Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and a part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in present-day Germany, he moved to Vienna in his early twenties and settled there, studying with Joseph Haydn and quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. His hearing began to deteriorate in the late 1790s, yet he continued to compose, conduct, and perform, even after becoming completely deaf.
Prince-Elector's Palace (Kurfürstliches Schloss) in Bonn, where the Beethoven family had been active since the 1730s House of birth, Bonn, Bonngasse 20, now the Beethoven-Haus museumBeethoven was the grandson of a musician of Flemish origin named Lodewijk van Beethoven (1712–1773). Beethoven was named after his grandfather, as Lodewijk is the Dutch cognate of Ludwig. Beethoven's grandfather was employed as a bass singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, rising to become Kapellmeister (music director). He had one son, Johann van Beethoven (1740–1792), who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment, also giving lessons on piano and violin to supplement his income. Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich in 1767; she was the daughter of Johann Heinrich Keverich, who had been the head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier.
Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn; he was baptized in a Roman Catholic service on 17 December 1770, and was probably born the previous day, 16 December. Children of that era were usually baptized the day after birth, and it is known that Beethoven's family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on 16 December. While this evidence supports the case for 16 December 1770 as Beethoven's date of birth, it cannot be stated with certainty, as there is no documentary evidence of it (only his baptismal record survives). Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only the second-born, Ludwig, 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.
Beethoven's first music teacher was his father. A traditional belief concerning Johann van Beethoven is that he was a harsh instructor, and that the child Beethoven, "made to stand at the keyboard, was often in tears". However, the New Grove indicates that there is no solid documentation to support it, and asserts that "speculation and myth-making have both been productive." Beethoven had other local teachers as well: the court organist Gilles van den Eeden (d. 1782), Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer (a family friend, who taught Beethoven piano), and a relative, Franz Rovantini (violin and viola). His musical talent manifested itself early. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart's successes in this area (with son Wolfgang and daughter Nannerl), attempted to exploit his son as a child prodigy, claiming that Beethoven was six (he was seven) on the posters for Beethoven's first public performance in March 1778.
Some time after 1779, Beethoven began his studies with his most important teacher in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was appointed the Court's Organist in that year. Neefe taught Beethoven composition, and by March 1783 had helped him write his first published composition: a set of keyboard variations (Op. 63). Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as assistant organist, first on an unpaid basis (1781), and then as paid employee (1784) of the court chapel conducted by the Kapellmeister Andrea Luchesi. His first three piano sonatas, named "Kurfürst" ("Elector") for their dedication to the Elector Maximilian Frederick, were published in 1783. Maximilian Frederick, who died in 1784, not long after Beethoven's appointment as assistant organist, had noticed Beethoven's talent early, and had subsidized and encouraged the young Beethoven's musical studies.
A portrait of the 13-year-old Beethoven by an unknown Bonn master (c. 1783) Maximilian Frederick's successor as the Elector of Bonn was Maximilian Franz, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and he brought notable changes to Bonn. Echoing changes made in Vienna by his brother Joseph, he introduced reforms based on Enlightenment philosophy, with increased support for education and the arts. The teenage Beethoven was almost certainly influenced by these changes. He may also have been strongly influenced at this time by ideas prominent in freemasonry, as Neefe and others around Beethoven were members of the local chapter of the Order of the Illuminati.
In March 1787 Beethoven traveled to Vienna (it is unknown at whose expense) for the first time, apparently in the hope of studying with Wolfgang Mozart. The details of their relationship are uncertain, including whether or not they actually met. After just two weeks there Beethoven learned that his mother was severely ill, and he was forced to return home. His mother died shortly thereafter, and the father lapsed deeper into alcoholism. As a result, Beethoven became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers, and he spent the next five years in Bonn.
Beethoven was introduced to a number of people who became important in his life in these years. Franz Wegeler, a young medical student, introduced him to the von Breuning family (one of whose daughters Wegeler eventually married). Beethoven was often at the von Breuning household, where he was exposed to German and classical literature, and where he also gave piano instruction to some of the children. The von Breuning family environment was also less stressful than his own, which was increasingly dominated by his father's strict control and descent into alcoholism. It is also in these years that Beethoven came to the attention of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who became a lifelong friend and financial supporter.
In 1789 he obtained a legal order by which half of his father's salary was paid directly to him for support of the family. He also contributed further to the family's income by playing viola in the court orchestra. This familiarized Beethoven with a variety of operas, including three of Mozart's operas performed at court in this period. He also befriended Anton Reicha, a flautist and violinist of about his own age who was the conductor's nephew.