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The Era of Beethoven

People create the society in which they live, and society has a powerful influence on history. As Europe moved into the 18th century, it discarded years of beliefs and embraced the adage, "knowledge is power." This enlightenment movement went beyond personal intelligence, bringing about a different sense of expression in everything from architecture to music. Ludwig van Beethoven is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. His compositions broke barriers, brought about the romantic era in classical music, and were influenced by what was going on around him.

The 18th century was called the Baroque period, and Vienna was a Baroque city. In one sense of the word, baroque refers to the type of dramatic architecture that began to spring up throughout the Austro-Hungarian capital. Baroque architecture was opulent and had movement, something never seen prior to this time. All forms of decor, including the design of buildings, painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts inside and out, worked together to create a breathtaking and fluid theme that demanded awe from the people who viewed its magnificence.

Vienna's Baroque architecture reflected where the city was, socially and economically. Baroque architecture followed the medieval period from the 5th to the 15th century, and the somewhat overlapping renaissance period from the 14th to the 17th century. Each of these periods had distinctive architectural style, as well. Vienna architecture did not come into its own, however, until the baroque period, because the Turks regularly infiltrated Vienna and dictated it build up the city's foundations rather than design and build magnificent architectural structures. When Vienna came unto its own in the 18th century, it built some of the world's most famous baroque period structures, including St. Peter's Church, the Belvedere Palace, Schonbrunn Palace, and the Karlskirche. Vienna was in the midst of a grandiose rule, and the 18th century architecture reflected that.

Knowledge is perhaps the most significant event that morphed Europe, including Vienna, from the Renaissance period into the Baroque time. This time period is also known as the Age of Enlightenment, and was called so because it was a time when people let go of superstitious beliefs and embraced scientific and intellectual theories. People began to understand that their actions and reactions placed a direct impact on the society they lived in, and it is a person's choice to make the society he lives in a better or worse place. This, naturally, led to man revolting against ruling governments that were impeding the quality of life, and demanding a more equal division between the socio-economic classes.

People not only demanded newer forms of leadership, but also newer forms of art, music, literature, architecture, and theater to reflect the social changes. Long-gone were the days of art for amusement, for example. Rather, art, including music, took on a new form of expression that was a visceral attack on the senses and direct reflection of the happenings in society at that time. People wanted intellectual entertainment.

The musical transition during this time period was also considered baroque in the beginning. Music morphed into ornate, boisterous compositions written by some of history's finest composers and played by huge orchestras. It was too much, too soon, however, and the melodies became lost in multiple musical instruments playing independently -- a technique called polyphony. This oftentimes sounded cluttered, and the Baroque period of classical music ended in 1750.

The Classical period of the classical music era began in the mid-18th century. The music was cleaner, with clearer and more distinct parts. This moved away from the muddled baroque sound and into fresher more melodic symphony. The transition from baroque to classical occurred from 1750 and lasted until 1830.

The turn of the century brought about the Romantic era in music. The music was dubbed Romantic because the music was more passionate and expressive. The music remained classical and an expression of the society in which it was written and played, but the individual pieces, instruments, and the people who played them did so with an idiosyncratic flair. The Romantic Classical music period ran from 1810 to 1900, and Ludwig van Beethoven is regarded as the first Romantic composer, no doubt due to the passion and detail that fueled his works. Beethoven's music was a direct reflection of the point in time in which he lived.

While the music was playing, Vienna saw a great plague throughout the 18th century. The plague claimed nearly one-third of Vienna's population before it was brought under control. By 1790, however, Vienna had grown to 200,000 citizens, and the city enjoyed prosperity in more than just being known as the greatest musical city in the world. Medical doctors and scientists were breaking ground in the fields of medicine and pharmaceuticals. Many medical breakthroughs during this time period included an understanding of blood circulation; discovery of red blood cells, protozoa, and bacteria; classification of disease, and how it is broken down into different categories based upon the impact it has on the body; the impact that environmental conditions have on health, including contagious diseases, such as the plague.

Doctors began to diagnose illnesses and attempt to treat them in a different manner than their previous counterparts. Certain pharmaceuticals were discovered and enlisted to combat illness instead of the older and more dangerous methods. Some of these methods were controversial, however, and undoubtedly led to further illness or even death. Regardless, medical science made huge strides during the 18th and 19th centuries in Vienna.

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770 and moved to Vienna in 1792 to study music under Joseph Haydn. This move not only placed Beethoven in the city believed to the musical center of the world at the time, but also under the wing of one of the most prolific composers of classical music. Haydn is referred to as the "Father of the Symphony," or the "Father of the String Quartet," because of his influence in this form of classical instrumentation. Studying under Haydn gave Beethoven a reason to move to Vienna during this unique period in the city's history.

Despite the medical advancements of the time, Beethoven began to lose his hearing in 1796 due to Tinnitus. The constant ringing in his ears made it nearly impossible for him to work, much less socialize. Many theories revolve around the cause of Beethoven's deafness, including an autoimmune disorder and his practice of perpetually placing his head in cold water to stay awake. Doctors at that time could not properly diagnose or treat the condition and suggested Beethoven move to a small suburb to give his ears a rest. This did not work, and, consequently, by 1811 Beethoven stopped performing in public because he could not hear his own music.

Hearing loss was not Beethoven's only ailment. The composer also suffered from a number of illnesses throughout his life, including headaches, abdominal issues, depression, fevers, abscesses, respiratory infections, and nose bleeds. In fact, Beethoven referred to his illness as "inflammatory fever," because he suffered from high fevers for more than a year. Despite the scientific and medical advances of the era in which Beethoven lived, medicine could not save Beethoven, or his brother Carl, who died of tuberculosis in 1815. Beethoven had spent a tremendous amount of money for Carl's medical care, and scholars believe this, additional problems in his personal life, and harsh changes in Austria's censorship policies caused Beethoven's demise.

Beethoven died on March 26, 1827; he was only 56-years-old. An autopsy revealed a distended inner ear, which helped explain his hearing loss. The autopsy also showed Beethoven suffered from kidney and liver failure. Some circles believe Beethoven's organ failure was due to alcoholism, others indicate he was the victim of a dangerous lead-based medical treatments being used at that time which resulted in lead poisoning.

No matter what the cause of death, Ludwig van Beethoven is undoubtedly one of the most influential composers in classical music. In part, because he was influenced by the marked social, economic, medical, and hierarchical changes during the era in which he lived. His life work reflects a time in history when people understood the importance of change and embraced it, with all the expression and flamboyance they could muster. Regardless of his inability to hear, and medical science's inability to help him hear, Beethoven ushered in the Romantic Classical phase of music with the time's inherent baroque energy.

For more information on the influential periods surrounding Beethoven's life, please click on the links below.

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