Beethoven’s history: 1770 – 1802
Part 1 of our Beethoven timeline follows the story of the composer’s birth to his Symphony no. 2.
1770: Beethoven is born
17 December: Beethoven is baptised in the church of St Remigius, Bonn. The date of his birth is not recorded, but since it was customary for baptisms to take place within 24 hours of birth, it is likely he was born on 16 December.
24 December: Beethoven’s beloved grandfather, Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, dies.
8 April: Beethoven’s brother Caspar Carl baptised.
2 October: Beethoven’s brother Nikolaus Johann baptised.
1778: Beethoven’s first public appearance
26 March: Beethoven’s first known public performance, in Cologne. His father advertised his age as six years, although he was in fact seven, probably to draw favourable comparisons with the child prodigy Mozart. He played ‘various clavier concertos and trios’.
Beethoven begins lessons with Gottlob Neefe, who writes of him in Cramer’s Magazin der Musik: “He plays the clavier very skilfully and with power [and] reads at sight very well… This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.”
1783 First compositions
Beethoven composes his first piece, aged 12. Nine Variations on a March by Dresslerincludes clever harmonies, delightful melodic phrasing and hints at his later stormy musical character. Listen below:
14 October: Beethoven publishes the three Kurfürsten Piano Sonatas, dedicated to the Elector of Cologne and Münster, Maximilian Friedrich.
Beethoven appointed assistant court organist alongside Neefe.
1787 Meets Mozart
April: Beethoven achieves his long-held ambition to travel to Vienna to meet Mozart, almost certainly thanks to the intervention of his patron Count Waldstein with the new Elector, Maximilian Franz. Barely two weeks after arriving, and having impressed Mozart so much he agrees to take him on as a pupil, Beethoven has to return to Bonn where his mother is dying of consumption. By the time he returns to Vienna nearly five years later, Mozart is dead.
17 July: Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena, dies.
Beethoven’s father, Johann van Beethoven, a tenor singer, is forced to retire from the electoral choir, after his increased drinking ruined his voice. On one occasion, after becoming drunk in public, he was arrested – only to be released after Ludwig had pleaded with the police. Because of his alcoholism, he was ordered by the Elector to be banished to a village away from Bonn, and half his salary paid to Ludwig. In fact he remained in Bonn, and for appearance’s sake he received his full retirement salary, making half of it over to his son privately.
1790 Cantata on the Death of Joseph II; the Cantata on the Elevation of Leopold II
Beethoven composes the Cantata on the Death of Joseph II, and the Cantata on the Elevation of Leopold II. The musicians of the electoral orchestra refuse to perform the first, claiming it is unplayable.
December: Haydn passes through Bonn on his way to London. He meets Beethoven, who shows him his scores of the two Cantatas. Haydn, impressed, encourages him to come to Vienna where, he promises, he will take him on as a pupil.
1791 The Ritterballet
Beethoven composes the Ritterballet, allowing his patron Count Waldstein to claim it as his own composition.
Beethoven goes with the electoral orchestra on a trip to Mergentheim. On the boat, which sails up the Rhine and the Main, he is appointed kitchen scullion.
5 December Mozart dies.
1792 Beethoven leaves for Vienna
November: Beethoven, one month short of his 22nd birthday, leaves Bonn for Vienna to study with Haydn. He has been given six months leave of absence by the elector. In fact he stays in Vienna for the rest of his life – never to return to his home town.
18 December: Beethoven’s father dies.
Beethoven begins lessons with Haydn. The city’s most influential musical patrons – particularly Prince Lichnowsky – take Beethoven under their wing, and put him forward to take on the city’s piano virtuosos in improvisation contests. One after the other he defeats them and quickly establishes his reputation as the finest piano virtuoso in Vienna.
1794 Piano Trios op. 1.
Caspar Carl moves to Vienna.
Beethoven begins composing Piano Trios op. 1.
1795 Piano Sonatas op. 2
29 March: Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna, where he premieres either his First or Second Piano Concerto.
Beethoven composes Piano Sonatas op. 2.
Beethoven performs the Piano Trios before Haydn, who is critical of no. 3, advising against publication. Beethoven is furious, but he heals the rift with his teacher when he dedicates the Piano Sonatas to him.
Nikolaus Johann moves to Vienna.
1796 Cello Sonatas op. 5
Beethoven travels with Prince Lichnowsky to Prague, where he gives a concert. He goes on to Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. In Berlin he composes the Cello Sonatas op. 5.
1797 The beginning of Beethoven’s deafness?
Beethoven gives the first performance of Quintet op. 16 at Jahn’s restaurant in the Himmelpfortgasse.
In the summer of this year he falls seriously ill. It is possibly typhus and could mark the beginning of his deafness.
1798 Trios op. 9; the Trio op. 11; the three Violin Sonatas op. 12
In an extraordinary burst of creativity at the start of the year, Beethoven completes the Piano Sonatas op. 10, composes the three string Trios op. 9, the Trio op. 11, and the three Violin Sonatas op. 12. Later in the year he begins work on the Septet op. 20 and composes the huge Pathétique Sonata op. 13.
1799 First String Quartets op. 18
Beethoven meets the double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti, performing a cello (!) sonata with him.
Beethoven composes his first String Quartets op. 18, and begins work on Symphony no. 1.
1800: Premiere of the First Symphony
Beethoven defeats the celebrated Prussian piano virtuoso Daniel Steibelt in an improvisation contest at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, and is never again asked to take part in an improvisation contest. His position as Vienna’s greatest piano virtuoso is secure and remains unchallenged for the rest of his life.
2 April: Beethoven’s first benefit concert, at the Burgtheater in Vienna. He premieres the Septet and the First Symphony, and performs one of his two completed Piano Concertos. He also improvises on the piano. At the concert he meets Archduke Rudolph, accompanied by his mother, Empress Theresia.
Beethoven begins work on Symphony no. 2.
1801: Moonlight Sonata
Beethoven composes music for The Creatures of Prometheus.
Beethoven’s great friend from his childhood in Bonn, Stephan von Breuning, moves to Vienna.
29 June: In a long letter to his old friend Dr Franz Wegeler in Bonn, Beethoven mentions his deafness for the first time. ‘…for the last three years my hearing has become worse…’
26 July: Elector Max Franz dies at Hetzendorf, Vienna. Beethoven subsequently changes the dedication of his First Symphony to Baron van Swieten.
October: Ferdinand Ries, son of Franz Ries the leader of the electoral orchestra in Bonn, arrives in Vienna. Beethoven welcomes him and takes him on as secretary.
Beethoven falls in love with Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, and dedicates the Sonata quasi una Fantasia to her. Many years later, after his death, it acquires the nickname Moonlight Sonata.
1802: Symphony no. 2
Baron Braun refuses Beethoven his anticipated benefit concert.
April: Beethoven moves to Heiligenstadt north of Vienna for the summer to relieve his hearing. In Heiligenstadt he composes the Prometheus (Eroica) Variations op. 35 and the three Piano Sonatas op. 31. He completes Symphony no. 2.
6 October: Beethoven writes the Heiligenstadt Testament, his last will and testament, publicly acknowledging his deafness for the first time … “Oh, all you people who think or say that I am hostile to you, or that I am stubborn, or that I hate mankind, you do not realise the wrong that you do me…I am deaf …”
Beethoven’s history: 1803 – 1812
Part 2: Passion and Pain 1803 – 1812, during this period Beethoven premieres his First Symphony and meets some of the women who will have a major influence on his music.
1803 – First Symphony premiered
January: Beethoven appointed composer at the Theater an der Wien, moving into lodgings there with his brother Carl.
February to March: Beethoven composes the oratorio, Christus am Ölberge.
5 April: Beethoven’s benefit concert in the Theater an der Wien. He premieres the Second Symphony and the Third Piano Concerto, playing the solo part himself. The First Symphony is also premiered.
24 May: Beethoven gives the first performance of the Violin Sonata op. 47, with the English virtuoso George Bridgetower as soloist. He dedicates the sonata to Bridgetower, but after Bridgetower makes an insulting remark about a lady, Beethoven withdraws the sonata from him and dedicates it instead to Rudolphe Kreutzer.
Summer Beethoven composes the Eroica Symphony in the village of Döbling, south of Vienna.
Beethoven composes ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, with Andante Grazioso as second movement.
1804 Meets Josephine Deym
Beethoven begins work on his opera, Leonore, with Sonnleithner as librettist.
April: Beethoven’s contract at the Theater an der Wien is terminated, after Baron Braun buys the theatre.
20 May: Napoleon proclaimed Emperor of France. Beethoven tears up the title page of the Eroica bearing the dedication to him.
June: Beethoven moves into Stephan von Breuning’s apartment, but the arrangement ends after a serious disagreement between them.
The Eroica Symphony is performed at Prince Lobkowitz’s palace.
October: Beethoven becomes acquainted with Josephine Deym, née Brunsvik, who is recently widowed, and begins giving her piano lessons. He composes the song An die Hoffnung for her.
Beethoven composes the Piano Sonata op. 57, ‘Appassionata’. He completes composition of his opera, Leonore.
September: The censor bans the projected performance of Leonore at the Theater an der Wien. Ferdinand Ries leaves Vienna for Bonn to be conscripted into the French army.
5 October The censor lifts the ban on Leonore.
November: The French army occupies Vienna and Napoleon establishes his headquarters at Schönbrunn Palace.
20 November: First performance of Leonore.
2 December: Napoleon defeats the combined Austrian and Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz.
Beethoven revises Leonore, with an altered text by Stephan von Breuning.
29 March Revised version of Leonore performed at the Theater an der Wien. But Beethoven withdraws his opera, accusing Baron Braun of cheating him of receipts.
25 May: Carl van Beethoven marries Johanna Reiss.
Beethoven works on the set of three String Quartets commissioned by Count Razumovsky and the Fourth Symphony.
17 July: Napoleon creates the Confederation of the Rhine.
August: Beethoven travels with Prince Lichnowsky to his country estate at Grätz, near Troppau, Silesia.
4 September: Beethoven’s nephew Karl is born.
Count Oppersdorff, a near neighbour of Lichnowsky in Silesia, buys the Fourth Symphony. Beethoven begins work on the Fifth Symphony.
1807 Fifth Symphony
Feb ‘Appassionata’ Sonata published
April Muzio Clementi in London secures the rights to publish several works in Great Britain for the sum of £200.
13 September: Beethoven’s Mass in C is performed at Prince Esterhazy’s castle chapel in Eisenstadt.
Beethoven completes work on the Fifth Symphony.
1808 Benefit concert at the Theater an der Wien
March: Johann van Beethoven buys an apothecary shop in Linz.
27 March: Performance of Haydn’s Creation in honour of the composer’s seventy-sixth birthday.
April: Stephan von Breuning marries Julie Vering.
Summer: Beethoven composes the Pastoral Symphony while staying in Heiligenstadt.
10 August: Beethoven publishes Fourth Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto.
27 August: Ferdinand Ries arrives back in Vienna.
October: Beethoven is offered the post of Kapellmeister to King Jerome of Westphalia (Napoleon’s younger brother) in Kassel, at a salary of 600 ducats.
22 December: Beethoven gives his much-postponed and long-awaited benefit concert at the Theater an der Wien, which sees the first performance of the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies.
7 January: Beethoven accepts the offer of Kapellmeister in Kassel. His friends begin drawing up an alternative contract to persuade him to stay in Vienna.
Beethoven begins work on the Fifth Piano Concerto, the ‘Emperor’.
26 February: Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinsky agree to pay Beethoven an annuity for life on the sole condition that he remain in Vienna. He agrees, abandoning plans to go to Kassel.
9 April: Austria declares war on France.
4 May: Archduke Rudolph and other members of the Imperial family flee from Vienna in the face of the advancing French army. Beethoven composes the beginning of the Piano Sonata op. 81a, ‘Les Adieux’, for the Archduke.
10 May: French army surrounds Vienna. The next day they bombard and capture the city. During the shelling, Beethoven takes refuge in his brother Carl’s cellar with Carl, his wife Johanna and son Karl, at one point covering his ears with pillows because of the harshness of the noise on his worsening hearing.
31 May: Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s former teacher, dies at the age of 77.
23 November: Beethoven agrees to set forty-three folksongs for the Scottish publisher, George Thomson.
30 January: Archduke Rudolph returns to Vienna
13 February: Josephine Deym marries Baron von Stackelberg, her children’s tutor.
1 April: Napoleon marries Marie Louise, daughter of Emperor Franz.
Beethoven becomes acquainted with the Malfatti family. He composes the Bagatelle WoO 59 for Therese Malfatti.
Dr Giovanni Malfatti becomes Beethoven’s doctor.
July: The critic E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.
1811 An die Geliebte
15 March: Austria’s currency is devalued fivefold under a Finanz-Patent, drastically reducing the amount Beethoven receives under his annuity.
Beethoven completes the ‘Archduke’ Trio.
28 May: Ignaz Gleichenstein, who has been acting as Beethoven’s secretary, marries Anna Malfatti, Therese’s sister, and they leave Vienna soon after for Freiburg.
Beethoven begins the Seventh Symphony.
During a long period of illness, Antonie Brentano is regularly visited by Beethoven, who plays the piano for her. He sets the poem An die Geliebte to music for her.
1812 Piano Trio WoO 39
Beethoven begins the Eighth Symphony.
24 June: Napoleon embarks on his invasion of Russia.
Beethoven composes the Piano Trio WoO 39 for Maximiliane Brentano.
29 June: Beethoven leaves Vienna for Prague on his way to Teplitz in northern Bohemia.
1 July: Beethoven arrives in Prague.
2 July: Beethoven sees Prince Kinsky concerning his annuity.
3 July: Franz and Antonie Brentano and their daughter Fanny arrive in Prague on their way to Karlsbad in northern Bohemia.
4 July: Beethoven leaves Prague for Teplitz.
5 July: Beethoven arrives at Teplitz in the early morning. The Brentanos arrive in Karlsbad.
6 July: Beethoven begins a passionate letter to an unnamed woman. In it he calls her his ‘Eternally Beloved’ [unsterbliche Geliebte].
July: Beethoven and Goethe meet several times.
25 July: Beethoven leaves Teplitz for Karlsbad to join the Brentano family.
Beethoven returns to Teplitz, where he meets Amalie Sebald. She looks after him when he falls ill.
Sept Beethoven makes a sudden decision to travel to Linz where his brother Johann has announced his intention to marry his housekeeper, Therese Obermayer. Beethoven is determined to stop the marriage, judging Therese – who has an illegitimate child – unsuitable for Johann.
October: Beethoven composes three equali for trombones for the Linz Kapellmeister Glöggl.
2/3 November: Prince Kinsky, one of the three signatories to Beethoven’s annuity, dies after being thrown from his horse while hunting.
8 November: Johann van Beethoven marries Therese Obermayer.
How well do you REALLY know Beethoven’s 5th Symphony?
Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C minor
Composed between 1804 and 1808, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the most famous pieces by the composer – and in classical music as a whole.
The opening of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has become classical music’s greatest calling-card. Simply, it is what people think of when they think of classical music. But why? Could that famous opening ‘duh-duh-duh-duuuh’ be Fate knocking at the door? Many critics seem to think it could be the case. But, aside from an assertion to that effect by Beethoven’s friend Schiller, there’s very little evidence to suggest that it was the composer’s intention. Instead, could it simply be the case that Beethoven’s musical genius led him to write an outstanding, gripping melody? His creative juices were certainly flowing in the early 1800s: work on Symphony No. 5 began shortly after the premiere of his mighty ‘Eroica’ – a symphony similarly imbued with thrilling melodic lines from start to finish.
Vienna must have been an incredibly exciting city to live in at this time. Just imagine being at the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth in 1808: a concert where the warm-up material was the premiere of the Pastoral. By the time Beethoven stepped up to the podium to conduct Symphony No.5, the audience must have wondered how any composer could come up with another tune to match what they had just heard. And yet, as this four-movement symphony amply proves, this composer was only too ready to share more extraordinary music with the world.
Ultimately, it comes down to those four notes of the opening. Nothing says ‘classical music’ quite like that one phrase – it’s tied up with drama and darkness, shot through with Beethoven’s peculiar brand of depression, but he makes something miraculous out of it. Few symphonies cover so much ground and remain completely accessible. So if you think you know the fifth just because you’ve heard those four notes a thousand times, think again.