Beethoven as a window into the late 1700s and early 1800s

Here’s an example of how history and art are intertwined, and of how students should — for at least some part of their day — be learning about the world on their own terms, following their own interests.

My son Ben sent me an email this morning (he’s four, so I’m guessing my wife helped) with a link to a piece by Beethoven. This is the entire text of his email to me:

This is a song by Beethoven…

I suspect that he dictated and my wife typed, but he is a pretty good typist, so you never know… And he knows how to cut and paste URLs with the best of them 🙂

Anyway, being a diligent dad, I clicked the link, heard some lovely music, and learned a bit about Beethoven. The video combines a basic biography with the music in the background. Here’s a screen clipping from the video:

I’m not up on my classical music, but I’d heard of Haydn before, and it’s cool to think about Beethoven learning from Haydn. I got curious to learn more about Beethoven (when do we give students in classrooms today TIME to be curious?), so I went to Beethoven’s Wikipedia entry and learned this:

Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers survived infancy. Caspar Anton Carl was born on 8 April 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, the youngest, was born on 2 October 1776.

As a former history teacher, the date 1776 jumps out at me. This factoid helps me think about U.S. history in a more real way, because if Beethoven’s family in Germany had seven kids and only three survived infancy, I’m guessing the same sort of infant mortality rate would be true of children born in the US colonies around the time of the American Revolution in 1776.

We can even work some math in here — if Beethoven’s family was typical, 3/7 of the kids survived, so there’s an infant mortality rate of 4/7, or 57%. That sounds high — I think Beethoven’s family was unlucky. I’d need to look into that.

But now I’m wondering about hospitals — were there any hospitals in 1776 in Germany? When was the first hospital constructed in the US? Where were children born back in the day?

It’s not crucial that I answer those questions about hospitals. The point is that now I’m empathizing. I’m thinking about what it would have been like for Beethoven to have two brothers, and I’m learning a good deal about his life and the composers around him. If I were given time, I could blog about what I learned. And I’d remember it.

At the school I’m opening in August 2013, we will take time just about every day for students to learn about the world and then reflect on what they learned, just as I’m doing in this post. Students at my school will blog regularly.

[What if all education had at least some component of each day that let students be curious about the world, learn about the world (with teachers as guides), and then share what they learned?]

Getting back to Ludwig, here are a few more tidbits from Wikipedia that help bring Beethoven to life, as well as the major events he lived through:

In March 1787 Beethoven traveled to Vienna (possibly at another’s expense) for the first time, apparently in the hope of studying with Mozart.

Okay, so now I’d need to learn more about Mozart (1756-1791). I’ve heard of him, but I need more context. And 1787 is when the U.S. Constitution was being written…

The Wikipedia article goes on to explain that Beethoven’s mother got very sick only a few weeks after he arrived in Vienna, so he had to go home to help with his family. Let’s jump ahead to one more excerpt:

Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792.[19] He was probably first introduced to Joseph Haydn in late 1790, when the latter was traveling to London and stopped in Bonn around Christmas time.[20] They met in Bonn on Haydn’s return trip from London to Vienna in July 1792, and it is likely that arrangements were made at that time for Beethoven to study with the old master.

So Beethoven met Haydn in 1790.  How old would Beethoven have been at the time?

Okay, so he was 20 years old and Haydn came to Bonn for Christmas time. Later in the Beethoven article, it explains that Beethoven left Bonn in 1792 because of fears that an unstable country that bordered Germany — namely France — might have its war spill over into Germany.

Oh yeah, there was a French Revolution going on from 1789-99. That’s kind of  important background information to know about this time period 🙂

And now that we have some context, this next section of the Wikipedia article makes more sense:

Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in November 1792, amid rumors of war spilling out of France, and learned shortly after his arrival that his father had died.[23][24] Count Waldstein in his farewell note to Beethoven wrote: “Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.”[24] Beethoven responded to the widespread feeling that he was a successor to the recently deceased Mozart over the next few years by studying that master’s work and writing works with a distinctly Mozartean flavor.

Being true to the title of this blog, what have I learned today? For starters, I learned that Mozart and Haydn were influences on Beethoven. I also learned that Beethoven lived through the American and French Revolutions. I bet those events shaped his music to some extent…

And I also learned something about Beethoven’s family life, and about infant mortality rates in general. I wonder if I can find a chart of infant mortality rates over time in the US…

No chart, but I did find this article — which I’d of course want to corroborate — but it’s a good starting point:

Childbirth in colonial America was a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience for women. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of all births ended in the mother’s death as a result of exhaustion, dehydration, infection, hemorrhage, or convulsions. Since the typical mother gave birth to between five and eight children, her lifetime chances of dying in childbirth ran as high as 1 in 8. This meant that if a woman had eight female friends, it was likely that one might die in childbirth.

Death in childbirth was sufficiently common that many colonial women regarded pregnancy with dread. In their letters, women often referred to childbirth as “the Dreaded apperation,” “the greatest of earthly miserys,” or “that evel hour I loock forward to with dread.” Many, like New England poet Anne Bradstreet, approached childbirth with a fear of impending death. In a poem entitled “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” Bradstreet wrote,

How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend.

In addition to her anxieties about pregnancy, an expectant mother was filled with apprehensions about the death of her newborn child. The death of a child in infancy was far more common than it is today. In the healthiest seventeenth century communities, one infant in ten died before the age of five. In less healthy environments, three children in ten died before their fifth birthday. Puritan minister Cotton Mather saw eight of his fifteen children die before reaching the age of two. “We have our children taken from us,” Mather cried out, “the Desire of our Eyes taken away with a stroke.”


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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