Music was in his family’s blood. Beethoven’s father and grandfather were musicians, but it became clear early that Ludwig was special. He was playing keyboard instruments by age 4. He had to stand on a stool to reach the keys! He also played violin and viola.
Beethoven’s father was a strict teacher who reportedly had to force him to practice. At school, Ludwig was terrible at math, spelling and writing. He left after a few years to focus on music. He gave his first concert at age 7. Music teachers nurtured the budding genius. By age 12, Beethoven was a published composer.
When he was 16 he traveled to Vienna, capital of the Austrian empire. He reportedly played for the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (MOTE-sart), who later told friends to “keep your eye on him; someday he will give the world something to talk about.”
Indeed. Over a 45-year career, Beethoven wrote more than 700 works, including nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas and one opera. Amazingly, Beethoven continued composing even though, in his late 20s, he began losing his hearing. The ringing in his ears became so painful that he stuffed them with cotton and avoided going out in public.
By his mid-40s, a decade before his death, he was deaf. But it didn’t stop his composing. He “heard” his music in his mind and wrote it down. He also reportedly cut the legs off his piano so he could feel the vibration of the notes on the floor.
“It’s a pretty empowering story,” said Wesley Thompson, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra’s string orchestra. Thompson, who also teaches in Howard County, Maryland, said classical music “gets a bad rap for being stuffy and boring. But there’s so much going on . . . all the different sounds and different instruments and energy.”
Musically, Beethoven bridged the gap between two eras — classical, which featured order, simplicity and balance; and romantic, which stressed individual freedom, emotions and drama.
Beethoven’s music can be difficult to play, a challenge many performers enjoy. But it also can appeal to the youngest musicians.
Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” part of his Ninth Symphony, is “a great tune to teach,” Thompson said.
Even third-grade students may know the gentle, five-note opening melody. “It doesn’t have to be dumbed down for them,” she said, “and they feel really cool” when they are playing Beethoven.
One of Thompson’s students, Tina Battaglia, was asked at her university music audition to perform a piece without much time to prepare. “Oh no, what am I going to play?” she thought. Then she remembered an intro to “Ode to Joy” that features her instrument, the double bass, and the cello. Over the years, she has practiced it a lot. “It’s very operatic, very lyrical,” she said.
Her on-the-spot performance was a success, and she is now a music performance major at James Madison University in Virginia.
Battaglia urges kids to give Beethoven a try.
“He’ll open your world and inspire you,” she said. “He’s going to be 250 years old. If his legacy has been around that long, he’s not going away.”
Books about Beethoven
Listen to more of his music online
●●Classics for Kids: bit.ly/37VYhEQ. Teachers love this website, which features quizzes and games.
●Beethoven According to Peanuts: bit.ly/2K9O6EG. Not everyone in the Peanuts comic strip appreciates Schroeder’s passion for Beethoven.