The Very Human Humanist

Exploring the Man Behind Beethoven’s Music

Written by Dan Bickel

Fine Music Sydney is joining music lovers around the world to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with the broadcast of a Beethoven 250 Festival. From 17 October until 17 December (Beethoven’s baptism date; his actual birthdate is unknown) we will be exploring the full range of Beethoven’s oeuvre, relishing well-known favourites and exposing some lesser-known gems. Before turning to the music, however, I thought we should shine a light on Beethoven the man.

Born in Bonn, Germany, Ludwig van Beethoven is certainly one of the best known and admired classical composers. His musical gift is recognised across cultures, and the adoption of his Ode to Joy as the official anthem of the Council of Europe attests to his wide impact and appeal. He was a true humanist, who wanted the best for mankind, but his own moods and complex personality were much harder to rein in.

After initial musical education in Bonn, Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 to study with Haydn. Upon his arrival, he took part in piano competitions and it was said of him: “He is not a man but a demon. He plays in such a way that will drive us all to the grave.” His demeanour would not have helped; notoriously stubborn and at times quite difficult, he would deliberately arrive late at meals and pay little attention to the way he dressed. Beethoven lived in some 60 different apartments in Vienna and his quarters were said to be less than hygienic. Complaints from neighbours about noise (he had loud arguments with his servants) may explain his frequent moves. At the same time, however, Beethoven could be quite sociable. He was immensely fond of coffee and the Viennese coffeehouse scene allowed him lively discourse with friends and colleagues, free from the formality of the musical aristocracy upon whom he relied as patrons.

Beethoven is usually regarded as a misunderstood genius as well as a loner who was unhappy in his romantic relationships. This is true to a degree, but some of his difficulties may have been the result of his financial struggles and increasing deafness. From 1798 his hearing began to deteriorate and with growing deafness he shied away from social events for fear it might be noticed. Eventually, he gave up on finding a cure, and accepted the situation with stoicism.

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