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Timeline: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1801

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A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven, painted in 1801 when he was 30 years old.

Originally aired Jan. 11, 2016 

Ludwig van Beethoven has been called the most admired composer in all of music history. His legacy stands as a monument for the entire 19th century and beyond.

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Beethoven was named after his grandfather, the Kapellmeister for the court of the Electorate of Cologne in Bonn, Germany. This elder Ludwig was a talented musician and vocalist, but Beethoven’s father, Johann, was less so. The younger Ludwig inherited more than just a name from his grandfather; his talents began to blossom at an early age. The composer Christian Gottlob Neefe took nine-year-old Beethoven under his wing as his pupil. It wasn’t long before Beethoven was being compared with another young prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

Beethoven spent his teenage years employed as a musician and composer at the court in Bonn, until an opportunity arose for him to travel to Vienna and study with Franz Joseph Haydn. The trip was made possible by the support of Count von Waldstein, an early patron of Beethoven’s. Waldstein declared that with the help of hard work Beethoven would “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

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Credit U.S. Public Domain
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Count von Waldstein was an early patron of Beethoven's. It was his support that made Beethoven's move to Vienna to study with Franz Joseph Haydn possible.

Sadly, Beethoven found it difficult to trust Haydn. His early diaries hold some harsh words for the older composer. As their relationship fell apart, Beethoven found further instruction with the composers Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri.

Beethoven caught on quickly as a pianist and composer in Vienna. He was extremely talented and also very socially connected, thanks to his work and reputation in Bonn. Beethoven waited till just the right moment to publish his 1st opus, a set of piano trios. This work was pre-sold to subscribers showing that the young composer was also a savvy businessman.

"My art is winning me friends and respect, and what more do I want? And this time I shall make a good deal of money." — Beethoven, in a letter to his brother while touring in 1796

As the 18th century was coming to a close, Beethoven was looking to appeal to a broader audience. He embarked on his first tour in 1796. While traveling he wrote this letter to his brother, Johann, saying, “I am well, very well. My art is winning me friends and respect, and what more do I want?  And this time I shall make a good deal of money.” Indeed, Beethoven’s reputation in Vienna and across Europe only grew as the years continued.

However in 1801, Beethoven wrote another letter, this time to an old friend in Bonn, expressing a secret that he had been holding in for several years. At the age of 30, the great Beethoven was losing his hearing.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

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