Ludwig van Beethoven was born on Dec. 16, probably, in 1770 in the German city of Bonn. "Probably" because records say he was baptized Dec. 17 but leave the birth date to be guessed at.
Whatever the date, his is a life worth commemorating.
Beethoven created more musical beauty than any species of songbird. A meadowlark is said to have a repertoire of 300 notes and 50 songs, each song with many variations. Beethoven composed nine symphonies, five piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas, 13 sonatas for violin, choral works, Masses, an opera and string quartets, among other works. If the world had to choose, extinction of the meadow lark might seem to be a smaller loss than never hearing Beethoven.
His childhood home is preserved as an unnaturally tidy museum - an unblemished pink exterior, prim neatness inside. Life with his parents was less well-ordered. His mother died when he was young. His father, who sang for the court and taught piano and violin, had a temper, and later turned to drink.
When Beethoven was 13, he was described by his music teacher as being "of most promising talent." Bonn was a provincial outpost of the Enlightenment, while the capital of music was Vienna. He moved in 1792 and stayed in Vienna the rest of his life.
He became the student of Haydn, demonstrated the necessary talent at cultivating patronage, went from unhappiness to misery in his love life, and consistently won warm applause when he performed his work as a pianist.
He composed his Symphony No.1 in 1800. By 1801, he realized that he was becoming deaf.
"I must confess that I am living a miserable life," he wrote a friend. "For about two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf."
He remained able to perform as a pianist as late as 1814, the peak of his popularity in Vienna. In 1824, he was present at the Karntnertor-Theater when his Symphony No. 9 had its premiere - but was too deaf to notice the applause, the story is told, until the contralto tugged his sleeve and pointed to the audience.
One of his early biographers said that the composer always rose at first light, went immediately to his writing table and worked until midafternoon, with several breaks to walk outside, composing in his head. His afternoons were devoted to promenades. He visited one or another beer-house in early evening to read the newspapers. He was in bed by 10 p.m. It is something anyone could do - except the music.
The music urges you to a full, intense, brisk life. His best compositions, the Grove Dictionary of Music says, "create the impression of a psychological journey or a growth process. In the course of this, something seems to arrive or triumph or transcend."
Lewis Thomas, the late physician-essayist, suggested that the need to make sound was almost a universal. Termites signal each other by beating their heads against the floors of their nests, whales broadcast their long cries and melodies, rabbits stamp their feet, a meadowlark chooses another of its songs.
At our best, we play a Beethoven symphony.
Pub Date: 12/15/96