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IT is a mark of the hero in folk-lore that mystery should attend his birth and portents announce his death. Beethoven, by a curious chance, fulfilled both conditions.
The earliest confusion arose because Johann and Maria Magdalena had two sons named Ludwig. Their oldest child, Ludwig Maria, born in 1769 and baptized on 2nd April bore the names of his grandfather and Frau Courtin next door, who were his sponsors. The poor little mite lived but six days: babies had barely a dog’s chance in the eighteenth century. Twenty months later, December 1770, a second child was born. Again the baby was named Ludwig in honour of the grandfather, who again stood sponsor, the godmother being Frau Baums, wife of another next-door neighbour. She also gave the baptismal feast - a kindly act.
The record of the christening reads thus in the parish register of St. Remigius:
(The mistake of Helena for Magdalena is easily explained by their common contraction, Lena.) The date, 17th December, supplies strong evidence that Ludwig No. 2 had been born on 16th December, since in Catholic Bonn the custom was to baptize infants on the day after birth. The presumption is strengthened by a note made by a clerk in Simrock’s publishing establishment fifty-six years later on the back of an announcement of Beethoven’s death:
‘L. v. Beethoven was born on 16th December 1770.’ The significant link here is that Simrock was actually living in the Bonngasse at the time the Beethovens were there. He later became one of Beethoven’s publishers.
Further confusion over the date of Ludwig’s birth was deliberately engineered by Johann v. Beethoven. The father observed little Ludwig’s gift for music and hoped, with his stupid cleverness, to make of the child a second Mozart - a Wunderkind who would bring in money and fame to the family mill. Ludwig was not sufficiently precocious for that purpose. Happy thought! Johann took a short cut by knocking a couple of years off the child’s age. This plan was practicable because Ludwig was short and naturally could not remember his own beginnings. He believed for a large part of his life that he had been born in 1772. The matter was only cleared up when he was about forty, after most tiresome investigations which included having a copy of his birth certificate sent from Bonn to Vienna. As to Johann, the evidence of his duplicity is damning.
Last, and most fantastic strand in the mystery surrounding the hero’s birth, was the rumour started by someone that he was the illegitimate son of King Frederick William II of Prussia. Why in the name of wonder any one should think that only the highest social position can produce genius - in short, that Bacon wrote Shakespeare - is incomprehensible. The evidence, if any, is in the other direction. Yet the silly story, put into circulation in 1810 and carried on till 1826, caused Beethoven and his friends keen annoyance. One of them wrote to Beethoven on the subject, who answered: ‘I have made it a principle never to write anything about myself nor to reply to anything written about me. For this reason I gladly leave it to you to make known to the world the honesty of my parents, and of my mother in particular.’ Beethoven was right; the story was scarcely worth the words to refute it.
Of the first three years of Beethoven’s childhood not one morsel of information remains. But that he already observed and remembered the life around him is proved by his loving recollection of his grandfather. Many children cannot remember things before the age of four or five. The Hofkapellmeister died suddenly from a stroke on 24th December 1773. Ludwig was then three.
The grandfather had been the good guardian of the family. After his death nothing went well. Johann sent in a petition to the elector, hoping to get his father’s post, which the elector refused. The little family moved to a house, No. 7 or No. 8, ‘on the left as one enters the Drieckplatz in passing from the Sternstrasse to the Munsterplatz.’ Here another child, Caspar Anton Karl, was born in April 1774 and baptized on 8th April with the names of his sponsors, the Minister Beltabusch and the Countess Caroline von Satzenhofen, Abbess of Vilich. Johann no doubt felt he had done a fine stroke for himself by securing the interest of these aristocrats, the two most puissant people in the electorate next to the elector himself. Clemens August no longer reigned; he had been succeeded in 1761 by Maximilian Friedrich, ‘a little, hale, black man, very merry and affable … easy and agreeable, having lived all his life in ladies’ company, which he is said to have liked better than his breviary.’ Max Friedrich, though he founded the university at Bonn, was indeed no saint. He carried on the governance of his people through a minister whom they detested (the very Beldabusch Johann secured for Carl’s godfather), while he devoted himself to his religious duties and an intrigue with the Abbess of Vilich, who stood in but too intimate relations to both the elector and his useful minister.
This was a peculiar situation, and unedifying for the Bonners. I have little doubt that Ludwig van Beethoven’s aloofness towards organized Catholicism - and indeed towards all organized religion - originated in his clear-eyed contempt for what he saw at Bonn in high places.
Music being the business of the Beethoven family, Ludwig was put to it early. His father began teaching him the violin and clavier when he was either four or six years old, an uncertainty in date for which the blame lies at Johann’s door. But whether four or six, ‘to scarcely anything else did he (Johann) hold him.’ The wretched child was given his daily tasks of practice and kept to them, willy-nilly. Had he been older such discipline might have been useful. But Johann generally put the cart before the horse. Our hearts revolt, as did those of the neighbours, at the picture of poor little Ludwig standing in front of the clavier, weeping and playing. To rob a child of its childhood is a theft nothing can repair. Only the grace of God and the genius in him saved Ludwig from loathing music.
Before Ludwig was six the family removed from the Drieck to the Fischer house in the Rheingasse 934 (now No. 7), a stone’s throw from the river. It was almost opposite the old Gasthaus zum Engel. Here, in October 1776, another little brother, Nikolaus Johann, was added to the family. Soon after came another home-removal, this time to the Neugasse 992. In all these changes one perceives a controlling factor; Johann had to be near the palace so that he might go and come from his daily work with the least loss of time. Before long he had reason to find the Neugasse altogether too near.
At three o’clock in the morning of 15th January 1777 a frightful fire broke out in the western wing of the elector’s palace, the powder magazine blew up and the Bonners wakened to feel their town rocking. They rushed out horrified, a seething, distracted mass of people, who congested all the streets in their efforts to save their homes and see what was happening. The elector, scantily clothed, had but just escaped with his life; the wildest rumours spread everywhere.
For the Beethoven children it must have been a night of hideous terror. As time went on, the fire raged more fiercely. At six in the morning the tall clock-tower, with its fine carillon, crashed down as the bells were beginning to play Monsigny’s overture to The Deserter. They had done so every morning now they were dumb, yet we may still hear their echoes (if the French author, M. Cucud, is right) in the thematic similarity between the final chorus of Monsigny’s Deserter and the finales of Beethoven’s ninth Symphony and Fidelio. For five days the fire and fear continued. Owing to a high wind, the whole town was in danger. Thirty different outbreaks occurred. It was a nightmare time, its horror only illuminated by the heroism of Court Councillor von Breuning, who lost his life attempting to save those of others. Little Ludwig must have heard the story often then, and years later von Breuning’s family became his dearest friends. The fire unnerved Johann. He removed himself and his family back to their old quarters in the Rheingasse, and one gets the measure of the shock the poor children had suffered by their pathetic rejoicing that ‘it is better we have returned because here there is enough water in the Rhine to put out the fire.’ Poor little urchins! Seven years later the Rhine overflowed and the Beethovens had to escape for their lives out of the first floor windows. Götterdämmerung indeed, strangely symbolic of the coming destruction of the old order!
That, however, is to anticipate. In 1777 the family settled again into the Fischer house, and the wretched routine of their days recommenced. Johann was already drinking too much; his wife moved unsmiling through her dutiful toil. Money was an increasing anxiety: household goods had to be pawned. In fine weather the maid took Ludwig, Karl and baby Johann to walk by the Rhine or in the palace gardens, where they played in the sand with other children. When the weather was bad, they kept a rendezvous with the Fischer children in the courtyard. Those boys were a turbulent trio; their father would not have them in the house when he received visitors. Upon which the enraged infants, sent into a back building, revenged themselves by scrabbling furiously up the house door on fingers and toes, determined at all costs to see in. ‘So Fate knocks at the door.’
‘The Beethoven children were not brought up with kindness; they were often left to servants: the father was very severe with them, ‘records old Fischer dryly. So it seems true that Johann beat Ludwig and locked him in the cellar at times. Besides the annoyance caused by his rampageous children - magnified by his irritability as a habitual drinker - Johann had business reasons for forcing Ludwig into obedience. Ludwig must be a prodigy. By 1778 Johann thought him ready for the role. He produced him at a concert on 26th March in company with another of his pupils, Mlle Averdone, contralto singer of the court. The young lady sang arias, the ‘little boy of six years old’ (only he was really eight) played clavier concertos and trios. The performance took place at five o’clock in the hall of the Academy. Of the result of the concert no word remains. We only know that about this time Ludwig had his first lessons from a teacher other than his father. It is traditional that old van den Eeden, the court organist, a friend and colleague of Kapellmeister van Beethoven, had offered to give his grandson, Ludwig, some lessons gratis. There is also a tradition that the elector, struck by the child’s promising abilities, paid van den Eeden to teach him. Both versions of the story may be true. What more likely than that van den Eeden should offer to coach Ludwig for the concert, and that after it the elector might have given some small grant (perhaps at van den Eeden’s own suggestion) towards continuing the lessons? The arrangement did not last long, and its breakdown was no loss, for the old man was apparently futile as a teacher.
Johann realized that Ludwig had got beyond his own efforts and those of van den Eeden. He now turned him over to a certain Tobias Pfeiffer, a brilliant musician, but a thorough bad lot, who came to Bonn in the summer of 1779. Pfeiffer lodged in the Fischer house. He and Johann forgathered like birds of a feather. Together they would return late from the taverns, Pfeiffer wakening the poor Fischers in the middle of the night by tramping about overhead in his great boots (Hessians, I suppose), and when Fischer told him he ought to take them off, Pfeiffer removed one and kept on the other. Worse than all, when Pfeiffer had omitted Ludwig’s lesson in the day, he would haul him out of bed and keep him at the piano all night. Yet Ludwig bore no resentment, possibly because Pfeiffer was a true musician. To an artist bad art is almost the one unforgivable thing. It is we who cannot forgive him for ill-treating a child. That Pfeiffer had the real gift is sure. On the rare occasions when he could be persuaded to play the flute, with Ludwig making variations upon the piano, people used to stop in the street to listen and applaud. Happily for Ludwig’s health Pfeiffer’s regime lasted only a twelve month, by which time Pfeiffer had made Bonn too hot to hold him.
In this same year Ludwig’s cousin, the charming Franz Rovantini (son of Madame van Beethoven’s sister) became an inmate of the Fischer house, and he gave Ludwig lessons on the violin and viola. The child was thoroughly over-worked, for simultaneously with all this music he was ploughing through the only schooling he had, first at an establishment in the Neugasse, then at the Munsterschule, and finally at the Tirocinium, a lower-grade school that prepared pupils for the Gymnasium. Small wonder his health was uncertain in after-life; he can never have had sufficient sleep or recreation, and quite possibly he was short of nourishing food. One of his schoolfellows, Wurzer, afterwards President of the Landgericht, recalls ‘Luis’ at the Tirocinium thus: ‘Apparently his mother was already dead at the time, for Luis v. B. was distinguished by uncleanliness, negligence, etc. Not a sign was to be discovered in him of that spark of genius which glowed so brilliantly in him afterwards.’
No. Ludwig’s mother was not dead; she was merely unable to cope with her family. It is said to be a fact, supported by the evidence of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that where the neglect of a child is due to the laziness of the mother, the mother’s apathy is due to the father’s disregard of home and family. That very thing happened here. But the blackness of the picture is relieved by some gleams of affection and fun. Each year when Madame van Beethoven’s nameday came round, on the feast of St.Mary Magdalene, the children and Johann used to organize a little festival for her as a surprise, with a flower-decked canopy, a draped chair, special music, supper and dancing.
In 1781 Ludwig removed from school to concentrate entirely on music. It is difficult to get an ordered idea of his studies, because they were anything but orderly. He began the organ under Brother Willibald Koch, of the Franciscan Monastery, an old friend of Johann’s and a very capable musician, who presently ‘accepted’ Ludwig as his assistant. He also made friends with the organist of the Minorite church, got lessons from him and a tiny post as organist for the six o’clock mass each morning. A little later he appears to have studied with Zenser, the organist of the Munsterkirche.
Ludwig had already an inclination to compose. It is said that his first composition was a cantata to the memory of George Cressener, the English ambassador at Bonn, who had been kind to the Beethovens, and who died on 17th January 1781. If so, how strange that an Englishman occasioned his first composition and an English society commissioned that last symphony which he did not live to write!
In September 1781 Franz Rovantini died, and his sister, at that time governess in a Dutch family at Rotterdam, came with the lady who employed her to visit his grave in Bonn. They stayed with the Beethovens for a month and invited them in return to Holland. Johann could not leave, but it seemed a chance for Ludwig to follow in Mozart’s footsteps as a travelling ‘wonderchild.’ So the boy and his fragile mother were packed off with the Rotterdam party in October or November of 1781. They travelled by Rhine boat. Mme van Beethoven said afterwards the weather was so bitterly cold that she only prevented Ludwig’s feet from bang frost. bitten by keeping them in her lap. (Another sign of under-nourishment and overwork. A boy of eleven should have a better circulation than that.) Whether Ludwig gave a concert in Holland is unknown, but he played at private houses and obviously did not relish his role of prodigy. Nor did he like the Dutch. On his return, when Fischer asked him how he had fared, he replied: ‘The Dutch are skinflints (only his word Pfennigfuchser was more forcible) - I’ll never go to Holland again.’ He never did.
Running through Ludwig’s earliest years there was a strong vein of resentment. One gets an impression of the child prisoned within himself, chained-dog-like, savage with captivity, glowering out from his kennel upon a world that seemed to him infested with fools whom he never learned to suffer gladly. Only his mother understood him as a human being: no one comprehended him as a musician. Yet he recognized already that music was for him, even more than religion, a supreme proof of the reality of God - that it was his religion - and that (as Browning’s Abt Vogler says):
The rest may reason and welcome: ’tis we musicians know.
Two stories dating from this time illustrate the point.
There was a Father Hanzman, monk in the Minorite monastery, and a competent organist, who, whenever there was chamber music at the Beethovens’ house, insisted on coming to it. Ludwig could not endure him. ‘This monk, who always turns up here, ought to stay in his monastery and tell his beads,’ said the boy.
On the other hand, in Brother Willibald Koch, his old friend, Ludwig recognised a true musician. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘when you are so good a musician, have you vowed yourself to solitude?’ To Ludwig such an act seemed a sort of apostasy. Music was the highest vocation he could conceive.
Things were in this state when a gifted and thoroughly trained musician, Christian Gottlob Neefe by name, came to Bonn in 1779. Here at last was someone who understood the young genius. At what date he undertook his tuition is unknown, but by June 1782, when Neefe (now court organist) went to Westphalia and Frankfurt, he left Ludwig, aged eleven and a half, in charge as his vicar. Strictly trained himself at Leipzig, Neefe gave Ludwig the mental and musical discipline he needed, and though a stern critic, he was a constructive one. ‘If I ever become a great man, yours shall be a share of the credit,’ Ludwig wrote to Neefe some ten years later. Neefe deserves our thanks also because he was sufficiently impressed by Ludwig to make contemporaneous notes on him. As a correspondent for Cramer’s Magazine, he wrote in March 1783 (and the passage has been often quoted):
Louis van Beethoven … a boy of eleven years and of most promising talent. He plays the clavier very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and - to put it in a nutshell - he plays chiefly The Well-Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe put into his hands. Whoever knows this collection of preludes and fugues in all the keys - which might almost be called the ne plus ultra of our art - will know what this means.
So far as his duties permitted, Herr Neefe has also given him instruction in thorough-bass. He is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has had nine variations for the pianoforte written by him on a march - by Ernst Christoph Dressler - engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel.
Besides the historical value, there are two points in this document linking it with Beethoven’s future. One is his training in Bach’s preludes and fugues, the tradition being that Beethoven first made his fame in Vienna by his masterly performance of the ‘Forty-eight.’ The other is his first published composition, the Variations upon the march by Dressler. The theme wears a curious look of having been the seed from which grew Beethoven’s own superb theme for his thirty-two Variations in C minor, composed in 1806. By 1783 Beethoven was sufficiently advanced to become deputy cembalist in the elector’s orchestra, and he was further ‘encouraged’ by the publication at Speyer of three piano sonatas dedicated to the Elector Max Friedrich. In the first half of 1784 things began to happen rather fast. Beethoven, maturely aged fourteen, applied for the post of assistant court organist (15th February). In this same month the Rhine overflowed (as already mentioned). The hated minister Belderbusch had died in January, and in April the elector himself died. The old order was passing. His successor, Maximilian Franz, youngest son of the Empress Maria Theresa, was to be the last elector of Cologne. He was already touched with new ideas, and in his short reign went far towards making Bonn one of the intellectual and artistic centres of Europe. In June he appointed Ludwig assistant court organist with a salary of one hundred and fifty gulden. One can almost hear Johann’s sigh of relief. Ludwig had become a wage-earner.