Beethoven did not immediately rise to stardom and the ranks of the rich and the famous. Like many musicians at that time, life was a struggle.
Often considered to be the greatest composer who ever lived, WA Mozart laboured from one financial catastrophe to another, frequently having to go cap in hand to patrons to finance his ambitions.
For Beethoven, the situation had not significantly improved. Throughout his life, Beethoven had to not only constantly prove himself to be at the edge of creativity and innovation but to have an astute business head too. This was not something Beethoven was naturally inclined towards.
Historically, we should not overlook the disastrous effect the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), had on the Austrian finances.
Beethoven did invest in banks and did eventually receive an annuity from several members of the nobility, but the war almost ruined that small security he had. According to scholars Beethoven’s income may have been reduced by up to fifty percent.
How Did Beethoven Support Himself Financially
In another parallel to other composers, Beethoven earned money by playing. In Beethoven’s case, he played the piano in salons and other fashionable establishments.
Whilst Beethoven lived in Vienna, this way of earning money was one of the few opportunities that an aspiring musician or composer would have had.
In these early days, Beethoven was able to gain notoriety through his extraordinary gift for improvisation as well as a blistering technique.
The problem was that even though Beethoven must have performed in numerous concerts in Vienna, he was remunerated for very few.
As complicated as life is today for ambitious musicians trying to make their way into the limelight, it was the same for the young Beethoven.
Viennese society had a fairly rigid hierarchy into which Beethoven needed to ingratiate himself if he stood a chance of earning money or gaining patronage.
Alongside these challenges were the rivals who understandably would do what they could to wreck Beethoven’s chances. In some ways, Beethoven made this easy for them as his temper was reportedly shot and his manner brusque.
In defence of Beethoven, this may also have been a result of not suffering fools gladly.
It is no surprise to learn that Beethoven soon became the flavour of the month in Vienna, Really, Beethoven never fell from grace again after securing his place in Viennese society except as his hearing began to fail in the early part of the 1800s.
Things became even more difficult for Beethoven then. Beethoven was eventually able to charge audiences to hear him play and for a while, this would have assured him a steady income.
Another source of income for Beethoven was through the private lessons he gave on piano. Many of Beethoven’s students were from the ruling classes who had the spare money to indulge the whims of their children.
It would have been an expectation, especially for young women, to be able to sing or play an instrument like the piano, and having the opportunity to be taught by a rising star like Beethoven was perfect.
Unfortunately, Beethoven did not always play the role of educator terribly well. He is supposed to have bitten one of his students on the shoulder as he was so frustrated by the ineptitude of the boy.
Young Countesses, were a better match for Beethoven’s temperament with their elegance and charm together with their social standing to which Beethoven always aspired to belong to.
Many of these students were gifted musicians. Whether this had anything to do with Beethoven’s teaching or not is another matter, but some became dedicatees to Beethoven’s work.
It also gave Beethoven a door into the world of the aristocracy that came with money and status. These were essential for Beethoven.
Tragedy featured all too often in Beethoven’s life. The onset of what would become permeant deafness began its cruel dominance of Beethoven’s life. As a result of this, it extinguished this lucrative means of income.
Aside from performing and teaching, Beethoven was of course a composer.
In amongst giving lessons, he detested recitals, Beethoven was extremely busy writing music. As you would expect, interest in his music happened gradually and was reliant on his earlier successes.
Links with the aristocracy and in particular Count Ferdinand von Waldstein. Waldstein had heard Beethoven play in the late 1780s and instantly become an admirer.
As a good amateur pianist himself, Waldstein probably saw the genius of Beethoven and thankfully for us commissioned several significant works from the composer.
The issue with the world of composing and composers at the time of Beethoven was that the fees that commissions attracted varied enormously.
Some claim Beethoven was a fairly perceptive businessman, others are less certain. Some of Beethoven’s most notable works gave him small benefits.
Beethoven’s 4th Symphony landed him the Princely sum of 500 Florins. Equally, Beethoven received a very low fee for his 5th Symphony which he sold to his publisher Breitkopf for 450 Florins.
These sums became increasingly important as a means of living for the composer, so it is hard to understand why Beethoven accepted such sums.
What is highly probable is that Beethoven did his best to attract commissions but was faced with an array of less than scrupulous publishers and patrons.
It is worth remembering that when work was sold to a publisher, there was no system of commission, simply a one-off fee. This could be extremely low but the alternative was to shop around for another publisher and that meant lost time and revenue.
One option was to publish the same work in more than one country usually with different publishers however keeping track of these publications and publishers was not easy for Beethoven.
Beethoven was also not at all well. As his life progressed he suffered more and more. His profound deafness together with several other brutal ailments left him questioning his existence each day. It seems only his composing kept him alive.
This is painfully evident in what has been called The Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 which was only discovered posthumously. Beethoven may not have been a great businessman or teacher but one of the world’s greatest composers he certainly was.