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BEETHOVEN, during his last illness, was given a picture of Haydn’s birthplace. It afforded him extraordinary interest. ‘To think,’ he exclaimed, ‘that so great a man should have been born in a common peasant’s cottage.’
To visit Beethoven’s own birthplace is a strongly moving experience. Now, as then, the traveller approaches Bonn through a green country-side, bright in spring with the flowering orchards for which the Rhineland is famous. Now, as then, the Seven Mountains show their lovely contours against the south-eastern sky, and the great Rhine pours northward swift from the snows of Switzerland. The little town stands on its western bank just at the point where the river, flowing faster than a man can walk, has emerged from the wonderful Rhine gorge with its mile upon mile of winding hills, rocky cliffs, ruined castles, orchards, vineyards and romantic legends, and slowing its pace, here spreads out into the green plain that stretches ever onwards to the distant sea.
From pre-history the Rhine has been one of the world’s great highways. Its ebb and flow of travellers kept Rhenish cities alive when such a town as Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, lay stagnant. And history says the Romans founded Bonn. One cannot doubt it. They had an unerring eye for a key position. They remain in the background of its being, as they stand in the background of Beethoven’s thoughts - the Romans with their stern code of courage and citizenship, and their great literature linked with that of Greece.
Today, passing through the little town to its centre, one arrives at a modest well-to-do house flush on to the street, No. 20, formerly No. 515, Bonngasse. It is the Beethovenhaus - now dedicated in perpetuity to the memory of the great man who was born there. The rooms are filled with relics and pictures from every part of his career; glass cases enshrine the manuscripts which he valued so lightly, but which are almost beyond price; his piano stands for the pious to see, his ear-trumpets for the pitiful to bemoan. It is all a monument of devout hero-worship and national homage. A monument too of the way of the world, for at Beethoven’s birth only the poorest corner was rented by his parents. Clasen, the owner, occupied the parterre and first floor with his family, he being a worthy gold-lace maker to the electoral court. The second floor (after 1771) was let to the Salomon family, already reputable as musicians and later to be remembered for their son, Johann Peter, the fine violinist who brought Haydn to England in 1791, and who now lies in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.
Behind these flats in the main house was a small wing on the garden side. Today it is regarded as the inner shrine. Reverently one ascends the back staircase to the top and there, under the roof, one gazes through an open doorway into a little box of a room, its ceiling so low beamed, its dorma wall so slanted, its space so tiny, that one marvels how people ever lived in it. Beethoven’s birth-room! A bust of Beethoven, some dingy laurel wreaths and a shaft of dusty sunlight alone inhabit it now. The silence and humility strike at one’s heart, just as later, in another room, the sight of Beethoven’s deathmask stares at one by his look of a mute conqueror over mortality.
Going about the house, one slips back into the eighteenth century and that December of 1770, when Beethoven was born. Did the Clasen family glance out of their windows at the baby being carried on a pillow to his baptism in the church of St. Remigius near by? Or did the Salomon family waken with annoyance in the night to complain of him howling as he cut his teeth? Or when it was summer-time, did they see the unsmiling young mother take her boy into the garden to roll upon the grass and gaze upon the blue skies and the brightness of the leaves? Not a pretty baby - perhaps even black-avised and defiant - but with a beautiful understanding between himself and his mother.
Whatever Beethoven missed in childhood, he had the thing that means most of all in the formation of a boy’s character - he had a good mother. And whatever he missed - in daily comfort and schooling from lack of money, he was surrounded from the beginning by a wealth of natural beauty in the Rhineland and by a good taste and culture in Bonn itself that went far to offset poverty.
Heredity and environment (which is a kind of mental heredity) do not play so large a part with Beethoven as with some men of genius (for example, J. S. Bach), but they are worth considering in any serious attempt to understand his character and development.
Bonn, as he first knew it, was a town dominated almost entirely by ecclesiastical influence. From 1257, when the Archbishop of Cologne was dispossessed of his privileges in that city by the turbulent Colognese, Bonn had become the capital of the electorate, and since it was a town without trade or manufactures, everything centred upon the little court of the archbishop-electors. These rulers were nearly always picked from the younger sons of royal or semi-royal houses. They were elected by an ecclesiastical chapter, the choice of this chapter having to be confirmed by the Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who, as overlord of the confederation of small states, was in his own turn elected by the three ecclesiastical electors of Cologne, Mayence and Treves, and the four lay rulers of the Rhenish Palatinate, Saxony, Brandenburg and Bohemia, joined later by Hanover and Bavaria. Hence the title of ‘Elector.’ A clumsy and unsatisfactory system, in which none of the electing parties considered the good of the subjects to be ruled. But this much could be said - the ecclesiastical principalities were generally better to live in than those under secular control, though the Free Towns were happiest of all. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who travelled much and observed well, wrote to her daughter from Nuremberg in 1716:
I have already passed a large part of Germany, have seen all that is remarkable in Cologne, Frankfurt, Wurtsburg and this place; and ’tis impossible not to observe the difference between the free towns and those under the government of absolute princes, as all the little sovereigns of Germany are. In the first, there appears an air of commerce and plenty. The streets are well built and full of people, neatly and plainly dressed. The shops are loaded with merchandise, and the commonalty clean and cheerful. In the other, a sort of shabby finery, a number of dirty people of quality tawdered out; narrow, nasty streets out of repair, wretchedly thin of inhabitants, and above half of the common sort asking alms.
She gives no names, but since she surely passed through Bonn on her way from Cologne to Frankfort, one concludes it supplied some of her evidence.
Apart from this dependence upon the electors in general, Bonn had recently suffered heavily for the French proclivities of its elector in particular, the Archbishop Joseph Clemens, ruler from 1689 to 1723. A large part of that time was spent by him popping in and out of exile, and his capital was a shuttlecock between the warring nations. It is strange how, even before Beethoven’s birth, those French armies which, near or far, always trampled through his life, already threw their prophetic shadow across the ways he was to tread. Three times Bonn was wrested from the French. At the third rescue, in 1703, such was the state of the town that it ‘aroused indignation, grief and compassion on all sides.’ Joseph Clemens, however, did not return till 1714, after an agreeable exile spent largely in France, where he had indulged his tastes for music and display. He dabbled in verse-making and composition and built better than he knew when he laid the foundations of the new palace at Bonn (which his successor completed) and established the musical Kapelle (or chapel) on lines more generous than was then the custom. He was followed by Clemens August, a typical prince of the eighteenth century, worldly, urbane, artistic, a great ladies’ man notwithstanding his ecclesiastical vows, a grandiose builder with a passion for Italian taste, an enlightened patron of opera and drama. His immense capacity for acquiring money was equalled by his energy in spending it. Under him Bonn grew architecturally handsome and genuinely artistic. He enlarged his Kapelle and raised its status by employing really good musicians. He may even bear an honour then quite unsuspected by every one concerned - he may have been instrumental in bringing the Beethovens to Bonn. Clemens August had travelled much. Tradition has it that at Louvain or Liège he heard a young tenor singer with a pleasing voice and good musical education whom he invited to enter his service. This young man came of a family that called itself variously Biahofen, Biethoven, Bethofen, Bethof, or as we now know it, van Beethoven, a name that had an aristocratic sound, with the prefix so like the noble German von, but in reality meaning nothing more than ‘of the garden of beetroot.’ This Flemish family was settled in the eighteenth century in the districts of Louvain, Rotselaer, Leefdaal, Berthem, Maestricht, Tongres, Tirlemont and Antwerp, the last being the home of the branch to which the young tenor singer belonged. They were honest trading folk, wine merchants, chandlers and such-like, with a tendency towards art and letters. One became a painter, another a sculptor, a third a curé. Louis, the young singer, was the third of twelve children born to Henry van Beethoven, and he had been baptized Louis on 23rd December 1712. At the age of eighteen he ran away from home, it is said on account of financial difficulties, and was fortunate in finding a temporary post in the collegiate church of St. Paer at Louvain.
Whether the Elector Clemens August came across him there, or whether Louis van Beethoven made his way to Bonn and applied for work in the electors chapel, is an open question that concerns no one save the antiquarians. The vital thing is that Louis van Beethoven did settle at Bonn in 1732 - the same year in which Haydn was born - and that in March 1733, after a year’s probation, he was appointed by decree court musician to the elector with a salary of four hundred florins. Thus at the age of twenty-one young Louis became established for life. Behind him lay the Low Countries which he was never to see again. Ahead lay more than forty years of responsible and respected work, the rise to the dignity of Kapellmeister and the glory, near the end, of becoming grandfather to one of the greatest composers who ever lived - named after him Louis (or Ludwig) van Beethoven.
Grandfather Louis - or young Louis, as he then was, did not lose much time after his appointment in marrying, on 7th September 1733, Maria Josepha Poll of Bonn. Unfortunately for her, Louis augmented his income by carrying on an export wine business. It was a profitable trade in that vine-growing district, and perhaps the only one possible in a town where everything else revolved round the electoral court, Bonn being fed, so the saying ran, from the elector’s kitchen. But wine was the disaster of Louis’s home; Maria Josepha drank; her last years had to be spent under restraint in a convent at Cologne; of all her children only one lived to grow up, and he, Johann, became a drunkard too.
The Kapellmeister was of stronger stuff, ‘a man short of stature, muscular, with extremely animated eyes ... greatly respected as an artist said one who knew him. The description tallies with the portrait by the court painter Radoux which now hangs in the Beethovenhaus at Bonn. It shows the Kapellmeister wearing a furred robe and the sort of turban affected by the cognoscenti of the time. The face is smooth, plump, wise, Flemish - the face of a man who impresses one as having fulfilled all his duties with punctual zeal and skill, a man who had raised himself to an honourable position by his exertions and thereafter was disposed to stand upon the dignity of his calling.
His son, Johann, born about 1740, was of another sort. Some writer has said wittily but unkindly that Johann’s sole function in life seems to have been to provide a biological link between his father and his son. Physically taller and more handsome than the kapellmeister, Johann did not approach him in musicianship, while in character he followed his mother. Nevertheless, he had sufficient ability to sing soprano at twelve years old in the elector’s chapel, and at sixteen he was appointed a Hofmusikant in consideration of his ability in the art of singing, and also for his ‘proven experience.’ More probably he was given his chance out of consideration for his father; but let that pass. So long as Johann had his father’s firm hand to force him along the way he should go, he was, if not a triumph, at least not a failure. He managed to work up a good teaching connection and was ‘of fine deportment,’ as an official report of him states. Once, and once only, he flew flat against his father’s counsels: ironically enough it is the one deed which gives them both their claim on our remembrance. Johann fell in love with, and insisted upon marrying, a young widow named Maria Magdalena Laym, daughter of the late chief cook, Heinrich Keverich, at the castle of Ehrenbreitstein. She was the widow of Joseph Laym, late valet to the Elector of Treves. Kapellmeister Louis van Beethoven was greatly disturbed. The prince archbishops of that time might see no social distinction between musicians and cooks, all alike being their servants, but to Kapellmeister Louis the difference was marked. His sense of personal and professional dignity was really aristocratic (a trait which his grandson inherited as a sort of royal republicanism), and Johann had affronted it. Moreover, the Kapellmeister had suffered much in his own marriage. He was anxious to save his son from a similar fate.
‘I would never have believed or expected it of you that you would thus lower yourself’, he said to Johann, when the latter unfolded his plans; adding, when Johann persisted: ‘Very well. Do what you will. I shall do also what I ought; I abandon to thee the lodging, and I shall remove.’ And off went Hofkapellmeister van Beethoven to live in the Kölnstrasse, in the ancient Gudenauer House. At least, that is the account given by Gottfried Fischer who, if not very accurate in his reminiscences, was at least a life-long resident in Bonn. The story ought to be true, for one traces in it exactly the same intransigence that cropped out in the great Beethoven.
According to Fischer, the Hofkapellmeister would not even attend the wedding. The ceremony took place at St. Remigius’s Church, Bonn, on 12th November 1767, and it is perhaps evidence of his absence that the register was signed by two colleagues of Johann’s from the electoral orchestra - Joseph Clement Belseroski, the viola player, and Philipp Salomon, the violinist. After the marriage, the bride of twenty-one and bridegroom of twenty-seven spent a short honeymoon at Coblenz and Thal-Ehrenbreitstein, and then settled into the little lodging, at No. 515 Bonngasse, which has been already described.
They were a taking couple - Johann tall handsome, with powdered hair; Maria Magdalena also tall with a slender figure, face somewhat long, nose a little aquiline, and earnest eyes. Johann was a rattle; his wife a clever woman who could ‘give converse and reply aptly, politely and modestly to high and low, and for this reason she was much liked and respected. She occupied herself with sewing and knitting. They led a peaceful and righteous married life, and paid their house-rent and baker’s bills promptly.’
So at the beginning things went well, and even the Hofkapellmeister was won over to a reconciliation. His own integrity led him to recognize that of his daughter-in-law, and she had a gravity that suited well with his dignity Cäcilia Fischer, sister of Gottfried, both of whom as children knew the Beethovens, could not recall that she had ever seen Madame van Beethoven laugh. Though this gravity may have been assumed out of deference to her father-in-law’s social code, it also emanated from an inner sorrow and hopelessness that grew upon her during the years spent with Johann. He was one of those people who make no one happy but themselves; his wife, handicapped in the family counsels by her supposed social inferiority, had not the power to keep him sober. She once said to Cäcilia Fischer: ‘What is marriage? A little joy, followed by a chain of sorrows.’ And in that sentence she summed up her life-experience of Johann.
Such then was the environment and ancestry of the great Beethoven - a petty, ecclesiastical court in a wide country; Flemish bourgeoisie; Rhenish peasants; and two generations of music immediately preceding the genius.
But another possible strain in his heredity has never been taken into account - a strain of Spanish blood. Why not? Spanish occupation and influence had been long and fierce in the Netherlands, longest of all in those Catholic districts from which the Beethoven family came. Ludwig was so swarthy as a lad that his Bonn friends called him ‘the Spaniard.’ The nickname hit the mark. Beethoven’s face, as shown in his miniature by G. von Kügelgen and in the portrait by Stainhauser, is distinctly southern, just such a typical Spanish peasant as one may find again and again in the pictures of Murillo. From the moment the idea occurred to me, I saw it might account for some of the characteristics which neither the Flemish nor Rhenish strains in Beethoven quite explain; for example, his tremendous pride, and anger as quick as lightning. Records there are none in proof or disproof. My theory remains such and no more. But, long after it was made, one feather of support floated towards me from France. In an old article on Beethoven’s portraits by M. Gustave Droz, translated and published in the Musical Times for December 1892, I found a description of the 1801 portrait of Beethoven. It contains the following words: ‘The Beethoven of 1801 wears the aspect of a young, energetic and daring Creole ... The chin, sharply turned up and distinguished by a strongly marked furrow, reminds one of that of the First Consul.’
So M. Droz had detected a southern look, but without noting any possible significance.
Coincidence is a strange thing. When Beethoven came to die in Vienna, it was in the Schwarzspanierhaus - the House of the Black Spaniard.