Happy birthday, Ludwig!

Ludwig van Beethoven and the cover of the recording of his Piano concertos

It is not known exactly when Ludwig van Beethoven saw the light of day, because in the Bonn registers one only finds his date of baptism, which is dated December 17, 1770, but due to the customs of the time, one assumes the day before as his birthday.

He was born in Bonn as the son of a Bonn musician, the tenor Johann van Beethoven, with whom he also received his first musical training. The young Ludwig van Beethoven earned his living with music in Bonn at an early age – he was already performing in public at the age of eight. At the age of twelve, he received lessons from Christian Gottlob Neefe, Bonn’s deputy organist, who also introduced the boy to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just one year later, Beethoven already took up his first position as organist, violist and harpsichordist in the Electoral Court Chapel. In 1787 he was given the opportunity to travel to Vienna, which he had to cut short abruptly due to the death of his beloved mother. After this, his personal situation in Bonn did not get any better: after the death of his loving mother, his father sank into his drunkenness, drank away his salary and cared little for his children. The young Ludwig took over the responsibility for the younger brothers and thus also for the household budget. In addition to employment in the court orchestra, he earned a living primarily as a piano teacher for the nobility of Bonn. In 1792, thanks to his noble supporters, he managed to make his way to Vienna once again to receive “Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands”. It was not foreseeable that the farewell from Bonn would be a farewell forever

In Vienna, Beethoven studied not only with Haydn, but also with Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri. At some point, the financial support of the Elector ceased and Beethoven did something absolutely unusual at the time – he went into business for himself! In music history today, he is considered the first freelance and independent composer. His work as a pianist and piano teacher as well as the income guaranteed by aristocratic and bourgeois supporters ensured his livelihood and left him enough free time for composing. In 1814 he had to end his activities as a conductor and pianist due to increasing deafness – by 1819 he was completely deaf, but continued to write masterpieces almost unaffected by this. In addition to these circumstances, which make him one of the most remarkable composers in the history of music, he was also a benchmark in his compositional work in many respects. He led the genres of the piano sonata, the string quartet or even the symphony to perfection, beyond and finally into the future.

In an award-winning recording, the Kölner Akademie has recorded Beethoven’s five piano concertos together with pianist Ronald Brautigam.

The first piano concerto in C major op. 15 is chronologically not his first at all, because the following work was written earlier still in the Bonn years. There were also two piano concertos without opus numbers. Opus 15 was written between 1795 and 1801 and still shows the Mozart model. And yet, it too is already trend-setting: for example, Beethoven uses timpani, clarinets and trumpets in the instrumentation here for the first time. The first sketches for the 2nd Piano Concerto were still made in Bonn, as the work was composed between 1788 and 1801. The perhaps not quite so symphonic sound, which makes the work somewhat leaner and more elegant instead, is perhaps also one of the reasons why it is played less frequently. Beethoven’s third piano concerto now, in C minor op. 37, is considered the first of his piano concertos with symphonic features. With it, the genre was to find its way into the great concert hall. In terms of sound, this was only made possible at all by developments in piano construction, through which pianos had more sound and could thus fill a large one. Among Beethoven’s most important contributions to the genre of the piano concerto are his last two: He wrote the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, in 1805/1806, and here we find new ideal and artistic qualities: On the one hand, Beethoven paved the way for the type of symphonic piano concerto, and on the other hand, the three movements, which are in themselves very contrasting, formed a unity here. The most popular of Beethoven’s piano concertos to this day is his fifth and last, written in 1809. This one was groundbreaking: Beethoven gave very precise playing instructions, specified articulation, pedal use, and timbre. Even the cadenzas, which could otherwise be freely arranged, were now composed down to the last note. This was the first piano concerto that Beethoven himself no longer performed as a soloist – his hearing loss had progressed too much.