vienese high-Classic tradition and where his growing
deafness foreshadowed a diminishing career, Beethoven
seemed to have come to halt in 1802. His Heiligenstadt
Testament of that year revealed a soul set to despair and
futility. At the same time however, despite the looming
impossibility of recovery, his ambition to fully realize
his musical talent set him to establish a new milestone in
musical history-the creation of the heroic style.
Symbolizing struggle, the resistance of morality to
suffering, and the triumph over despair, we can see how the
heroism of Beethoven's music reflected his own struggles
with fate and his own triumphs.

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