Note: This is a centralized, formatted version of a Twitter thread I wrote that ended up getting some traction. I have turned it into a blog post for easier reading and sharing.
It’s probably Beethoven’s birthday, so let’s talk about my dude Ludwig, things you might not know about him, and things we don’t talk about (but that we absolutely should) when we talk about the man and the music. There’s a LOT of myth surrounding Beethoven because history has deemed him a Great Man and that type of designation causes problems sometimes. My goal today is to 1) humanize the guy and 2) put his work in context, because Context is Good!
Firstly, I said it’s probably Beethoven’s birthday because we actually don’t know when he was born! He was baptized on December 17th so it’s reasonable to assume that he was hauled in 1-2 days after being born, but we actually have no idea!!!
Also, about two years before that, his parents had a son who they named Ludwig. Ludwig #1 died as a baby so when Mr. Ode to Joy popped out his parents were like, well, it’s still a perfectly good baby name, waste not want not.
Now, Beethoven’s dad Johann was kind of a dick. Lil tiny Ludwig (#2) grew up being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, screamed at, and forced to practice through the tears. A family friend of the Beethovens wrote that “little Louis standing at the keyboard weeping” in the evening was a Very Normal Thing in the household. I am not a child development expert, but I think it’s safe to say this is…not great parenting.
To add to the Stage Dadness of it all, Johann also frequently claimed that his son was 1-2 years younger than he actually was, in order to make Ludwig seem Even More Accomplished!
Johann van Beethoven: look at my super talented seven-year-old child doing seven-year-old things, I bet your seven-year-old could never
You: um are you sure he kind of looks like he’s maybe…nine?
Johann: nope he’s definitely seven
Johann: I’m his dad, you can trust me
You: also it kind of seems like your kid is crying a lot?
Johann: oh that’s just normal seven-year-old behavior
Thanks to the combination of Lying Jerk Dad and Dead Older Brother With the Same First Name, Ludwig van Beethoven was kind of confused about his actual birth year and he himself often claimed to be younger than he was, kind of like your weird coworker who keeps claiming to be 27.
You: Happy 30th birthday, Ludwig!
Beethoven: haha how embarrassing for you, I’m actually 28
You: but it says here on your birth certificate you were born in 1770…?
Beethoven: oh that’s my dead brother, he was named Ludwig too and it’s very confusing, older brothers amirite
So if you feel bad that you haven’t written any history-changing symphonies or that you aren’t the subject of many biopics and documentaries, you can at least feel good about the fact that at least you know when your birthday is!
Now, let’s talk about the deafness, because I see a lot of misinformation and misguided inspiration porn about Beethoven’s hearing in pop culture.
First of all, Beethoven wasn’t born deaf. He was a typically abled child whose main affliction was Having an Asshole For a Dad. It’s important to note that while he was, naturally, musically talented, the genius didn’t come out of nowhere. He was given extensive instruction in playing the piano, organ, violin, and viola starting at age five, and later studied composition with some big names (Christian Gottlob Neefe, Joseph Haydn).
As for the first, hustle-based stage of his career as a performer and composer, the hearing he was born with was still intact. His musical and theoretical training occurred when he was able to receive it as a typically abled person. When his hearing started to go, it happened gradually, starting as something resembling tinnitus and slowly declining over several years, during which he saw as many doctors and tried as many medical treatments as he could.
Why am I focusing on this? Because it pisses me off when I see Beethoven’s example being trotted out to shore up bootstrappy inspiration porn. “You can do anything and get over any obstacle if this deaf man could write great music!” Um, no.
By the time Beethoven’s hearing started to go, he was already highly trained, comfortable with the rules of theory and harmony, and knew his way around structure, form, orchestration, etc. so well he was already expert-level breaking the rules. His ability to write after losing his hearing didn’t come from magic or heaven, because that’s not how it works.
It’s also important to note that the gradual loss of his hearing was devastating to Beethoven. Like I said, he consulted as many medical experts as he could afford to, and when all looked lost he went to a real dark place and seriously considered ending his life. (So please don’t be that chipper asshole who responds to a loved one’s pain and suffering with something stupid like “Well gee, Beethoven didn’t let it get him down, just be positive!!!” GTFO with that unsympathetic nonsense.)
In a monumentally important document called the Heiligenstadt Testament*, Beethoven wrote honestly about the existential crisis of being a musician and composer who can no longer hear, finally vowing to continue writing music no matter what for as long as he could.
*Beethoven’s writing in the Heiligenstadt Testament is raw, emotional, and deeply honest, so it seems really petty to point this out, but he claimed in the Testament to be 28, when he was really almost 32 at the time of writing.
But as much as he was driven by inspiration and a love of music, I also want to call attention to a really uncomfortable truth: Beethoven kept writing music because it was his job and it was all he knew. When we look at child prodigies who successfully turned their talents into careers, we often overlook the fact that they do so because they have no other choice. They’re often trained only in music and don’t have any other skills with which to support themselves.
So if you read my earlier point about Johann being a terrible dad and thought, “Hey I might try that with my kid, after all that type of parenting created Beethoven,” please remember: history is littered with abused child prodigies who didn’t make it.
Another thing people overlook when they get hung up on the deaf-guy-writing-music thing; they see the music through an abled lens, in which his deafness is something that Beethoven overcame, not something in which his deafness actually led to unique creative decisions!
For example, in his later piano writing, Beethoven’s music goes hard on stuff like repeated notes, tremolos, trills, and combos of extreme low and high notes that created physical vibrations he could still feel. I’d argue that the elements that we identify as spiritually transcendent, forceful, fatalistic, etc. in Beethoven’s music were brought about because of his deafness, not in spite of it.
Another crucially important thing to note in how Beethoven wrote so much music and got so much done: he. had. help.
Composing music, and just surviving as a functional adult in general, is a lot of work and drudgery, and most of the everyday labor of ensuring that male composers throughout history could focus on their work fell upon their wives or mothers (and servants; labor was cheap back then).
Beethoven’s mother had died when he was a young adult, and despite firing off marriage proposals to every young woman who looked at him for more than a second, Beethoven never achieved his dream of being a Wife Guy. So he relied heavily on his amanuensis (fancy word for personal assistant), Anton Schindler, to get stuff done. Schindler left a complicated legacy, all because he was Extremely Not Chill.
Schindler: one loaf of bread for my close personal friend Beethoven, please
Shop guy: sliced or unsliced?
Schindler: my close personal friend Beethoven likes his bread sliced, I know this because he is my close personal friend
Schindler: did you know I’m friends with Beethoven
Schindler’s total lack of chill would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that he screwed with history in a very not cool way. In order to talk to people, Beethoven kept conversation books. The person he was talking to would write something down, Beethoven would read it and respond by speaking out loud, the person would write his response down, rinse lather repeat! The conversation books are an incredible resource for historians, because although the written record is one-sided, they’re essentially partial recordings of conversations, which offer us a ton of insight into Beethoven’s life and character…
…except Schindler, after Beethoven’s death, 1) destroyed any conversation books in which he himself did not look good, 2) tampered with other conversation books to make himself look better, and 3) seeded a lot of false stories about Beethoven to made him, Schindler, seem cool.
So we don’t like Anton Schindler.
Finally, I want to talk about how Beethoven contained multitudes! So often, we see Beethoven as a Tragic Genius, writing Very Serious Music (sprinkled with heavy dashes of Unrequited Love). But he was also a very funny dude! The second movement of his Symphony No. 8 is hilariously fussy, the “Serioso” title of his String Quartet No. 11 may have been a pop culture reference to donkey urine, and his Op. 31 sonatas are tongue-in-cheek parodies of Serious Music Writing.
He also wrote some deeply crappy music. Wellington’s Victory, for example, is not a great piece of music, but it made him a lot of money. The dude may have been operating on another level, but he still had to eat and pay the rent.
The “artistic genius” myth also elides the fact that Beethoven was constantly recycling and rewriting material, because sometimes ideas just don’t come out right the first time, even when you’re Ludwig van Freaking Beethoven! For example, his Piano Sonata Op. 2 No. 3 has passages straight up copy-pasted from an unpublished piano quartet he wrote ten years previously. His “Eroica” Symphony (aka Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major) reuses content from his ballet (yes, Beethoven wrote a ballet) The Creatures of Prometheus. And the dude workshopped his one opera so many times it 1) changed names (and genders, switching from Leonore to Fidelio) and 2) has an overture that exists in four forms, to the point that if you’re a concert programmer who puts the Fidelio overture in a concert, you have to specify which of the four versions it is.
Another thing we gloss over when we talk about Beethoven’s greatness is that there are clear instances in which he was…a not so great person. Remember how his dad was domineering, controlling, and abusive? Ludwig van Beethoven was a textbook example of the cycle of abuse.
When Beethoven’s brother Kaspar died, Beethoven sued his sister-in-law, Johanna, for full custody of his nine-year-old nephew Karl, going so far as to publicly slander and slutshame Johanna and declare her an unfit mother. He used his fame and influence to bring the legal hammer down on Johanna, won full custody of Karl, and then proceeded to be an absolutely terrible father figure. He was, like his own father, controlling and abusive, eventually driving Karl to the point where he attempted to take his own life. (Karl fortunately survived, went back to his mother, left for the army, and never saw his uncle Ludwig again.)
This part of Beethoven’s life creates a lot of complexity that is, often, too much work for armchair historians and Beethoven stans to deal with. He was both a victim and a perpetrator of abuse. He was both a funny, loyal friend and a deeply sh*tty guardian who failed a child.
We often divide artists into binary categories: monsters and good people. Real life is more complex than that. A person who creates beautiful, inspirational art can also be unspeakably cruel. It’s a painful truth with multifaceted angles we still struggle to process and to resolve today.
In case you couldn’t tell, I could talk about Beethoven for aaaages and there are a ton of fascinating things I haven’t covered! But this post has already gotten very long, and we already have a lot of things to think about.
So I will leave you with this: I think when we talk about famous, “great” composers like Beethoven, we should remember the details that make them human. Elevating them and putting them on pedestals doesn’t help anyone.
Beethoven was a person. Music is made by people, not gods. We need to abolish the circular argument “great music is great because it is great” if we want to have productive conversations about the role of people and art in our society. Understanding the mundanity that leads to certain works and people being hero-worshipped is key to understanding why classical music doesn’t represent everyone, and what standards we use to judge artists, living and dead.
Happy maybe-birthday, Beethoven. I love (most of) your music, and like every one of us, you were a complicated person.
Books About Beethoven
Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon
Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries, by Oscar Sonneck
Hearing Beethoven, by Robin Wallace
Beethoven Hero, by Scott Burnham
The Possessor and the Possessed, by Peter Kivy
Blog Posts and Articles
“Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist” by Linda Shaver-Gleason
“Will Following Beethoven’s Example Lead to Success?” by Linda Shaver-Gleason
“Would Beethoven Prefer a Modern Piano if He Had One?” by Linda Shaver-Gleason
“Congratulate Yourself, Beethoven” by Jeremy Denk
“Irony and Incomprehensibility: Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 and the Path to the Late Style” by Mark Evan Bonds, from the Journal of the American Musicological Society
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