The Life of Ludwig Van Beethoven

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The rise of Ludwig van Beethoven into the ranks of history's greatest composers was parallelled by and in some ways a consequence of his own personal tragedy and despair. Beginning in the late 1790's, the increasing buzzing and humming in his ears sent Beethoven into a panic, searching for a cure from doctor to doctor. By October 1802 he had written the Heiligenstadt Testament confessing the certainty of his growing deafness, his consequent despair, and suicidal considerations. Yet, despite the personal tragedy caused by the "infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in [him] than in others, a sense which [he] once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in [his] profession enjoy," it also served as a motivating force in that it challenged him to try and conquer the fate that was handed him. He would not surrender to that "jealous demon, my wretched health" before proving to himself and the world the extent of his skill. Thus, faced with such great impending loss, Beethoven, keeping faith in his art and ability, states in his Heiligenstadt Testament a promise of his greatness yet to be proven in the development of his heroic style.

By about 1800, Beethoven was mastering the Viennese High-Classic style. Although the style had been first perfected by Mozart, Beethoven did extend it to some degree. He had unprecedently composed sonatas for the cello which in combination with the piano opened the era of the Classic-Romantic cello sonata. In addition, his sonatas for violin and piano became the cornerstone of the sonata duo repertory. His experimentation with additions to the standard forms likewise made it apparent that he had reached the limits of the high-Classic style. Having displayed the extended range of his piano writing he was also begining to forge a new voice for the violin. In 1800, Beethoven was additionally combining the sonata form with a full orchestra in his First Symphony, op. 2. In the arena of piano sonata, he had also gone beyond the three-movement design of Haydn and Mozart, applying sometimes the four-movement design reserved for symphonies and quartets through the addition of a minuet or scherzo. Having confidently proven the high-Classic phase of his sonata development with the "Grande Sonate," op. 22, Beethoven moved on to the fantasy sonata to allow himself freer expression. By 1802, he had evidently succeeded in mastering the high-Classic style within each of its major instrumental genres-the piano trio, string trio, string quartet and quintet, Classic piano concerto, duo sonata, piano sonata, and symphony. Having reached the end of the great Vienese tradition, he was then faced with either the unchallenging repetition of the tired style or going beyond it to new creations.

At about the same time that Beethoven had exhausted the potentials of the high-Classic style, his increasing deafness landed him in a major cycle of depression, from which was to emerge his heroic period as exemplified in Symphony No. 3, op. 55 ("Eroica"). In Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament of October 1802, he reveals his malaise that was sending him to the edge of despair. He speaks of suicide in the same breath as a reluctance to die, expressing his helplessness against the inevitability of death. Having searched vainly for a cure, he seems to have lost all hope-"As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered-so likewise has my hope been blighted-I leave here-almost as I came-even the high courage-which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer-has disappeared." There is somewhat of a parallel between his personal and professional life. He is at a dead end on both cases. There seems to be no more that he can do with the high-Classic style; his deafness seems poised inevitably to encumber and ultimately halt his musical career. However, despite it all, he reveals in the Testament a determination, though weak and exhausted, to carry on-"I would have ended my life-it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence..." Realizing his own potential which he expressed earlier after the completion of the Second Symphony-"I am only a little satisfied with my previous works"-and in an 1801 letter-"I will seize Fate by the throat; it