Beethoven the Teacher

Eliana Murphy. The American Music Teacher. Volume 58, Issue 5. Apr/May 2009.

The pupil, with a nervous glance at his teacher, placed his hands on the keys of the piano and started the piece. His teacher sat next to him, staring intently at those hands. As the pupil struck a wrong note, the teacher’s face grew red and the veins stood out on his temple and forehead. He reached out and pinched his protégé as an ungentle reminder to him to avoid committing the same error again. Flinching, the student continued playing; with each passing mistake, the teacher’s face grew more scarlet, his veins swelled increasingly, and he pinched the student more and more harshly. Struggling to retain his concentration, the student resolutely kept on playing, yet the performance steadily deteriorated. Suddenly, after a particularly glaring error, the student let out a yell of pain. The volcano had erupted—his teacher had actually jumped up and bit him on the shoulder! What teacher would dare do this deed? The answer: Ludwig van Beethoven.

While this true incident fits many people’s preconceptions about Beethoven and his temper, he actually could be very considerate with his students as well. In fact, more evidence is available that discusses Beethoven’s finer qualities as a teacher than discusses his negative ones.

General Information about Beethoven’s Teaching

Of the many roles that Ludwig van Beethoven played during his career, his role as pedagogue was one that he fulfilled throughout most of his life. His teaching was passed on not only to his students, but also to his student’s students, such as the great Franz Liszt, who was a pupil of Carl Czerny, one of Beethoven’s most famous pupils. This legacy continues to be passed on from teacher to pupil even today.

Beethoven seems to have begun teaching in 1782 at age 12 to augment his family’s slender income and continued teaching mainly as a means of financial support until his death in 1827. As he grew older, he taught less and less, until near his death he hardly taught at all. His teaching consisted of piano lessons, composition lessons or a combination of both. In his day, most lessons were held within the home by tutors, instead of within conservatories, and Beethoven continued this tradition by teaching in either the student’s residence or his own. The majority of this instruction was for a fee, but he did give free lessons under certain circumstances.

Beethoven was mostly regular about giving lessons, but occasionally he missed one when occupied with composing or preparing for a concert. Also, when he was a young man, he would sometimes miss lessons out of laziness. He frequently met with students more than once a week; once he gave Therese and Josephine von Brunsvik a lesson every day for 16 days without missing a single one. Those same lessons were often four or five hours long, while Ferdinand Ries describes once having a lesson for almost two hours. However, not everyone seems to have received such generous treatment.

The times for the lessons could vary widely, from six o’clock in the morning to the evening. At the lessons in his younger years he tended to be more careful about his manner of dress, but a few times he gave a lesson in a dressing gown, slippers and a tasseled cap! In later years, his appearance grew more and more disheveled.

Many question how Beethoven’s growing deafness affected his teaching. Czerny declared that his teaching was unaffected until 1812. As Beethoven grew deafer, he also became irritable, a fact that incited unpleasant incidents such as his previously mentioned outburst. For a fact, it is known that he continued to teach, but very little, up to his death—even during the time when he would have been completely deaf. Yet the logistics of how this worked are not well known.

Beethoven’s Students

Beethoven’s students were of varying skill levels, social classes and genders virtuosos and amateurs, members of the aristocracy and the middle class, men and women. Yet the common thread that links them in our minds today is the fact that they all studied with the master Beethoven. Before coming to him, most, if not all of his students had already studied piano. They were mostly older teenagers and adults, but a few children studied with him as well, including one 6 -year-old child. Before accepting a student, Beethoven would usually require an audition, either by having the student perform for him or reviewing the student’s compositions.

Of his pupils, the males tended to be better known than the females. The most famous of these are the prodigies Carl Czerny and Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s secretary Anton Schindler, and Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph. Beethoven’s female pupils were apparently less recognized simply because of the social conventions of the day. Music was seen as a vital social accomplishment for aristocratic and middle class women, but not as something they would pursue professionally outside of the home. Among the female students, some names do stand out: Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, Maria von Elverfeldt, and Countess Therese Brunsvik.

Beethoven’s Relationship with Students

The relationship between Beethoven and his pupils was often closer to a friendship than merely the dealings between teacher and student. As a favor to pupils, he sometimes gave free lessons; he also loaned money to Ferdinand Ries, which he sometimes ended up converting into gifts. Beethoven and his students would often attend concerts and social and musical gatherings together. In his letters to them, he often used terms of endearment. For example, when dedicating the Sonata in A Major Op. 101 to Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, he wrote: “Please accept now what was often intended for you and what may be to you a proof of my devotion both to your artistic aspirations and to your person.

Beethoven’s relationships with his female pupils often contained an added ingredient: love. The earliest pupil he seems to have fallen in love with was Maria von Westerholt, who later married Baron von Elverfeldt. Czerny once stated that Beethoven was in love with Countess Kleglevics, later known as Princess Barbara Odescalchi, to whom Beethoven dedicated his Sonata in EFlat, Op. 7, and which he supposedly titled: “Die Verliebte” (“The Maiden, or Woman, in Love.”) Evidence even suggests he once went so far as to propose marriage to one of his pupils Countess Julia Giuccardi, but she married Count Gallenberg instead.

Beethoven’s pupils, both male and female, were often honored with his dedication of a work to them. Many of these works were intended for the honorée to play, and some were quite difficult. To Princess Barbara Odescalchi, Beethoven dedicated the Sonata, Op. 7, the Variations “La stessa, la stessissima,” the Piano Concerto, Op. 15 and the Variations in F, Op. 34. u Archduke Rudolph had many works dedicated to him—the Fourth and Fifth Concertos, the Sonata, Op. 106, the “Archduke” Trio, and the Missa Solemnis, among others. The Sonata Op. 81a, titled “Das Lebewohl” or “Les Adieux,” has this inscription: “On the departure of H. M. the reverend Archduke Rudolph, Vienna, May 21, 1809.” This sonata, which displays Beethoven’s affection for his student, was composed at the time when Archduke Rudolph fled the French invasion of Vienna, and its three movements are titled “Das Lebewohl,” “Abwesenheit” and “Wiedersehen”—”The Farewell, The Absence, and The Return.”

Another honor Beethoven often bestowed on his pupils was allowing them to premiere and publicly perform his works. For example, Czerny performed the C Major Concerto and premiered the ?-Flat Concerto, while Ries performed the Concerto in C Minor for his debut. They were also delegated the responsibility of creating arrangements and transcriptions for piano of Beethoven’s symphonies and other works.

Beethoven had a famous temper that often flared in his dealings with students, as can be seen from the aforementioned biting incident. Countess Julia Gallenberg declared, “He easily became angry, threw down his music, and tore it.” If a pupil was inconsiderate, as Archduke Rudolph was when making Beethoven wait for a lesson one time, Beethoven would not hesitate to show his displeasure. Sometimes, when the Archduke was annoying, Beethoven would hurt the Archduke’s fingers. Most ofthe time, this anger was short-lived, as an incident from Czerny’s recollections illustrates. At a rehearsal of the Quintet for Wind Instruments and Piano, Op. 16, Czerny began adding notes to the original in an effort to make it more showy and difficult, an act for which he was publicly scolded by Beethoven. The next day he received a letter of apology that read:

Dear Czerny,

Today I cannot see you, but tomorrow I will call on you myself to have a talk with you I burst forth so yesterday that I was sorry after it had happened; but you must pardon that in a composer who would have preferred to hear his work exactly as he wrote it, no matter how beautifully you played in general—I shall make amends publicly at the Violincello Sonata. Be assured that as an artist I have the greatest wishes for your success and will always try to show myself.

Your true friend Beethoven

Yet Beethoven could retain longterm grievances as well. When Ries performed a new Beethoven composition for one of the composer’s friends without permission, Beethoven was greatly aggrieved and thereafter steadfastly refused to perform in Ries’s presence for the rest of his life.

Patience would probably not be the first quality that comes to mind when thinking of Beethoven, but he displayed much tolerance with students at times. According to Countess Therese Brunsvik—”[He] never grew weary of holding down and bending my fingers, which I had been taught to lift high and hold straight.” Ries’s experience was: “When Beethoven gave me a lesson, I must say that contrary to his nature, he was particularly patient. Sometimes he would permit me to repeat a thing 10 times or oftener.”

Beethoven’s Pedagogical Emphasis

Beethoven seems to have been concerned with proper pedagogy, for he once told his student Gerhard von Breuning that he intended to write a piano method—a project which never materialized. According to Schindler, this method would have been related to a proposed new edition that Beethoven was planning of his works, an edition that would have included performance instructions and programmatic descriptions for the different piano sonatas. Neither of these ideas ever came to fruition, but it is interesting to note that Beethoven displayed this much interest in proper instruction on the piano and of his works.

In lieu of his own method, what did Beethoven use as a teaching text? His works were, of course, an important part of the music his students studied, but he did not focus exclusively on his own compositions. It is known that he used Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments to teach Czerny a text that he himself had studied in his student days. Clementi’s Introduction to the Art of Playing the Piano was his text of choice for von Breuning. Once, he told Czerny to allow Karl to play works by other composers, such as Clementi, before studying Beethoven’s own works.

For an example of what music Beethoven might use with a student during the course of study, it is not necessary to look further than Czerny’ s recollections of his own lessons with Beethoven. First were all the scales with proper fingering and technique. Next followed practice pieces from the CRE. Bach Essay and Beethoven’s variations on a theme from Siissmayer’s Soliman. Then Beethoven’s sonatas and other pieces appeared—Op. 13, Op. 14, Op. 31/2, Op. 101, the Andante of Op. 28, all the concertos (excepting Op. 19) the “Choral Fantasy,” and the “Archduke” Trio. Czerny was given Op. 53 for sight reading and played Op. 57 and probably Op. 1 06 for Beethoven as well.

When working on pieces with his students, Beethoven could be extremely demanding about interpretation. In a lesson, Ries once had to play a passage 17 times, but even then still could not play it to Beethoven’s satisfaction. To get an accurate idea of the importance Beethoven placed on proper interpretation and how to teach it, it is wise to look at a letter Beethoven once wrote to Czerny concerning Czerny’s instruction of Beethoven’s nephew Karl:

In regard to his playing for you, as soon as he has learned the right fingering and can play a piece in correct time and the notes, too, more or less accurately, then please check him only about his interpretation; and when he has reached that point, don’t let him stop playing for the sake of minor mistakes, but point them out to him when he has finished playing the piece. Although I have done very little teaching, yet I have always followed this method. It seems to produce musicians, which, after all, is one of the chief aims of the art, and it is less tiring for both master and pupil.

For further information on Beethoven’s pedagogical focus, it is useful to turn again to Ries:

If I made a mistake in passages or missed notes and leaps which he frequently wanted emphasized he seldom said anything; but if I was faulty in expression, in crescendos, etc., or in the character of the music, he grew angry because, as he said, the former was accidental while the latter disclosed lack of knowledge, feeling or attentiveness.

At the same time, Beethoven did not want his students to just mimic his playing; he once complained of Ries, saying, “He imitates me too much.” Moreover, Beethoven did not want him to play from memory all the time without referring to a score because “This sort of thing will make him lose a quick grasp, will weaken his sight reading and even cause him to forget proper accentuation now and then.”

As the incident where Czerny played extraneous notes demonstrates, Beethoven did not want his students to alter his own compositions when studying them. Yet Beethoven refused to write a cadenza for Ries’s performance of the C Minor Concerto. Rather, he insisted that Ries write out a cadenza, which Beethoven would then correct. Interestingly, during lessons Beethoven would sometimes refuse to even play his own pieces, instead he would improvise. Once Beethoven declared that a competent player and composer should be able to improvise well in concert, instead of just playing pieces that have been practiced many times.

One of the main focuses of Beethoven’s technique was a cantabile sound, with legato being extremely important. From Czerny:

Then he went through the pieces in [Emmanuel Bach’s] treatise with me, making me particularly aware of the legato of which he had such an unrivalled command, and which all other pianists considered unfeasible at the fortepiano; choppy and smartly detached playing was still in favor then (as it had been in Mozart’s time).

Beethoven drew entirely new and daring passages from the Fortepiano by the use of pedal, by an exceptionally characteristic way of playing, particularly distinguished by a strict legato of the chords, and thus created a new type of singing tone and many hitherto unimagined effects. His playing … was spirited, grandiose, and, especially in adagio, very full of feeling and romantic.

To achieve this legato, Beethoven taught students that:

The hands always lie on the keyboard in such a way that the fingers cannot be raised more than necessary, for only in this way is it possible to create tone and to learn to [make the instrument] sing.

From these and other primary sources, it can be seen that Beethoven gave great weight to the concept of legato singing at the piano.

Beethoven’s Legacy

Beethoven maintained a close relationship with his pupils even after they no longer studied with him. He would write to them affectionately or call on them regularly. Additionally, his pupils would perform his works, as Czerny did, or arrange for his works’ publication, as Rees did. Now and then Beethoven took an interest in his students’ pupils. Czerny once took his 10-year-old pupil Franz Liszt to Beethoven, and after hearing Liszt play Beethoven exclaimed, “You are going to make lots of other people happy and gratified. There is nothing better or more beautiful.”

The tie between teacher and pupil did not cease even with death, for Schindler and von Breuning were present at Beethoven’s deathbed, and Czerny was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.36 In the same way that Czerny carried Beethoven’s body, he, Ries, and other Beethoven pupils continued to bear the master’s legacy to the succeeding generations. Many of them—Czerny, Ries, Schindler, von Breuning—wrote about Beethoven’s life and music: writings that are a main source of information on Beethoven even today. Czerny prepared new editions of Beethoven’s works; Ries and Czerny prepared sets of metronome markings to guide performers who had not known Beethoven personally. Finally, Beethoven’s pupils passed on their knowledge about Beethoven to their own pupils, who passed it on to their pupils and so on. One of the finest examples of this is Czerny, who taught Liszt. In turn Liszt taught many famous teachers, many of whose ideas are still being handed down.

Since the teaching lineage of musicians like Liszt continues even today, it means that some of the present generation of pianists can trace their teaching directly back to Beethoven. This preservation of Beethoven’s pedagogical legacy, both in writing and in our studios, keeps alive the heritage of that great master, who is teacher to us all.