Latest exam updates

Beethoven: An Extraordinary Life

7 years ago

  In this extract from his new book, renowned Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper reveals what life was like for the young composer as a student in eighteenth-century Vienna.

From Bonn to Vienna

Beethoven’s journey from Bonn to Vienna was not without incident. The French had already invaded the Rhineland, capturing Mainz in October 1792, and Beethoven therefore had to travel through a war zone to reach southern Germany and Austria. He kept a little memorandum book, known as his Jugendtagebuch, during the journey and for the next year or two, and this records that he gave the driver a tip ‘because the fellow drove us at the risk of a cudgelling right through the Hessian army driving like the devil’. Nevertheless he arrived safely in Vienna in November 1792, and promptly set about equipping himself with necessities that he had not brought with him. He first noted down ‘wood, wig-maker, coffee’, and then a longer list including ‘overcoat, boots, shoes, piano desk, seal... writing desk... dancing-master’. He also copied down in his Jugendtagebuch an advertisement for pianos that was published on 10 November, which suggests he arrived in Vienna about that date. Later he confirmed, ‘I have to equip myself completely anew.’

Daily life

Beethoven’s shopping list tells us much about his daily life shortly after his arrival. His rooms were evidently heated by a wood stove, and he would need plenty of wood in winter, since Vienna has a continental climate that tends to be much colder in winter than the Atlantic climate of Bonn; he occasionally commented on the difference. He needed to buy a good overcoat and footwear, having presumably travelled with only the minimum of these. The piano desk and writing desk were essential for someone studying composition, and he always kept a desk beside his piano, so that he could quickly write down any interesting ideas that he happened to discover while extemporizing. Coffee was something of a luxury but was a drink that Beethoven enjoyed throughout his life in Vienna. The seal was a standard piece of equipment for sealing letters and documents at the time. A visit to a wig-maker was considered necessary, since wigs were still common, though they had all but disappeared within a few years; later portraits of Beethoven show him without a wig, unlike portraits of Haydn and Mozart. Dancing was an essential social accomplishment, and he noted down the name and address of a dancing-master, Andreas Lindner, whom he presumably visited. Ferdinand Ries, however, reports that Beethoven ‘never learned to dance in time with the music’ and was generally clumsy. Ries’s account of Beethoven’s manner is clearly exaggerated (‘He rarely picked up anything without dropping or breaking it’), but it makes the point that Beethoven lacked refinement of movement. Beethoven would surely have stood out in aristocratic Viennese circles, with his rough and unrestrained mannerisms, his strikingly regional accent, and his dark, swarthy complexion that gave him a Mediterranean appearance. Nevertheless, he was quickly welcomed by the aristocracy, particularly Prince Lichnowsky, in whose house he resided for two years or more. Since Count Waldstein was a distant relative of Lichnowsky, and Elector Maximilian Franz was related to the new Emperor Franz, the enthusiastic testimonials that they would surely have written enabled Beethoven to gain immediate acceptance by the music-loving aristocracy of Vienna, who were no doubt duly impressed by his abilities as soon as they heard him at first hand.

Lessons with Haydn

Since Beethoven had come to Vienna for the specific purpose of studying composition with Haydn, it was not long before lessons were under way, and they continued for about fourteen months. Little is known about the course of these lessons, but there is no firm evidence to suggest, as sometimes claimed, that they did not go well or that the two composers did not get on together. Haydn helped Beethoven in numerous ways during the latter’s first year in Vienna, lending him money when his allowance from Bonn did not arrive, and inviting him to Eisenstadt (where his patron Prince Esterházy resided) during the summer; Haydn went there in May and Beethoven followed on 19 June. Other indications of the warmth of their friendship come from the Jugendtagebuch, where Beethoven records having paid 22 kreuzer for (drinking) chocolate for Haydn and himself, and on another occasion 6 kreuzer for coffee for them. As for the lessons themselves, Haydn generally preferred to teach composition by studying scores informally with his pupils, and probably did so with Beethoven too during most of the course of lessons. In addition, Beethoven wrote a batch of about 300 exercises in strict elementary counterpoint, of which 245 still survive. The uniformity of both ink and paper type, however, suggests that these exercises were not spread over a year but concentrated into quite a short span of time, perhaps as little as four to six weeks (his other music manuscripts from 1793 show a variety of ink and paper types). Haydn wrote corrections on some of the exercises, but left many mistakes uncorrected. Some writers have criticized him for adopting such a slack attitude; but this was not a correspondence course: Haydn and Beethoven were meeting regularly, perhaps three times a week, and there was no need to annotate all the errors, since they could be discussed verbally. What is more interesting is that Beethoven was making so many ‘mistakes’. The rules of counterpoint were in some cases unnecessarily strict, and Beethoven was finding ideas that were satisfactory musically but in some way did not quite conform. He preferred to seek out rules for himself, which might not always coincide with traditional ones, and his tendency to strain the boundaries of acceptability formed an essential ingredient of his style throughout his life.

Latest works

Haydn also oversaw Beethoven’s latest efforts in composition during 1793, which included a set of variations for piano and violin (on ‘Se vuol ballare’ from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro), an oboe concerto, a wind octet, and a wind quintet, plus a revision of the piano concerto in B flat that had probably been originally composed in Bonn a few years earlier. The oboe concerto is now lost, apart from its main themes and extensive sketches for the slow movement; the quintet also survives only incomplete. But the manuscript material that is known from these works is almost all on Viennese paper, confirming that all of them were written or at least completed after Beethoven had arrived there. Together the works are a major achievement, and Haydn was duly impressed. He sent a copy of the first four of them, plus an unidentified fugue, back to Maximilian Franz in November, along with a letter concluding that Beethoven would become ‘one of the greatest musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher’. The elector’s reply, that all these works except the fugue had already been heard in Bonn before Beethoven left, is clearly based on misinformation. It is of course possible that earlier versions had been heard in Bonn and that the works were merely revised in Vienna, but even this is unlikely, for if Beethoven were putting newly revised works in his package he would surely have included the B flat piano concerto. Thus suggestions in many biographies that Beethoven deceived Haydn, perhaps causing a rift between them, are mistaken. According to Ries, Beethoven once claimed that he had ‘never learned anything’ from Haydn; but this seems like another exaggeration, when one recalls Ries’s claim that Beethoven ‘never’ learnt to dance in time and ‘rarely’ picked something up without dropping it. Beethoven clearly learnt an enormous amount from Haydn, even if the works he composed under Haydn’s immediate tutelage show little or no direct benefit from the actual instruction. The course of lessons came to an end in January 1794, when Haydn left Vienna for his second and final visit to London. This would have been an appropriate time for Beethoven to return to Bonn, but the political situation there was increasingly unstable, and by the end of the year the elector had been driven out by the French. Meanwhile Beethoven was allowed to remain in Vienna, though without any further salary from the elector. Beethoven’s brother Carl moved to Vienna in 1794, and his other brother Johann joined them a year later, their father having died shortly after Beethoven’s own move in 1792. Thus from 1795 onwards there was no family reason for any return to Bonn, and so Beethoven continued to reside in Vienna for the rest of his life, apart from short spells in the countryside most summers, usually in a village near Vienna; the most favoured villages were Baden, Mödling, Heiligenstadt, and Hetzendorf.

A new teacher

Instead of returning to Bonn, Beethoven continued his composition studies in a series of lessons with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1809) that lasted over a year. Albrechtsberger had just become organist at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was thus effectively the foremost church musician in the land. He had also recently published a treatise on composition (Gründliche Anweisung zur Composition, 1790) as well as one on figured bass, and was a renowned composer of counterpoint. His instruction of Beethoven was extraordinarily skilled and thorough, as can be seen from nearly 200 pages of exercises by Beethoven that still survive. They consist mainly of exercises in specialized techniques (such as species counterpoint, fugue, and invertible counterpoint), gradually increasing in difficulty and complexity, and based on the old modes rather than the more modern system of keys. The fugues could be regarded as actual compositions, and they compare favourably with fugues written by many minor eighteenth-century composers. Albrechtsberger was nevertheless able to make quite a few improvements to these exercises, despite Beethoven’s extensive previous training and his innate ability. Beethoven was kept so busy with this work that he composed very little other music during 1794, although he was beginning to prepare a set of piano trios and piano sonatas that would eventually emerge as his Opp. 1 and 2. The rigorous tuition certainly left a mark on Beethoven’s style, for his music tends to show more contrapuntal awareness of the movement of individual parts in 1795 than it had done in 1792–3. The differences are not conspicuous, however, and imitative counterpoint remained fairly uncommon in Beethoven’s music until his late period. Conversely there are examples of it even in the music he wrote in Bonn, since he had absorbed many of the principles of fugue-writing by learning Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Clavier with Neefe. Thus it is difficult to identify individual passages in his works of the late 1790s that would have turned out differently without Albrechtsberger’s instruction. The techniques learnt were nevertheless important in the long term.

Beethoven: An Extraordinary Life

You can buy the complete book from retailers worldwide and from An ebook edition is available from

Barry Cooper edited ABRSM’s edition of The 35 Piano Sonatas (Beethoven) and is Professor of Music at Manchester University.

This article was originally featured in the January 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Back to listing

Latest edition


Contact us

We are always interested in hearing your feedback on our magazine. Please contact the Libretto editor to share your thoughts. Lucy North T+44 (0)20 7467 8253

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By using our website, you are agreeing to our cookie policy and consent to our use of cookies. Find out more.