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BOY TO MAN
OF the period from 1784 to 1787 not much precise information remains. But in general terms we know that Ludwig was living and working in surroundings where music was the warp and woof of his life. The professional musicians were all near neighbours, a coterie who met daily over their work. In the elector’s chapel and in the churches Ludwig became thoroughly familiar with church music; in the elector’s palace, at the concerts and daily Tafel (table) music, he learned the business of an orchestra backwards and forwards; in the opera theatre, where there were occasional opera performances, he heard contemporary works; while in the constant music-makings at the houses of wealthy amateurs he had a remarkable field for first-hand experience quite the best way of learning. In short, he heard, thought and talked music; lived, moved and had his being in it. He was already adept in the modern harmonic style of composition. Boy-like, he enjoyed shocking his seniors. One exploit has come down to us. Beethoven, during the course of his duties in the elector’s chapel had to accompany on the piano those portions of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which are sung on a reciting note in Holy Week. In Holy Week, March 1785, the singer was Ferdinand Heller, an excellent musician, who, when Beethoven asked leave to try to put him off his note, assented very readily. He did not know his boy! That young monkey, while persistently striking the reciting note with one finger, improvised such daring harmonic excursions in the accompaniment that Heller became too bewildered to find the closing cadence. Tableau! The musicians of the chapel dumbfounded at Beethoven’s skill, Heller furious to the extent of complaining to the elector, and the triumphant youngster ‘very graciously reprimanded’ by that exalted person. If in after years Beethoven showed himself awkward in church music, or undramatic in opera, it was not because he was without opportunities for learning in Bonn, but because his genius was fundamentally symphonic.
With the accession of the new elector, Max Franz, this little Bonn world was suffused by a steadily growing brightness of culture. ‘The church and cloister ceased to be ‘all in all.’ Wegeler, who lived there, wrote that ‘it was a beautiful and in many ways active period in Bonn.’ The young elector encouraged science and education: he established a botanic garden, opened a reading-room in the palace library, improved the theological instruction within his principality, obtained the charter for the university and in November 1786 inaugurated the new institution. Men of high intellectual standing settled in Bonn. The dawn of the new epoch had come and no one then realized that the day it heralded would contain the hurricane of the French Revolution. But already those forces were preparing: Beethoven, sensitive beyond the ordinary, was not insensible to them. There was to be observed ‘through all his life a certain breadth and grandeur in his intellectual character, owing in part, no doubt, to the social influences under which it was developed says Thayer, his greatest biographer.
In the late spring of 1787 Beethoven’s genius received a fresh impetus. He went to Vienna - whether sent by the elector or friends, or whether at his own expense is unknown - but he spent several weeks there, possibly even two or three months, and had a privilege that all succeeding generations must envy him - he met Mozart. Long afterwards some old acquaintance of Beethoven told Schindler (who became in a sort his Boswell in later days) that in Vienna ‘two persons only were deeply impressed upon the lifelong memory of the youth of sixteen years: the Emperor Joseph II and Mozart.’ The significance of the first lies in the fact that the emperor was that liberating prince who wished to abolish the death penalty, who restored the liberty of the press, and who actually suppressed the monasteries in order to give better amenities to the people. The story of the meeting with Mozart has often been told. Taken to visit the famous musician whom he so admired, Beethoven was asked by his hero to play to him. He obeyed. Mozart, thinking it ‘a show-piece prepared for the occasion praised it in rather a cool manner. Beethoven observing this, begged Mozart to give him a theme for improvisation. He always played admirably when excited. Inspired now by the presence of the master, he played in such a style that Mozart, whose attention and interest grew more and more, finally crossed to some friends in an adjoining room and said vivaciously: ‘Keep your eyes on him; some day he will give the world something to talk about.’
It seems likely Mozart himself talked about the boy, and that it was through him that Haydn’s curiosity was roused to write to Artaria the publisher (in a letter from Esterhaz): ‘I should like to know who this Ludwig is.’
Mozart gave Beethoven some lessons, and it is supposed they were in composition. They confirmed the lad in his love of that Mozartian style which influenced many of his early works.
In June or early July Beethoven left Vienna. Most people do so still to escape the hot weather, but his reasons were more urgent. Madame van Beethoven was dangerously ill and his money was running out. At Augsburg he was obliged to borrow from Councillor Dr. von Schaden: and at each succeeding stage he found letters from Johann urging him to hasten. He arrived in Bonn, very unwell himself, to find his mother ‘still alive, but in the weakest possible state: she was dying of consumption, and the end came about seven weeks ago, after she had endured much pain and suffering,’ as he wrote to Schaden in September. The actual date of her death was 17th July. To Ludwig the tragedy must have seemed as ghastly as needless. She was only forty - still a young woman as years go - but so exhausted by the long struggle of life with Johann that there is no need to doubt the authenticity of her portrait merely on the ground that in it she looks eighty. Beside three sons living, there was also a baby daughter, Maria Margaretha Josepha, born as recently as 1786. Three other children had died when very young, from malnutrition, one supposes, due to insufficient food, due to insufficient money, due to Johann’s drunkard habits. Johann, of course, ascribed his poverty to misfortunes and to his poor wife’s illness. But for the help given by good Franz Ries, a friend, things would have been desperate. So little money was available that Maria Magdalena’s grave could not be secured to her in perpetuity. For over a century it disappeared. At length in 1932 Herr Heinrich Baum, a great-grandson of Beethoven’s godmother, was found, who recollected some details of the grave in the Alter Friedhof; these indicated a spot close by the wall that abuts on the Bornheimerstrasse, marked by the headstone of an Italian priest or professor named Matari, who died at Bonn in 1826. Digging down, the investigators found it was indeed his grave, but digging deeper they came upon the skeleton of a woman - Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. Thus the mother of Beethoven rests in the same cemetery as Robert and Clara Schumann, Mathilde Wesendonck and Schopenhauer’s sister. A monument has been erected by the authorities of the Beethovenhaus. It is a plain stone, bearing her name, the date of her death and her son’s words: ‘Sie war mir eine so gute liebenswurdige Mutter, meine beste Freundin.’
Beethoven had loved his mother profoundly. Her loss nearly wrecked his health. What passed between them at the end has never been told, but his after actions make one think she confided to him the care of those other near and dear ones in whose service she had practically laid down her life. If so, he took the trust from her as sacred. Biographers have marvelled at his assuming responsibility for his father and brothers, have commented on his strong sense of the blood tie, and have condemned his possessive interference with his brothers’ affairs later in Vienna. Tepid generalities are of no use in explaining any warmly alive, sensitive human being: how much less a Beethoven! The true explanations of his actions lie locked in his heart. But the probability of his having promised his mother to guard the moral and physical well-being of the family is strengthened by the charge his brother Karl (dying of tuberculosis too) laid upon him many years later in the guardianship of young Karl, the nephew whom Beethoven watched over with cyclonic affection and despotism, and who, in return, nearly broke his uncle’s heart.
For some time after Maria Magdalena’s death Beethoven remained in a troubled slough of sorrow. He wrote to Schaden: ‘I have ... been suffering from asthma, which may, I fear, eventually develop into consumption; to this is added melancholy - almost as great an evil as my malady itself ... My journey cost me a great deal, and I have not the smallest hopes of earning anything here. Fate is not propitious to me in Bonn.’
Johann van Beethoven had meantime sent a petition to the elector for an advance of a hundred Reichsthaler on his salary, since ‘he has got into a very unfortunate state because of the long continued sickness of his wife, and has already been compelled to sell a portion of his effects and pawn others.’
The elector took possession of the petition: there is no record that he did anything. He probably thought Johann’s poverty had other causes. At any rate, when Johann died six years later, the elector wrote sardonically to the Count Marshall von Schall: ‘The revenues from the liquor excise have suffered a loss in the deaths of Beethoven and Eichoff.’
If the portrait of Johann and Maria Magdalena now in the Beethovenhaus at Bonn are genuine, they must have been painted not long before Frau van Beethoven’s death, for they show her as wasted by illness, and Johann with that indefinable coarsening and slackening of the features that follows upon drinking or fast living. Some authorities do not admit the pictures as authentic. But this much may be said for them: the painter, Beckenkamp, is known to have lived in Bonn in 1784 and 1785; he was a friend of the Beethovens, and the fact that the portraits were not in Beethoven’s possession at Vienna is inconclusive, because many of the family effects were sold or pawned before he went there
After Madame van Beethoven’s death a housekeeper was employed to ‘do’ for the strange household of a drunken father, three sons, aged seventeen, thirteen and eleven, and the baby daughter of one year. Margarethe must have pined for her mother, for the poor mite died in November 1787. Johann went downhill steadily and by 1789 affairs had reached a point at which Ludwig, not yet nineteen, was compelled to become legally, as well as morally, the head of the family. In reply to a petition the elector issued a decree, dated 20th November 1789, that ‘having graciously granted the prayer of the petitioner and dispensed henceforth wholly with the services of his father, who is to withdraw to a village in the electorate, it is graciously commanded that he be paid in accordance with his wish only 100 Reichsthaler of the annual salary which he has had heretofore, beginning with the approaching new year, and that the other 100 Reichsthaler be paid to the suppliant’s son besides the salary which he now draws and the three measures of grain for the support of his brothers.’
Johann had lost the power to stop himself spending everything on drink. He dragged his sons through humiliation. Stephan von Breuning, one of Ludwig’s friends, recollected seeing Ludwig ‘furiously interposing to rescue his drunken father from an officer of police.’
Through all this black time the friends were the bright spot. Bit by bit, thanks to their efforts, Ludwig was brought back to cheerfulness and health, and it needs no clairvoyance to see that they were quietly active behind the scenes in securing for him opportunities to earn money - his great pride making charity intolerable. Foremost among these friends were the Breunings, a charming family. Since the death of her heroic husband, Madame von Breuning and her four children, Christoph, Eleonore, Stephan and Lorenz (Lenz), had lived with her brother Abraham von Kerich and her brother-in-law Lorenz von Breuning (canons of Bonn and highly intellectual men), in a house on the Munsterplatz. They drew Beethoven right into their family circle. The young people’s ages ranged just below Beethovens, and their avocations were inextricably intermixed - Beethoven in his grown-up capacity teaching them music, while, as a boy himself, he shared their classical and literary studies. Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a young doctor, some years Beethoven’s senior, was already an intimate of the household. Later he became the husband of Eleonore, and still later a biographer of Beethoven. Madame von Breuning mothered them all. She was a rare woman, with intuition to recognize Beethoven’s inherent greatness and the wisdom to prevent him believing himself already a great man. It was Madame von Breuning who coined the phrase, when Beethoven was in one of his impossible moods: ‘He is in a raptus’; and he said of her quaintly, when she showed him the worthlessness of flatteries: ‘She knew how to keep the insects off the flowers.’
Eleonore was as fine a character as her mother, or even finer, and as true a friend to Beethoven. I have sometimes wondered whether it was a welcome coincidence that the magnificent Leonore in his opera Fidelio came so near to bearing her name. Indeed Beethoven actually began a letter, written in 1793, with the words: ‘Most estimable Leonore! My most precious friend.’ One might push the speculation a long way. Did Beethoven see himself in the captive hero Florestan? If he had not known that Wegeler was in love with her, might he have allowed himself to become a suitor as soon as he made his place in the world? That he and Eleonore later had a violent misunderstanding disproves nothing; anger never flames more swiftly than when love burns beneath.
But in these early days at Bonn such difficulties had not arisen. The happy group of young people made music, scribbled poetry and went for long rambles in that lovely Rhine country of which Beethoven wrote to Wegeler years later: ‘My fatherland, the beautiful region in which I first saw the light, is still as clear and beautiful before my eyes as when I left you.’ His transient, romantic adorations for Fraulein Jeannette d’Honrath or Fraulein Westerhold but added to the enjoyment. They were pretty girls.
It was all an extraordinarily civilizing experience for Beethoven, counteracting the tumults of his home and the servitude of the elector’s court.
Most young people pass through a stage when their sympathies are entirely with the revolutionary element and against the conservative; just as the majority of people become conservative in old age. Beethoven’s sympathies were peculiarly liberal, and his youth coincided with the greatest movement for freedom the world had known. This little volume has no space to deal with the French Revolution and the tremendous forces unloosed by the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity; but they must be taken into account, for they affected Beethoven profoundly. Had they not done so, he would not have been Beethoven. Their noblest results were seen later in the chain of heroic works, beginning with his Prometheus; their less admirable effects in his rude assumption of equality with his princely patrons - a type of self-assertion as unnecessary as undignified. Beethoven was great enough to hold his own as peer of any man by simply being himself.
Reading the stories of Beethoven’s behaviour to the Viennese nobility in the last decade of the eighteenth century it is impossible to acquit him of deliberately adopting a tone similar to that of the French patriots towards their aristocrats. One recognizes the same cadences of speech, though with Beethoven they were less vitriolic and mixed with a kind of pose intended to impress people. In his Bonn days these traits were only sufficiently developed to put him at his ease with his first aristocratic intimate, the Count Ferdinand von Waldstein - now famous as the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 53, but then a young Maecenas who came to Bonn in 1787 to enter the Teutonic Order. Beethoven had been introduced to him, possibly by the Breunings, or he may have attracted Waldstein’s attention during the performance of his duties in the electoral band, as Waldstein was the favourite companion of the elector. He was a keen amateur of music and but eight years Beethoven’s senior. Considerations of rank were forgotten; the two young men struck up a great friendship. Waldstein would come round to Beethoven’s room in the Wenzelgasse and together they made glorious noises for hours on end and were as gloriously happy. Waldstein gave Beethoven a piano; he also contrived to help the proud Beethoven under guise of gratuities from the elector. Beethoven, on his side, was willing to ‘ghost’ for Waldstein. The music of the Ritterballet, produced by the nobility on Carnival Sunday, 6th March 1791, was ostensibly by Waldstein, but in reality by Beethoven.
During these last years of the old regime a new vitality had come into the orchestra at Bonn. The elector had recruited a number of brilliant young musicians, including the two Rombergs, and the playing was now so good as to approach that of the famous Mannheim orchestra. A chaplain, named Junker, who saw and heard the band in 1791, describes it thus:
It would be difficult to find another orchestra in which the violins and basses are throughout in such excellent hands ... The members of the chapel, almost without exception, are in their best years, glowing with health, men of culture and fine personal appearance. They form a truly fine sight, when one adds the splendid uniform in which the elector has clothed them - red, and richly trimmed with gold.
Beethoven in red and gold! Yet no doubt he wore it, for he was now a viola player in the opera orchestra, which Max Franz had organized in 1789. He found his colleagues stimulating and congenial and in turn he was popular with them. They rightly regarded him as a great pianist. Junker, who heard him extemporize, refers to him as ‘the dear, good Bethofen’ (Junker’s own spelling), and speaks of ‘the greatness of this amiable, light-hearted man’ with his
almost inexhaustible wealth of ideas, the altogether characteristic style of expression in his playing, and the great execution he displays. ... Yet he is exceedingly modest and free from all pretensions. ... His style of treating his instrument is so different from that usually adopted, that it impresses one with the idea that by a path of his own discovery he has attained that height of excellence whereon he now stands.
Beethoven, in fact, was enjoying life at this time. He had professional colleagues worthy of his steel, to whom such a meeting as that arranged between himself and Sterkel - the famous pianist - was intensely interesting (especially as Beethoven had much the best of it). They were all good fellows, ready for any game. When the elector took them to Mergentheim, they whiled away the long days of the journey up the Rhine and Main by keeping a mock court on their barge among themselves. Bernart Romberg and Beethoven were appointed scullions!
Socially they made the most of any excitement that offered. For example, when Todi, the charming prima donna, visited Bonn, they gave her a serenade; and when Haydn passed through on his way to England, they entertained him with a Mass of his own in the church and a right royal dinner (at the elector’s expense) in his own lodgings, 26th December 1790. On his return visit, in the summer of 1792, the orchestra gave Haydn a breakfast at Godesberg, a lovely spot opposite the Siebengebirge.
For Beethoven these Haydn visits had more than common importance, and at Godesberg Beethoven laid before him a cantata ‘which received the particular attention of Haydn, who encouraged its author to continue study.’
Most biographers agree in thinking that the plan for Beethoven to go to Vienna as Haydn’s pupil originated about this time. It is a mistake to suppose that Beethoven had composed little up to now, or that his music was that of a tyro. Inexperienced, partially self-taught, undisciplined he might be, but already the authentic Beethoven was to be heard in his Cantatas on the death of Joseph II (1790), the accession of Leopold II (1790) and the string Trio in E flat major now known as Op. 3. By a fantastic chance this last found its way to England with the refugee chaplain of the elector - the Abbé Dobbeler - in 1793. It so transported with delight good William Cardiner of Leicester that when Beethoven, ‘but could learn nothing more than that he was a madman and his music was like himself.’
Many things belonging to Beethoven’s Bonn period have been unearthed, or identified from among his later publications. There is even ground for believing that the first idea for the choral Symphony came to him here. One marvels that he composed so much in these years. A man who is doing daily work as orchestral player or organist, to say nothing of the drudgery of teaching, has a drain upon his vitality that few composers are strong enough to carry. Composition is no light pastime to take up or put down at leisure; it is a tremendous, concentrated demand upon a composer’s whole being.
By the autumn of 1792 the plan had become settled that Beethoven should go to Haydn in Vienna, with leave of absence on a salary granted him by the elector. Public affairs, however, were anything but settled. For two years the French Revolution had been disturbing Bonn. The sound of French armies was already audible. Aristocratic refugees kept casting themselves on the unfortunate elector, who as continually strove to pass them on and to remain neutral. His struggles grew frantic after the declaration of war between Austria and France (April 1792). By October 1792 a French revolutionary army was marching on the Rhine. German refugees began to roll in from Coblenz, the people of Bonn formed a citizen guard, the Treasury removed to Dusseldorf and on 31st October the elector himself fled to Cleve.
In this hurly-burly Beethoven packed up and bid adieu to his friends. He took with him an autograph-book in which they wrote their greetings. The dates show that the Breunings were the last people visited. Waldstein’s entry is made on 26th October 1792, Eleonore von Breuning’s on 1st November. She inscribed some lines from Herder: ‘Friendship, with that which is good, glows like the evening shadow till the sun of life sinks. Your true friend, ELEONORE VON BREUNING.
The post left Bonn for Vienna at 6 a.m. In the dark of the morning on 2nd or 3rd November Beethoven set out, travelling with a companion who may have been Libisch, the oboe player. At Coblenz Beethoven noted in his pocket book that he gave the postilion as Trinkgeld one small Thaler, ‘because the fellow drove like the devil right through the Hessian army at the risk of a cudgelling.’ The French army was advancing upon Mainz and Limburg. Travelling in wartime is an unchancy business. In haste and shadow Beethoven began the journey from which he was never to return.