Great Masters: Beethoven-His Life and Music

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

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)
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8 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
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,...
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Reviews

Great Masters: Beethoven-His Life and Music is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 67.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Music for the Soul Another excellent addition to my Great Courses Library. A history and collection of music from one of the great Masters.
Date published: 2018-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun and interesting Great fun to listen to and a very interesting subject. I am not a music major or person who listens to Beethoven's music, but this biography and history of music is fascinating. I could listen to Professor Greenburg all day!
Date published: 2018-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Begin at the Middle Having by now taken eleven of Professor Greenberg’s courses, including several of the short, “Great Masters” series, I am running out of new things to write in a review. This course on Beethoven gives all of the reviewers a chance to comment on something new: a biographical sketch that eschews a traditional chronological approach in favor of beginning at the time of the Seventh Symphony and Fidelio. A time when Beethoven was at the height of his popularity, but a the same time in the midst of a personal crises. That is his relationship with the “Immortal Beloved” and his decision to relinquish that relationship. And so Dr. Greenberg sets the stage for the life of Ludwig. The contrast between the brilliance of his magnificent and groundbreaking music and the tragedy of his personal life. We are treated to a series of non-chronological lectures. We go back and forth in time, and although each individual lecture refers back to the childhood and early years of Beethoven there is not even one lecture that focuses on his early life. Several reviewers have objected to this approach, many even deduct a star from their overall rating due to this. To be sure, I found the non-chronological approach to be a bit off-putting at first, if not confusing. But as I became used to the flash-back, flash-forward approach, not only from lecture to lecture but even within each individual lecture, I began to look forward to exactly how and why this seemingly disjointed approach was being taken. Aside from beginning with giving us an understanding of the professional-personal dichotomy and continuing that approach throughout the course, it is possible that Professor Greenberg is breaking the biographical rules and our expectations of a bio, while writing about a composer who broke the rules and his audience’s expectations of the musical forms being presented. Probably getting a bit tired of using the same formula over and over. As with most music lovers, I am quite familiar with Beethoven’s music to the point that I have a complete set of his music, as well as more than one recording of many of his major works. And I would have thought that I knew a fair bit about his life. His abuse by his father, his difficulty with women, his rudeness toward everyone and more. Even so, I was surprised to learn the depth of the unpleasant side of his personality. Just to cite a couple of examples, the length and depth of his attempts to remove his nephew from his mother and the outright fraud and cheating dealing with his publishers. But even in these areas, Dr. Greenberg presents a case as to the formative years of his early life and his struggle with his progressive deafness as to being contributing factors toward his behavior when dealing with the outside world. I testament to this course is that I am now more conflicted about Beethoven than ever. At least the music remains. A final word about Professor Greenberg. I fall into the "love his over-the-top, enthusiastic approach" toward his subjects and his in-depth knowledge of music (though this is not so necessary in these bios). For those who want more on the analysis of Beethoven’s music, Professor Greenberg has several TC courses devoted to his music.
Date published: 2018-08-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not his best biography, bit still excellent This is my fourth biographical course on music given by Professor Greenberg. He set a very high bar for himself, and as other reviewers have noted, I found this one to be the weakest one so far. My biggest problem was that he chose to cover Beethoven’s life in a non-sequential fashion in contrast to all of his other biographical courses that I have heard, and this made the material much harder to follow and compile in one’s mind. However, the course was “weak” only in relation to the standard I have come to expect from Greenberg – near perfect. Judged on its own merits, the course provided a lot of Beethoven’s biographical history and explained quite well how this affected his work. As always, the general historical and the musical historical context were first rate and provided an understanding the world in which Beethoven created. It also facilitated comprehension of his revolutionary approaches to music composition. As in all of his courses, Professor Greenberg is hugely entertaining, witty and knowledgeable. His presentation allows a profound and enjoyable understanding of Beethoven’s musical evolution. In my opinion it is a mishap that he chose to cover this biography is such a disjointed manner. Perhaps he was simply bored with covering the biographical content in a straight-forward manner and simply wanted to entertain himself a bit… Anyway, even with this substantial caveat, this is still a great course and easily worth the time and effort.
Date published: 2018-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun and informative While I was disappointed in the courses on How To Listen To And Understand Opera (I would have called it "How To Listen To and Understand These Particular Operas"), I've enjoyed the courses on the lives of the great composers, particularly for the biographical information. It's one thing to be familiar with how a composition is put together, performed, structured, and so on. But adding the events in the composer's life surrounding the creation of a piece of music - or any work of art - can add greatly to understanding why it has the emotional impact it does. When listening to a powerful piece of music, it's easy to romanticize the composer, and forget that he is/was a living, breathing human being, with the same human concerns we all face - how to pay the rent, how to deal with cranky family members, what to do about a romantic relationship, how to deal with tragedy, business dealings, employers and employees, social and economic conditions. These courses on the lives of the artist remind us that we are all products of our own eras, and that artists might create timeless works, but they themselves are products of their time. I'd recommend the courses on the lives of the composers. You'll great music, but you'll hear intimate details of their lives too.
Date published: 2018-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Short and extremely interesting I've taken every TC course by Prof Greenberg about Beethoven, including those on his symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets. Beethoven's work is also covered in other Greenberg courses. Nonetheless, I have always found his short courses on the lives of the great masters quite valuable. This was no exception; it's an excellent introduction to Beethoven, his life and times, and his music. Amazingly, since each Greenberg course that covers Beethoven goes into some aspects of Beethoven's personal life, this course has information I hadn't heard before. This course is well worthwhile regardless of your prior knowledge of Beethoven's music.
Date published: 2017-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beethoven - Life & Music. I greatly enjoyed this course. The presenter is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Dynamic and Knowledgeable Presentation There is no doubt that Professor Greenberg knows his material very well; and his presentation is quite dynamic. You won't fall asleep in this class. Perhaps the title of his course says it all, but I was expecting to hear more about Beethoven's music, and less about his personal life. He also expects the student to know something about music theory, which I do not, and that contributed to my disappointment in this course. For these reasons, I reduced a deservedly 5-star rating to a 4.
Date published: 2017-09-06
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