His times: In Beethoven’s late twenties, France overthrew its monarchy and a wave of rebellion spread through Europe. The composer, a devout Republican, was presented with an opportunity not only to change music, but to change the social standing of ‘the artist’. He did both: from the early 1800s, music would never be the same again, and historians increasingly concur that with Beethoven an era of the artist-hero was born that arguably still holds sway today.
His music: Beethoven wrote in every genre, re-imagining most along the way. Not only did he change the scale and proportion of symphonies and concertos by lengthening them, introducing vocal elements and changing the relationship between soloists and ensembles, he also wrote rhythms and harmonies that explicitly overthrew the neat, ordered musical world that held sway in the 1700s. Harmonies were pushed to then-inconceivable limits in Beethoven’s string quartets; the symphony reached a new level of profundity with the human expressions of his Ninth; the expressive range of the piano was blown out of the water by his concertos, sonatas and variation sets. Beethoven’s music is often moody and tempestuous, but it’s radiant and loving, too – it encapsulates the early flowering of Romanticism.
Himself: Beethoven knew from the age of 26 that he had problems with his hearing and by the end of his life he was completely deaf. As a man he was a principled egalitarian who knew no compromise, but his increasing deafness probably made him irritable, over-sensitive, petulant and withdrawn. But throughout all that, he remained ever sure of himself.