NOBODY knows exactly when Beethoven was born but, even though he believed it to have been 1772, records show he was baptised in Bonn on December 18, 1770. He was an almost exact contemporary of the writer James Hogg, and this year marks the 250th anniversary of both men. But while the composer’s birthday is still 10 months away, celebrations have already begun. Such is his stature they will run throughout the year, across the world.

It’s rare as a journalist to feel unqualified approval for anyone, especially those on a pedestal. We are by nature sceptical, captious, unconvinced. Usually there are a few doubts or cavils to take the edge off effusive praise. But search as I do, I cannot summon one iota of criticism for a man whose work has been the soundtrack of my life, and millions of others, since early childhood. There is, it seems, a piece that speaks to every age, from first days to last.

I was reminded of this last month when my six-year-old step-granddaughter startled her piano teacher by asking her to listen to a piece she had just composed. With one finger she picked out Ode to Joy, and was most deflated to be told it was a very famous tune, not her own creation. Later, she discovered it was the jingle on one of her little brother’s toys that had got into her head and made itself at home.

Many of us have been sorrowfully playing Ode to Joy at full volume in recent days, it being the Anthem of Europe. Whenever my husband hears it, he is transported to the time he went as a teenager to see A Clockwork Orange. He spend part of the film with his eyes tightly shut, but he found the music electrifying. Immediately afterwards he bought his first Beethoven record, a collection that grew every Christmas as his brother and sister clubbed together for something they knew he would like.

Ode an die Freude is part of the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, a ground-breaking composition that combined vocal and instrumental parts in ways never before heard. But long before then, this exceptional man had ushered in a new cultural age, blowing through the formulaic repertoire of the classical canon like a hurricane that gathered power with every year.

For many of us, he represents the epitome of genius: tousle-haired, wild-eyed, and dogged by misfortune. Born into a middle-class family of musicians, he disappointed his father who, thinking he might have a second Mozart on his hands, tried to wheel him out as a child keyboard prodigy. This was not a success, and the family’s financial problems deepened, thanks in large part to the father’s fondness for drink. As a result Beethoven had to leave school at 11. By the time he was 18, his father was so incapacitated it was he who was bringing in enough money to pay the family’s bills.

This, however, is not the sad part of his story. As everyone knows, Beethoven began to go deaf when he was very young. At the age of 28 he was already in trouble. As the problem worsened, he used ear-trumpets and carried notebooks in which his friends could write comments, allowing him to reply verbally. 139 of these survive, most of them in the Berlin State Library. They contain so much information about his condition that the musicologist Theodore Albrecht has suggested he was not stone deaf as early as previously thought. To some degree at least, he might have been able to hear mature works such as the Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824, and possibly even for a couple of years beyond this.

Yet even if he had some vestigial hearing, the picture of him laying his head to the piano to feel its reverberations as he composed is heart-breaking. He confided once, “If I belonged to any other profession, it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state.”

Compared to Mozart, whom he once briefly met in Vienna, Beethoven has a brooding, introspective presence. There was a bewitching gaiety and mischief, a lacquered brittleness in the prodigy from Saltzburg, discernible in all but his most sombre works. Mozart’s love of appearances and conspicuous consumption make him instantly familiar and lovable in contrast to Beethoven’s scowling expression and dishevelled appearance. Amadeus was also generous, quickly recognising the younger musician’s ability: “This man will make a great name for himself in the world”, he predicted. Similarly Haydn, on being shown some of Ludwig’s intensely difficult scores, was impressed, and offered to teach him in Vienna.

Beethoven moved there in 1792, and remained for the rest of his life, making his living entirely from his compositions, but growing increasingly frail. In an astonishing act of civic philistinism, the old convent in which he had an apartment, and where he died on March 27, 1827, was demolished in 1903.

This historic landmark might be long gone, but it would be hard to overestimate the influence Beethoven had in the subsequent two centuries. In musical terms, he all but revolutionised the possibilities of symphonies, concertos, sonatas and quartets. In so doing he helped usher in the romantic era, his extraordinary ability to convey complex meaning raising the bar forever. Alert to the currents of revolutionary thinking then sweeping Europe, he captured an echo of political change and turmoil. At the same time, he never lost sight of his own soul and the profound sweetness and tenderness, as well as passion and fear, with which it was filled.

It’s amazing to consider how far his music has reached into every corner of the world. From the opening phrase of the Fifth Symphony – da da da daaa! – to the uplifting Pastoral Symphony, transporting listeners to a sun-lit meadow in a couple of bars, from the loving melancholy of the Moonlight Sonata, to the haunting late string quartets, he redefined what it was to listen to classical music. This is timeless work, none of it dull or predictable. You can see now how he paved the way for the likes of Brahms, Mahler and Elgar, geniuses all but – for my money – not quite in Beethoven’s league. Is he the greatest composer ever? Without a shadow of a doubt.