Piano Teacher Finsbury Park, Manor House N4

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Art and Circumstance in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven


When, on 29 March 1827, it was known across Vienna that Ludwig van Beethoven had passed away, the number of people that headed towards the Altes Schwarzspanierhaus numbered in the thousands, swelling to the point that eventually the gates to the building had to be closed to avoid overcrowding.

By the time the body had been prepared for burial and was being moved down the stairs of the building into the courtyard, the crowd had grown restless, and it was said that soldiers had to be drafted in to maintain the peace. There was also fear that the horses could be frightened and bolt, leaving the last moments of one of the finest composers rather undignified if that happened. Nine priests offered blessings as the court singers sang a funeral song, while the soldiers, on the inner sides of the gates, held their ground to prevent the overwhelming crowd from surging forward to catch a last glimpse of the composer. Vienna had never experienced scenes like these, but it was a sign of how much Beethoven's music had touched the lives of people.

It is not clear when Ludwig van Beethoven's talents sprouted, but unlike Leonard Bernstein, whose musical career was almost the result of pure chance, there was music in the Beethoven family, and by the age of four his father was starting to engage him in the piano and violin. There is some anecdotal evidence that Johann drove his son hard, with some accounts mentioning how little Ludwig would be on a stool in front of the piano, tears running down his face. In 1778 Johann van Beethoven organised a concert for his seven year old son, but falsified his age to be six, possibly to make him appear younger than he was so as to gain favourable comparison with the child prodigy Mozart. The fact that Ludwig's birth certificate had mysteriously disappeared lends weight to the theory that the father had hoped to make a living through his own child prodigy. In his later adult years Beethoven himself would be uncertain of when exactly he was born, resulting in a sense of uneasiness.

Beethoven commentators sometimes speculate on whether Johann pushed his own son extremely hard to make up for his own inadequacies, whether this had an impact on Ludwig himself, and whether it shaped the boy to eventually write the sort of emotionally-intense music he would be known for. They also speculate on the effect of the difficult family circumstances around the time of Ludwig's formative years on his later development. His father Johann's marriage to Maria Magdalena was frowned upon by both sets of families due to the fact that she had already been widowed before the age of nineteen, and that Johann was perceived to be obsessed with money. Young Ludwig arrived into a world where his paternal grandfather was cold towards the daughter-in-law; and where his maternal grandmother was dying of mental health issues, unable to be cared for by a daughter who had moved out of her home town. To compound all that his mother was a young lady who had lost a child in her second marriage within a week of its birth (Maria Magdalena had been widowed and lost two children before she was even twenty three). Johann's drinking and taste for alcohol was mocked by Ludwig's grandfather, who referred to him as "Johann the sprinter, sprinting towards his final destination". And even on the death of the grandfather, who had been Kapellmeister and whose passing left the position vacant, Johann was crushed when he was not even considered for a position that he had expected would naturally come to him. This was the home environment for the three year old Ludwig.

Johann enrolled his son in school after the infamous concert, but a few years later when Ludwig was about ten or eleven he was withdrawn to concentrate solely on music. In Beethoven's brief spell in school, he was observed by the Headmaster to be "shy and taciturn, observing and pondering more than he spoke". His musical talent perhaps created a sense of jealous separation from his peers; one also exacerbated by his darker complexion which led them to refer to him as Der Spagnol (The Spaniard). Other schoolmates would also refer to him as lacking in cleanliness, and neglected by his mother - she was never seen to drop him off at school.

Ludwig's early music lessons were with a court organist Gilles van den Eeden, over seventy years of age, with whom there was a vast generational gap. The precociously talented child was at odds with his teacher, wanting to go faster than the older man was inclined to. The arrangement did not last long, and he ended up next with the family lodger Tobias Pfeiffer, an eccentric who - after a night's drinking session with Johann - would wake the boy up in the early hours and instruct him until daylight. Young Ludwig would have had to suffer the horror of being roused from deep sleep, bullied both by his father and a eccentric drunk musician.

So those were the circumstances that surrounded Beethoven's early life; a world involving instances of post-natal depression, alcoholism, mental health issues, child abuse, peer bullying, and self-confusion.

To add to that, the gradual deterioration of his hearing was still to come.

Does circumstance inspire art? Or does art persevere in spite of circumstance? In Beethoven we perhaps have both, befitting the contradictions we see in his music - Romantic expression fused with Classical form; periods of heightened tension followed by periods of silence. Beethoven's fusion of traditional structures but infused with Romantic expression would also be mirrored by composers such as Ferrucio Busoni, who played Bach with a Romantic edge.

We often associate Beethoven with writing his Ninth Symphony while coming to terms with his deafness. But in reality he had far more traumatic events in his early childhood that arguably had a tremendous influence on his outlook and output.

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