18 Grim Facts About The Life Of Beethoven You Never Learned As A Kid

Ludwig van Beethoven is perhaps the most famous and celebrated classical composer of all time (the New York Times puts him second, behind Bach). But Beethoven's grim life was depressing, lonely, and difficult. That he went deaf, surely an impediment to a musician and composer, was but one of the many physical and emotional challenges he faced in his relatively brief life (though he looks old as hell in portraits, he died at 56).  

Beethoven's musical immortality and body of work is even more remarkable in light of his family life and romantic disappointments. The man the New Yorker called "a singularity in the history of art—a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force" faced almost relentless hardship in his personal life; there are many depressing facts about Beethoven, anchored by sobering stories about Beethoven. 

Here are some harrowing highlights from the composer's life, including grim Beethoven stories concerning the triumph and tragedy of one of mankind's most phenomenal talents. 

Photo: Hugo Hagen / Public Domain

  • His Alcoholic Father Abused And Berated Him In An Attempt To Make Him The Next Mozart

    His Alcoholic Father Abused And Berated Him In An Attempt To Make Him The Next Mozart
    Photo: Artist Unknown / Public Domain

    Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, present day Germany.  His grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven, was a kapellmeister (conductor) and Bonn's most respected musician. Unfortunately, Beethoven's father, Johann, was an abusive alcoholic intent on turning his son into a musical prodigy akin to Mozart.  

    Legend has it, as a very small child, Beethoven was forced to stand on a stool so he could reach the piano keyboard. His father routinely beat and whipped him for mistakes or lack of attentiveness. Johann arranged a public recital for his son on March 26, 1778, billing him as six years old when Ludwig was seven. Though a competent musician, Beethoven never received the same early acclaim as Mozart, which frustrated his father to no end.   

  • His Tutor, Tobias Pfeiffer, Was A Weirdo Who Made Him Practice In The Middle Of The Night

    In 1779, when Beethoven was nine years, an eccentric musician named Tobias Friedrich  Pfeiffer moved into the Beethoven household. Pfeiffer had recently moved to Bonn and befriended Ludwig's father, who thought Ludwig could benefit from Pfeiffer's tutelage.

    Pfeiffer taught Beethoven for one year, during which time he recognized Ludwig's talent and helped him improve greatly as a musician. However, he was apparently a very disagreeable man with a habit of forcing Ludwig to practice at strange hours. According to some sources, Pfeiffer was an insomniac, and would drag Beethoven out of bed in the middle of the night for lessons. 

    Beethoven biographer Tilman Skowroneck argues Pfeiffer was a positive influence on Ludwig the musician and composer, despite the negative effects he had on the young boy's psyche. According to primary sources Skowroneck cites, Pfeiffer was a gifted musician and the primary source of Beethoven's formal musical education as a child. 

  • He Was Dyslexic, Never Learned To Multiply Or Divide, And Had Difficulty With Music Theory

    He Was Dyslexic, Never Learned To Multiply Or Divide, And Had Difficulty With Music Theory
    Photo: Artist Unknown / Public Domain

    Beethoven had serious learning disabilities. Even as an adult, he couldn't multiply or divide simple sums. If he had to figure out 12 x 2, for example, he wrote down twelve twos and added manually. Because he dropped out of traditional school at 10, Beethoven never learned the fundamentals of mathematics and, even in his last days, couldn't handle fundamental tasks involving words and numbers (spelling was also difficult for him.). Aware of this inability, he commented, "Music comes to me more readily than words."  

    Despite these issues, Beethoven never gave up on tasks he wanted to pursue or things he felt compelled to understand. According to biographer JR Ruciman, the composer had great difficulty understanding counterpoint in music, but refused to give up pursuing it, and eventually came to master it. Unlike Mozart or Handel, Beethoven was a very slow thinker, but once he came to understand something, he understood it completely, and would never budge on the conclusions he drew, no matter how profound an argument was made against him. Even composing was laborious for Beethoven, but he never gave up.

  • His Father's Alcoholism Forced Beethoven To Support Himself In His Early Teens

    His Father's Alcoholism Forced Beethoven To Support Himself In His Early Teens
    Photo: Christian Horneman / Public Domain

    Beethoven's father was a tenor and musician employed in the court orchestra at Bonn. He was competent and punctual until drinking harmed his voice and ruined his reputation. In the early 1780s, his standing, already in decline, was further tarnished when he was caught in a forgery scandal. Although he wasn't prosecuted, his music career deteriorated completely and he became a notorious, undesirable figure.

    At least once, Ludwig had to intercede with police to prevent his father's arrest for public intoxication. Beethoven understood from a young age he would have to earn a living for himself, as he couldn't rely on his father. In 1784, at age 14, he was appointed Elector of Cologne's Assistant Official Court Organist, and received a modest salary. Beethoven's mother died in 1787. His father got a salary as an act of charity and, in 1789, Beethoven obtained court permission to directly receive half his father's salary for household expenses, as he was essentially now supporting the family (he had two younger brothers, the only of his seven siblings to survive infancy).   

    At some point, the court officially banished Johann von Beethoven from Bonn, although this demand was never enforced.  Ludwig left his hometown in late 1792 for Vienna. His father died a month afterwards on December 18, 1792.     

  • His Mistrust Of Father Figures Ruined His Relationship With Mentor Haydn

    His Mistrust Of Father Figures Ruined His Relationship With Mentor Haydn
    Photo: Joseph Neesen / Public Domain

    As a young man, Beethoven was mentored by Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, who was by all accounts a kind man. Childless, Haydn saw himself as a father figure; in addition to helping Beethoven as a composer, he offered advice and guidance, and passed Beethoven's work around to all the right people. He expected Beethoven would "in time fill the position of one of Europe’s greatest composers," called his protégée "my dear pupil Beethoven," and once wrote "‘I shall be proud to call myself his teacher; I only wish that he might remain with me a little while longer."

    While Beethoven was polite to Haydn, his inherent mistrust of father figures made him incredibly suspicious of his mentor's motives. According to Oxford University Press, Beethoven saw Haydn, a musical genius himself, as a rival as much as a mentor. His mistrust eventually turned to paranoia; he suspected Haydn "was not well minded" towards him, and developed an unfounded theory that Haydn was sabotaging his development.

    Eventually, Haydn left Vienna and passed Beethoven off to another mentor, though their relationship had fractured before that, thanks to the latter's skepticism. 

  • He Was A Slob, Dressed Poorly, And Was Difficult Very To Get Along With

    He Was A Slob, Dressed Poorly, And Was Difficult Very To Get Along With
    Photo: Carl Schloesser / Public Domain

    Beethoven's personality, comportment, and hygiene left a lot to be desired, judging from some of the quotes about him. "As a young man, Beethoven was frank to the point of rudeness. Headstrong and proud, he was never willing to conform in his behaviour..."  

    Of course, being desperately alone and beaten by your alcoholic father for much of your childhood might do that to you. Another revealing comment came from a visitor to Beethoven's home:

    "Picture to yourself the dirtiest, most disorderly place imaginable - blotches of moisture covered the ceiling, an oldish grand piano, on which dust disputed the place with various pieces of engraved and manuscript music; under the piano (I do not exaggerate) an unemptied pot de nuit; ... the chairs, mostly cane-seated, were covered with plates bearing the remains of last night's supper and with wearing apparel etc."

    Beethoven seems anything but a smooth sophisticate:

    "Beethoven was most awkward and bungling in his behaviour; his clumsy movements lacked all grace. He rarely picked up anything without dropping or breaking it... Everything was knocked over, soiled, or destroyed. How he ever managed to shave himself at all remains difficult to understand, even considering the frequent cuts on his cheeks. - He never learned to dance in time with the music."