Leadership Lessons from Ludwig van Beethoven

By

Roshan Thiran

13-02-2019

7 min read

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Don’t only practise your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine. – Beethoven

In the spring of 1787, a young musical prodigy realised his dream of meeting the greatest living composer with the ambition to take lessons from the celebrated maestro.

Play something,” said the teacher to the student. As he began to play one of the teacher’s own compositions, he was rebuked. “Anybody can play that. Play something of your own.

As the young musician finished his piece, the great composer went into the next room and excitedly told his wife, “Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.

The composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the young prodigy who had travelled to Vienna to meet the master was a 16-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven.

Being beaten to greatness

Born in the German city of Bonn, Beethoven (1770-1827) was taught music by his father who was frequently brutal towards his son.

It’s said that the child was often deprived of sleep and would be beaten for the slightest hesitation or mistake, even when he struggled to reach the keys of the clavier.

His father had very high standards and when drunk, would take it out on his son, whom he expected to achieve levels unimaginable.

Today, we have many ‘helicopter parents’ who push their children like Beethoven’s father did. Yet, it backfires, and children quit the moment they get an opportunity or a say.

Why did Beethoven press on and persevere in spite of his father’s abuses?

There is a key difference between perseverance and compulsion – Beethoven was driven by personal interest and desire to be a great musician.

As parents and leaders, a key question we can ask when we push our children (or our employees) is if they share a deep passion and interest in the area or space they are being pushed in.

If they do, holding them to high standards activates and pushes them to greatness. If they were compelled, pushing them will only force them further away, and even rewards to keep practising will have only a temporary effect.

Beethoven had a father who may not have been a role model, but knew his son had a deep passion for music and set the bar high for him very early in life. This enabled him to set the bar high for himself later in life.

Listen to this podcast: Making The Most Of Role Models For Our Children

Overcoming life’s challenges

Quite early in his life, Beethoven had an interest in music. He somehow managed to convince the church organist to teach him how to play the organ for free.

At school, Beethoven struggled heavily with literacy and numeracy. He withdrew from formal education at the age of 10 to study music full-time with the opera composer Christian Gottlob Neefe, publishing his first composition at the age of 12.

Although he had ambitions to learn under Mozart, Beethoven left Vienna after only a few weeks, when he received word that his mother was ill. He would remain in Bonn for a few years, carving out a career as a rising court musician.

He did, however, manage to be pupiled by Mozart in his early twenties. In 1792, Beethoven returned to Vienna and became the pupil of Joseph Hadyn, who was now considered the greatest living musician following Mozart’s death a year earlier.

As I explored Beethoven’s life, I found it very interesting how he was constantly learning. He established early on in life that Mozart was the ‘guru’ he had to learn from and regardless of obstacles, he found a way to be his student.

Later, he pushed himself to learn from Hadyn, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Antonio Salieri and others. He relentless pursued continuous improvement and learning as his mantra, partly driven by his father’s early push to keep practising and learning.

How many of us continually push ourselves to better our craft and keep learning from others who are better than us? How many of us are like Beethoven, obsessed with learning from the best around us? Learning is the key to our growth and success, and Beethoven knew its importance.

Nothing like hard work

As Beethoven began his rise to prominence, his legendary personality became notorious throughout Vienna. He was known as having a strong personality and was often difficult to work with. He believed that creativity was not bound by time and so was regularly late for appointments.

He also gave little thought to his appearance and was so sure of his greatness that he once wrote to a patron, Prince Lichnowsky, “Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labour. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

But part of Beethoven’s arrogance was the deep belief he had due to his really hard work and drive. Many of his great feats, he achieved in dire straits.

He wrote his final act of the only opera he wrote, Fidelio, when he was extremely sick in bed. Later, his opera was a disaster, with many who complained that it was way too long.

Beethoven took that feedback and shortened it – and it worked. He was a man who had the belief and arrogance of a genius but also took significant feedback and rework to remain a genius. That was a key essence of his success story and why he is the one and only.

The entrepreneur and disruptor

There is indeed only one Beethoven, whose famous works include his nine symphonies, Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise, Fidelio (his only opera), and Missa Solemnis. Such was his talent and work rate, that he is said to have been the first entrepreneur in music.

Beethoven achieved great fame and decided to be a disruptor. Unlike his other colleagues who relied on the royal court for commissions, he started writing and selling his own music to publishers directly.

This set an important precedence for musicians, who would put their music directly to the people and, if it was popular, earn a lot of money. This was the ‘Uber’ of the music industry back then.

This change in direction for musicians gives a key insight into Beethoven’s leadership qualities, the most prominent of all being the quality of believing in yourself.

Had he contented himself with living as a court musician, he would no doubt have led a comfortable life. However, Beethoven believed in his worth and knew he could reach far greater heights than any other composer who had gone before him.

Never giving up

Another of his key traits was perseverance in the face of adversity. As many people know, Beethoven began to lose his hearing and, at the age of 30, he acknowledged in a letter to a friend that his hearing had worsened steadily over the past three years of his life.

Although he could joke about his other health issues, the loss of his hearing sent Beethoven into despair – he was losing the very faculty that enabled him to work at his craft and to hear the sweet music coming back to him.

Despite his melancholy, the great composer worked tirelessly, producing some of his greatest works at a time when he struggled greatly with this ailment. In Vienna, his Ninth Symphony was performed in public for the first time on May 7, 1824.

Although Beethoven was present and acting as conductor for the orchestra, he could hear nothing, and an official conductor led the musicians instead.

A touching Time magazine article from 1932 notes, “He did not sense the applause which came afterwards until one of the soloists, a Fraulein Caroline Unger, turned him around so that his eyes could take it in. The music passed into the background then. The demonstration took a sudden, emotional turn as the people started shouting, beating their palms together still harder in an effort to assure the fierce-looking little man of their sympathy, their appreciation.”

The Ninth Symphony was said to have been “written inside his head” as he imagined the work and how it should sound. Although Beethoven despaired at losing his hearing, and while it took him some time to reveal the news to friends, he absolutely refused to allow his disability to restrict his genius.

In leadership, it can be easy to focus on problems that exist and fixate on what we’re unable to do because of them. Beethoven’s example shows us the importance of always looking towards what we can achieve, and to constantly push ourselves, regardless of our circumstances.

How about us? Do we let setbacks rule us? Do we give up when the going gets tough? We need to learn from Beethoven and overcome these setbacks and remain focused on achieving the vision we set for our lives.

Check out: Lessons We Can Learn From Oprah Winfrey

Final thoughts

The accomplishments of Beethoven have been described as “superhuman feats of creative genius that stand on the outer limits of human achievement”. His approach to life was one that allowed him to accept his ailments and adjust to life accordingly.

Through his convictions, he offered everyone during his time – and beyond – the challenge to never dwell on what limits us, but rather to find new ways in which we can reach the outer limits of our own potential.

He was a disruptor and entrepreneur who loved what he did. His love for music drove him to achieve the impossible – being able to compose music while deaf.

Do we love what we do? If we are passionate about our dreams and goals and keep learning daily, relentlessly pushing ourselves, we may just overachieve as Beethoven did.

Did You Know?

One of Beethoven’s greatest piano works wasn’t named by the composer himself. Piano Sonata No. 14 was renamed in 1832 – five years after Beethoven’s death – by the German poet Ludwig Rellstab. He said that the first movement sounded like moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne, and so the name Moonlight Sonata stuck.

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