German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven never had it easy … and not just because this man of music was deaf. He began noticing hearing problems in 1798 when he was 28 years old, according to PBS. By then, he already achieved acclaim. By 1824, when his famous 9th Symphony premiered, he needed to watch the audience to see their reaction to his work because he couldn’t hear the applause.
Struggling to compose as the world became increasingly silent held challenges. The ever-resilient Beethoven had an amplifier made for his piano, dubbed a hearing machine, which aided him and provided a possible tactile connection, according to Classical Music. He also removed his piano legs so he could lie on the floor and use it to gauge his music, according to Hearing Health Matters.
Beethoven’s childhood was, overall, plagued with hardships, including a harsh father and the loss of several siblings.
Beethoven came from a musical family. His grandfather, another Ludwig, sang and was Kapellmeister in their Bonn hometown — an appointed musical director position that offered prestige. His father, Johann, a court musician and teacher, struggled with alcoholism, which made the family’s financial and social situation precarious, according to Kevin Martin in “Beethoven and his Father: Alcoholism and the Gifted Child.”
His father was also a harsh teacher. “Every time Ludwig hit a sour note, his father’s hands came crashing down on his son’s with a loud, discordant thwack,” Martin wrote.
Beethoven's family hardship
When his father saw his child’s talent, he hoped to mold him as a prodigy so he could find the same success and fortune that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart experienced as a young phenom, but Beethoven wouldn’t become famous until much later.
Beethoven, the second of seven children, also saw many of his siblings die, according to My Heritage. Only he and two younger brothers — Kaspar Anton Karl and Nikolaus Johann — reached adulthood. His older brother, Ludwig Maria, lived less than a week. His sister, Anna Maria Francisca, died after a few months. Brother Franz Georg only lived until he was 2. Another sister, Maria Margarita Josepha died at 1 in 1786 — the same year, Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich died, probably of consumption.
While mortality rates were not great around that time, according to Our World in Data, with life expectancies of 40 considered high, the onslaught of so much familial death impacted Beethoven. When his brother Kaspar died of tuberculosis in 1815, he ended up caring for his nephew, Karl. He often addressed him as “My son” in letters and helped him financially throughout his life, according to CMUSE.
But, even, becoming a father figure for his brother’s son had a toll. He quarreled with his widow, Johanna, and a seven-year custody battle ensued, according to Biography — just another difficult situation for Beethoven to navigate.
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