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Great Masters: Beethoven-His Life and Music

Great Masters: Beethoven-His Life and Music

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Course No.  755
Course No.  755
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Course Overview

About This Course

8 lectures  |  45 minutes per lecture

Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the most prolific and inspiring forces in the history of music. With his brilliant compositions and his unique approach to the piano, he changed the face of western concert music forever. After Beethoven nothing could ever be the same again.

This course by Professor Robert Greenberg is a biographical and musical study of Beethoven . It puts the great musician's life in a social, political, and cultural context.

First and foremost, it is a biographical study, and includes excerpts from more than a dozen of Beethoven's works.You will learn about Beethoven's:

  • Dysfunctional family life and relationships with his mother, father, paternal grandfather, and brothers
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Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the most prolific and inspiring forces in the history of music. With his brilliant compositions and his unique approach to the piano, he changed the face of western concert music forever. After Beethoven nothing could ever be the same again.

This course by Professor Robert Greenberg is a biographical and musical study of Beethoven . It puts the great musician's life in a social, political, and cultural context.

First and foremost, it is a biographical study, and includes excerpts from more than a dozen of Beethoven's works.You will learn about Beethoven's:

  • Dysfunctional family life and relationships with his mother, father, paternal grandfather, and brothers
  • Musical training, especially his unique approach to the piano
  • Appearance and attitude
  • Celebrity in music- and piano-crazed Vienna
  • Compositional successes including symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets, among many others
  • Hearing loss and the crisis of 1802
  • Delusions and his relationship with his nephew Karl.

You learn about the core features of some of his greatest music, but without the detailed, technical analyses in the courses The Symphonies of Beethoven, or in the Concert Masterworks series, wherein Professor Greenberg discusses Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Violin Concerto.

Reinventing Musical Expression in the Western World

Beethoven's appearance was somewhat off-putting. He was short with a thick body and an unusually large head, covered with his famous wild hair. Heinrich Friedrich Ludwig Rellstab, a journalist, music critic, and contemporary of Beethoven's, described his hair as "Not frizzy, not straight, but a mixture of everything."

Beethoven was physically clumsy; he was liable to knock over or break anything he touched. He could not keep time when dancing and had problems cutting and shaping the quill pens he needed for writing.

Beethoven exhibited a pathological hatred for authority, a persecution complex, and delusional behaviors. With his deafness, these problems forced him to look inward and reinvent himself. In doing so, he reinvented the nature of musical expression in the Western world.

An Artist of Musical Transformations

Beethoven experienced "rebirth" as an artist three times over the course of his life.

Intense Composition

He was born December 17, 1770, into a dysfunctional family with an abusive and alcoholic father and a depressed mother. His musical talent was recognized early, but his father attempted to beat him into becoming a child prodigy to rival Mozart. It was a futile attempt; there could only be one Mozart.

By 1785, the young Beethoven was the family breadwinner and, in 1787, the primary caregiver for his younger brothers. In 1789, he sought and was granted some relief from these responsibilities from local authorities and experienced his first musical rebirth.

It was for him a time of intense composition. He wrote five sets of piano variations, ballet music, concert arias, chamber works for piano and winds, and two cantatas for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Pianist and Hero

When he moved to Vienna to study with Haydn in 1792, Beethoven "was living with a reputation as a virtuoso pianist in a city that was mad for pianists," says Professor Greenberg. "He outplayed virtually every other pianist in the city in competitions and became the darling of the Viennese aristocracy. During this same time, he took lessons with Haydn, although his dislike of authority figures made most music lessons a waste of time."

These early years in Vienna were also significant for his compositional career. From 1792–1803, he produced, among many other works, the Opus 1 Trios for Piano, Violin, and 'Cello; the Opus 18 string quartets; and the Symphony no. 1 in C Major.

Meanwhile, his popularity outside Vienna increased. In 1801, Beethoven's career and finances were flourishing, but he was in poor health. His hearing loss was becoming progressively worse, and he grew more and more depressed and anxious.

His emotional crisis reached a peak in 1802—but served as the creative catharsis that brought about a second musical rebirth a year later, in a self-sufficient and heroic guise, struggling against his fate.

He took as a model for this new self-image Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the time, represented a vision of individualism and empowerment.

Beethoven's music reflects this vision in its insistence on expressing the heights and depths of the artist's emotions. His Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55, for example, was revolutionary in its proportions and dramatic expressive content.

This first of the "Heroic Symphonies" changed the history of Western music.

During this compositional period from 1803–1812,Beethoven produced masterworks: the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies; the Violin Concerto; the Choral Fantasy; the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concerti; the five middle string quartets; the Mass in C Major; and the opera Fidelio.

But toward the end of this period, Beethoven experienced a short affair with the mysterious "Immortal Beloved," an episode that ultimately precipitated his fall into despair and public ridicule.

In his youth, Beethoven had been irrationally possessive and jealous of his brothers. So when his brother Carl died, Beethoven transferred these feelings to his nephew Karl and pursued four years of destructive litigation to gain guardianship of the boy.

"Modern" Works and the Ninth Symphony

In 1819, Beethoven used events, once again, as a catalyst for an artistic rebirth. In the last years of his life, he wrote many of his most profound, most "modern" works, including the six late string quartets, the Ninth Symphony, and the Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven's Symphony no. 9 became the single most influential piece of music composed in the 19th century. The work breaks with time-honored conventions and distinctions to give precedence to the expressive needs and desires of the artist.

During these years, Beethoven was consumed by his craft, but socially, he was still difficult with friends, family, and business associates.

An "Impossible" Composer

Beethoven died March 26, 1827. At the end of his life he had managed a reconciliation with his family and was given an affectionate tribute by the Viennese people.

When Gioacchino Rossini met Beethoven in 1822, he was stunned by the squalor of his apartment and the sadness of the artist himself. As Frances Toye tells the story, "Later, Rossini tried to do something for Beethoven, himself heading a subscription list. To no purpose, however. The answer [the Viennese gave] was always the same: Beethoven is impossible.'"

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Symphony no. 7 in A Major, op. 92 (1812)
Missa Solemnis in D Major, op. 123 (1823)
Symphony no. 8 in F Major, op. 93 (1812)
Wellington's Victory , op. 91 (1813)
Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, op. 106 (1818)
Piano Sonata in C Major, op. 53 (1804)
Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55 (1805)
String Quartet no. 7 in F Major, op. 59, no. 1 (1806)
String Quartet no. 9 in C Major, op. 59, no. 3 (1806)
Symphony no. 6 in F Major, op. 68 (1808)
Piano Concerto no. 4 in G Major, op. 58 (1806)
Symphony no. 5 in C Minor, op. 67 (1808)
Symphony no. 9 in D Minor, op. 125 (1824)
View Less
8 Lectures
  • 1
    The Immortal Beloved
    Beethoven's foremost physical characteristic was his hair; four strands under recent chemical analysis revealed lead poisoning that could account for the abdominal distress, irritability, and depression that Beethoven suffered from for most of his adult life. But other physical, emotional, and spiritual problems were the result of a lifetime of struggle and frustration, which forced him to look inward and reinvent himself and, in so doing, reinvent the nature of musical expression in the Western world. x
  • 2
    What Comes down Must Go up, 1813–1815
    In the summer of 1812, Beethoven composed the Symphony no. 8 in F Major, op. 83. On its surface, the symphony seems to be in the Classical style, but it is filled with modern twists and turns. He was depressed over the loss of a relationship and his worsening hearing. But in 1813, he wrote a piece of music commemorating the defeat by Wellington of one of Napoleon's armies. When it premiered in December of 1813, it garnered Beethoven a new level of popularity. x
  • 3
    What Goes up Must Come down, 1815
    Beethoven's return to fame and fortune was short lived; this lecture describes the six factors, most notably his increasing deafness, that contributed to his fall from popular grace and his plunge into emotional instability. x
  • 4
    Beethoven and His Nephew, 1815–1819
    Beethoven emerged from his shell during his second decade, through his musical talent and with the help of his teacher and mentor, Christian Gottlob Neefe. The events of these years, however, would influence Beethoven's outrageous conduct in 1815 in the litigation over custody of his nephew Karl. During these years, Beethoven's deepest fears and longings were brought to the surface. Events would also serve as a catalyst for Beethoven's next "rebirth," in 1819, and the creation of the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last piano sonatas, and the six late string quartets. x
  • 5
    Beethoven the Pianist
    Aside from the Piano Sonata in B-flat, op. 106, Beethoven wrote little significant music from 1815–1819. By 1820, Beethoven was well into his third compositional period, which encompassed such masterworks as the Missa Solemnis, op. 123, and the Symphony no. 9 in D Minor, op. 125. Before this, Beethoven was living in Vienna, outplaying virtually every other pianist in the city in competitions and became the darling of the Viennese aristocracy. x
  • 6
    Beethoven the Composer, 1792–1802
    Beethoven's Viennese period, 1792–1802, was a time of assimilation, technical growth, and mastery of the existing Viennese classical style. For 18 months Beethoven devoted himself to the string quartet, composing six. Next, he turned to the symphony, premiering his Symphony no. 1 in C Major in 1800. Seemingly conservative this symphony is full of witticisms, shocking harmonic events, and unique organic developments. But his hearing loss, which began in 1796, was becoming progressively worse, as was Beethoven's despair over it. In 1802, he wrote a letter to his brothers that may have provided him a catharsis. x
  • 7
    The Heroic Ideal
    The model for Beethoven's new self-image was Napoleon Bonaparte, who represented individualism and empowerment. Later disillusioned with Bonaparte, he held on to the sense of the individual struggling and triumphing against fate. Beethoven's Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55 (the Eroica), for example, was revolutionary in its expression of the heights and depths of the artist's emotions. Beethoven came to be known as a radical modernist who had broken forever with the classical standards of Haydn and Mozart. x
  • 8
    Two Concerts, 1808 and 1824
    With his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, among other pieces, Beethoven became a legend. More than 15 years later, in May 1824, the Ninth Symphony was premiered to an overwhelming reception. The Ninth, regarded as the most important piece of music composed in the 19th century, embodies Beethoven's belief that the expressive needs of the artist must transcend the time-honored assumptions of art. In November 1826, Beethoven fell ill with cirrhosis of the liver and died on March 26, 1827. In the end, he had managed a reconciliation with his family and was given an affectionate tribute by the Viennese people. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Greenberg
Ph.D. Robert Greenberg
San Francisco Performances

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.

He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres.

Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

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Reviews

Rated 4.2 out of 5 by 41 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Very disappointing Professor Greenberg, what happened? I have listened to all your Great Masters courses and loved each one of them - but not this one. What on earth did Beethoven do to you? All I really got from this course is, that you deeply detest the guy. Though I can relate to that - honestly, that is not what I purchased this course for! I was expecting more details of his biographie, more music and more of Professor Greenberg! November 10, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Took me a while to warm up to this one. Going into this course, I saw that Dr. Greenberg was highly thought of here at TTC, so when I had a chance to purchase Beethoven's life and music CD set, I took advantage. I have to admit I was confused and a bit put off after the first CD, "The Immortal Beloved." Many have already expressed their confusion at a non-chronological presentation, and I was really thrown off by it. In addition, Dr. Greenberg comes off as a bit wild at times--maybe it's the influence of talking about Ludwig von Beethoven, who was quite an eccentric fellow. As I have listened a few times now, and have gotten to listen to the musical portion of the lectures a bit more, especially in the latter CDs, I feel now that the course has accomplished what it intends to do--make the listener more excited about listening to Beethoven's music. When I listen to my set of Beethoven's symphonies, I sense more of Beethoven's struggles as he wrote them. In the end, I am glad I purchased this course, and look forward to getting more Beethoven courses and going into more detail about his music. July 8, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Greenberg tells it like it was ! A marvellous short course about the life of the musical genius Beethoven. Professor Greenberg relates his story in a highly entertaining, enjoyable manner, telling it straight from the shoulder, pulling no punches. I especially liked the lecturer's piano work as he played a few of the master's works in studio. Some reviewers feel that Greenberg was disrespectful to Beethoven, but facts are indeed facts! We need not imagine that Beethoven was a paragon of virtue or even a pleasant man, in order to derive enjoyment from his magnificent works. I found this course truly excellent, full of fascinating and revealing facts, throwing light on Beethoven's activities, actions and musical output. A highly-recommended 6-hour course. April 23, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Wonderful course, Elegant. This was the first course that I got from the great courses. Although I was skeptical about the whole idea of the lectures, I was astonished by the quality and couldn't expect anything better. The content is extraordinary, lots of very detailed information, with lots of quotations, lots of music samples, all of this in a very engaging and amusing fashion, I finished it in no time. Prof. Greenberg has a wonderful way of lecturing, he will keep you on the edge of your seat, and make you lough very frequently. The whole approach to the life of this great composer was very novel, and will affect how I understand his music. Highly recommended. March 28, 2013
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