Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was born into the end of an age and the birth of a new one, and striding both, was able to see by parallax motion the clarity for which both strived, but fell short. As a musical genius and not a historian, he was caught between the two in a search for an idealized beauty that he found only in music.
After his birth on December 16, 1770, Beethoven grew up in a musical family. His father, a singer in a local choir, taught him the basics but afterwards Beethoven studied with a series of composers and court musicians: Christian Gottlob Neefe, Joseph Haydn, Johann Baptist Schenk, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri. Publishing his first music at age 12, he had a moderately successful career as a court musician until age 24, when he was able to find patrons in Vienna -- the musical center of the world at that time.
He faced challenges in his early life that left him somewhat isolated. His home life was semi-stable as a youth. His father was an alcoholic; tuberculosis killed his mother when he was 16. He raised his brothers and at one point entailed half of his father's income to provide for them. He kept driving forward, possessed by a vision of his music, and often retreating from a chaotic life into that vision.
Originally from Bonn, Beethoven moved to Vienna in his early 20s and had to adapt to the more cosmopolitan, political urban lifestyle. Known as a masterful pianist, Beethoven was able to find work and was recognized as being of quality, but this never translated into a stable living. Forced to teach students, and frequently derailed by crises in his personal life of a familial nature, he longed for great stability where he could simply write music -- and be alone, a condition he had come to accept and even enjoy.
In his early 30s, however, Beethoven faced another crisis: the gradual but inevitable loss of his hearing. What he first noticed as tinnitus, or a ringing in his ears, burgeoned into a more serious loss of hearing spurred by lesions forming in his inner ears. In a relatively short span of days, Beethoven had to face the instability of his career and a new challenge, incoming deafness. At first he contemplated suicide, but after a long darkness of the soul, composed what he called his "Heiligenstadt Testament," which was a statement of heroic idealism in that he decided to not only stand and fight, but overcome physical and political barriers so that he might realize transcendental beauty through music.
Over the next decade, he slowly decreased and eventually stopped both performing in public and most conversation, trying to shield what was left of his hearing. At the same time, he had to shield himself from disappointments as inspirations from his youth turned prosaic or destructive in his adulthood; in the transitional age between classical and Romantic music, Beethoven aspired to the new ideals of the enlightenment, including democracy and individualism. As time went on, he saw democracy lead to tyranny -- he scratched out the dedication of his third symphony to Napoleon as soon as the latter declared himself Emperor -- and saw through the bad judgments of others the triumph of individualism in a lack of discipline and consequently, error.
For Beethoven, his gift was not the effortless emanations from another world that others, notably Mozart, professed to have. It was a grueling process of organizing his thoughts, a spark of an idea, and then an even more grueling process of revision and refinement. He may have been the best composer of his day, but he may equally have been the hardest working, even as he saw rewards go to lesser talents and other discouragements. Following his realizations in the Heiligenstadt Testament, he ploughed ahead for a shimmering transcendental vision, and ignored daily privations including awkward living circumstances, worries about money, his collapsing failing and his decaying hearing.
Par for the course in the new democratic era, Beethoven was also probably the first rockstar-style composer in that he was recognized by society at large and not only a select group of nobles (for whom music was written on commission) and intellectuals. He also expressed what the crowd wanted to hear, incorporating the humanistic poem "Ode to Joy" of Friedrich Schiller into his final symphonic work; even so, he had an ambivalent relationship to these ideas, finding them too concrete for the turbulence of his soul, although he had nothing better to shove into the maw of need demanding a narrative for the future.
When Beethoven died in 1827, his funeral was that of a public artist adored although not necessarily understood by the masses, forming the basis for the crisis that faced rockstars of the future from Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain. Over ten thousand people attended what became one of the major events of the year. During his lifetime, however, Beethoven was known as much for his feisty intolerance of the stupidity of others as for any humanistic gestures, which was fitting for someone who had to bulldoze aside confused minds in order to realize his own vision.
Like any born between identifiable cycles of history, Beethoven lived in ambiguity and struggled with it in his music and ideas. While he belonged to the new age, he sung praises of the old especially in the second half of his life, studying past composers and integrating their own styles into his own; he also while acknowledging the humanistic urge of the age, found problems with it and was disappointed by it time and again. What kept him together was his focus on creating transcendental music that could unite the ages around the abstraction of values, and all with the patience to hear his works with an open heart are richer for it.