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Music / Ludwig van Beethoven

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"There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven."
The man himself.

German composer (c. 17 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) of Classical Music, generally considered one of the most talented and influential of all time.

Born in Bonn to a family of Flemish origin (that's why it's van Beethoven, not von, and he's not a nobleman; the Dutch "van" is no indication of nobility, although Beethoven was known to use the confusion to his social advantage), he moved to Vienna in the 1790s, at first attracting attention for his virtuoso piano performances. His earlier compositions were accomplished but derivative pieces (on the surface, at least) in the Classical Era style of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Then he started to go deaf, and everything changed. He began to compose dramatic, emotional works on a scale far larger than anything most musicians had worked on before. They eventually laid the foundation for the Romantic Era of music.


Beethoven wrote music in a wide variety of genres, including a single opera, Fidelio. He is most famous, however, for his symphonies. Symphony No. 5 in C minor is filled with spectacular moments. His epic and inspirational Symphony No. 9 in D minor, first performed in 1824 when Beethoven was almost completely deaf, has become one of the world's most famous musical works, eventually becoming the anthem of The European Union. Thanks to Pop-Cultural Osmosis, you probably know the "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement, even if you've never heard the rest of the symphony.

Throughout the 19th century, Beethoven's works were upheld among even the greatest composers as the impossibly-high standard one should always try to strive to match, even if one could never succeed in doing so. Franz Schubert went into a kind of compositional paralysis after he heard a Beethoven symphony, believing much of his own work was no longer worth pursuing when something that great was out there. Richard Wagner, whose ego was as large as Germany itself and someone who never hesitated to tell everyone how great he was, could only bring himself to proclaim that he was the successor to Beethoven, not Beethoven's equal or better.


Beethoven may have been an alien spy. Or possibly a Time Lord. Or maybe even you!

Tropes present in his work:

  • Affectionate Parody: Symphony No. 8 in F major is like a high-octane version of an early classical symphony, with exaggerations of the common tropes employed during that period. The first movement has sweeping simple melodies with extreme amounts of tremolos throughout. The third movement is spiked with many sforzandos and complex counterpoint. The finale is so brisk it is almost unplayable in its proper tempo. The slow movement mimics the metronome and even has a sudden fortissimo during the first minute, like in Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major (Surprise).
  • Bathos: Symphony No. 4 in B♭ major is famous for its grim introduction, suggesting a dark, brooding work. Instead, the first movement proper erupts in a jubilant tone with a quirky melody. The rest of the symphony remains mostly jovial throughout. Beethoven reveals a sense of humor and dramatic subversion similar to Haydn's practical jokes.
  • Broken Pedestal: The third symphony which he dedicated to Napoleon, because he thought that he represented all the good ideals of the French Revolution. When he got the news that Napoleon declared himself emperor, he destroyed the first page of his work.
  • Deaf Composer: Trope Namer and at least an honorary Trope Codifier.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The overture "Wellington's Victory" calls for groups of muskets and cannons to exchange fire, depicting the battle rather literally.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: The opening theme of the fifth symphony ("da da da DUM") coincidentally matches the Morse Code for the letter "V", so it was popularly played by the Allies during World War II to signify "Victory."
  • For Happiness: The recitative of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, set to snippets of Schiller's Ode to Joy is about happiness being the right and desire of every human being.
  • Genius Slob: Left half-eaten trays of food piled in the corner of his apartment, to the point when his landlords complained about the stench, and was more than once arrested for being a vagrant.
  • Hero-Worshipper: The story behind Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major was that he created it with the life of Napoléon Bonaparte in mind. The main reason was Beethoven viewed Napoleon as a rebel hero during The French Revolution. When the Frenchman went all A God Am I and declared himself emperor, Beethoven lost it - he seized the title page of his work and tore it in half before throwing it to the floor - and renamed the symphony "Eroica" instead of "Bonaparte". He re-dedicated it as "[A] Heroic Symphony, written to celebrate the memory of a great man", which might be read as Beethoven declaring that Bonaparte was Dead to him, but when Bonaparte actually died, Beethoven remarked "I wrote the music for this sad event seventeen years ago", referring to the second movement of the symphony - the Funeral March.
  • La Résistance: The Symphony No. 5 in C minor first movement was likely inspired by "nous jurons tous" from Cherubini's Hymn of the Pantheon, a choral work glorifying the martyrs of the French Revolution. "Nous jurons tous" even has the same "da da da DUM" rhythm.
  • Lets See YOU Do Better: Wellington's Victory is typically seen as absolutely horrible, especially by Beethoven's standards. His response to all the criticism was, "What I shit is better than anything you could think up!" He was probably right.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The Diabelli Variations are based on a waltz tune by Anton Diabelli that's generally agreed to be a pretty dull, conventional melody. Beethoven's variations, however, are astonishingly complex pieces of piano showmanship in a vast array of styles from serious to comical to elaborate counterpoint that rivals Johann Sebastian Bach.
  • Music of Note: Ask any person on the street to name a great composer; odds are very good that the first name they think of (assuming it's not Mozart) will be "Beethoven". And they'll probably also know that he wrote "Da da da DUM" and the "Ode to Joy" and....
  • One-Woman Song: "Für Elise" is an instrumental piano piece well known by the name of the woman it's dedicated to. note 
  • Orchestral Bombing:
    • Much of his music, especially the symphonies, has a grand and heroic sound that works very well for this trope.
    • Wellington's Victory plays it quite literally with a battery of percussion instruments and other effects meant to simulate the sound of a battlefield. The score actually calls for live cannon and musket fire not unlike Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: A large set of arrangements of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folk songs leave some critics scratching their heads, but he took a lot of time and care over them (of course the generous commission didn't hurt, either). In fact, the trope might even be inverted considering that by the numbers, he wrote more folk song arrangements than any other genre.
  • The Perfectionist: Beethoven's scores and sketches are famously filled with violently scrawled crossings-out and corrections in search of the exact right notes. Naturally, it paid off.
  • Quality over Quantity: Unlike his sometime teacher, Haydn, who wrote more than a hundred symphonies, and the person who he wanted to study under, Mozart, who wrote a few dozen, Beethoven only wrote nine (nobody ever counts Wellington's Victory among the canonical ones). Then again, a typical Beethoven symphony is of much greater size and complexity than anything Mozart or Haydn did.
  • Romanticism: Regarded as a Trope Codifier.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: Described in poignant detail in his "Heiligenstadt Testament." He reveals that as he progressively lost his hearing, he was nearly Driven to Suicide, but fortunately for everyone, he finally resolved to keep composing anyway.
  • Small Reference Pools: If a famous classical composer needs to make an appearance in some work, odds are pretty good it will be Beethoven, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a close second.
  • Standard Snippet:
    • There is recent recognition that the introduction to Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" falls under this category.
    • Symphony No. 5 (Da da da DUMMM!). During World War II, the first measure was an Allied Leitmotif, its four notes matching the Morse Code for "V" (for Victory). And the irony of using Germany's greatest composer against the Germans.
    • Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Moonlight). The first movement is probably best known to 8-bit-era gamers as "the Jet Set Willy theme". Resident Evil also featured the first movement of this piece.
    • The "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 is the official anthem of the European Union. Die Hard and A Clockwork Orange too.
    • "Für Elise", a short piece for solo piano (which wasn't published until after Beethoven died).
  • Stock Unsolved Mysteries: The identity of the "Immortal Beloved", the subject of a passionate love letter written in Beethoven's hand, remains the subject of ferocious debate among music historians. It has also inspired several works of fiction, perhaps most notably the 1994 Bio Pic Immortal Beloved, in which the recipient is Beethoven's sister-in-law, the mother of his nephew.
  • Urban Legend: The story of Beethoven defacing the title page of the "Eroica" in a rage over Napoleon often gets exaggerated in the retelling. Contrary to some accounts, Beethoven did not rip the score in half, stomp on it, or throw it in the fire; he did, however, cross out Bonaparte's name so violently that the pen ripped through the page. (It can be seen here.)
  • What Could Have Been: Beethoven did some work on a Symphony No. 10 in E♭ major, sketching some main themes and even drafting a first movement, but he never completed it. Several amateur composers stepped up to the challenge, completing a 10th symphony based on Beethoven's drafts, each version unique as the different characters of their creators.
    • Barry Cooper composed a movement based on Beethoven's first movement draft.
    • Hideaki Shichida built an entire symphony from core motifs found in Beethoven's sketches.
    • Gerd Prengal completed a symphony in a similar manner, though he took more liberties by adding more of his own voice into the work.
    • Szabolcs Millye wrote what seems like two versions of a 10th Symphony, integrating the ideas of every composer before him.
  • Work Info Title: Many of his compositions have simple, straight-forward titles like "Symphony No. 9". Here's a complete list.

Beethoven in popular culture

  • Peanuts: Generations of children first became aware of Beethoven through the character Schroeder's obsessive Loony Fandom of the composer, a trait originally devised as a means for cartoonist Charles Schulz to parody one of the first children's fads, the cult of Davy Crockett merchandise in the 1950s. According to the Beethoven Exhibit at the Charles Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, Schulz liked Mozart more, but decided that "Beethoven" was funnier as a name.
  • His Fifth Symphony is given a disco remix treatment as "A Fifth of Beethoven" in Saturday Night Fever by Walter Murphy, who would compose the themes to Seth MacFarlane animated sitcoms Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show.
  • A Clockwork Orange: In the novel, as well as the film version, Alex adores the music of Beethoven as one of his few passions other than rape and violence. The film version, A Clockwork Orange, uses music from the Ninth Symphony on the soundtrack, which causes Soundtrack Dissonance due to it actually being composed as an ode to peace.
  • A bust of Beethoven can be seen on the album cover of Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money. Actually Zappa wanted a bust of his real hero Edgard Varèse, but since they couldn't find any he settled on one of Beethoven instead.
  • When Yoko Ono (who'd had piano lessons from the age of 4) played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to John Lennon, he was inspired to write The Beatles' song "Because". Lennon later claimed that the chords of "Because" are based on the "Moonlight Sonata" played backwards. They aren't.
  • Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is used in Fantasia and his Fifth Symphony at the start of Fantasia 2000.
  • His life story is shown in the Biopic Immortal Beloved, played by Gary Oldman.
  • Time Squad visits him in a wrong timeline where he became a wrestler and has to be persuaded to become a composer again.
  • Epic Rap Battles of History: Once battled against Justin Bieber.
    I'm committing music murder in the major third degree,
    The name's Beethoven, motherfucker, maybe you've heard of me?
  • Sparks released a Concept Album called Lil' Beethoven in 2002. It told the story of how the title character - a Reclusive Artist and the present day descendent of composer Ludwig van Beethoven - had been approached by the brothers to work on new material with them, the nine songs bearing the fruits of this supposed collaboration.
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra released a Rock Opera named Beethoven's Last Night about his work.
  • Despite the name, he does not feature in the Beethoven movies or Beethoven: The Animated Series. However, his music is heard in the scene in which the dog receives his name.
  • He is mentioned as being dead in the song "Decomposing Composers" by Michael Palin sang on Monty Python's Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album.
  • Chuck Berry titled "Roll Over Beethoven" after him, considering he could roll over in his grave if he heard Rock & Roll. The song was also notably covered by the Electric Light Orchestra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Beatles.
  • Kamen Rider Ghost features Beethoven as one of fifteen main Eyecons, based on fifteen different historical people. Assuming Beethoven Damashii, Takeru/Ghost can create energy constructs of musical notes through sound and use them in a manner similar to how a conductor controls an orchestra via hand gestures.
  • Classicaloid brings Beethoven to modern day Japan and gives him Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a buddy. This Beethoven makes gyoza his reason to live, though - he'll only conduct music if he's triggered.
  • Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure features the two titular duo time travelling to the 1800s, abducting Beethoven (played by Clifford David), and taking him to The '80s for a history report. Hilariously enough, he takes up a liking to Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet.
  • In Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1997), you have to help him put his fifth and sixth symphonies back together after his original copies were stolen by Carmen's thief.
  • Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is the theme music of Judge Judy.
  • The second Earthworm Jim game featured the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata' as the background music for the "Jim's now a Blind Cave Salamander!/Villi People" level, while the third movement is used as the background music for the final level, "See Jim Run, Run Jim Run."


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