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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 — 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 Popcultural 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 ninteenth 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 nearly as large as Germany itself and who would never hesitate 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:

  • 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 stentch, and was more than once arrested for being a vagrant.
  • Hero-Worshipper: The story behind Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 was that he created it with the life of Napoleon 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.
  • 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 and 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 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).
  • 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.
    • His Fifth Symphony (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.
    • The Moonlight Sonata. 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.
    • Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony 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).
  • 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.)
  • 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