Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany on December 17, 1770.
(2020 is thus the 250th anniversary of his birth, which is why a lot of organizations were programming extensive Beethoven retrospectives.)
He came from a family of musicians and was named after his grandfather Ludwig. The elder Ludwig van Beethoven was a legendary figure in the local music scene who eventually rose to the level of Kapellmeister of the electoral chapel in Bonn.
Beethoven’s father Johann, on the other hand, was only a moderate talent as a singer, pianist and violinist and was ultimately not as successful. He was apparently quite sociable and liked to throw parties and drink with his friends.
Johann trained his son Ludwig to play violin and piano at a young age, mostly using harsh discipline and force. Unlike Mozart, who reportedly observed his older sister’s lessons and couldn’t wait to start playing, Beethoven is said to have submitted to this discipline rather joylessly, and later in life he spoke little about his father.
However, the young Beethoven did excel at the piano and showed an early interest in composition. Johann recognized that he had the potential to be another child prodigy like Mozart, and produced one public concert with him as the 7-year-old star. This doesn’t seem to have been much of a success. The chapter that we will read also explains how father and son would go on informal tours of German towns, playing for various people in private performances.
We will read Chapter 3 of Jan Swafford’s Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph, which catches up with Beethoven at Age 10. We will hear a lot about Christian Neefe, Beethoven’s most significant early teacher. We’ll also read a lot about the philosophical atmosphere of late 18th-century Germany. In general, we are in the thick of the movement called the Enlightenment (or Aufklärung in German), which is an extremely important phenomenon in Western history. Swafford does a good job at explaining all of this, so I hope you find it interesting to read.
[Note: You do not have to read the Swafford chapter to complete Exercise #3.]
The "Electoral" Sonatas of 1783
Let's finish this section by looking briefly as some early piano sonatas that Beethoven published in 1783, under the guidance of Neefe. Beethoven was at age 13 and beginning to build an early career as a musician about town.
These three works are known as the "Electoral" or "Kurfürsten" Sonatas (and cataloged as WoO 47, WoO standing for without opus number.) In this video a young pianist from Taiwan presents the first two.
I think the the first one (in E-flat major) sounds quite a bit like Mozart. The second in F minor brings out Beethoven's dark and dramatic side, though it doesn't yet have the full two-handed intensity that we'll see later. (The F minor starts at 8:20 in the video.)
OK! Now it's time to look at Exercise #3 which asks you four quick questions about this material.