World Music Network worked closely with the independent British classical label, Hyperion Records on this project. This Rough Guide features a sharp overview of Beethoven’s life works. The over-done ‘greatest hits’ approach is avoided and the listener is given a fresh insight into the composer’s myriad styles. The bonus album entitled, Beethoven: Mass in C major, features a complete performance of a whole work, allowing the listener to experience a deeper understanding of the music.  

Beethoven’s music is intensely powerful, highly individual and entirely ingenious. Throughout his life the infamous composer struggled to balance his immeasurable talent with a tendency towards deep solitude and a naturally dark and brooding countenance. His work symbolizes this wrestle between darkness and light, and between sadness and joy. His contemporary, the noted composer Joseph Haydn, once observed of the man, ‘There’s something bizarre and sombre in your music because you’re sombre and bizarre yourself.’

Beethoven was baptized in 1770 in Bonn, Germany. As a teenager he travelled to Vienna to study with the virtuoso composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After barely two weeks in the musical city Beethoven was forced to return home to his mother, who had become seriously ill. She died shortly afterwards. As a result, at the age of 19, Beethoven became responsible for the welfare of his father and siblings. At the age of 22, he once again relocated to Vienna. Despite such formative family binds, he never got married or had children of his own. Immersed in his music-making, his works were to become his family, his life and his entire world. He explained, ‘I only live within the music I write.’

Despite such unbending commitment to his profession, he was rarely satisfied with his compositions. He revised his only opera, Fidelio, numerous times. His own harsh taskmaster, when creating a complex fugue or an intricate sonata he was known not eat for two or three days. In 1809, three noble men of Vienna agreed to grant Beethoven a lifelong salary. The investment enabled Beethoven to compose full-time and avoid giving piano lessons to raise funds.

In an awful twist of fate, over the next seven years Beethoven slowly became deaf. Bit by bit, the silence crept in and robbed the composer of his most precious sense – his hearing. Despite his impairment he continued to compose until his death and went on to write his last three piano sonatas, nine string quartets and the epochal ninth symphony. The almost ironic tragedy of the situation did not escape the composer, who confided in a personal letter in 1801, ‘I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.’

Beethoven died in March 1827. A crowd of ten thousand people attended his funeral, and his coffin was carried by fellow composers and musicians.

Beethoven’s skill lay in transforming simple techniques into grand musical gestures. His use of the trill, a rapid alternation of two notes, is one example of this approach. Beethoven employed the ornament to bring his music to characteristic halts and to segue from one movement to another. Some famous instances of this technique can be heard at the end of his last piano sonata and in his violin concerto. Beethoven, the restless genius, legendary composer and king of the trills, lives on through his music.