Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart, c. 1781, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

“Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years,” wrote Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) after the death of the classical composer, Mozart. As a child prodigy, Mozart composed music for the keyboard and the violin from the age of five. Thirty years later, he had completed more than 600 works, and many admired his talents, including royalty. Then he died. Many conspiracy theories suggest jealous contemporaries poisoned the young musician. Although people have tried to prove Mozart died from an illness, there is not enough evidence to eradicate these theories. Yet it is not his death that makes Mozart so famous; it is his music. Two-hundred and thirty years after his death, we are still playing his tunes. Mozart’s music lives on. 

Mozart as a child

Online biographies of Mozart tend to disagree about the birth name of the child prodigy. His baptismal records, written shortly after his birth in Salzburg on 27th January 1756, list his name as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. As an adult, he styled himself as Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, although, at some point, the middle name evolved into “Amadeus”.

Mozart was the youngest son of Leopold Mozart (1719-87) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720-78). Of the seven children, only Mozart and his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), survived infancy. Leopold, a German composer, conductor, and violinist, taught his children to play and write music. Although the young Mozart became the most famous of the two, his sister, nicknamed Nannerl, was also a proficient musician. Leopold also gave his children instruction in academics and language studies.

As child prodigies, Mozart and Nannerl were exhibited across Europe, beginning with a concert for the much-beloved Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria (1727-1777), in 1762. Over the next three and a half years, the siblings toured several European cities, including, Munich, Vienna, Prague, London, Dover, Paris, The Hague, Amsterdam and Zurich. They met with several notable musicians, including J.S. Bach (1735-82), who greatly influenced the young Mozart. During the tour, Mozart composed his first symphony at the tender age of 8.

Mozart, age 14

After the success of this first tour, the Mozart family agreed to more concerts. The journeys were often long and challenging for the young musicians. In 1769, Leopold left his daughter at home while he and Mozart toured Italy until 1771. Leopold aimed to advertise his son’s compositions as much as his performance. During the trip, Mozart became a member of the Bologna Academy of Music and accepted an invitation to attend a concert at the Sistine Chapel. On this famous occasion, Mozart heard Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), a piece of music closely guarded by the Vatican City. The Vatican forbade anyone from sharing the transcript outside the country, but Mozart made an illegal copy of the music from memory.

At the age of 14, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto, which told the story of Mithridates, the King of Pontus (135-63 BC). The success of this opera prompted many commissions, resulting in Ascanio in Alba for Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) and Lucio Silla, which critics considered a moderate success. 

In 1773, Mozart gained employment as the court musician of Prince Hieronymus von Colloredo (1732-1812) of Salzburg. Mozart composed several symphonies, sonatas and serenades for the prince, but he also developed a preference for violin concertos. He wrote the majority of the latter between April and December 1775 before changing tune again in favour of piano concertos. Unfortunately, Mozart received very little money for his efforts and longed to find a position elsewhere. He visited Munich and Vienna in search of work but with little success.

Determined to find a better position, Mozart resigned from his job in Salzburg and continued to travel in search of work. He hoped the orchestra in Mannheim would accept him, and he briefly had a romance with the German soprano Aloysia Weber (1760-1839). When both these liaisons came to nothing, Mozart left the country and headed to Paris. Here, Mozart stayed with the French-journalist Melchior Grimm (1723-1807), while he pawned personal items to pay his growing debts. During this time, Mozart learned of his mother’s death, which added to his despair.

The Mozart Family, 1780

Meanwhile, Mozart’s father pursued employment opportunities for his son in Salzburg, eventually regaining him a position as court organist and concertmaster to the newly styled Archbishop Colloredo. Mozart felt reluctant to return home and the job did not excite him, but with no money he had little option. He took up his new appointment in 1779, earning 450 florins a year.

In 1781, the Archbishop and Mozart travelled to Vienna to witness the accession of Joseph II (1741-90) to the Austrian throne. Colloredo wished to show off the talents of his concertmaster, but Mozart aimed “to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that’s what he likes.” Mozart eventually attained the goal, despite Colloredo’s attempts to drag him back to Salzburg. 

Now free of both Colloredo and his father, Mozart pursued a career in the capital and soon established himself as “the finest keyboard player in Vienna”. He performed the piano for the Emperor and composed the successful opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). His reputation as a composer soon spread throughout the German-speaking world.

Constanze Mozart, 1782

Whilst in Vienna, Mozart reunited with the Weber family who had moved to the city from Mannheim. He became their lodger and, although he once had eyes for Aloysia Weber, he turned his attention to her sister, Constanze (1762-1842). Mozart lodged with the Weber family and sought Constanze’s hand in marriage. He finally won her hand, and they married on 4th August 1782 in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The couple went on to have six children: Raimund Leopold (1783), Karl Thomas (1784-1858), Johann Thomas Leopold (1786), Theresia Constanzia Adelheid Friedericke Maria Anna (1787-88), Anna Marie (1789), and Franz Xaver Wolfgang (1791-1844). Sadly, only Karl and Franz survived infancy.

After his marriage, Mozart continued to pursue his music career, often studying works by Bach and Handel (1685-1759). The influence of these Baroque composers is evident in several compositions by Mozart. In 1784, he became friends with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), to whom he dedicated six string quartets. Haydn allegedly told Mozart’s father: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

To earn money, Mozart performed many of his solo works for the public. Since he could not afford to hire theatres, he played in private apartments and restaurants instead. The concerts proved popular, and he soon had enough money to rent an expensive apartment with his wife and children. He furnished his rooms with items of luxury, including a fortepiano and a billiard table. Rather than saving any of his earnings, Mozart hired servants and sent his eldest surviving son Karl to a prodigious boarding school.

In 1784, Mozart became a Freemason. Typically, Mozart produced four piano concertos a season, but he also composed several pieces of Masonic music, including the Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music). Records state this music featured in memorial services of at least two of Mozart’s fellow Freemasons. 

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Mozart gradually moved away from piano concertos to focus on operas in 1785. Collaborating with the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), Mozart produced the four-act opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The work contained over 900 bars of continuous music, including some of the lengthiest pieces Mozart ever wrote. After its successful premiere in Vienna, the opera moved to Prague, where it received great praise. The Emperor also requested a performance at his theatre in Laxenburg, Austria.

Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni, received as much acclaim, earning him the patronage of Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor also hired him as “chamber composer”, but this success was bittersweet, for Mozart’s father did not live to see it, passing away earlier in the year on 28th May 1787. Mozart’s new role involved composing dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal (the concert hall at the Emperor’s residence). 

Drawing of Mozart, 1789

The Austro-Turkish war between 1788 and 1791 made life difficult for everyone. The aristocracy no longer had the funds to support musicians and theatres were closed. Mozart’s income diminished significantly, forcing him and his family to move to cheaper accommodation in Alsergrund, in the suburbs of Vienna. Unfortunately, this did not decrease Mozart’s spending, only lessening the housing space to store his purchases. Although he still composed symphonies and operas, including Così fan tutte (1790), Mozart frequently borrowed money from his friends to meet his needs.

A burst of activity in 1791 resulted in some of Mozart’s most famous works, including the opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The opera has many Masonic elements, evidencing Mozart’s connection to the Freemasons. The librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812), also belonged to the fraternal organisation. Alongside the successful opera, Mozart composed another piano concerto, the motet Ave verum corpus and began working on a requiem. 

Due to the success of these works, Mozart no longer needed to ask for monetary loans from his friends. Wealthy patrons gradually reappeared after the war ended, asking him to write music for dances and suchlike. Sadly, Mozart could not enjoy his regained wealth on account of his poor health. He fell ill in September 1791, although he managed to conduct the premiere of The Magic Flute at the end of the month. Mozart continued to work as much as he could, but by November, he was bedridden with swollen limbs, severe pain and frequent vomiting.

Determined to finish his Requiem, Mozart worked from his bed. As time passed, his condition worsened, making it impossible to complete his final piece of music. His wife, Constanze, acted as his nurse until he passed away in the early hours of 5th December 1791 at the age of 35. The illness that caused his death remains unknown, and researchers still argue over hundreds of diagnoses, including infections, influenza, kidney complaints and poison.

“Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December.” A report of Mozart’s funeral in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians caused many to believe Mozart had a pauper’s burial, but this is not true. The term “common grave” means an individual grave for a common person, i.e. someone who did not hold an aristocratic rank in society. At the time of his death, Mozart’s financial situation was improving, and his family was by no means poor.

“Mozart’s work is beyond all praise. One feels only too keenly, on hearing this or any other of his music, what the Art has lost in him.”

Emanuel Schikaneder
Antonio Salieri

The death of so talented a composer shocked many people in Europe, particularly one so young. Although fatal illnesses were common at the time, many believe Mozart’s death was unnatural. Researchers have generally ruled out murder, but early rumours accused Mozart’s colleague Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) of poisoning him. Despite the 1979 play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer (1926-2016), in which Salieri confesses to the murder, Mozart’s symptoms did not correspond with the side effects of poison. Nonetheless, the accusations damaged Salieri’s reputation and triggered a mental breakdown later in life.

Salieri was not the only person rumoured to have poisoned the great composer. Others suspected the involvement of the Masons and some went as far as to blame the Jews. In reality, Mozart suffered many illnesses during his short life, most likely due to a deficiency in vitamin D. Researchers suggest his final illness had a similar cause.

Rumours that Mozart died a poor man stem from the misconception of a “commoners grave”. He indeed left his family with outstanding debts, but his income had significantly risen over the past year. Constanze appealed to the Emperor, who provided her with a widow’s pension, which helped her feed and clothe her two children. She managed to pay off the remaining debts by arranging concerts of her husband’s music and publishing many of Mozart’s works.

As is often the case, Mozart’s popularity increased after his death. According to a biography by Maynard Solomon (1930-2020), Mozart’s compositions received an “unprecedented wave of enthusiasm”, both from musicians and audiences. Mozart’s work changed the style of popular music, which until his birth was typically Baroque. Mozart’s influence is evident in many composer’s works, such as Beethoven (1770-1827), Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), who wrote several variations of his themes. Tchaikovsky (1840-93) composed the orchestra suite Mozartiana as a tribute to the talented musician.

Mozart continued to influence many people throughout the 19th, 20th and into the 21st century. His music is widely recognised throughout the world, often topping the Classical Music charts. Mozart not only impacted the lives of musicians but of writers and artists too. Mozart appears as a character in novels by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and plays by Shaffer and Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Several films and television programmes have focused on the composer’s life, and The Wombles borrowed Mozart’s 3rd movement of the Jupiter Symphony for their song Minuetto Allegretto

Although the interesting aspects of Mozart’s life, or rather his death, are largely mythologised, Mozart is an intriguing person. Composing from the age of 5, Mozart had an exceptional talent, making him a unique individual. Despite dying at 35, Mozart lived a full life, resulting in over 600 compositions. Not only did he have an impressive output, but he also produced masterpieces that still survive 230 years after his death. Unknowingly, Mozart single-handedly influenced and changed the world.


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Papa Haydn

Papa Haydn’s dead and gone
  but his memory lingers on.
When his mood was one of bliss
  he wrote jolly tunes like this.

“Papa Haydn” was the affectionate name bestowed on Franz Joseph Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, by musicians who worked for him. The nickname caught on, and people far and wide adopted the term for the older composer, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). But who was Haydn, other than the composer of over 100 symphonies and over 80 string quartets?

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on 31st March 1732, grew up in the Austrian village Rohrau, where his father, Mathias Haydn (1699-1763) served as Marktrichter or mayor. In his younger years, Mathias learnt to play the harp by ear, although he never learnt how to read music. Haydn’s mother Maria could not read music either, yet Haydn’s childhood was very musical, often singing with his neighbours. 

Haydn’s younger brother Michael (1737-1806) was also musically gifted, and their parents worried the village of Rohrau was not the right place for them to enhance their skills. When Haydn was only six years old, his parents sent him to a relative and schoolmaster called Johann Matthias Frankh in Hainburg. As Frankh’s apprentice, Haydn trained as a musician and never returned to his parents. Haydn learnt to play the harpsichord and violin under Frankh’s tuition but suffered neglect in other ways, such as nourishment and clothing. Fortunately, his passion for singing was his saving grace.

The people of Hainburg heard Haydn singing the treble parts in the church choir and brought him to the attention of the composer Georg von Reutter (1708-72). Reutter was the director of music at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was on the lookout for fresh talent. After several months of training, Haydn moved to the Kapellhaus in Vienna with Reutter where he worked as a chorister for nine years. His brother Michael joined him there in 1745.

Joseph, Michael and the other choirboys received an academic education as well as voice, violin, and keyboard lessons. The tuition lacked musical theory and composition, but Haydn picked up some of this knowledge through practice and performance. St. Stephen’s Cathedral was a leading European music centre and attracted large aristocratic audiences for whom Haydn and the other boys performed.

As Haydn got older, his voice changed, making him unsuitable for Reutter’s choir. He also had a reputation as a practical joker and, after going one joke too far, was caned and dismissed from the school in 1745. With the help of a friend, who provided Haydn with accommodation, Haydn started working as a freelance musician. Jobs included working as a music teacher and singing on the streets until 1752 when he found a position as valet-accompanist to the Italian composer Nicola Porpora (1686-1768). With Porpora’s help, Haydn learnt “the true fundamentals of composition”.

Working with Porpora, Haydn realised his education lacked music theory and composition. To rectify this, Haydn worked his way through books by Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) and studied the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88). As his skills improved, so did his public reputation, which earned him a commission to write his first opera Der krumme Teufel (The Limping Devil). Whilst it premiered successfully in 1753 critics soon closed it down because of the uncensored “offensive remarks” in the libretto, written by Johann Joseph Felix Kurtz. 

Between 1754 and 56, Haydn returned to freelance work, including for the court in Vienna. He obtained aristocratic patronage, eventually being employed as a Kapellmeister or music director by Count Karl Joseph Morzin. Haydn’s roles included leading the count’s orchestra, for which he composed his first symphonies. In 1760, Haydn had enough money to marry Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1729–1800), the daughter of an organist. Unfortunately, the marriage was an unhappy one.

Count Morzin suffered financial difficulties and had to let Haydn go in 1761. Fortunately, Haydn immediately received a job offer from Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy (1711-62). The Prince employed Haydn as the vice-Kapellmeister of the Esterházy family, although later promoted him to Kapellmeister in 1766. For this position, the family required Haydn to wear livery and accompany them wherever they went, often to cities in Hungary.

As Kapellmeister, Haydn’s tasks included running the orchestra, composing music, performing for patrons and arranging operas. Until 1779, anything Haydn wrote belonged to the Esterházy family, including approximately 90 symphonies, 13 overtures, two dozen string quartets and around 200 works for the baryton. The baryton, a bowed string instrument, was the preferred choice of Prince Nikolaus I Esterházy (1714-1790) who asked Haydn to write compositions for him until 1775 when he switched the baryton for producing operas, many of which were also composed by Haydn.

In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract, which allowed him to publish his works and write for other people. Whilst this allowed him to contact and meet with new people, Haydn felt isolated and lonely in the out-of-the-way home of the Esterházy family. He longed to return to Vienna to visit Mozart, who he had the chance to meet in 1784. Haydn was a great admirer of Mozart’s work, and the young composer reciprocated the feeling by dedicating six quartets to Haydn.

After working for the Esterházy family for 30 years, Haydn finally got his wish for freedom after the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790. Although the prince’s son Anton (1738-94) kept Haydn on, it was at a lower salary, since Anton dismissed most of the court musicians to save money. Having little use for the composer, Anton allowed Haydn to come and go as he pleased.

German violinist Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815) invited Haydn to join him on a trip to London, which he readily accepted. Despite never having been to England, Haydn’s works were well-known in the British capital, and Haydn was eager to compose and conduct new symphonies with their large orchestras. After a brief visit to Vienna, where Haydn reunited with Mozart, Salomon and Haydn travelled to Calais, France, via Germany, where he met the young Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Haydn promised that on his return, he would take Beethoven with him to Vienna as his student.

Haydn and Salomon crossed the English Channel on New Year’s Day, 1791 and settled in London. Crowds flocked to see Haydn in concerts where he both performed and conducted. One critic remarked, “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.” As well as his well-known works, Haydn performed new symphonies, most notably Surprise (No. 94), Military (No. 100), Drumroll (No. 103) and London (No. 104).

During the visit, Haydn spent some leisure time in the Hertfordshire countryside. He also travelled to Oxford where the prestigious University awarded him an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, the orchestra played Haydn’s Symphony No.12, which they afterwards renamed the Oxford Symphony, despite it being a commission by the French Count d’Ogny in 1789. 

As promised, Haydn took Beethoven to Vienna on his return from London. Beethoven had already received tuition from several musicians, but it was Haydn’s reputation that gave Beethoven a boost in his career.

In 1794, Haydn made a second tour of London. He was a familiar figure in the concert scene and attracted much attention. Before he returned to Vienna in 1795, London held a benefit concert nicknamed “Dr Haydn’s night”, which Haydn regarded as the peak of his career. Haydn’s biographer Georg August von Griesinger (1769-1845) noted that the days Haydn spent in England were “the happiest of his life. He was everywhere appreciated there; it opened a new world to him”.

On his return to Vienna, Haydn learnt of his employer’s death. Anton’s son, Prince Nicholas II Esterházy (1765-1833), was his successor and wished Haydn to return to the establishment as Kapellmeister. Haydn reluctantly agreed to return on a part-time basis, spending half the year with the Esterházy family and the other half in Vienna.

By now, Haydn’s popularity in Vienna was as great as it was in London. He continued to compose for the Esterházy family, but his most prominent achievements of this period were collaborations with the librettist Gottfried Freiherr van Swieten (1733-1803). Together, they produced two oratorios: The Creation (1798), based on the Book of Genesis, and The Seasons. Haydn also took inspiration from his time in London where he had heard the crowds singing God Save the King. For the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II (1768-1835), Haydn composed the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God save Francis the Emperor). Germany’s national anthem today continues to use this tune. 

By 1800, Haydn faced the typical health problems that came with old age. He composed his final major work in 1802, a mass called Harmoniemesse for the Esterházy family. After this, it became increasingly difficult for Haydn to write music. Haydn frequently suffered bouts of dizziness and had swollen painful legs. Doctors offered no diagnosis at the time, but the symptoms suggest his body was suffering from high cholesterol and bad diet. Yet, whilst his body became uncooperative, Haydn’s mind remained sharp.

“I must have something to do—usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier. I am really just a living clavier.”

Haydn, 1806

Except for a few futile attempts at composing, Haydn retreated from public life. He remained the Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family, but they employed other musicians to take on many of Haydn’s roles. Nonetheless, Haydn continued to receive public honours, such as concerts in his name, which Haydn attended on an armchair carried by his servants. When he felt strong enough, Haydn played his piano, although limited himself to only his “Emperor’s Hymn” Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. It was this music that he played on the 26th May 1809 before collapsing. A few days later, Haydn passed away on 31st May at the age of 77.

Haydn’s funeral took place on 15th June in Vienna, a small affair including a performance of Mozart’s requiem. Hundsturm cemetery, where they interred his body, is now known as Haydnpark, although the Esterházy family insisted on moving Haydn’s remains to Eisenstadt in 1820. Yet, when they dug up Haydn’s body, they discovered his skull missing.

The furious Prince Nicholas II deduced the stolen skull was the work of Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter. The two men, who had a strong interest in phrenology, a discredited science, believed they could ascertain Haydn’s genius by measuring the bumps and shape of the skull. Whilst Nicholas was correct in his assumption, the men gave the family a different head, secretly keeping Haydn’s for their studies.

When Rosenbaum died, Haydn’s skull passed from person to person until it became the possession of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music). Learning of this, the Esterházy family set out to reunite Haydn’s head with his body, although this took many years to arrange. Eventually, in 1954, 145 years after the composer’s death, they finally restored Haydn’s head. Not knowing what to do with the substitute skull, the family left it in the tomb thus Haydn’s final resting place contains two skulls.

Looking at Haydn’s skull did not tell the world anything about the composer, but studying his works, letters and biographies reveal his mental traits. Growing up in poverty, Haydn knew the importance of money, making him an astute business dealer. “As regards money, Haydn…always attempted to maximize his income, whether by negotiating the right to sell his music outside the Esterházy court, driving hard bargains with publishers or selling his works three and four times over.” Yet, Haydn gave much of his money to charity and friends. He even taught Mozart’s sons for free after their father’s death.

Haydn’s original manuscripts are evidence of his devout Catholicism. Each composition began with the phrase in nomine Domini “in the name of the Lord” and ended Laus Deo (praise be to God). When troubled, Haydn regularly turned his thoughts to God, a practice he usually found effective.

Haydn attributed many of his compositions to God’s presence in his life. When he did not know how to tackle a particular piece, his prayers to God helped him to find the answer. Often, this meant a change in style or mood of the music, making his critics exclaim, “This Haydn is like a child, for there is no knowing what he will do next.”

These changes were not drastic enough to make them unrecognisable as Haydn’s work, but music historians have noticed a distinct development in Haydn’s output after the year 1779. Until then, Haydn wrote compositions at the request of others. After renegotiating his contract with the Esterházy family, Haydn could publish works without the approval of his employer. Critics often describe these pieces as “purer” than his earlier works. Haydn’s trips to England also brought changes to Haydn’s music, resulting in what one critic called his “popular style”.

Haydn produced a considerable number of compositions during his career, but only a few remain recognisable to modern generations. His operas have disappeared from opera houses, but this does not mean Haydn had no talent. He was, after all, the “superstar” of his day. Without Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart’s work would be unrecognisable today. Haydn set the foundations for symphonies and string quartets, which composers have followed ever since. Without Haydn, the history of music would be completely different.


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Cristofori’s Dream

Musical instruments have been around for thousands of years, and it is not easy to pinpoint the person who first created the earlier versions. Over the centuries, many respected musicians became makers of instruments, including Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655-1731), who lived in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries. Whilst making violins and other stringed instruments was a valued career, Cristofori dreamt of inventing something new: a piano.

Other than the information on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s birth certificate that states he was born on 4th May 1655 in Padua, which was then part of the Republic of Venice, his early life remains a mystery. One story suggests Cristofori served as an apprentice to Nicola Amati (1596-1684), a stringed-instrument maker from Cremona, but census records do not correspond. In 1680, the census recorded that a thirteen-year-old with the name Christofaro Bartolomei lived with Amati, but by this time, the future piano maker had celebrated his 25th birthday.

The first record of Cristofori as an adult is dated 1688 when Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713) recruited the 33-year-old. The purpose of this recruitment is unknown, but it coincided with the death of the prince’s musical technician. Ferdinando owned plenty of instruments and was a lover and patron of music.

Some historians question why Ferdinando, who lived in Venice where many musical technicians lived, sought out Cristofori who lived outside of the city. Perhaps Cristofori had already started inventing instruments, which would explain why Ferdinando offered him time and money to pursue his interests as part of the bargain. As well as having a fondness for music, Ferdinando expressed a fascination with machinery and owned over forty mechanical clocks.

In an interview with the Italian writer Francesco Scipione Maffei (1675-1755), Cristofori admitted he had not wanted to work for the prince, but on hearing this, Ferdinando responded “that he would make me want to.” Cristofori reluctantly agreed to a salary of 12 scudi per month (€288) and moved into a house in Venice that also came with the position.

Cristofori’s job involved transporting and refurbishing the prince’s instruments. Although this was well within Cristofori’s abilities, he found it challenging to work with the other hundred artisans employed by the prince. Cristofori either worked in or near the Galleria dei Lavori of the Uffizi, revealing during his interview with Maffei: “It was hard for me to have to go into the big room with all that noise.” Eventually, Ferdinando gave Cristofori a private workshop.

Although Cristofori takes credit for the invention of the piano, keyboard instruments were already in existence. The harpsichord, for instance, was invented during the middle ages and a smaller version, known as a spinet, was developed before Cristofori was born. Yet, Cristofori was determined to improve upon these early instruments.

Not long after starting his employment, Cristofori invented a new instrument for Prince Ferdinando. Known as a spinettone (“big spinet”), it was longer than a spinet but thinner than a harpsichord, yet its mechanisms made it different from either instrument.

Spinets and harpsichords are designated as eight-foot pitch (8′) instruments, meaning they played at a standard, ordinary pitch. Cristofori’s spinettone contained 8′ strings, but he also included 4′ strings, which allowed the musician to play one octave above the standard. Attached to an internal mechanism the keyboard could be slid back and forth by the player to switch between the two octaves.

The unique design attested to the ingenuity of its inventor; not only was it unlike anything produced before, but it also required careful thought and precision. Cristofori likely engineered the spinettone to complement his patron’s love of opera. Prince Ferdinando often played the harpsichord with the orchestra at the Medici villa at Pratolino, but due to the instrument’s size, the orchestra pit was very cramped. The spinettone was physically compact, making it the perfect size for playing with the orchestra. Its range of notes also complemented the other instruments.

Another invention by Cristofori, which may predate the spinettone, was the oval spinet, based on the keyboard and string arrangements of a virginal. A virginal is a smaller, usually rectangular, version of a harpsichord with a richer, flute-like tone. Cristofori altered the string lengths to make them stronger and designed an oval body to make the instrument more compact.

Some historians believe the oval spinet was Cristofori’s first attempt at making a keyboard instrument suitable for use within an orchestra, but its lack of range made it impractical. Nonetheless, it was considered a luxury instrument that only the wealthy could afford. Musical instrument scholar Stewart Pollens (b.1949) describes the oval spinet as “a tour de force of mechanical design, fully the product of Cristofori’s inventive character,” yet, it never caught on during Cristofori’s lifetime. Only two of Cristofori’s original oval spinets remain, but there are several by later manufacturers.

An inventory of the prince’s possessions, taken in 1700, lists the oval spinet and spinettone. Also documented are two harpsichords made by Cristofori, one made from ebony; and a clavicytherium. The latter was a form of upright harpsichord designed in the 15th century purposely to save floor space. Less prevalent than the traditional harpsichord, the clavicytherium was harder to play and had “a fairly heavy touch and unresponsive action” (Ripin, 1989). Unlike the harpsichord, which relied on gravity to move the jack or plectrum, the clavicytherium needed a spring to assist the movement.

An ‘Arpicembalo’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…” The inventory contains a paragraph about an instrument invented by Cristofori called an Arpicembalo. Meaning “harp-harpsichord”, this was the name of Cristofori’s first piano, which eventually became known as pianoforte, meaning soft and loud.

The Arpicembalo remained publicly unknown until Scipione Maffei mentioned the instrument in an article in 1711. By this time, Cristofori had built two more pianos. Unlike harpsichords, whose strings are plucked by a plectrum, Cristofori devised a mechanism using hammers. It was not as simple as replacing the plectrums with hammers, but they also needed to return to their positions after striking the string, allowing it to vibrate. The hammers also let the player rapidly repeat the same note if desired. The strength in which the player pressed the key determined the volume of the sound.

It is difficult to determine what type of strings Cristofori used in his first pianos since they have been lost or destroyed. Over time, the strings in his later pianos have all been replaced due to breakages, wear and tear. Complaints about the Arpicembalo stated it was too “soft” and “dull” in comparison to the much louder harpsichords, suggesting Cristofori used thin strings. On the other hand, it was louder than a clavichord, which until that time had been the only keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance concerning the force in which the keys depressed.

Maffei’s article about Cristofori’s Arpicembalo was translated into German in 1725 by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König. As a result, many instrument makers began to replicate Cristofori’s design. Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) went one step further, adding a damper-lifting mechanism, which allowed the strings to vibrate freely. This device, the forerunner of the sustain pedal, helped the player to produce a greater variety of tones.

Although instrument makers were quick to take on the new keyboard instrument, composers and musicians were harder to convince. In the early 1730s, Silberman introduced the Arpicembalo to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was less than impressed with the weak tones, which he claimed prevented the instrument from a full dynamic range. Unhappy at receiving criticism, Silberman made adjustments to the mechanisms until they met Bach’s approval in 1747. Advertising it as an “Instrument: piano et forte”, Bach acted as Silberman’s agent, encouraging musicians to adopt the fortepiano. These early instruments are so named to differentiate them from the modern pianoforte developed at the end of the 18th century.

Despite inventing a new instrument, Cristofori’s fame never spread much further than the Medici court. Prince Ferdinando passed away in 1713 at the age of 50, possibly from syphilis, leaving Cristofori without a patron. Fortunately, the prince’s father Cosimo III (1642-1723) appointed Cristofori the custodian of his son’s collection of instruments, thus allowing Cristofori to remain at court. The inventor continued to build pianos until his death on 27th January 1731, aged 75.

Only three pianos or Arpicembalos built by Cristofori exist today, although damages and refurbishments have altered them over time. A Latin inscription proves the authenticity of the instruments. “Bartholomaevs de Christophoris Patavinus Inventor Faciebat Florentiae” is followed by the date in Roman numerals, which translates as “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made this in Florence in [date].” 

The oldest of the three instruments was made in 1720 and currently lives in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The cypress and boxwood piano spans three octaves with strings in length from 4.75 inches to 74.25 inches. A new soundboard added in 1938 inadvertently altered the sound of the notes. Denzil Wraight (b.1951), a professional researcher of Italian keyboard instruments, laments that “its original condition … has been irretrievably lost.” Mary Elizabeth Adams (1842-1918), an American curator of musical instruments, donated the piano to the museum.

Although unplayable due to damage caused by worms, the 1722 instrument is the best preserved of the three pianos. The piano, which belongs to the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, has a range of four octaves and may have once belonged to the Venetian composer Alessandro Ignazio Marcello (1673-1747). The museum claims Cristofori aimed to “give an instrument the speech of the heart, now with the delicate touch of an angel, now with violent eruptions of passions.”

The third piano was built in 1726 and is in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University. The instrument is currently not playable, but old recordings exist, which give a general sense of how the notes once sounded. The use of cypress for the soundboard produced a warmer, softer sound than modern pianos.

The piano became more prevalent in the late 18th century after piano-making flourished in Vienna. Although piano-makers based their instruments on Cristofori’s designs, they made a few changes, including the colour of the keyboard: black for natural keys and white for the accidentals. Future piano-makers reverted to the original colours. The earliest surviving version of this type of piano, a fortepiano, was built in France by Louis Bas of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in 1781.

The modern piano began to evolve between 1790 and 1860, the “Mozart-era”. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was one of the first composers to write sonatas and concertos specifically for the instrument. Although he died in 1791, his work lived on, inspiring hundreds of other composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49). 

Beethoven and his tutor Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) were among the first to own a pianoforte or grand piano. Broadwood and Sons, founded by the Scottish manufacturer John Broadwood (1732-1812), constructed these pianos, which were louder, more substantial and ranged over five octaves. They quickly gained a reputation for their instruments and added a sixth octave to the keyboard in 1810. A seventh octave had been added by 1820, and other piano manufacturers began to follow suit. 

London-born Robert Wornum (1780-1852), built the first upright piano in 1811, but his design did not catch on. Modern upright pianos developed from those made by Pleyel et Cie (Pleyel and Company), founded by the composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), in 1815. By 1834, Pleyel was producing 1000 pianos a year and was the preferred manufacturer of French composers such as Chopin, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

Piano-makers continued to improve the instrument throughout the 19th century. Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) added felt to the keys and hammers to improve the sound quality. Jean-Baptiste-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) designed a sostenuto pedal, which sustained only those notes held down when the pedal is depressed, meaning the following notes would not be affected. Not all piano manufacturers adopted this pedal, but the American company Steinway & Sons made it a key feature of their instruments. Steinway pianos tend to have three pedals, the other two being the sustain pedal, which sustains all the notes, and the soft pedal, which produces a duller sound.

Today, there are several types of pianos as a result of the various improvements made over the last two centuries. The grand piano is the closest in appearance to Cristofori’s design in which the strings horizontally extend away from the keyboard. Yet, within this category, there are three types of piano: baby grand, parlour grand and concert grand, each getting progressively bigger.

There are also categories of upright pianos. Console pianos are the shortest, whereas a studio piano is usually between 107 and 114 cm. Although these are both upright pianos, the term usually describes those that are taller than studio versions. Upright pianos tend to be cheaper than grand pianos, and their sound quality is not quite so impressive. It is unusual to see an upright piano in a concert hall, but they are commonplace in churches, schools and homes.

Less common are the specialised pianos developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. These include the toy piano for children, the player piano, which plays itself by reading perforated rolls of paper, and the pedal piano, which resembles an organ. With technological advances, the electric piano arrived in the 1920s, which used metal strings, although it did not sound much like an acoustic piano. The electronic piano of the 1970s was better suited to replicate the timbre of an upright piano and became popular with jazz musicians.

Digital pianos, which appeared on the scene in the 1980s, do not use strings or hammers. Instead, they are fitted with pre-recorded sounds and never need to be tuned. More recent versions have weighted keys and pedals to make them both feel and sound like an acoustic piano. In the 21st century, hybrid versions, which contain both acoustic and digital aspects, have appeared on the market.

It is doubtful Cristofori foresaw the potential of his Arpicembalo, yet it has become the great-great-grandfather of the most versatile instrument in the world. The pianoforte was an essential instrument in the classical era of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, as well as the romantic era of Chopin and Debussy. It was a favourite instrument of ragtime composers, which was succeeded by jazz, blues, honky-tonk, folk and rock. 

Unlike orchestral instruments, the piano is polyphonic, meaning it can play more than one melody at the same time. As a result, it is the preferred instrument of composers, even if the final piece of music is for several musicians. The composer can, for example, play melodies and bass lines on the piano to ensure they complement each other.

After Cristofori died, his reputation went into decline; for some time, Gottfried Silbermann was believed to be the inventor of the piano. Careful studies of Cristofori’s instruments in the 20th century proved they predated Silbermann’s pianos. Since then, the credit for inventing the piano is solely with Cristofori, about whom the early-instrument scholar Grant O’Brien has written: “The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period … I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius [sic].” (Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a maker of string instruments.)

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco is arguably the inventor of the best musical instrument ever made. It is only right we remember his name and celebrate his achievements. To quote Grant O’Brien again, “We must treat Cristofori’s instruments with the same respect and admiration that we would treat an instrument by Stradivarius. [sic]”

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Beethoven at 250

On 17th December 2020, it will be 250 years since the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius. In those days, it was custom to baptise babies within 24 hours of birth, so let us celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer and reflect upon the genius of his work, which has survived and remains popular in the 21st century.

Beethoven, named after his grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), a professional singer and music director, was destined to become a musician. His father, Johann (1740-92) was also a singer and musician who performed in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne. His mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87) was the daughter of the head chef at the court of the Elector of Trier.

Born on 17th December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children of which only three survived infancy. His younger brother Kaspar (1774-1815) experimented with musical composition but never became famous. Beethoven’s youngest brother, Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848), took a different career path and opened a pharmacy in Linz, Austria.

Beethoven’s father taught the boys to play the piano, and possibly the violin, from the age of five. As he got older, Beethoven received lessons from local musicians on various instruments: organ, piano, violin and viola. Although Beethoven showed considerable musical talents, his tutoring sessions were long and hard, and his teachers strict, often reducing the young boy to tears. Tuition took place at any time of day and night and, on occasion, Ludwig was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for an impromptu piano lesson.

It was not only the tutors that were harsh on Beethoven. His ambitious father was aware of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) and his sister Nannerl (1751-1829), who were impressing the population of Salzburg, Austria, with their musical talent and youth. When Beethoven made his first public performance at the age of seven, his father claimed he was only six to make his son appear to be as talented as the Mozarts.

At the beginning of the 1780s, Beethoven began studying with the German opera composer and conductor, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98). Principally teaching him to play the piano, Neefe was Beethoven’s most influential tutor during his youth. Beethoven became Neefe’s assistant as an unpaid organist in 1782 but two years later had risen to a paid position at the court chapel.

As well as piano technique, Neefe taught Beethoven about composition. At the age of 11 and 12, Beethoven composed his first keyboard works. The three piano sonatas are known as the Kurfürstensonaten (Elector Sonatas), dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels (1708-84), the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the Bishop of Münster. For such a young composer, Beethoven’s compositions were remarkably mature and gave an early glimpse of his Classical piano talent.

Beethoven … a boy of 11 years and most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well … the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe puts into his hands …

Magazin der Musik (1783)

The success of these sonatas gained Beethoven financial support from several people, but between 1785-90 Beethoven disappeared from the limelight. As far as historians are aware, Beethoven did not produce any compositions during this time, most likely as a result of ongoing problems within his family. Beethoven’s mother passed away in 1787 just after he had returned from Vienna where he had heard Mozart play. Being the eldest surviving child, a lot of the family responsibility fell to seventeen-year-old Beethoven.

Complicating things further, Beethoven’s father lost his job due to alcoholism. Although Johann van Beethoven was offered a pension, the money was ordered by the court to be paid directly to Ludwig so that he could look after his younger brothers. This money was not enough to keep the family afloat, so Beethoven had to earn a salary. He achieved this by taking on pupils and playing the viola in the court orchestra. The orchestra played music by several composers, including Mozart, which must have felt like an insult to Beethoven who was brought up to consider Mozart his rival.

Making up for lost time, Beethoven composed several works between 1790 and 1792. Although not published at the time, they show his progression from his first works ten years before. Neefe encouraged Beethoven to take on commissions and introduced him to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer, who briefly stayed in Bonn for Christmas in 1790. Beethoven much admired the older composer and Haydn was also impressed with Beethoven’s talents. When Haydn returned to Bonn in 1792, Beethoven was earning money by playing the viola in the court orchestra. Haydn, on the other hand, wished to tutor Beethoven personally and invited him to Vienna. One of Beethoven’s financial supporters, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762-1823) encouraged the proposal, stating: “You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes … With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and devoted himself to study and performance under Haydn’s guidance. He also received tuition from the Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) and learnt about composition from the classical composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).

Using his connection with Haydn to his advantage, Beethoven developed a reputation as a performer and gained the financial support of several Viennese noblemen, including Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). By 1793, Vienna knew Beethoven as a piano virtuoso, but he was also an up-and-coming composer.

Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna took place during March 1795, in which he performed a piano concerto he had written. Dedicating it to one of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1761-1814), Beethoven formerly published the music as a set of trios for piano, violin and cello under the name Opus 1. The profits for this publication was enough to cover Beethoven’s living expenses for a year.

Over the next couple of years, Beethoven published and wrote many concertos and sonatas. By 1799, 28-year-old Beethoven published his thirteenth musical work (Op. 13). Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, or Sonata Pathétique as it is more commonly known, is one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” (Barry Cooper, Beethoven, 2008)

By 1800, Beethoven was the most talented young composer after Haydn and Mozart. The same year, he published his first symphony, which he dedicated to his patron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). The premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna alongside performances of works by Haydn and Mozart. The premiere was hailed “the most interesting concert in a long time” by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (General music newspaper). The next year, Beethoven premiered his first ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at the same location.

Following these successes, Beethoven published his second symphony in 1803. The first performance of Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) took place at the Theater an der Wien in a concert that also featured Beethoven’s third piano concerto (Op. 37) and his only oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85). The latter, which Beethoven claimed to have written in only two weeks, portrayed the emotional torment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Six years later, the oratorio premiered in the United States where it became Beethoven’s first success in America. 

As well as composing, Beethoven worked as a teacher. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) and Carl Czerny (1791-1857) are among the more successful of Beethoven’s pupils, but he taught a wide range of students over time, including women. In 1799, Beethoven became the piano tutor of the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Josephine (1779-1821), although nothing ever came of the relationship. Nonetheless, letters survive that indicate there may have been a secret romance.

Other letters, however, indicate Beethoven had feelings for another of his students, Countess Julie Guicciardi (1784-1856). Considering himself to be in a lower social class, Beethoven never pursued a relationship, but in 1802 he dedicated his Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 to Julie. After his death, this sonata became better known by the name Moonlight Sonata.

In the early 1800s, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss. At first, he attributed this to a fit he suffered in 1798, after which he struggled with severe tinnitus. From descriptions in letters to his friends and brothers, Beethoven likely had osteosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the inner ear) and a degenerative auditory nerve.

Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna to come to terms with his diagnosis. Surviving letters suggest Beethoven had mixed feelings about his condition. Mostly, he seemed upbeat, but one letter suggests he once considered suicide. Although Beethoven never became entirely deaf, it became increasingly difficult to play at concerts. As a result, he began to withdraw socially.

Nonetheless, Beethoven did not let his condition prevent him from composing. In a letter to a friend, he stated he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Beethoven made no secret of his hearing loss, and he could still hear music and voices until around 1812.

Most likely because of his diagnosis, Beethoven’s music style dramatically changed. On his return to Vienna, he told his pupils, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This attitude resulted in his Third Symphony in E flat Op. 55, or the Eroica, in 1804. Beethoven initially wrote the symphony with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in mind because he admired the ideal of the heroic revolutionary leader. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned with the man and renamed the symphony from Intitolata Bonaparte (Titled Bonaparte) to Sinfonia Eroica – composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony – Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Critics noticed the change in Beethoven’s style. They commented on the dramatic nature of the music, particularly his best-known Symphony No.5 in C Major (Op. 67), which the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) claimed “sets in motion terror, fear, horror, pain, and awakens the infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism.”

Up until Beethoven began to experience hearing loss, his income came from composing, teaching and performing. As the latter area became more difficult, Beethoven relied heavily on the publications of his music. Some of Beethoven’s patrons offered him yearly stipends in addition to commissions, and he took on his most prestigious pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II (1747-92). The Archduke and Beethoven soon became firm friends, and Beethoven dedicated a number of his works to Rudolf, including the Archduke Piano Trio (Op. 97).

In 1807, Beethoven’s work began to be published in England, giving him a larger following. Although he was becoming a popular name across the continent, it was not enough to keep him financially stable. Beethoven had suffered financially. He had fallen out of favour at the Theater an der Wien due to new management. Also, the French occupation of Vienna between 1803 and 1806 hindered his compositions.

In 1808, a benefit concert was held for Beethoven to boost his funds. Although it was under rehearsed and inferior to Beethoven’s previous concerts, it introduced some of Beethoven’s new compositions. As well as a performance of his Symphony No.5, the concert premiered Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Op. 68) and the Choral Fantasy “Fantasia” (Op. 80).

The Napoleonic wars limited the number of commissions Beethoven received, but they began to pick up again in 1809 beginning with the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) play Egmont. Pleased with the result, Beethoven set three of Goethe’s poems to music.

Beethoven fell ill in 1811, suffering headaches and high fevers. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music but moved to the spa town of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic) on the advice of his doctor. While there, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet Goethe, who wrote  “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.” Whether Beethoven’s illness or deafness affected his personality is unknown, but Goethe certainly found him despicable. Likewise, Beethoven disliked Goethe’s personality but, putting their differences aside, composed the music for Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.112).

There is an air of mystery surrounding Beethoven’s personal life, which is heightened by an unsent letter he wrote while staying in Teplitz. Addressed to “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved), the letter is scrawled over ten pages and expresses his passionate love for the unknown addressee. Not discovered until after his death, most historians believe the intended recipient was Beethoven’s former pupil Josephine Brunsvik, however, there are many other candidates.

The letter suggests the feelings were mutual, and the debate continues as to the identity of the lady. Beethoven had sent love letters to Josephine in the past, particularly after she became a widow in 1804. She soon married again, but the relationship was strained and worsened over time. Suspicions that she had an affair with Beethoven were raised after the birth of her daughter Minona in 1813 who was born nine months after Josephine had separated from her husband.

Other suggestions for the intended recipient of the letter include former pupil Julie Guicciardi and Josephine’s sister, Therese Brunsvik (1775-1861). Several musicians and singers that worked with Beethoven are also up for debate, for example, Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), an Austrian singer for whom he may have written the piano bagatelle Für Elise – the manuscript was found with her belongings after death.

Beethoven’s love life continues to be a mystery, but no love letters or hints of a relationship seem to occur after 1812. Around this time, Beethoven struggled with his mental and emotional health. His compositions were less frequent, and his physical appearance suffered. Some suggest his failings in love triggered this period, but he was also dealing with a few family issues. His brother Johann was in a relationship with a disreputable woman, which Beethoven tried unsuccessfully to end.

In 1815, his other brother Kaspar passed away from tuberculosis. Both Kaspar’s wife Johanna (1786-1869) and Beethoven became the joint guardians of Kaspar’s son Karl (1806-56), which sparked several legal proceedings. Beethoven wished to place Karl in a private school and, although he eventually won sole custody of his nephew, the legal struggles continued until 1820.

Due to the ongoing problems with his nephew Karl, Beethoven’s output was minimal. He also suffered healthwise with what he called “inflammatory fever”. Between 1815 and 1819, Beethoven’s only works of note were his Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106) and a musical composition set to poems by Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858).

Evidence suggests Beethoven began working on his ninth symphony in 1818, which coincides with an improvement in health. Unfortunately, his hearing was rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to interact with other people. Several notebooks survive that reveal Beethoven conversed with people through writing rather than speaking. Entire conversations about music, business and personal matters were written out by the participants.

Beethoven rallied in 1819 and was invited by Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to write a piano variation of his waltz. Other composers invited to do the same included Franz Schubert (1791-1828) and the 8-year-old Franz Liszt (1811-86). The idea was to produce one variation, but Beethoven was determined to outdo the others and composed 20 versions by mid-1819. In total, Beethoven composed 33 variations, known collectively as the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (Op. 120) or the Diabelli Variations.

As well as the variations, Beethoven was motivated by the promotion of Archduke Rudolf to Cardinal-Archbishop, which he wished to honour with a mass. The result was the Missa solemnis in D major (Op. 123), performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Later that year another performance took place in Vienna along with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Op. 125).

Symphony No. 9 in D Major is a choral symphony that continues to be one of the most performed symphonies in the world. The final (4th) movement was based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem Ode to Joy and lasts about 24 minutes. The premiere was a great success and was conducted by Beethoven even though by that time he could not hear the music.

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.

Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), violinist

Another conductor stood by with a baton to conduct the orchestra and choir properly. As a result, when the music finished, Beethoven was a few bars behind and continued to conduct. The contralto Caroline Unger (1803-77) approached Beethoven and turned him around to face the applauding audience. Although Beethoven could not hear the applause, he could see the standing ovation and the raised hats throughout the audience.

Meanwhile, Beethoven’s health continued to deteriorate, adding rheumatism and jaundice to his list of ailments. Despite this, he continued to compose and publish music. He also reconciled with his brother Johann who became a frequent visitor.

Beethoven continued to receive commissions despite his failing health, including a series of string quartets for Prince Nikolai Galitzin (1794-1866). Beethoven’s favourite was his fourteenth and final string quartet of the series (Op. 131), about which the composers Schubert and Robert Schumann (1810-56) enthused. Schumann said String Quartet No. 14 had a “grandeur … which no words can express,” while Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Despite being successful in the music world, Beethoven continued to struggle with his family relations. His nephew Karl attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fortunately, he survived and was sent with his uncle to the Austrian village Gneixendorf to recuperate. Whilst there, Beethoven wrote his final major work String Quartet No. 16 in F major (Op. 135), which he dedicated to his patron Johann Wolfmayer.

On his return journey from Gneixendorf in December 1826, Beethoven was taken ill. Doctors noted Beethoven had signs of jaundice, breathing difficulties and severe fluid retention in his limbs. News of his condition spread quickly; he received a large number of visitors, including previous pupils and other composers. Those who could not attend his bedside, for instance, the London Philharmonic Society, sent gifts of money and wine.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven passed away at the age of 56, leaving his nephew Karl as his sole heir. Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868), an Austrian composer and friend of Beethoven who was present at his death, reported there was a clap of thunder at 5 pm and “Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched … not another breath, not a heartbeat more.” Many people visited Beethoven on his death-bed to pay their respects. An autopsy revealed severe liver damage, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption.

Beethoven’s funeral took place in Vienna on 29th March 1827 and was attended by over 10,000, thus proving how successful he was in life. Franz Schubert was among the torchbearers and, after a requiem mass at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), they buried Beethoven in the Währing cemetery. His body has since been reinterred in the Vienna Central Cemetery adjacent to Schubert’s grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven continues to rank among the most played classical composers and is one of the most admired musicians in the history of Western music. During his 45 year career, Beethoven wrote over 772 works, including nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 sonatas, and one opera: Fidelio. He lived his life believing “music is a higher revelation than philosophy” and “music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman”. For Beethoven, music was life; he will live on through his compositions forever more.

Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)

Beethoven on his deathbed

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

Earlier this winter, Somerset House on the south side of the Strand in central London hosted an exhibition celebrating Snoopy and the enduring power of Peanuts. As most people are aware, Peanuts is a long-running cartoon strip that features the iconic deuteragonist beagle Snoopy who has become as easily recognised as the protagonist, Charlie Brown. The successful exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! took visitors on a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the Peanuts franchise from its early beginnings until the present day. Most importantly, the man behind the illustrations, Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000), was brought to the forefront through the presentation of seventy years worth of work.

Since the creation of Peanuts in 1950, the comic strip has continuously entertained and inspired others, touching over 355 million people in a whole variety of ways. Through his drawings, Schulz tackled recurring themes that many can relate to, such as anxiety, love and failure, as well as issues along the lines of racism, war and feminism. With a total of 17,897 hand-drawn strips, Peanuts was published in over 2600 newspapers throughout 75 different countries. The strips have also been translated into 21 languages, making them one of the most widely accessible art forms in the world.

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Charles M. Schulz in 1956, drawing Charlie Brown

Most of Schulz’s inspiration came from his own life, particularly his childhood growing up as an only child in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles Monroe Schulz was born on 26th November 1922 to immigrant parents Carl Schulz and Dena Halverson. His German father was a barber, a profession Schulz appropriates for the father of his character Charlie Brown. Like Charlie in the comic strips, Charles was a shy, introverted child who felt out of place around his Norwegian mother’s family who were a boisterous and occasionally violent crowd.

“When I was small, I believed that my face was so bland that people would not recognise me if they saw me some place other than where they normal would. I thought my ordinary appearance was a perfect disguise.”
– Charles M. Schulz, 1975

“Sparky”, as he was nicknamed at only two days old, after a racehorse in the Barney Google comic strip that his father enjoyed, grew up to love comics, regularly reading them with his father on a Sunday morning. Sparky grew up with cartoons such as Mickey Mouse and Popeye and decided from the age of six that he wanted to become a comic strip artist. For a child that believed he was nothing special, this aspiration gave him a purpose in life.

Just as Sparky would go on to base the “bland” faced Charlie Brown upon himself, he also used his family pet as a model for another famous character. At thirteen years old, Charles and the Schulz family became the owners of a mixed breed dog called Spike. Being mischievous and rather intelligent, Spike kept the family entertained with his tricks and ability to eat everything and anything. Later, Schulz used Spike as the model for his character Snoopy who shares the same markings as his beloved pet. Although Schulz designated Snoopy a Beagle, this was due to the amusement the sound of the word brought him rather than the drawing being an accurate representation of the breed.

Schulz chose the name “Snoopy” because his mother, who died prematurely from cervical cancer, once said she would name her next dog, if she ever had one, Snoopy. Spike, however, was used as the name of Snoopy’s moustachioed brother who was introduced to the comic strip in 1975.

Schulz drew throughout his childhood without any form of training until his final year of high school when he applied for a correspondence course run by Art Instruction. These lessons Schulz completed at home, sending in assignments that racked up a cost of $170, which his father struggled to pay. His comic strip career could not start off straight away, however, because, in February 1943, Schulz was drafted into the US Army, a traumatic experience which coincided with the death of his mother.

After the Second World War, during which he was stationed in France and Germany, Schulz began working for Art Instruction, whilst trying to sell his cartoons. He eventually sold his first series of one-panel cartoons in 1948 to the Saturday Evening Post. He then focused on developing a cartoon revolving around the lives of children, which he titled Li’l Folks. When he sent these to the United Features Syndicate in New York on the very slim chance they would be accepted, he received a response asking him to create more. Unfortunately, he needed to change the name because Li’l Folks had already been copyrighted. Thus, Peanuts was born, despite Schulz’s dislike of the name: “I wanted a strip with dignity and significance, ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.” Yet, as the exhibition proved, Peanuts was by no means insignificant.

Although colour would be added later once Peanuts had become more commercialised, Schulz produced his comic strips by creating quick, simple line drawings with different sized dip nib pens, such as the Esterbrook Radio 914, which due to its flexibility, was able to produce both thick and thin lines. With these economical pens, Schulz was able to produce simplistic cartoons that seemed to vibrate with life. Carefully placed marks easily altered a character’s emotions and various lines effectively represented action.

Whilst the characters’ appearance helped to tell the brief story, speech bubbles let the readers know exactly what is occurring in the strip. Just as he did in the illustrations, Schulz used different line thicknesses to denote a large range of emotions and tone of voice. The thicker and darker the line, the more frustrated the character was. Schulz also used this technique to represent other sounds, such as the letter “Z” for snoring. Quiet sounds were written with a thin nib, whereas loud noises were shown in BIG, BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS.

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Charlie Brown

Peanuts consisted of many characters, which were added to over time. The main character, as already mentioned, is Charlie Brown, who has been hailed as one of the best comic strip characters of all time. Slightly based on his creator, Charlie has a gentle, loveable personality with a whole host of insecurities. Whilst he is intelligent, he has the tendency to overthink and procrastinate.

Schulz’s aim was for Charlie Brown to be seen as an “everyman” or a “loser” who experiences disappointment after disappointment. He never wins at baseball games, his friends often ostracise him and he is convinced he is a worthless person. Whilst this may sound rather depressing, his vulnerability reminds everyone that we are small and alone in the universe; we are human.

“Charlie Brown must be the one who suffers because he’s a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning. Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.”
Charles M. Schulz on Charlie Brown

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Charlie Brown often worries about letting people down and will often go along with his friends’ ideas even if he ends up being ridiculed. For example, every year his friend Lucy promises to hold an (American) football in place so that he can run up and kick it. Every year, Lucy removes the ball at the last minute causing Charlie to trip over. This became a running joke throughout the series and likens Charlie Brown to the mythological figure Sisyphus who was doomed to repeat the same trivial task of pushing a boulder up a mountain for it to only roll back down to the bottom.

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Lucy van Pelt

“Lucy comes from that part of me that’s capable of saying mean and sarcastic things, which is not a good trait to have, so Lucy gives me a good outlet. But each character has a weakness and Lucy’s weakness is Schroeder.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Lucy van Pelt

Lucy van Pelt is probably the most major female character in the Peanuts series. Described as the Ying to Charlie Brown’s Yang, Lucy is a bossy, crabby, selfish girl, prone to tantrums. Although she appears in a whole host of comic strip scenarios, she is particularly known for Lucy’s Psychiatry Booth in which she offers poor advice in exchange for five cents. Lucy’s booth is a parody of the lemonade stand that children operated in their front gardens in many American towns. It also recalls the peanut stand that Charlie Brown had in Li’l Folks, which undoubtedly gave Peanuts its name.

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The inclusion of the psychiatry booth was Schulz’s way of mocking the “shrink culture” that was prevalent at the time, in which many Americans thought it was fashionable to see a psychiatrist. Lucy’s unhelpful answers reflect the trivial matters people discussed with their shrink, however, she could, on occasion, be more insightful.

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Schroeder

Lucy’s one weakness is her love for Schroeder who is nearly always drawn sitting at his toy-size piano. Lucy often tries to talk to him, admitting her unrequited love, however, Schroeder is always too absorbed in his music.

“I kind of like Schroeder. He’s fairly down to earth, but he has his problems too. He has to play on the painted black piano keys, and he thinks Beethoven was the first President of the United States.”

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Schroeder is usually an impassive character, only angered when someone insults his playing or his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven. In most strips involving Schroeder and his piano, the music notation of Beethoven’s Second Symphony are drawn on staves above his head. As a way of poking fun at Schroeder’s total preoccupation with music, Schulz occasionally depicted the staves as a physical object that could bend, stretch or even interact with the other characters.

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Linus van Pelt

Whilst Charlie Brown may overthink things and have many insecurities, there is no one more anxious than Lucy’s younger brother Linus. Often depicted with a blanket, Schulz popularised the term “safety blanket” as an object of comfort that helps people deal with their insecurities. Linus commonly appeared with his thumb in his mouth, another typical soothing technique of the anxious.

“Linus, my serious side, is the house intellectual, bright, well-informed which, I suppose may contribute to his feelings of insecurity”
– Charles M. Schulz on Linus van Pelt

Much to Linus’ horror, his sister is forever trying to “cure” him of his blanket habit. Without the security of his blanket, Linus feels extremely paranoid and is frequently depicted as a shaking, worried, sweating figure. A running gag in the comic strip involves his sister, or sometimes friends, stealing his blanket and turning it into something else.

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November 9, 1971

Over time, more characters were added to comic strips, for instance, Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who appeared in 1959. The tomboy Peppermint Patty arrived in 1966 and was a key character when Schulz tackled themes of feminism. Although Schulz’s cartoon strips were meant to be a bit of fun, they often reflected current events. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Schulz introduced his first black character, Franklin. Regrettably, this caused a lot of antagonism and Peanuts lost many readers, however, Schulz stuck to his guns and Franklin remained a regular feature.

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Snoopy

When it came to current events, Schulz often used his canine character Snoopy to reflect the issues in the comic strip.

“Snoopy’s whole personality is a little bittersweet. But he’s a very strong character. He can win or lose, be a disaster, a hero, or anything, and yet it all works out. I like the fact that when he’s in real trouble, he can retreat into a fantasy and thereby escape.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Snoopy

Snoopy had many strips devoted to his own adventures, during which he was able to speak English and thus be understood by readers. Snoopy had a wild imagination and often assumed fictional roles. His main alter-ego was the World War One Flying Ace who first appeared in 1965 shortly after the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Initially, it was not Schulz’s intention to use Snoopy’s war antics as an allegory for Vietnam, instead, it was a way of expressing the horrors he had witnessed during his time in the US Army. By turning Snoopy into a World War One character, no one could accuse Schulz of mimicking the combats in progress at that present time.

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Woodstock

For the most part, Snoopy’s comic strips involve everyday things, such as eating – he was particularly partial to root beer and pizza – sleeping, doing “dog things” and playing with his friend Woodstock.

“Woodstock knows that he is very small and inconsequential indeed. It’s a problem we all have. The universe boggles us…Woodstock is a lighthearted expression of that idea.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Woodstock

Woodstock is a tiny yellow bird of undisclosed breed who debuted in 1966. Being so tiny, Snoopy almost becomes Woodstock’s guardian, particularly since he cannot fly very well. Woodstock often joins in Snoopy’s fantasy games, however, is very easy to upset, which more often than not results in arguments. Nonetheless, the pair always hugs and makes up, their latest disagreement quickly forgiven and forgotten.

Although Woodstock sometimes appears in comic strips with human characters, no one but Snoopy can understand what he is saying. On the occasions that Woodstock talks, his words are represented as short lines resembling chicken scratches. The reader only knows what Woodstock has said by Snoopy’s response.

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Snoopy & Woodstock ”Peanuts” Strip Hand Drawn by Charles Schulz

As years went by, Peanuts became more commercialised with figurines, badges, t-shirts and toys appearing with the faces of the well-known characters. Unsurprisingly, the most popular character was the happy, fun-loving Snoopy. In the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, a disillusioned young group of Americans voted for Snoopy as their “write-in candidate”. This resulted in the production of banners, flags, badges and so forth featuring the beloved character and the words “Snoopy for President.” Since then, legislation has been issued making it illegal to nominate fictional characters.

In 1969, Snoopy became the safety mascot for the Apollo 10 mission, whose job was to skim the moon’s surface to within 50,000 feet and “snoop around” in order to find a suitable place for Apollo 11’s historic moon landing. Due to this, Schulz drew a corresponding storyline in which Snoopy on his kennel raced the neighbour’s cat to become the first animal on the moon. A large number of plastic Snoopy dolls dressed as an astronaut were produced in honour of Snoopy being made a mascot by NASA.

The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! turned what at first appears to be an innocent, amusing comic strip, into something meaningful and important. Over time, Peanuts developed into something more than a strip on the “funnies” page in newspapers. It dealt with everything from irrational fears and childhood dread to war, racism and feminism.

Peanuts opened the minds of adults, causing them to see the world from a child’s perspective. The fears and misunderstandings of events, such as the Cold War, shone through, as did the range of confusing human emotions people experience every day.

Ironically, Schulz’s form of popular culture introduced readers to high brow forms of art. Oftentimes, people first came across names of books or types of classical music while reading a Peanuts strip. Schulz also included references to other artists, such as Vincent van Gogh, of whom Snoopy was a fan.

Personally, until I visited the exhibition at Somerset House, I was only vaguely aware of the Peanuts characters and, as far as I can recall, had never seen any of the comic strips or television episodes that evolved from them. By being introduced to Charles M. Schulz’s background, the individual characters, the methods of production and the themes involved, it is clear that Peanuts is much more than a comic strip. With simple but clever illustrations plus huge and relevant ideas, Charles M. Schulz is someone who deserves recognition for his work and Peanuts deserves a permanent place in the world.