How Beethoven Went From Virtuoso City Pianist to Country-Hiking Composer

Nov 9, 2017

It was quite a profound transition for a young Ludwig van Beethoven to go from being a celebrated virtuoso pianist not long after he arrived in Vienna from Bonn, Germany, in 1792, to feeling increasingly socially isolated by the hearing loss that would ultimately end his career as a pianist — but thankfully for us all, not as a composer.

Although his earlier compositions were already well regarded in Vienna, the progressive hearing loss that forced Beethoven to give up a career as a pianist only affirmed his dedication to writing the great music that would make his name immortal. Some of us may picture Beethoven primarily from his later life, a cranky genius who shunned glittering social circles but wrote brilliant music in relative isolation.

While I had heard about his social life in Vienna in his younger days, I was reminded recently about Beethoven's life as a virtuoso pianist by the story of his showdown with another pianist who came to Vienna in 1800 to advance his career, just as Beethoven had done earlier. The opponent in the piano duel was Daniel Steibelt (find the complete and amusing story here).

You can probably guess who won.

Steibelt left Vienna and never returned. Beethoven's status as the greatest pianist in Vienna was affirmed — but fate intervened.

Beethoven wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament in October 1802. Lamenting his loss of hearing, he wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann that he had contemplated suicide but decided to live for his art instead.

He never mailed the letter. It was discovered after his death in 1827. This writing shows that Beethoven certainly knew his days as a virtuoso pianist were numbered but, as it turned out, his life as a brilliant composer was just getting going.

One of the things that gave Beethoven great consolation was his long walks in the countryside outside of Vienna. It was here he felt free of the awkwardness of trying to hide his increasing hearing loss, which was difficult to do in the busy social life of the city.

The solace and pleasure he found in the nonverbal world of nature informs the spirit of his Symphony No. 6 in F Major, "Pastoral Symphony." The first sketches of this wonderful symphony date back to 1802, but it was not completed until 1808.

Beethoven described the symphony as "more an impression of feeling than a painting," which tells us that he must have felt good in the country, leaving many of his worries behind. It's a feeling we can all share while listening to this inspired and inspiring music over 200 years later.

Join me this evening during Symphony at 7 for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony on Classical 101.