Ludwig van Beethoven, born in 1770, came from a musical family, first learning music from his father, Johann, a singer and violinist. In 1787 and 1792, he visited Vienna, studying, respectively, with Mozart and “Papa” Haydn. Considered brilliant both as a musician and composer, Beethoven was invited to perform piano concerts at important venues, including the grand homes of Viennese aristocrats.
He gained the patronage and a promised pension from Archduke Rudolph and two other wealthy Austrian music lovers around 1809, which allowed him more freedom to focus on composing. Beethoven was a prodigious composer and wrote for strings, winds, and piano before producing his first full symphony, performed in 1800. It was about this time when he confided in friends his fear of going deaf. Still, he continued his work.
His last symphony, Symphony No. 9, was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. It was the first of its time to combine choir, vocal soloists, and orchestra, which appear in the last movement, and to use lyrics adapted from the famous German poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller. It prominently uses tympani, trumpets, trombones, and French Horns, as well as the full complement of strings. The chorus sings, “Joy, thou source of light immortal, daughter of Elysium,” where Elysium is a place of perfect happiness (heaven) and light immortal (understanding) is the source of joy.
Amazingly, Beethoven wrote Symphony No. 9 without hearing a single note of it.* He sawed off the legs of several pianos so he could lie on the floor with his ear to the floorboards, picking up a few vibrations as he banged on the keyboard. He listened to the music in his brain and wrote it down, as if writing a novel with only a faint memory of the spoken word.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 premiered in Vienna in 1824. The actual performance was conducted by the Vienna Symphony’s own conductor, but Beethoven stood on stage next to him, waving his arms as if leading the orchestra. It is well documented that Beethoven kept “conducting” after the orchestra played the last notes. He was finally helped to turn around, by a kind musician, so he could see the tremendous applause from the audience. His death came three years later, yet the fame of Symphony No. 9’s layered complexity and elegant, melodic lines live on, as “Ode to Joy” continues to be sung and played throughout the world.
*Signs of lead poisoning in Beethoven’s autopsy provided a possible explanation for his deafness. (He drank wine daily, laced at that time with lead, used as a sweetener.) Another theory is that his deafness was caused by an autoimmune disorder.