Beethoven’s Biography: The Early Years 1785-1795

His parents die and Beethoven receives lessons from Mozart and Haydn.


• Contact with the wealthy von Breuning family brings Ludwig an emotional and intellectual solace he never had at home. He begins giving lessons in order to raise money for his ailing mother and alcoholic father. 

• In April 1787, Beethoven makes his first visit to Vienna. Mozart is bowled over by Beethoven’s powers of extemporisation, announcing that “one day he will give the world something to talk about.” 

• Beethoven’s stay in Vienna is cut short by the news that his mother is dying of consumption. He is there at the moment of her passing and her wretched condition remains etched on his memory for life. 

• With his father descending into bankruptcy and fast losing his grip on reality, Beethoven becomes the principal wage earner, supported by admiring benefactors and playing viola in Bonn’s court theatre orchestra. 

• Hopes of lessons with Mozart are dashed when the Austrian genius dies prematurely in 1791, aged just 35. The situation is saved when the following year Haydn offers Beethoven the chance of lessons with him in Vienna. 

• Beethoven resolves to seek his fame and fortune in the Austrian capital, as one close friend, Count Waldstein, put it, “to receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.” The composer will never see Bonn again. 

• News of his father’s death does not dampen Beethoven’s ardour as he enthusiastically sets about arming himself with “wood, a wig, coffee, black silk stockings, an overcoat, boots, shoes and a piano-desk.” 

• Throughout the 1790s, Beethoven works day and night to secure the interest of wealthy patrons. It is a measure of his success that by the end of the century he has become the first successful freelance composer. 

• Such is Beethoven’s impact that within a year of arriving in Vienna he is given an apartment in Count Lichnovsky’s palace, where the servants are instructed to answer Beethoven’s bell even before the Count’s own. 

• Lessons with Haydn prove to be something of a mixed blessing. Despite his veneration for the older composer, Beethoven’s revolutionary spirit takes him along new paths that Haydn is reluctant to follow.