Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers who ever lived, was born in December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, to a musical family. His grandfather and father were both singers in the state choir. Stubborn and self-involved, dramatic yet loving of his friends, Beethoven would become a virtuoso pianist and canonical composer of nine symphonies, concertos for piano, piano sonatas, and string quartets. His oeuvre spanned the period between the Classical style, characterized by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, and Romantic style, led by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, and created a new vocabulary of humanism and enlightenment in music. Having performed brilliantly for much of his youth and into his early thirties, Beethoven slowly lost his hearing, yet went on to write many of the most important works in musical history.
To celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven this month, here’s a list of things you might not know about this beloved artist, with information from Jan Swafford’s biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven was the third Ludwig in the Beethoven family.
The first was his grandfather, and the second was Beethoven’s older brother, who died six days after his birth.
2. Ludwig van Beethoven’s father hustled his son into performing.
Early on, Johann van Beethoven noticed the boy’s penchant for playing. He set his sights on creating a prodigy just as Mozart had been a couple of decades before. Johann forced his son to practice day and night to reach the same level of genius. Neighbors of Beethoven remembered the small boy standing on a bench to reach the keyboard, crying, as his father loomed over him.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven was bad at math.
Having left school at age 11 to help with household income, Beethoven never learned how to multiply or divide. To his last day, if he had to multiply, say, 60 x 52, he’d lay out 60 52 times and add them up.
4. Ludwig van Beethoven was a notorious daydreamer.
Once, while speaking to family friend Cäcilie Fischer, she noticed him zoning out. When she demanded a reply to what she’d said, his answer was, “I was just occupied with such a lovely, deep thought, I couldn’t bear to be disturbed.”
5. On his first visit to Vienna, 17-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven performed for Mozart.
Mozart, then the greatest composer in Vienna, was generally unimpressed with other musicians, being so far ahead of his peers in talent and accomplishments. No one really knows what happened in the recital, but apocryphally, Mozart allegedly walked out of the room saying, “Keep your eyes on him—someday he’ll give the world something to talk about.”
6. Ludwig van Beethoven’s performances were known for improvisation.
One of Beethoven’s contemporaries, composer Johann Baptist Cramer, told his students that if you haven’t heard Beethoven improvise, you haven’t heard improvisation.
7. Ludwig van Beethoven learned from Haydn.
After moving to Vienna in his early 20s, Beethoven took lessons from Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony. As per Beethoven’s habit with teachers, the two often got frustrated with each other, and ultimately didn’t like each other very much.
8. Ludwig van Beethoven pioneered composition for piano.
Beethoven’s predecessors had composed for harpsichord, but Beethoven decided he would focus his efforts on the piano, an instrument for which no one had yet written comprehensive work.
9. Romantically, Ludwig van Beethoven had mixed results.
Some women admired him for his genius, while others found him repulsive. A woman he courted once called him “ugly and half crazy.”
10. Ludwig van Beethoven was sickly throughout his life.
Born at a time without modern medicine, Beethoven suffered from deafness, colitis, rheumatism, rheumatic fever, typhus, skin disorders, abscesses, a variety of infections, ophthalmia, inflammatory degeneration of the arteries, jaundice, chronic hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver.
11. Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness probably resulted from childhood illness.
Though Beethoven attributed the beginning of his deafness to an instance in which he was startled and fell, it was likely a side effect of a disease he had suffered from as a child, such as typhus or smallpox. He began to hear constant buzzing at age 27.
12. Ludwig van Beethoven wrote sonatas for his love interests.
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, popularly called Moonlight Sonata, was a hit from the time of its completion in 1801. The following year Beethoven dedicated it to his pupil and main squeeze Countess Giulietta Guicciardi.
13. Ludwig van Beethoven hated giving piano lessons.
He made exception for truly talented students or attractive young women of whatever level of talent.
14. Ludwig van Beethoven controlled his public image.
The composer set the tone of critiques of his work in the leading music journal of the day, the Allgemein musikalische Zeitung (AMZ), telling the editor to back off with negative comments if he wanted to receive copies of the musician’s work.
15. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major was dedicated to Napoleon.
At first, Beethoven admired Napoleon as a symbol of revolution and new era in Europe, and wrote his third symphony, also called Eroica, as he considered moving to Paris. Later Beethoven would be disappointed that the French general crowned himself emperor, but the symphony would be a defining artistic work of the German enlightenment.
16. Friedrich Schiller provided lyrics for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Schiller, a leading German philosopher, published his poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy) in 1786 [PDF]. Beethoven adapted the poem for the glorious choral climax of his Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, first performed in 1824.
17. Ludwig van Beethoven never quit his day job.
Despite his acclaim, the composer always had to work hard to ensure a comfortable living by giving piano lessons, writing work commissioned by wealthy Viennese citizens, and publishing his own music.
18. Ludwig van Beethoven died during a thunderstorm.
In 1827, at age 56, Beethoven died from a constellation of possible maladies, including cirrhosis, syphilis, lead poisoning, or infection (the exact cause is unknown). Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning, compared the occasion to the composer’s symphonies with “crashes that sound like hammering on the portals of Fate.”
19. Thousands joined the procession at Ludwig van Beethoven’s burial.
Vienna’s leading composers, playwrights, poets, and citizens‚ took part at the city’s Währing cemetery. His monument said, simply, "BEETHOVEN."