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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Image from the Sketches for the 'Pastoral' Symphony

Sketches for the 'Pastoral' Symphony
British Library Add. MS 31766, f.2
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email

Ludwig van Beethoven was a very prolific composer, producing many symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas, violin sonatas, an opera, masses and several overtures. The sketch shown here dates from 1808 and is an early working of the 'Pastoral' Symphony.

Who was Beethoven?

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is one of the most significant and influential composers of the western art music tradition. He was a ground-breaker, in all senses. He oversaw the transition of music from the Classical style, full of poise and balance, to the Romantic style, characterised by emotion and impact.

A prolific composer who wrote for wealthy patrons and also earned money from public concerts, he wrote nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, one opera, five piano concertos, and many chamber works including some ground-breaking string quartets. He could be a difficult and unsociable man, who felt bitter and isolated by the deafness which developed in his 20s; he never married.

He enjoyed great success and recognition in his lifetime. It is said that at the premiere of his Ninth, he could not hear the thunderous applause at the end, and had to be turned round to see the delighted audience reaction.

Virtually all his major works are standard repertoire pieces, familiar to musicians and listeners throughout the commercial world.

What is special about his music?

Simply put, force of musical personality: he constantly pushed music into new areas. More than any other composer before him, Beethoven could take a simple idea and work it into a large-scale piece. The first movement of his famous Symphony No. 5, for instance, all clearly comes from the opening da-da-da-daaa figure, yet it never sounds repetitive; similarly the first movement of his Piano Sonata No. 29, the 'Hammerklavier', all springs from one short opening phrase.

His symphonies were louder, longer and more exciting than anything written hitherto, and that same feeling of exploration and life on the edge shows through his other works too. Much of his music enjoyed great popularity - his early Moonlight Sonata for instance was a hit in terms of sheet-music sales - but his more exploratory works could puzzle players and audiences alike, such as his final string quartets, written in his last years of profound deafness.

Image of Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven was wrote 138 works with an opus number, and 200 more which were never assigned one

How did his deafness affect him?

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany. Brought up in a musical, though dysfunctional, family, his talent was recognized by the time he was 20 and in 1792 he was sent to study with Joseph Haydn in Vienna. The young Beethoven was a great success in Vienna, managing to make a good living from concerts, commissions and his published scores.

However, by 1798 he had begun to notice that his hearing was becoming impaired. He could still compose - he could hear every note and chord he wrote in his mind's ear - but performing, and worse socialising, quickly became out of the question. As his deafness worsened he performed less and less, and his last public appearance was in 1814.

We have records of what visitors said to him in his later profoundly deaf years: they would write down everything in conversation books. However, his comments went unrecorded, providing a tantalisingly one-sided account of the discussion.

The manuscript shown here dates from the period of Beethoven's increasing deafness and obvious disillusionment with his condition. He used this notebook during much of 1808, and most of the sketches are for the symphony, with a smaller number relating to other works written that year, notably the two piano trios, op.70.

What is shown on this page?

These sketches, among the most clearly recognizable of any in this 'sketch-book', relate to the first movement of the 'Pastoral' Symphony, his Sixth.

Beethoven was a notoriously messy worker. His sketchbooks but also his working scores are full of crossings out, amendments and scribbles. The publisher of the Violin Concerto was curious to see a slip of paper pasted over a certain bar in the manuscript; he removed that, only to find another slip with a different version of that bar. He removed another, and another, and so on, until eventually he came down to the original version - which was the same as the amendment on the top slip.

The 'Pastoral' Symphony aims to evoke the feelings of being back in the countryside after too long in the city. It includes imitations of bird calls, babbling brooks, shepherds and thunderstorms. The basic tunes and motifs are simple and rural-sounding, but Beethoven often spent hours working at microscopic detail with his basic musical material to make sure it could be later expanded in suitable directions. This page gives some idea of the way he would examine an apparently simple, spontanous phrase from every angle before embarking on the full compositional process.

How did this come to the British Library?

This was the first lot in the auction of music manuscripts held in November 1827, a few months after Beethoven's death, and it subsequently suffered some mutilation, like many of the other Beethoven sketchbooks. It originally comprised 96 leaves; only 59 remain in this volume, and the majority of the remainder are in a collection assembled by an early 19th-century enthusiast and now in Berlin.

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