The roots of the Beethoven family can be found in Flanders and Brabant (both of these regions are today a part of Belgium). Their earliest ancestors can be traced back as far as to the year 1500.
The Beethovens worked mainly as tradesmen and artisans. During the 17th century, Beethoven’s direct ancestors lived in and around the city of Malines (Mecheln). Beethoven’s great-grandfather was a baker and branched out into selling lace and other luxury items and would ultimately go bankrupt through that sideline business.
Grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in 1712, had a beautiful voice and was very musical. His parents sent him to the church choir school for boys at the Cathedral of Malines. Later, he also learned how to play the organ. One of his first positions was that of a baritone singer and choir leader at the Cathedral of Liege (Lüttich). That is where the Elector of Bonn, who was not only the Cardinal of Cologne, but also Bishop of Liege, heard him sing in 1733 and invited him to come and work at his Bonn court. Once Ludwig van Beethoven senior was established there, his destitute parents also fled to Bonn.
At that time, the sleepy city of Bonn had a population of not quite 10,000. It served as the residence of the Elector and Cardinal of Cologne. With respect to the particular form of state and government of a German “Electorate” whose “Elector” was also a bishop or Cardinal, it would be helpful to mention the following:
- An “Electorate” was the territory of a ruler who, along with other aristocratic rulers or “Electors”, was eligible to take part in the “election” of the Emperor of the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” (at that time a long-time German remnant of the European empire created by Charlemagne);
- An Elector who was also a bishop or cardinal ruled over a territory that was owned by the Roman Catholic church. The rulers of such “ecclesiastical” or “church” states were, again, selected by the Emperor and a close circle of powerful regional German rulers from the ranks of their own families;
- Both of these traditions had their origins in the feudal system of the Middle Ages.
Most of these “ecclesiastical” Electors spent far less time at attaining their priesthood than ordinary priests, and they also had a “grace period” of ten years from the time they became rulers of a church state until they had to become priests. During this time, many of them went on merrily enjoying their lives with their mistresses and their flock of illegitimate children. Some of them even continued this life style after they had taken their priestly vows of celibacy.
Grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven worked for the Electorate of Bonn for forty years: as baritone singer from 1733 until 1761, and in this function as well as that of a Kapellmeister until his December 25th, 1773, death (from a stroke). Soon after his arrival in Bonn, he married a local girl, Marie Poll. The couple had to mourn the loss of several children and were left with only one surviving son, Johann*, who was born either in late 1739 or in early 1740. The Fleming Ludwig van Beethoven, in addition to his position as a Court musician, also had a side line business of exporting Rhine and Moselle wine to his native Flanders.
His wife Marie, who might not have been able to deal easily with the loss of her infant children, took to the readily available bottles of wine. By the time that her son Johann had become a mediocre tenor singer at the Bonn court, her alcoholism had become so severe that she had to live in confinement in a cloister of nuns in Cologne. Ludwig van Beethoven senior and his young adult son Johann lived alone as bachelors.
“Johann der Läufer” or “Johann the runner”, as the Kapellmeister nick-named his son*, loved to wander through the countryside around Bonn. During summer, when the Elector stayed at his Münster residence in Westphalia, some of the court musicians did not have to come along. Johann used his free time to wander as far as Koblenz or even to Ehrenbreitstein across the river Rhine.
(*More recent Beethoven research has brought forth the contention (by Canisius) that Ludwig van Beethoven senior might not have been the biological father of Johann. If that were the case, indeed, Marie Poll’s later behavior and addiction might also have to be viewed in the light of that possibility.)
On one of his wanderings, Johann met a young widow in an Ehrenbreitstein tavern. Her name was Maria Magdalena Laym, nee Kewerich. Her father used to be chief cook at the Court of the Elector of Treves (Trier) who held court at Ehrenbreitstein. When she was sixteen years old, she married a valet of this Elector. The young couple had one child who died in infancy. Mr. Laym also died soon after.
Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Laym, nee Kewerich, were married in Bonn in 1767. Grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven initially did not approve of this marriage. He thought that a court musician should marry someone better than a servant’s daughter. We know of this through the so-called “Fischer manuscript”, a collection of memories the Fischer family, long-time landlords of both Ludwig van Beethoven senior and of Johann van Beethoven, later put together of the family of their most famous tenant. The two Beethoven bachelors lived right above the Fischer family, and the Fischers could thus overhear the conversation when Johann told his father of his marriage plans.
The young couple’s brief marital bliss might have received its first blow when their first child, Ludwig Maria, born in the spring of 1769, died after only six days.
One could say that the fate of the Beethoven family in Bonn was shaped by few triumphs and may tragic events. Ludwig van Beethoven found professional success in his new residence, he was well-respected as a musician and as a man by Bonners of all walks of life: by his aristocratic employer, his fellow court musicians, and by the burghers of Bonn. In his private life, the “normal” course of marriages of his day, namely that of a couple’s having several children of whom some did not survive, cast a shadow over his marriage and sent his wife into alcoholism.
While his son Johann was far less talented as a singer than he was and also had less self-respect, and while he may have received his position as a tenor singer at the Bonn court mainly due to his father’s excellent reputation, Barry Cooper does point out that Johann van Beethoven was at least very active during the first years of his marriage, namely as tenor singer and as voice and piano teacher. Nevertheless, father Ludwig van Beethoven knew how to stand up for his rights and how to address his superiors with dignity, while Johann van Beethoven, in petitioning for his first permanent position at age 16, referred to “my insignificant self” in describing himself towards the Elector. This tendency to either wind his way through or to, on the other hand, becoming over-confident to the point of embarrassment would remain one of his traits throughout his entire life.
The young widow Maria Magdalena, nineteen years old when she married Johann, was a serious young woman who had already suffered the loss of an infant and of her first husband. The loss of her second child in her second marriage did not help her cheerful disposition.
This was the family into which Ludwig van Beethoven would be born.
Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in the Catholic parish church of St. Remigius in Bonn on December 17th, 1770. His exact date of birth is not known*. It may have been December 15th or 16th, 1770. At that time, the family lived in an attic apartment in a building in the Bonngasse**.
*On this point, we might wish to look at the contentions of two Beethoven biographers, Maynard Solomon and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon contends that Beethoven’s own uncertainty about his year of birth, his so-called birth year delusion, has at its roots the fact of his having been born after his first-born brother Ludwig Maria, whose loss might still have been felt strongly by his parents, and that their pain overshadowed his own early childhood. To this might have been added the fact that both infants had the same first name, Ludwig. (Solomon: 3-4, 21, 23, 155, 276-77). Barry Cooper, on the other hand, is stressing that the date of birth should in all likelihood have been December 16th, and the time of birth later in the day rather than earlier, taking into account the tradition of this age of baptizing children within 24 hours of their births (Cooper: 3).
**Today, the entire building in which Beethoven was born serves as Bonn’s Beethovenhaus with a collection of memorabilia that is open for viewing to the public, and the Beethoven Archives which are engaged in serious research and which house an extensive collection of research material.
Beethoven would grow to have fond memories of his grandfather and would cherish them all his life. His mother built up in his mind an extremely positive image of the Kapellmeister, in contrast to the image of his less talented, strict father.
The boy’s earliest music instructions were the piano lessons his father started to give him when he was four or five years old***.
***Beethoven’s Bonn friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, recalled watching “the doings and sufferings of our Louis” from the window of a friend’s house. The stout, stocky little boy with unruly black hair and expressive grayish eyes would stand on a stool so that his fingers could reach the piano and would thus go through the exercises his father had given him, sometimes crying in the process.
The goal Beethoven’s father appeared to pursue in training his son was, at first, to turn him into a second Wunderkind like Mozart. From Johann van Beethoven’s advertisement of March 26th, 1778, for a concert in Cologne in which one of his adult students, the singer Helene Averdonk performed as well as his son, we learn that he described Ludwig as his “little son of six years”.
We also learn that, prior to this concert, he had his son play the piano before the Bonn court. From the fact that no further such concerts were held, we can deduct two things:
The novelty of piano Wunderkinder had worn off by that time;
Little Ludwig may have been a talented young pianist, but not a Wunderkind such as Mozart.
Before we discuss Beethoven’s further musical training, we should look at his family life and at his schooling. Wegeler reports that he was attached to his gentle, yet serious mother, but that he had less of a bond with his strict father. He attended school for all of four years: the so-called Tirocinium, at which pupils were taught the basics of arithmetic, German language, and some Latin. Mr. Wurzer, the later President of the County Court of Koblenz, was Beethoven’s classmate and recalled that the latter did not pay any attention to the instruction but was engrossed in his own daydreams and that he frequently appeared unkempt and dirty. Beethoven is also reported by the Fischer family, in whose house the family lived off and on, as not having spent much time in playing with other boys of his age, but as sticking to his musical studies, an activity he did not allow anyone to make fun of. Yet, Mrs. Fischer also found him involved in boyhood pranks with his brother Caspar Carl, stealing her rooster and laughing heartily when caught.
When Beethoven was eight years old, his father felt that he needed further musical training from other teachers. We soon find the lad Ludwig in a variety of different training scenarios:
At first, Johann had arranged for his tuition by the old Court organist, the Fleming van den Eeden. The latter was too old, however, to provide much training to Ludwig;
As far as organ practice was concerned, Ludwig soon made his own arrangements with various Bonn parishes and began, on a daily basis, to play the organ at the six o’clock mass in one or the other Bonn church*.
The tenor singer Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer, who came to Bonn with the Grossmann and Hellmuth’s theatrical company in 1779 and soon befriended Johann van Beethoven, was also a skilled pianist. It was decided that he should give Ludwig lessons. These took place mostly late at night, after Pfeiffer and Johann van Beethoven would return home from the tavern, drunk and boisterous, waking the boy up from his sleep and dragging him to the piano**.
A more suitable instructor, as far as ethics and morals was concerned, was Beethoven’s maternal uncle, the young Court violinist Franz Rovantini. He taught Ludwig violin playing. This ended abruptly when the only 24-year-old died from an infection in September, 1781***.
*To this end, he had to be up and out of the house by not later than five-thirty. Could not his state of uncleanness in school at around seven-thirty have had its roots in his “slipping through his mother’s fingers” at that early hour?
**At least by this time, if not earlier, Johann van Beethoven had started to drink excessively.
***On the occasion of his death, another cousin who worked as a domestic servant in Rotterdam, later came to visit the family. (In our next section, we will discuss new finding with respect to Beethoven’s visit to Holland which, as has been found out after the publication of Thayer/Forbes in 1964, did not, as Thayer contends, take place in 1781 but later).
To sum up the course of Beethoven’s musical training during his childhood, one can deduct that Johann van Beethoven, after he realized that he could not make money off his boy by passing him around as a child prodigy, he changed his focus to training his son to become a musical breadwinner to augment the family income, as soon as possible. Solomon contends that Beethoven not only resented his father for it, but at a deeper, hidden level, also his mother who passively suffered through her marriage and did not put up any active resistance against her husband. To her defense it must be mentioned that she was of weak health, possibly already suffering from consumption (tuberculosis), bore several children of whom, by this time, in addition to Ludwig, only his brothers Caspar Carl (born in 1774) and Nikolaus Johannes (born in 1776) had survived, and that she augmented the family income with some needlework.
What we can observe with respect to the length of Beethoven’s childhood is that it practically ended when ye left the Tirocinium and became an apprentice musician at the Bonn court at age ten or eleven, at the latest.
From approximately 1781 on, when Beethoven around ten or eleven years old, Christian Gottlob Neefe*, the new Bonn court organist who replaced the Fleming van den Eeden, took over his training on the piano and on the organ.
*As the American historian Alexander Wheelock Thayer explains in his book, The Life of Beethoven, this musician came to Bonn to join the theater company as its musical director in 1779. Born 1748 in Chemnitz, Saxony, this graduated jurist turned away from law and studied music in a process of self-study of the theoretical works of C.P.E. Bach and of Marpurg, but he also received support from Johann Adam Hiller, Director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, who also gave him his position in Dresden as musical director of Seyler’s company in 1777. Although Neefe composed several operettas, he considered himself not as fully trained in counterpoint. Once in Bonn, he was also actively involved in Masonic activities as local head of the Bavaria-based Illuminati and, after its voluntary dissolution in 1784, in the newly formed, tamer Reading Society.
Already during the Elector’s usual retreat to Münster in the summer months of 1782, for which Neefe had to accompany him, he trusted his young apprentice to take over his duties as court organist. According to Thayer, his duty was “no sinecure”.
Not only did Neefe trust Beethoven to perform admirably as his replacement, he also recognized his student’s genius. Since he frequently wrote articles for musical publications, it should not come as a surprise to find his following March 2nd, 1783, article which he submitted to Cramers Magazin der Musik:
“Louis van Beethoven, son of the above-noted tenor singer, a boy of 11 years, and of most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully, and with power, reads at sight very well, and–to put it in a nutshell: he mainly plays the well-tempered clavier by Sebastian Bach which Mr. Neefe has put into his hands. Whoever knows this collection of preludes and fugues in all the keys (which one could almost call the non plus ultra of our art), will know what that means. As far as his other duties allowed him, Mr. Neefe also provided him with instruction in thoroughbass. Now he is training him in composition, and for his encouragement he had 9 variations for the pianoforte written by him on a march (by Dressler) engraved in Mannheim. The young genius deserves to be supported so that he could travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, were he to continue as he has begun.”
This article describes to us in detail how Neefe trained and furthered his student’s talents from the time when Beethoven first began his apprenticeship in late 1781, through 1782 and into the spring of 1783.
With respect to the “9 variations for the pianoforte written by him on a march (by Dressler)”, which Beethoven had written in 1782, let us look at what Barry Cooper writes about them:
“It may seem unreasonable to expect anything that is not derivative in the work of an eleven-year-old, yet several signs of truly Beethovenian originality are evident. First is the high level of technique demanded. . . . If this really was Beethoven’s first composition, it is an extremely impressive beginning. . . .” (Cooper: 7).
Cooper mentions as the work’s weakness a “lack of proper continuity” and that it was based on a funeral march that Beethoven might have composed it as “a fitting memorial” for cousin Franz Rovantini who had died in the fal l of 1781.
On the strength of the confidence Neefe had in the by now twelve-year old boy, it should not surprise us to learn that Beethoven also took over the duties of a harpsichordist towards the end of the 1782/1783 theater season when Kapellmeister Lucchesi was granted a leave of absence for professional travels and when Neefe had to take over his duties. He turned to his apprentice as his replacement as the rehearsal conductor for the theater company. This gave Beethoven also a chance to increase his already formidable sight-reading skills which would remain with him also in later years. He filled this position from April to June, 1783.
With the end of the theater season and the Elector’s departure for Münster in June, 1783, the harpsichordist’s duties ended. Once again, Beethoven had time to compose. In addition to some minor efforts such as a song and a rondo for pianoforte, he also composed three piano sonatas which he dedicated to his Elector, Maximilian Friedrich, and which were published by Bossler in Speyer in October, 1783.
With respect to these Sonatas, Cooper writes:
“These are full-sized, three-movement sonatas, and impressive by any standards; for a twelve-year-old they are astonighing. . . . The three sonatas are not without their weaknesses, chief of whic is, once again, insufficient sense of continuity . . . ” (Cooper: 10 and 11).
Here, we should discuss the fact that Beethoven’s journey to Holland did not, as Thayer had assumed, take place in late 1781, but rather in late 1783. Let us quote from Barry Cooper’s 2000 Beethoven biography:
“By the end of 1783, Neefe’s desire that Beethoven should travel had been fulfilled, but the journey to Holland was essentially a private one and there is no evidence that it was subsidized by the Elector. The circumstances surrounding the trip are related by Fischer.(14) Franz Rovantini had a sister, Anna Maria Magdalena, who was emplyed by a rich widow as a governess in Rotterdam. When Beethoven’s mother informed her of Rovantini’s death in 1781, she became anxious to visit his grave in Bonn, and evenually did so in autumn 1783. . . . A return visit by the Beethovens was arranged; Johann was unable to go, and so Beethoven went with his mother. During the journey down the Rhine, the weather was so cold that his mother reportedly held his feet in her lap to prevent frostbite. They stayed in Rotterdam for some time, and Beethoven played in several great houses there, astonishing people with his ability. He also performed on the piano at the Royal Court in The Hague, some ten miles away, on 23 November, and was paid 63 florins–far more than anyone else listed at the event. Nevertheless, he returned dissatisfied with the rewards, describing the Dutch as penny-pinchers and vowing not to go to the Netherlands again” (Cooper: 11; The details of Beethoven’s November, 1783, performance at the Royal Court in The Hague, are derived from a payroll document of the Court of Prince Willem V of Orange-Nassau, dated November 26, 1783, which refers to a ‘Funded Concert’ on November 23, 1783, which lists as first performer the soloist, “Mons. Beethoven, forte-piano, 12 y[ears] 63.–“, quoted from “Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence”, Translated and Edited by Theodore Albrecht, Volume I: 1771-1812, University of Nebraska Press, in association with the American Beethoven Society and the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose, San Jose State University, 1996, page 3).
The 1783/1784 theater season started out hectic in fall, as Neefe was still replacing Lucchesi and delegating many of his duties to his young apprentice. The usual time for such an apprenticeship or probation without pay (it must be mentioned, however, that Beethoven’s upkeep was paid by the court since his father could no longer pay for it) was one year, out of which had become two by this time, and Beethoven’s skills must have well exceeded what was usually expected of a young musician.
On the strength of his teacher’s confidence in his abilities and perhaps, as Cooper argues, also on the strength of his recent travels to Holland, Beethoven petitioned to the court in February, 1784, to he hired on as a court musician.
While he handed in his petition, Bonn experienced a great flood of the river Rhine. More tribulations would follow which would delay the end of Beethoven’s apprenticeship: Elector Maximilian Friedrich passed away on April 15th, 1784, and his Minister Belderbusch soon followed him to the grave.
During the course of 1784, the new Elector Maximilian Franz, Empress Maria Theresia of Austria’s son, established his residence and reviewed all of his court staff, including his musicians, with a view to saving money.
He requested reports on all of them. The Calvinist court organist Neefe seemed expendable. First of all, before the closing of the year, Neefe’s annual salary of 400 florins was reduced to 200 florins, and Ludwig van Beethoven, not yet fourteen years old, was hired on as assistant court organist at an annual salary of 150 florins. This situation was reviewed once more in early 1785. Neefe’s true merits had been recognized by that time, and his salary was restored. Beethoven’s salary was adjusted to 100 florins annually. From then on, the young musician was at last no longer an apprentice without an official salary, but a wage earner and breadwinner for his family and earned half of the salary of the court tenor Johann van Beethoven, namely 200 florins annually. Due to the decline of his father’s tenor voice, Ludwig would soon also have to find additional sources of income to assist his family. This will be discussed in the next section.
In the previous section we looked at the growth of Beethoven’s self-confidence as a musician while we also began to anticipate the next step he would take to help increase the income of his family. While Franz Gerhard Wegeler*, in his Biographical Notes, points out that he first met Beethoven when the latter was twelve years old, research determined that this first meeting might most likely have taken place in 1784.
*Wegeler, as the son of a poor Alsatian immigrant to Bonn, took his high school and later his medical studies very seriously. Ultimately, he found his place in life as a highly respected physician. His earnest striving may have been what impressed the widow Helene von Breuning and her brother-in-law, so that Wegeler was accepted into the family circle as an older friend of her children.
Frau von Breuning was looking for a piano teacher for two of her children, Eleonore and Lenz. This need opened the doors of this generous house to the thirteen-to- fourteen-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven whom Wegeler introduced to the family. Beethoven would earn some much-needed extra money in teaching Eleonore and Lenz piano, but he soon also became friends with all of the von Breuning children, in addition to Wegeler. The relaxed atmosphere of this congenial family helped him to develop his interaction skills in a highly appropriate environment. Frau von Breuning and her brother-in-law, a teacher who moved in with the family to tutor the children, were both in favor of instilling in their young people a love of literature, the liberal arts, and of music. It was in this circle that Beethoven was first introduced to the works of contemporary German literature such as the works of Klopstock, Lessing, Wieland, Herder, Goethe and Schiller, as well as to the works of writers of the established world literature (such as the works of Shakespeare, Plutarch and other classical writers). The positive influence Frau von Breuning exercised over Beethoven would become ever more important in years to come. While Beethoven accepted the von Breuning household as his second home in which he spent many nights as a guest, improvising on the piano to the delight of the company into all hours, his entrenched inability to let go of his reservations, haughtiness and stubbornness would surface on occasion. The von Breuning children would then not know what to do with him. Frau von Breuning would ask for their understanding, excusing the young genius as having his raptus again. Beethoven also began to tutor children of other well-to-do Bonn families. While this was a tremendous financial help to his family, we can also imagine that the contrast between the atmosphere in his parental home and that in the homes he entered as a piano teacher who had only his highly developed skills to offer but who could not match their worldly sophistication, would cause him, the fiery introvert, endless embarrassment. On many occasions he was found to loathe going to the houses of some families. Once Frau von Breuning insisted and watched him cross the Marktplatz to enter another house. He soon returned, confessing to her that he could not teach that day. He promised to make up for it the next day by giving two lessons.
While we now have before our eyes a vivid picture of Beethoven’s social activities, we should not miss to draw a comparison between the lively interest in the von Breuning circle in matters of contemporary art and the overall climate in Bonn that the new Elector Maximilian Franz created.
From a musical viewpoint it should be mentioned that he was one of Empress Maria Theresia’s children with whom the six-year-old Mozart might have played during his first visit to Vienna and that the elegant outfit Wolfgang Amadeus would be seen with on a painting was Maximilian Franz’ before it was given to Mozart.
In adult life, Maximilian Franz became a fervent admirer of Mozart who might even have considered calling him to Bonn as Kapellmeister, had he not had to consider that he already had an able man in this position whom he could hardly dismiss without just cause. Moreover, the new Elector felt that he had to “clean house” in the finances of his state before he could set a new tone. In eventually doing so, his influence on the cultural life of Bonn was very positive. He raised the local academy to university status and appointed able lecturers to it. He also began to introduce similar reforms in the spirit of enlightened absolutism which his brother, Emperor Joseph II, implemented in Vienna after the 1780 death of his mother. The citizens of the Bonn Electorate thus began to feel that sciences, culture, and the education of his subjects was more important to their Elector than keeping up the clerical traditions of this church state as they had been entrenched.
During the 1784/85, 1785/86 and 1786/87 theater seasons, Maximilian Franz brought different opera companies to Bonn. Beethoven was thus able to become acquainted with the works of Gluck (such as his operas Alceste and Orpheus), but also his later teacher and Mozart’s rival Salieri’s opera Armida. With this, Maximilian Franz tried to create a bit of Viennese musical atmosphere in Bonn. Kapellmeister Lucchesi having returned and having a new assistant, Anton Reicha from Bohemia at his side, court organist Neefe was once again relegated to his organist duties. This left Beethoven, apart from his substituting duties, ample time for composing and for his social activities. Wegeler has this to report about Beethoven’s growing confidence as a performing musician:
“In the Catholic church the lamentations of Jeremiah are sung on three days of holy week . . . Since the organ must remain silent during those three days, the singer received only an improvised accompaniment from a pianist. Once when it was Beethoven’s turn to perform this duty, he asked the singer Heller who was very secure indeed in his intonation, whether he could throw him off, and he used the rather rashly given permission to wander about so much in the accompaniment that the singer was completely bewildered and could no longer find the closing cadence, even though Beethoven kept striking the note to be chanted in the treble with his little finger.”
The Elector is reported as having been secretly amused but as also having requested a more no-nonsense accompaniment in future.
We do not know for certain who in particular supported Beethoven’s spring 1787 journey to Vienna and how it was precisely financed, but we must conclude that Beethoven at least had the Elector’s permission and some letters of reference along with him. Records show that Beethoven arrived in Vienna in early April, 1787. Since we do not have any first-hand reports of Beethoven’s activities during his brief stay in Vienna, we have to very cautiously look at the existing reports of his having played and improvised before Mozart and as possibly having received a few lessons from him.
<p=”justify”>Mozart scholars generally advise that there is no direct evidence of such lessons having taken place. Anecdotal recollection also created the much-told story of Beethoven first playing a well-rehearsed piece which Mozart praised coldly and politely; realizing this, Beethoven supposedly asked him to give him a theme on which he then improvised so astonishingly well that Mozart ran out into the adjoining room and is supposed to have commented to his friends, “keep an eye on this one. Some day, he will give the world something to talk about.” More reliable fact is that Beethoven could not stay even for two weeks, since a letter reached him from his father in Bonn, urging him to return home immediately as his mother had fallen seriously ill.</p=”justify”>
Beethoven returned home as fast as he could via Munich and Augsburg. There he met the piano maker Stein and also a lawyer by the name of von Schaden. When he returned home, he arrived just in time to witness his mother’s final suffering from tuberculosis. She died in July, 1787.
The first letter we have of Beethoven is that of October, 1787, to Councillor von Schaden in Augsburg.
In it he apologizes for not returning some money that gentleman had evidently advanced him so that he could continue his journey. He also describes his emotional state during the ordeal of his return journey, his mother’s death and his following grief. A few passages are highlighted here:
“I must confess to you that from the time I left Augsburg, my joy and with it my health began to vanish. . . . I found my mother still alive, but in such a very deplorable state of health. She had consumption and passed away seven weeks ago after much pain and suffering. She was to me such a good, loving mother, and my best friend. Ah, who was happier than I, when I could still utter the sweet name mother and it was heard? And to whom can I say it now? To the images of her only, which my imagination calls up…”
Let us look at some key words and phrases in these sentences: Joy, Pain, Suffering, Images which my imagination calls up…
…are these not the key words that would describe the entire life of Beethoven?
From Beethoven’s letter to Councillor von Schaden in Augsburg we know that he went through a period of intense grief over the loss of his mother. In his letter, he also relates that he feared he, too, might have become infected with consumption, describing his shortness of breath and his melancholy over the situation. We can not be certain as to whether Beethoven had been in any way directly infected during his mother’s final illness in 1787. Medical research, however, knows of various forms of tuberculosis, so that not necessarily the lungs become directly infected. This is pointed out in an attempt at having the reader investigate such issues further by reading up on Beethoven’s illnesses in appropriate literature, as we have to entirely reserve our judgment on this issue, here. What we can learn from records, however, is that Maria Magdalena’s terminal illness and the medical expenses related to it put the family in dire financial straits. The Bonn court musician and violinist Franz Anton Ries was the one who stood by Beethoven and his family the most. Of Johann van Beethoven it can be safely said that he literally “fell apart” after the death of his wife. His singing voice deteriorated more and more, and the more it did, the more he drowned his sorrows in wine. Ludwig had to take charge of household affairs as best as he could. With the help of some of his friends he struggled along for nearly two years in trying to keep things together so that his brothers would have food on the table wich a hired housekeeper prepared. His baby sister whom Frau van Beethoven had given birth to about a year before her death, did not flourish under these conditions and died in the fall of 1787. So Beethoven was left with having to see to his brothers’ Caspar Carl and Nikolaus Johannes’ further education and training. Caspar Carl aimed at becoming a piano teacher, and Nikolaus Johannes entered an apprenticeship as pharmacist at the Bonn Court pharmacy.
Out of the fact that hardly any sketches and scores of Beethoven’s compositions during the years 1787 to 1789 have survived, there grew a general contention that Beethoven might have stopped composing during this difficult period. If this was, indeed, the case, he might have gone through an emotional trauma that hindered him from expressing himself in his own compositions. However, in his 2000 Beethoven biography, Barry Cooper contends that:
“. . . It is, of course, possible that he virtually abandoned composition during this period, for his everyday cares increased considerably, as we shall see, and he is known to have gone through a number of silent phases during his life when he felt unable to commit much to paper. But to be silent for so long, and at such an early age, seems improbable. Far more likely, he simply abandoned or mislaid most of his compositions from this period in later years, and they gradually disappeared. . . . ” (Cooper: 21-22).
[Cooper does, however, not merely state his opinion here but tries to, as counter-argument against the ‘general contention’, present his readers with details of traces of works that Beethoven was contemplating during this period, one of which is a single draft with the heading ‘Sinfonia’ in which Beethoven came as far as near the end of the exposition. Cooper writes, “Its date is uncertain, but the handwriting is in a transitional form that strongly suggests it comes from this dark age between 1786 and 1790” (Cooper: 23; as source, he lists Johnson, Beethoven’s Early Sketches, i. 222). Cooper also refers to Beethoven’s new concerto that he appears to also have begun in this period and traces this back to a single sheet of paper, with the handwriting suggesting that it belongs to the same period (Source: Johnson, Beethoven’s Early Sketches, i. 366; ii. 71-3, listed in Cooper: 23). He also suggests that this early sketch might later have been incorporated into his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19. As additional works from this period, Cooper refers to various Preludes (one in F minor, WoO 55, two in C major, Op. 39), and perhaps also ‘some of the eight songs that later appears in Beethoven’s Op. 52 collection (Cooper: 23).}
While we can not attain absolute certainty with respect to this issue, we may safely assume that Beethoven did go through a difficult period of adjusting to the loss of his mother, of which we know that he kept attending to his duties as a court musician, music teacher and virtual head of his family’s household. What helped him to slowly heal was not in the least the positive influence Madame von Breuning had over him. In many ways, she appears to have filled the role of a second mother to Beethoven. Her family may also have favorably intervened in an embarrassing incident involving his alcoholic father whom police was about to arrest one night for disturbing the peace. Ludwig’s desperate pleading with them to let his father go may have driven his own patience to the utmost so that he, too, momentarily lost his temper. Discreet intervention on the part of the von Breuning family subsequently ensured that this was not also turned into an issue by the local authorities.
Another fast friend of Beethoven became Count Waldstein [Cooper places his arrival into “late January 1788” (Cooper: 25)], an Austrian nobleman who was appointed by the Elector to manage certain aspects of Court ceremonies. This young man was also a friend and admirer of Mozart. In time, he became Beethoven’s first noble patron.
By November, 1789, Johann van Beethoven’s state had become so deplorable that Ludwig felt himself forced to petition to the Court to receive half of his father’s salary so that he, himself, could take control of his family’s finances. This petition was granted in the following manner:
- Johann van Beethoven was retired from his post as Court tenor;
- Half of his annual salary of 200 florins was to be paid quarterly directly to his son Ludwig;
- Johann was to leave Bonn and to live in a village of the Electorate;
- Ludwig was also to receive two measures of grain annually as a food supplement for his family.
To all appearances, the financial part of this settlement was carried out while Johann van Beethoven was never actually removed from Bonn.
If we were to, on the one hand, follow the ‘general contention’ that Beethoven had stopped composing altogether from 1787 to 1789, we might consider that this “settlement” of his family matters would have set his energies free again so that he returned to composing. On the other hand, if we were to follow Cooper’s argument that Beethoven might not have entirely given up composing, altogether, we would also have to give weight to a further argument of his that we will be discussing shortly.
What appears certain, in any event, is that Beethoven also returned to increasingly taking part in the cultural life of Bonn. During the 1789-1790 semester, he enrolled at the University of Bonn as a lay student, along with some of his young fellow court musicians. He also socialized with the members of the Bonn Reading Society of which Waldstein became a member, as well. This circle of the Bonn intelligentsia also frequented the Bonn restaurant Zehrgarten which the widow Koch owned. A bookshop was part of this facility. In his duties as a court musician, Beethoven now not only acted as assistant court organist, but also as a viola player in the orchestra.
What can surely be considered Beethoven’s most important composition of the year 1790 leads us back to Cooper’s argument that arose out of his contention that Beethoven had not stopped composing, entirely, during the period of 1787 to 1789.
The 1790 death of Emperor Joseph II prompted the Bonn Reading Society to commission from Beethoven a funeral cantata. With respect to this commission, Cooper argues:
“The choice of composer is significant, for it provides further evidence that his talent had been recognized, and that he must therefore have written far more in the previous three years than now survives, for otherwise someone else such as Neefe or Reicha would surely have been chosen” (Cooper: 27).
This cantata, however, was not finished on time for their purposes. In it, as musicologists explain, Beethoven found an opportunity to turn his previous personal grief into an expression of grief over the loss of an enlightened ruler. Beethoven also wrote a cantata for the coronation of the new Emperor Leopold.
His continued interaction with Count Waldstein led to one of the compositions Beethoven embarked on during the 1790/1791 season. He wrote a Ritterballet which Waldstein had his permission to present as his own for the festivities. This carnival’s theme were the medieval times and the lives of the nobles during that period.
The late summer and fall of 1791 brought with it for Beethoven a joyful trip, the memory of which he would cherish all his life. The Elector, as Grand Master of the Teutonic Order (an institution that dated back to the feudal medieval times of the Crusades) had to preside over its fall 1791 session at its Mergentheim headquarters at the Main river upstream from Frankfurt.
His musical entourage followed him up the rivers Rhine and Main in two boats. On Beethoven’s boat, the court musicians also took over the task of managing their daily needs. Beethoven was relegated to kitchen duty and in Rüdesheim he received a diploma for his heroic efforts. His friend Wegeler observed that he later carefully kept his diploma in his lodgings in Vienna. At Mergentheim, the orchestra rehearsed his cantatas but found them too difficult to perform.
At a prior stopover at Aschaffenburg, Beethoven met the then famous pianist, Abbé Sterkel, whose elegant manner of playing he imitated to perfection after only briefly watching him, but it also brought with it an incident which lets us, for the first time, look at the issue of Beethoven and women. When the court musicians had dinner at a restaurant, they wanted to tease the lifeblood out of their serious and shy colleague Beethoven. They convinced the pretty young waitress who was serving them to play her charms on him. He, however, only showed her his cold shoulder. Urged on by his fellow musicians, she tried it again and received a smart box on her ears from Beethoven.
In connection with this incident, it is also appropriate and interesting to look at Wegeler’s recollection of his later famous friend’s youthful infatuations with two young ladies of noble birth: Jeanette d’Honrath of Cologne who stayed at the von Breuning house and, on observing his shy admiration for her, openly teased him about it in insisting on singing the farewell song If I must be separated from you already today, that would be too cruel, and his infatuation with Fräulein von Westerholt, whom he admired in a Werther-like fashion. Wegeler, however, also insisted on maintaining that these romantic notions were of an entirely adolescent nature, while Beethoven also maintained a fine friendship with his own later wife, Eleonore von Breuning.
On his return from England, Franz Joseph Haydn, Europe’s foremost composer after the December 5th, 1791, death of Mozart, stopped over in Bonn to visit the Elector in the summer of 1792 (Cooper: 38).
It is generally believed that Beethoven may have shown him his cantatas on this occasion and that due to this meeting, the plan was forged that he should go to Vienna to study with Haydn. This plan was then turned to reality in the fall of 1792. From the entries in the customary farewell album Beethoven received from his friends, it becomes clear that he must have left Bonn around November 1st – 3rd, 1792. Let us quote here a passage of the most prophetic entry which Count Waldstein made:
Beethoven probably did not have an inordinate amount of luggage when he set out on his journey to Vienna. Extensive research, however, over time provided us lay readers with various sources on the basis of which we can begin to imagine the inordinate amount of emotional baggage he left Bonn with. Of these sources, Maynard Solomon’s writings on Beethoven provide us with the–do date–most understandable and comprehensive overview of these issues. A brief outline of the writer’s understanding of this overview is provided here:
- Beethoven was the oldest son of an alcoholic father who used him to gain a second breadwinner for the family as soon as possible;
- Beethoven’s mother did not fight any of these circumstances; rather, she endured them. She was reported by her neighbors as never having smiled. Habitually, she would allow herself to build up a glorified image of grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven in her son Ludwig’s mind. She was also overheard by the Fischer family, on the occasion of their daughter’s marriage plans, to have uttered “warnings about marriage” (Solomon: 14);
- That Beethoven overtly cherished the memory of his mother, yet also, at some level, rejected her for not standing up for her and her children’s rights. His rejection of her found its expression in several ways:
- he continually insisted that he was two years younger than he actually was;
- based on this “different birth date”, there opened itself the possibility that his father was not his real father;
- based on this possibility, he later never took much pains to contradict rumors that he was the illegitimate son of one of the kings of Prussia. Only in his fall 1826 letter to his lifetime friend Wegeler did he finally stand up for the moral integrity of his mother;
- that he, after he had moved to Vienna, left room for the public and the nobility to believe that the van in his Flemish name might be the equivalent to the German von (which native speakers of the Dutch and Flemish languages could certainly contradict from a language-point-of-view) and that he was, therefore, also of noble birth. This was, in effect, also a rejection of his real family.
This is discussed here so as to let us try to understand why Beethoven, after settling in Vienna after his arrival, did not return to Bonn when his father died of dropsy of the heart in December, 1792. We must also look at the possibility that Johann van Beethoven was already seriously ill when his son Ludwig left Bonn. Beethoven’s inner driving force to free himself from Bonn may have been based on the psychological truth that he had already died numerous emotional deaths that were inflicted on him by his father–and that his father, in his alcoholism, had committed countless acts of suicide in the eyes of his family. Moreover, Beethoven can also be considered as having closed an emotional door on these issues in his 1789 petition to the Bonn court.
We should conclude this issue by looking at the aftermath of his father’s death. Franz Ries of Bonn would again assist the family while Beethoven petitioned to the Bonn court to ensure that his brothers’ upkeep would be paid from his salary. These matters were eventually settled in early 1793. The petition to the Elector also records a startling fact: After the 1789 court decree, Ludwig van Beethoven had allowed that it was not enforced, as his father pleaded with him that he should let him receive the pension directly and that out of it he would give his oldest son the “decreed” share of 100 florins for the household. Solomon considers it a sign of Beethoven’s integrity towards his father that he agreed to this.
By re-focusing on the possibility that Beethoven had “closed the door” on relying on his father in 1789, we can understand that he was aware that only freedom from this burden would set his creative powers free, and that, once he was in Vienna, he pursued the development of his creative powers with the full force of his personality in the various ways in which his creativity and eagerness to perfect himself expressed themselves:
- Soon, he moved from the attic room he first rented to a room on the main floor of a building in the Alserstraße (his new patron, Prince Lichnowsky, had his city apartment there) and devoted the major part of his time to the study of counterpoint with Haydn, and
- in becoming soon acquainted with new patrons such as Prince Lichnowsky and Baron van Swieten, son of the personal physician of Empress Maria Theresia, a patron of the old masters Bach and Handel and a friend of Mozart, Beethoven could soon prove his capabilities as a pianist in their midst as they and their peers would begin to open their salons to the newcomer.
With respect to Beethoven’s counterpoint studies with and relationship to Haydn, we should take careful note of what Barry Cooper, in his new Beethoven biography, has to report with respect to certain aspects of it. The first important comment is that on Beethoven’s counterpoint exercises and the, up to this point, not conclusively contested widely held belief of his secret study under Schenk:
“Beethoven’s main purpose in visiting Vienna had been to study composition with Haydn, and he began shortly after arrival, continuing throughout 1793. Haydn’s teaching was based mainly on Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, and his customary method was to teach the rules of counterpoint (such as those concerning parallel fifths) before making the student work through exercises in each species of counterpoint in two voices, then each species in three voices, then in four, resulting in about 300 exercises altogether. Beethoven’s copy of the rules is lost, but about 245 of his exercises survive, some with corrections probably in Haydn’s hand. (7) It has sometimes been assumed that such a large number of exercises was spread through most of the year. However, it has not hitherto been noted that the ink used in these exercises is absolutely and strikingly consistent, while other Beethoven manuscripts from the same year show a variety of inks, mostly of a darker shade. (8) The conclusion must be, therefore, that these exercises were written rapidly, in perhaps less than six weeks. Beethoven’s numerous errors also suggest a certain hastiness in his completion of the exercises. Haydn marked a few of the errors, but he did not pedantically annotate every one; many were probably just discussed orally, and it cannot be assumed from the unmarked ones, as many writers have done, that he took insufficient care with his pupil’s work. One notable feature of the exercises is that they were based in the church modes, enabling Beethoven to become thoroughly acquainted with composing in the modal system–a sound he was to return to in some of his late works.
According to a well-known and widely believed account written by Johann Schenk in 1830, Beethoven grew dissatisfied with Haydn’s teaching after about six months, and from then on Schenk secretly helped Beethoven with his counterpoint exercises, without payment; Beethoven had to write out each exercise after Schenk had corrected it, so that Haydn would think it was Beethoven’s own work. There are, however, inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Schenk’s account, and it cannot be reconciled with the 245 counterpoint exercises in Beethoven’s hand. This manuscript can hardly be the fair copy incorporating Schenk’s corrections, since it contains a large number of grammatical errors but no obvious copying errors. It could be the version presented initially to Schenk (since the annotations have not been confirmed as being in Haydn’s hand); but if so, Schenk overlooked a surprisingly large number of errors, and it would be odd that Beethoven preserved this version rather than the corrected one. Coupled with numerous other inaccuracies in Schenk’s account, however, these problems indicate that the entire story was probably invented by Schenk in an attempt at selff-aggrandizement. (9)” (Cooper: 43-44; bolding and italics mine; with respect to Coopers notes (7) refers to Nottebohm, Beethovens Studien, 21-43, and he mentions that the ‘original MS is in Vienna, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde’, (8) to Cooper’s own essay ‘Ink’: ‘The ink in the counterpoint exercises for Haydn appears to match type C, which is found on three ‘Kafka’ leaves on the same paper type, but never at the beginning of the leaf’, and (9) refers to Webster, ‘Haydn and Beethoven’, 10-14).
Let us, however, also look at Thayer’s quotation of Schenk’s account which the standard biography reports as having been conveyed to Thayer by Otto Jahn of Bonn:
“In 1792, His Royal Higness Archdike Maximilian, Elector of Cologne, was pleased to send his charge Louis van Beethoven to Vienna to study musical composition with Haydn. Towards the end of July, Abbe Gelinek informed me that he had made the acquaintance of a young man who displayed extraordinary virtuosity on the pianoforte, such, indeed, as he had not observed since Mozart. In passing he said that Beethoven had been studying counterpoint with Haydn for more than six months and was still at work on the first exercise; also that His Excellency Baron van Swieten had earnestly recommended the study of counterpoint and frequently inquired of him how far he had advances in his studies. As a result of these frequent incitations and the fact that he was still in the first stages of his instruction, Beethoven, eager to learn, became discontented and often gave expression to his dissatisfaction to his friend. Gelinek took the matter much to heart and came to me with the question whether I felt disposed to assist his friend in the study of counterpoint. I now desired to become better acquainted with Beethoven as soon as possible. . . . The first thing that I did the next day was to visit the still unknown artist who had so brilliantly disclosed his masterhship. On his writing desk I found a few passages from his first lesson in counterpoint. A cursory glance disclosed the fact that, brief as it was, there were mistakes in every mode. Gelinek’s utterances were thus verified. Feeling sure that my pupil was unfamiliar with the preliminary rules of counterpoint; I gave him the familiar textbook of Joseph Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum, and asked him to look at the exercises that followed. Joseph Haydn, who had returned to Vienna towards the end of the preceding year [July 24, 1792, noted by this online writer] was intent on utilizing his muse in the composition of large masteworks, and thus laudably occupied could not well devote himself to the rules of grammar. I was now eagerly desirous to become the helper of the zealous student. But before beginning the instruction I made him understand that our cooperation would have to be kept secret. In view of this I recommended that he copy every exercise which I corrected in order that Haydn should not recognize the handwriting of a stranger when the exercise was submitted to him. . . . I began my honourable office with my good Louis in the beginning of August, 1792, and filled it uninterruptedly until May, 1793, by which time he finished double counterpoint in the octave and went to Eisenstadt. If His Royal Highness had sent his charge at once to Albrechtsberger his studies would never have been interrupted and he would have completed them. . . . About the middle of May he told me that he would soon go with Haydn to Eisenstadt and stay there till the beginning of winter; he did not yet know the date of his departure. I went to him at the usual hour in the beginning of June but my good Louis was no longer to be seen. He left for me the following little billet which I copy word for word: ‘Dear Schenk! It was not my desire to set off to-day for Eisenstadt. I should like to have spoken with you again. Meanwhile rest assured of my gratitude for the favors shown me. I shall endeavor with all my might to requite them. I hope soon to see you again, and once more to enjoy the pleasure of your society. Farewell and do not entirely forget your Beethoven.’ It was my intention only briefly to touch upon my relations with Beethoven; but the circumstances under which, and the manner in which I became his guide in musical composition constrained me to be somewhat more explicit. For my efforts (if they can be called efforts) I was rewarded by my good Louis with a precious gift, viz: a firm bond of friendship which lasted without fading till the day of his death.” (Thayer: 140 – 142).
While already Thayer-Forbes entertains a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of Schenk’s story, this 1964 edition did not have at its disposal, yet, the argument set forth above by Cooper on the basis of the consistency of Beethoven’s ink in his exercises, which appear to lend strong support to Cooper’s contentions.
In his discussion of Beethoven’s relationship with Haydn, Cooper brings forth a further argument in favor of not describing it as controversial and difficult as has traditionally been done:
“In November 1793 Beethoven assembled some recently completed works to send to Maximilian Franz as evidence of his progress, and wrote a slightly apologetic letter indicating that he had spent much of the year studying music rather than composing, and expressing the hope that he would be able to send something better the following year as a result. Haydn wrote to the Elector at the same time, commenting briefly on the works being sent:
I am taking the liberty of sending to your Reverence . . . a few pieces of music–a quintet, an eight-voice ‘Parthie’, an oboe concerto, a set of variations for the piano and a fugue, composed by my dear pupil Beethoven who was so graciously entrusted to me. They will, I flatter myself, be graciously accepted by your Reverence as evidence of his diligence beyond the scope of his own studies. On the basis of these pieces, expert and amateur alike cannot but admit that Beethoven will in time become one of the greatest musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher. (16)
The copies sent to the Elector do not survive, but the first four works on Haydn’s list correspond exactly to the four that Beethoven is believed to have completed in Vienna that year. The quintet is almost certainly Hess 19, the eight-voice Parthie must be the Octet (the autograph of which is headed ‘Parthia’); and the oboe concerto is the lost Hess 12. The set of variations for piano is more puzzling, since Beethoven’s earlier sets had been written in Bonn (Simrock had copies) and no more are known before 1795; but Haydn was probably referring to the Figaro Variations for piano and violin. Indeed it would be surprising if this work were not sent to the Elector, since it was the only one yet published in Vienna. Moreover the printed title page describes it as variations ‘pour le clavecin ou piano-forte’, with the violin part ‘ad lib’. (17) Haydn’s loose description of ‘variations for piano’ is therefore compatible with it. The one item unidentified is the fugue. This may be completely lost, but it could be one of the fugues now associated with Beethoven’s studies with Albrechtsberger in 1794. Of these, the most likely candidate is the Fugue in E minor for string trio (Hess 29). . . . The Elector’s reply, dated 23 December, must have been a shock to Haydn:
the music of young Beethoven which you sent me I received with your letter. Since, however, the music, with the exception of the fugue, was composed and performed here in Bonn before he departed on his second journey to Vienna, I cannot regard it as progress made in Vienna. . . . I very much doubt that he has made any important progress in composition and in the development of his musical taste during his present stay, and I fear that, as in the case of his first journey to Vienna, he will bring back nothing but debts. (18)
If taken at face value these comments are damning, suggesting that Beethoven deceived Haydn and tried to deceive the Elector. The manuscript material for the works in question, however, paints a very different picture. The only one of the four for which extensive sketches survive on Bonn paper is the Figaro Variations; but there are further substantial sketches for this on Vienna paper, indicating that the work did not reach its final version in Bonn. The other three works are unequivocally Viennese; extensive sketches for the second movement of the Concerto and the third of the Octet, and the autographs of the Octet and the Quintet, were all written on Vienna paper; the remaining manuscript sources are lost, and the only sign of any pre-Vienna activity on these works is a tiny four-bar motif from the Octet, written on a Bonn leaf but perhaps not until the autograph was being written out in Vienna.[19, Johnson, Beethoven’s Early Sketches, passim] Although it is conceivable that all four works had been completed in Bonn and were merely revised (though rather thoroughly) in Vienna, there is no evidence, apart from the Elector’s letter, that this was the case. Moreover, if Beethoven were submitting works merely revised, why did he not include the impressive and newly revised B-flat Piano Concerto? And why would he write to Simrock in August 1794, ‘Have you performed my Parthie yet?’ [20 Albrecht 12] it the Octet were w work already hear in Bonn before his departure? Thus the Elector or his advisers must have confused these four works with others wrrten by Beethoven before he left Bonn, and Haydn was fully justified in sending him them as evidence of Beethoven’s progress” (Cooper: 47 – 48).
As we can see, Cooper mainly bases his arguments on his findings as to what compositions Beethoven had worked on extensively in Vienna in 1792 – 1793. This would show his relationship to Haydn in a less unfavorable light, and the reasons for Beethoven not joining his teacher on his second journey to England in the winter of 1794 appear to–if indeed, both Beethoven and Haydn were sure to have sent genuine 1793 compositions to Bonn–have been based on other considerations than those of a cooling off of their relationship due to this apparent embarrassment. After Haydn’s departure, the esteemed composer Albrechtsberger took over the role of completing Beethoven’s tuition in counterpoint.
Cooper (50 – 52) reports of those studies and mentions as their basis Albrechtsberger’s Anweisung zur Composition, which lasted ‘for a little over a year’ and refers to almost two hundred pages of exercises that have survived. He also quotes Ferdinand Ries who reported that Albrechtsberger’s opinion of Beethoven was that he was “‘always so stubborn and so bent on having his own way that he had to learn many things through hard experience which he had refused earlier to accept through instruction'” and features Ex. 4.2 of the Fugue in D minor with Beethoven’s draft and Albrechtsberger’s corrections
Returning to Beethoven’s role as an outstanding piano virtuoso, we can report that he took the musical scene by storm as a performer and that, even a virtuoso and composer of variations as astute as Abbé Gelinek, openly admitted that Beethoven’s talent to improvise on a given theme was unsurpassed at this time and may even have been more passionate in its expression than that of Mozart.
Having conquered the salons of Vienna by storm as a pianist and been seriously devoted to his studies, Beethoven also saw himself being re-joined by his friend Wegeler and his brother Caspar Carl in 1794 and, for a brief period, also by some of his other Bonn friends, due to Bonn having been taken over by the French revolutionary army. The Elector also eventually returned to Vienna. The Court organist who, according to Bonn court records, had been “in Vienna without pay until recalled”, no longer could be recalled to serve as a court musician in his native city.
Beethoven would soon make his debut in a series of concerts at the end of March, 1795. His official and formal music studies came to an end at that time.
Beethoven burst onto the public scene as a composer at the end of March, 1795. This is the series of activities that kept him busy for the remainder of that year:
- Benefit performances at the Burgtheater on March 29th, 30th and 31st, namely for:
- The widows of the Tonkünstlergesellschaft (Society of Tone Artists) on March 29th and 30th, whereby Thayer assumes, that he played his Piano Concerto No.1, Op. 19, and improvising on the piano, and for
- A concert organized by Konstanze Mozart, at which Thayer assumes that he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, but which Cooper describes as ‘unspecified’ (Cooper: 55);
- Signing a contract with the Viennese publisher Artaria for the publication by subscription of his Trios Op. 1/1 -3. With 123 subscribers, he may have made a good profit;
- Throughout the year, completing various smaller compositions;
- Performing at the ball of the Gesellschaft der Bildenden Künstler (Society of Fine Artists)on November 22nd; Haydn had written a set of 12 minuets and 12 German dances for this event in 1792. In 1795, the dances for the larger room were
“Written by the Imperial Kapellmeister Süßmayr, for the smaller room by the master hand of Hr. Ludwig van Beethoven out of love for the artistic fraternity” (Thayer: 177);
- His last appearance in 1795 at the December 18th grand musical concert at the Redoutensaal given by Haydn who had returned from England in August. Beethoven played a “piano concerto of his composing”. While Cooper had had a chance to clarify some of the traditional bases of our notion of Beethoven’s difficult relationship with Haydn, he still refers to the fact that Beethoven often expressed that he had not learned much from his teacher (Cooper: 49). At this particular point we should mention that Beethoven is reported as having felt that Haydn meant to set limits to his creativity when he advised him not to publish the third of his Trios Op. 1, which he considered too advanced for the public to understand.
While Beethoven was also reunited with his brother Nikolaus Johannes who came to Vienna towards the end of 1795 (he soon found a position as a pharmacist), he also made plans for a journey to Prague and Berlin in 1796. His most important patron, Prince Lichnowsky, with whom he had lodged since soon after his settling in Vienna, traveled with him to Prague (as the Prince had done before with Mozart in 1789). From Beethoven’s letter to Nikolaus Johannes van Beethoven of February 17th, 1796, we learn that his stay in Prague was very successful and that he found new friends there. While Prince Lichnowsky at some point returned to Vienna, Beethoven went on to Dresden towards the end of April, stayed there for about a week, played for the Elector and received a golden snuff box as a gift, and then made his way to Berlin. His stay there could be considered as the most successful part of this journey. He played before the Court of King Frederick William II the two Grand Sonatas with obbligato violoncello, Op. 5, which he had written for Duport, the King’s first violoncellist. Beethoven may have received an invitation by the King to stay permanently which he did not take up on the grounds that he considered the Prussian nobles “spoilt children” who sobbed and cried during his moving improvisations. He made one exception in his appraisal by considering Prince Louis Ferdinand’s piano playing as “professional”.
Later in the year, Beethoven appeared successfully in Pressburg and Pesth where he also tried to promote the piano made by his piano maker friend Johann Andreas Streicher, a Stuttgarter who had previously joined his friend Friedrich Schiller in 1782 when the poet fled to Mannheim, and who later married piano maker Stein of Augsburg’s daughter Nanette and moved the business to Vienna. For a period of two to three months between his return from Berlin and his journey to Hungary, Beethoven’s whereabouts are unaccounted for. Researchers ponder as to whether the infection Beethoven was reported by the Salzburg physician, Professor Weissenbach (who met Beethoven in 1814) as having suffered from and which supposedly may have led to his loss of hearing occurred in 1796 or, more likely, in 1797 (Cooper: 72). It is also not certain what kind of infection he might have had or not.
The years 1797 – 1801 inclusive were years of Beethoven’s cementing his success as a young composer and as an experienced performer in Vienna which saw the creation of his still popular early works in the classical tradition established by Haydn and Mozart, yet also increasingly being imbued with his own spirit. (During this period, Beethoven undertook two more journeys, of which the first took him to Prague in the fall of 1798 and a journey to Hungary in the spring of 1800, to perform in Budapest with Wenzel Stich (Giovanni Punto) and to visit the Bunsvik estate nearby.)
They also saw his growing confidence in himself and the haughty manner in which he treated those who did not share his confidence, as well as his hiding behind this haughtiness his extreme artistic sensitivity, all at once basking in the devotion shown to him by his patrons but also rejecting it if it became too much to bear.
His growing popularity as a teacher of young ladies of the noble class attached to his name that of several young ladies; Beethoven’s friend Wegeler, who left Vienna in 1796 to return home, would later consider the matter of the young composer’s romantic interests who, in his opinion, “was never out of love.” To this, Maynard Solomon has to comment that the 1795 rejection of his marriage proposal Beethoven received from the singer Magdalena Willmann (in total described as unreliable, second-hand recollection by Cooper) as well as his Kantian code of ethics in mainly driving himself to serve society with his art, and his over-idealization of women did not entirely fit Wegeler’s description of this issue.
Beethoven also made friends among certain musically active noblemen such as Baron Zmeskall (who used to sharpen Beethoven’s quills) and musicians he worked with such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel or Ignaz Schuppanzigh. The closest personal friends of that period, however, were Lenz von Breuning who stayed in Vienna in 1797 (he died in 1798) and Carl Amenda, a Baltic theologian and violin player who stayed in Vienna from 1797 to 1799.
To these friends and acquaintances can be added the von Brunsvik family of Hungary who visited Vienna in the summer of 1799. Beethoven gave piano lessons to Josephine and Therese von Brunsvik. Josephine was immediately married off to Count von Deym, 49 years old and owner of a curiosity shop. (Beethoven’s mentioning, in a letter to his parting friend Carl Amenda, in the summer of 1799, his “lacerated heart” was previously often connected with his failed marriage proposal to Magdalena Willmann. Maynard Solomon’s placing this event into 1795 as well as Beethoven’s later, 1804/1805 passionate, (really only one-sided?) love for Josephine von Brunsvik and her arranged 1799 marriage would invite further inquiry into this issue.
In the summer of 1801, however, Beethoven’s transition from a successful young composer and pianist who was passionately revered by his patrons while also contending with certain competitors such as Cramer, Woelfl and Steibelt, to a man who was haunted by the shocking possibility of his pending loss of hearing would become apparent. We will discuss this issue in the next section.
“For my brothers Carl and _______ Beethoven
O you men who consider or declare me hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how wrong you do me. You do not know the secret cause of that which appears thus to you. My heart and my mind have been inclined towards the tender feeling(s) of affection from childhood on; to accomplish great deeds myself, I have always been disposed towards. But just consider that for six years, I have been inflicted with an incurable condition, aggravated by incapable physicians, deluded year after year by the hope of improvement, finally forced to the realization of a lasting infliction (the cure of which may take years or even prove impossible); born with a fiery, lively temperament, even susceptible to the distractions of society, I had to isolate myself early and spend my life in loneliness; and when I, on occasion, wanted to surmount everything, o, how cruelly have I been repelled by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing; and, yet, I was still not able to say to people: speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. O, how could I possibly admit to the (my) weakness of a sense which should be present in me to a more perfect degree than in others, a sense which I once possessed to the greatest (degree of) perfection, to a degree of perfection which surely few in my profession have or had had–O I cannot do it; therefore, forgive me, when you see me retreating there where I used to enjoy to mingle with you; doubly hurt am I by my misfortune as I will be misjudged because of it; for me, relaxation in human company, refined conversation, mutual exchange of thought, cannot take place; almost completely isolated, I may only venture into society when dire necessity requires it, I have to live like an exile; when I approach company, I am assailed by a terrible fear, for I am afraid to run into the danger of letting my condition be noticed–thus it was during the half year which I spent in the countryside; urged on by my sensible physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, he almost anticipated my present disposition, although, sometimes, compelled by the urge for company, I let myself be drawn into it; but what a humiliation when someone stood next to me and heard a flute from afar and I heard nothing, or when someone heard a shepherd sing and I heard nothing, again; such events drove me to the brink of despair and I was not far from ending my own life–only it, my art, kept me back. O, I felt that it was impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt that I had to, and thus I continued this miserable life, truly miserable, such an irritable body, that a somewhat quick change can transport me from the best condition into the worst–patience–that is, what I have to choose as my guide, steadfast, I hope, will be my resolve to persevere until it pleases the inexorable parcae to break the thread. Maybe, it (my condition) will improve, maybe not, I am resolved.–Already in my 28th year forced to become a philosopher! It is not easy, harder for the artist than for anyone.–Godhead, thou lookest (down) into my innermost, thou knowest that love of man and inclination towards good deeds dwell in it;–O men, when you read this some day then consider that you have done me wrong, and the unfortunate console himself to have found a kindred being who, in spite of all obstacles of nature still did everything in is power to be accepted among the ranks of worthy artists and men.–You my brothers Carl and __________ , as soon as I am dead and, if Professor Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to describe my affliction and add these sheets of writing to the history of my affliction, so that, as far as is possible, the world may become reconciled with me after my death–at the same time I declare you both as the heirs of my small fortune (if one can call it that). Divide it honestly and get along and help one another; that what you have done to me has, as you know, been forgiven a long time ago; you, brother Carl, I thank particularly for your affection which you have shown me lately. It is my wish that you may have a better life, free of sorrows, than I had; recommend virtue to your children. It alone can make (one) happy, not money, I speak from experience; it was that which lifted me up even in my misery. I have to thank it and my art that I did not end my life by suicide.–Farewell and love one another–all friends I thank, particularly Prince Lichnowski and Professor Schmidt–The instruments from Prince L. I wish that they will be kept by one of you, but do not let an argument develop among you; as soon as they, however, may be of better use to you, just sell them, how glad am I to still be of use to you in my grave. Thus it is done;–Joyfully I rush towards death–if it comes sooner than I will have had the opportunity to develop all of my skills in my art, it will even then come too soon, in spite of my hard fate–but even then I shall be content, will it not free me from an endless state of suffering?–and do not entirely forget me after my death. I deserve this much from you, as I have often thought of you my in my life and how to make you happy. Be thus–
The 6th of October Ludwig van Beethoven
1802 [Black Seal}
[on the fourth page of the testament]
Heilgnstadt on the 10th of October, 1802. Thus I take leave of thee–and that sadly;–yes, the cherished hope which I took here with me, to at least be cured to a certain degree, it must leave me now entirely; as the leaves are falling in autumn and are withering, thus it has withered for me, too; almost as I have arrived here, I am leaving–even the high courage which dwelt in my soul during the beautiful summer days–it has vanished–O providence, let once appear a pure day of joy for me– for so long, the resounding of pure joy has been alien tome!–O when, o when, o Godhead–can I feel it again in the temple of nature and of men–never-no-that would be too cruel–“
This is Beethoven’s outcry in the fall of 1802. It speaks louder and clearer than any second-hand description of the despair into which his worsening condition had thrown him. What we can do, however, is to trace the history of this development which culminated in the years 1801 – 1803. In order to do so, we should again take a brief look at Beethoven’s own correspondence in which he, in 1801, poured out his heart to two of his closest friends with respect to his growing loss of hearing, Franz Gerhard Wegeler and Carl Amenda. He initially wrote letters to each of them in the summer of 1801, and both friends he asked to keep this news a secret. His letter to his Courland friend Amenda is, of course, of a more general nature, while in that to Wegeler he not only speaks to a friend but also to a physician whom he trusts.
While we need not repeat the content of these letters in every detail, we should extract from them some particulars that provide a framework for us in which we can perceive this development.
In his June 1st, 1801, letter to Carl Friedrich Amenda, Beethoven refers to his deafness most expressively in these passages:
— “Your Beethoven is living very unhappily in battle with nature and its creator”;
— “My noblest part, my hearing, has deteriorated very much”; he continues by mentioning that already back in 1798-1799, he could feel the first traces of it, kept silent about it while it has become worse and worse in the meantime;
–He leads the cause for his deafness back to the wretched condition of his abdomen and expresses his fear that his loss of hearing can not be healed;
— He explains that he is leading a sad life, avoiding all company;
— As already mentioned, he asks Amenda to keep the news a secret.
— In his June 29th, 1801, letter to Dr. med. Franz Gerhard Wegeler, Beethoven
— First shares memories of his youth with him, talks of their homeland, of his successes, of Lichnowsky’s 600 florin annuity which he has begun to set out for him in 1800, his joy of being able to share his earnings with friends in need, his living more economically than before, while he
— ventures on to talk of the “jealous demon, my wretched health, has put a spoke in my wheel, namely my hearing has been growing worse for the last three years” and that it goes back to his abdomen which had already “back then” (this could refer to two points in time: Wegeler helped Beethoven with simple remedies in a colic attack during his stay in Vienna from 1794 to 1796, but it could also refer to Beethoven’s youth in Bonn) been “wretched”, complains of terrible diarrhea, weakness;
— He describes the treatment he had received which stopped his diarrhea, but did not help his loss of hearing, and that his ears are “ringing day and night”;
— He explains that he is terrified of what this will do to him as a musician, and that he fears the reaction of his enemies;
— He describes how the loss of hearing affects him in particular:
— He has to move very close to the stage to understand actors in plays;
— He can not hear the high notes of instruments and singing voices from farther away;
— He wonders why people have not noticed his condition, yet, in conversation and gives as possible reason for this his well-known absentmindedness;
— He can not hear someone who speaks softly–he can hear the vowels but not make out the words. However, when someone yells, he cannot bear it, either.
— He talks of resignation, of his knowledge of Plutarch as his teacher in it; he wants to defy his fate though he fears there will be moments when he will be “the most unhappy of God’s creatures”;
— He asks Wegeler not to tell anyone of this, not even “Lorchen” (Eleonore von Breuning);
— He asks him to correspond with his friend in Vienna, the Rhenish physician, Dr. Vering;
— He reports that Stephan von Breuning has arrived and how they interact, asks Wegeler for the portrait of his grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven and sends greetings to Madame von Breuning, telling her that he still has a Raptus now and again, and finally discusses Ferdinand Ries’ pending arrival in Vienna and that he wants to see what he can do for him.
Beethoven’s second letter to Wegeler of this year, namely that of November 15th, 1801, contains the following particulars:
— A description of the treatment Dr. Vering is giving him, which consists of bark leaves being put on his arm to keep on for days and how annoying and painful this is to him;
— That the “ringing” in his ears is a bit less prevalent, especially in his left ear where it had started;
— That his hearing, however, has not improved, but that it might rather have grown worse;
— That his abdomen was better now, but that he was not happy with Dr. Vering and that he does not have confidence in him, any more; he asks Wegeler about Dr. Schmidt, also mentioning galvanism and asks Wegeler’s opinion about that kind of treatment;
— The letter continues by describing his improved social life, his mentioning of a “dear, enchanting girl who loves me and whom I love; after two years there are again moments of bliss, and it is for the first time that I feel that marriage could make one happy”, but that the girl is not of his class. (This might refer to Giulietta Guicciardi);
— Beethoven explains that he does not want to visit his homeland as he does not want to be subjected to his friends’ pity;
— Beethoven expresses that his youth is just beginning, that he feels his strength returning, as well as his mental powers, and that his goal is ahead of him but that he can not describe it;
— Beethoven also writes of wanting to “take fate by the throat, it shall surely not crush me entirely.”
If we compare the references to his deafness in these letters to the particulars mentioned in the Heiligenstadt Will, we may note the following:
In the “Will”, the start of his loss of hearing is dated back to “six years ago”, which would mean that it might have begun in 1796, while in the letters in 1801, Beethoven dates the onset of his troubles to about 1798/1799;
The person who “heard the shepherd sing” was his new pupil, Ferdinand Ries, who came to Vienna in late 1801. In the Biographische Notizen, Ries reports that
“Beethoven’s hearing began to suffer as early as 1802, but the trouble disappeared for a time. He was so sensitive to the onset of his deafness that one had to be very careful not to make him feel the disability by talking loudly. If he had not understood something, he usually blamed it on his absent-mindedness which was indeed a strongly developed trait. Much of the time he lived in the country, where I often went to take a lesson from him. Occasionally, he would say at eight in the morning after breakfast, ‘Let us go for a little walk first.’ So we would go for a walk, often not returning until three or four o’clock, after we had eaten something in one of the villages. On one of these outings Beethoven gave me the first startling proof of his loss of hearing, which Stephan von Breuning had already mentioned to me. I called his attention to a shepherd in the forest who was playing most pleasantly on a flute from lilac wood. For half an hour Beethoven could not hear anything at all and became extremely quiet and gloomy, even though I repeatedly assured him that I did not hear anything any longer either (which was, however, not the case) . . . ” (Wegeler/Ries: 86-87).
During these years, Beethoven, nevertheless, composed the works you can trace in the complete listing of Beethoven works which is now also included in our site.
When we look ahead to what impact the onset of his loss of hearing might have had on Beethoven, we might ask ourselves how Beethoven would “take fate by the throat”. We will begin to explore this in the next section.