Seven things you might not know about Beethoven

Monday, January 22, 2018 - 14:10

Ludwig van Beethoven – the man who wrote some of the most recognisable music of all time; whose image as a tempestuous, wild-haired composer has been aped by so many wannabe artistes; the tragic figure whose deafness meant he never heard some of his great works outside his own head.

Sure, he’s all those things. But he’s so much more! Ahead of pianist Martin Helmchen’s performance here on 7 February we give you a new take on this great composer.

1. His serious genius has inspired lots of humour

Dudley Moore Beethoven Sonata Parody

Rowan Atkinson, Monty Python and Sid Caesar are among the comedians who have drawn on Beethoven’s music or reputation in a bid to make us laugh.

But our favourite Beethoven-derived sketch comes from the late Dudley Moore – watch his masterful performance of a piece of music that can be best described as Colonel Bogey meets a Beethoven piano sonata. This video is from Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s career-making show Beyond The Fringe, although Moore was to revive it numerous times over the decades.

2. He met both Haydn and Mozart

Beethoven was born in Germany in 1770 and died in 1827. He first met Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) while the latter was travelling. ‘Papa’ Haydn was impressed with the works shown him by the younger composer and invited him to be his pupil, an offer that Beethoven took up when he moved to Vienna. It was during the same move that Beethoven is believed by some people to have performed for Wolfgang Mozart (1756–1791). A biography of Mozart claimed he had said of Beethoven: ‘He will make himself a name in the world’. Mozart and Haydn were also friends, meaning that the three dominant composers of the Classical era all met each other. Beethoven also met Rossini, Lizst and Schubert, among others – essentially he is the Kevin Bacon of composers.

3. His ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was initially dedicated to Barbadian violinist George Bridgetower

George Bridgetower was a famous violinist, born in Poland of West Indian descent. His talent caught Beethoven’s attention, leading the composer to dedicate his Violin Sonata No.9 to ‘un mulattico lunatico’ (meant affectionately) as well as gifting Bridgewater with his tuning fork (which you can see in the British Library).

The friends had a falling out over a mutual acquaintance and Beethoven, in a fury, re-dedicated the piece to another violinist, Rudolphe Kreutzer. Ironically, given that the Kreutzer Sonata is one of the most famous violin pieces in the repertoire, its new dedicatee never performed it.

It wasn’t the only time Beethoven changed the name of a piece – his Third Symphony was dedicated to Napoléon Bonaparte before the composer realised that the one-time revolutionary was just as power hungry as the leaders he had battled. Beethoven crossed out the dedication with such vehemence that the paper was torn, and the work is known today as ‘Eroica’ (Heroic).

4. He wrote what is considered to be one of the most demanding piano pieces ever

Martin Helmchen I Klaviersonate Op. 106 Nr. 29, B-Dur Fuge I Beethoven I Verbier 2011

Martin Helmchen performs the Fugue from Beethoven’s famously difficult ‘Hammerklavier’ piano sonata

Beethoven wrote plenty of music for the piano but the one that is widely considered to be the most technically challenging is Piano Sonata No.29, otherwise known as the ‘Hammerklavier’. What’s so difficult about it? For one thing it’s a very long piece for a soloist, running up to 50 minutes depending how quickly the performer plays it. Which brings us to the next point: Beethoven wrote specific tempo markings on the score and they’re really, really fast – to the point that people have often wondered if the composer’s metronome was malfunctioning when he consulted it.

As well as being long and fast, the piece is physically demanding on the pianist in its call for many dramatic leaps and commands to play ‘fortissimo’, i.e. very loudly. No wonder piano students tend to start their Beethoven journey with Für Elise’s gentle arpeggios instead.

5. He died during a thunderstorm

In his final months, notes taken by his doctor show Beethoven suffered many painful symptoms, including swollen ankles, a swollen abdomen and stomach pain. He died during a thunderstorm in 1827, when he was 56 years old. An autopsy was carried out showing he had liver cirrhosis and signs of lead poisoning, which could have been the cause of the deafness that Beethoven started to experience in his early 30s (although other explanations have been offered).

6. He is currently on his third burial

Beethoven died on 26 March 1827, with thousands of people attending his funeral a couple of days later. He was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna, but after more than 30 years the decision was taken to repair the site and given him a metal coffin at the same time, so he was exhumed. Then in 1873 that cemetery was closed so Beethoven was given his third (and hopefully final) burial in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof – part of a plan to make the new cemetery more popular with living Viennese, who were being put off burying their loved ones there because of its location. Coincidentally, Franz Schubert – who acted as a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral – also ended up being buried three times. The composers have ended up in the same graveyard, along with the likes of Johann Strauss, Johannes Brahams and Antonio Salieri.

7. He is inadvertently responsible for the existence of rock’n’roll (sort of)

Roll Over Beethoven - Chuck Berry LIVE

Rock historians have claimed that Chuck Berry wrote his 1956 single ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ in response to his sister Lucy always claiming the family piano for herself to practise her classical music. Berry’s song was a hit in both the R’n’B and the pop charts and has been described by Rolling Stone as ‘the ultimate rock & roll call to arms, declaring a new era’. In this clip, from Belgian television, Berry admits that he’s actually fond of Beethoven.

Martin Helmchen performs Beethoven

Hear pianist Martin Helmchen performs Beethoven’s monumental work 33 Variations on a waltz by Diabelli, Op.120 on Wednesday 7 February, as part of our International Piano Series.