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The Town That Made Beethoven

Bonn, Germany, of the 1780s was the perfect place to raise a musical revolutionary

In November 1792, Ludwig Van Beethoven, then 21, boarded a coach in his native town of Bonn and steeled himself for a long journey over wretched roads filled with marching armies. In the middle of a French invasion of Germany, he was bound for Vienna, Europe’s capital of music, to study with the most celebrated living composer, Joseph Haydn. His prime mentor in Bonn, Count Waldstein, had sent him off with the words, “Through uninterrupted diligence you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Mozart, who had died the year before, was already a name to conjure by, and Beethoven was a promising heir. At 21 he was a musician of formidable power, with pride and ambition to match. When he was a child playing chamber music at home, passersby would listen in the street for hours. By the end of his teens, he was admired all over the Rhine valley. Haydn himself had predicted, “Beethoven will in time become one of the greatest musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher.”

Beyond being a blazing talent, Beethoven possessed ideas and ideals about being a composer that no one ever had before. His musical ambitions were charged with the intoxicating spirit of the time, the conviction that ancient social and religious tyrannies were nearing their end and a glorious epoch was at hand, when any person could stand up to an aristocrat or a priest and declare, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: We are all created equal, with the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Beethoven echoed that spirit when he inscribed in a friend’s autograph book: “To do good wherever we can, to love liberty above all things, and never to deny truth though it be at the throne itself.”

Already, the young composer was determined to set to music one of the defining documents of the revolutionary 1780s, An die Freude, “Ode to Joy,” by the poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller. Bartolomäus Fischenich, a professor at the new University of Bonn, wrote to Schiller’s wife about Beethoven’s plans for the poem: “I expect something perfect, for as far as I know him he is wholly devoted to the great and sublime.”

There was something gathering in this young man’s character that had impressed the sophisticated professor Fischenich and other liberal humanists: a youth barely out of his teens “devoted to the great and sublime.” It would take Beethoven decades to get around to setting, in his Ninth Symphony, Schiller’s paean to an enlightened utopia where under the dominion of freedom and happiness “all men become brothers.” But what those fiery verses meant to Beethoven goes back to his youth. The trajectory of his career began in Bonn, and so did the ideals that animate his mature works. “From childhood, I learned to love virtue, and everything beautiful and good,” he would write to the French pianist Marie Bigot. If Beethoven had come from anywhere besides Bonn, he would have been a different man and artist.

Ludwig van Beethoven was the third generation of his family to make music at the Bonn electoral court. His namesake grandfather had been kapellmeister, which meant that he had run the extensive court musical establishment. Old Ludwig died when young Ludwig was only three, but the boy developed an admiration for his grandfather that endured, represented by a portrait that the adult Beethoven kept always with him.

One reason the boy idolized his grandfather was that his father, Johann van Beethoven, a busy music teacher and a tenor in the court choir, was not a kindly mentor. As his son’s first teacher, Johann was quite prepared to beat the boy and lock him in the basement for missing notes. When he caught Ludwig making up his own music, he cried, “You’re not to do that! You’re not ready for it.” Neighbors remembered the tiny child standing on a bench to reach the harpsichord, weeping as he played for his father.

But if Johann could be cruel, he understood his son’s gifts and found more advanced teachers for him. The last and most important was a remarkable musician and polymath who arrived in Bonn in 1779 and became court organist: Christian Gottlob Neefe (pronounced Nay-fuh). Neefe was a more gentle mentor, encouraging rather than demanding. As he taught young Ludwig keyboard and composition, he addressed the mind and spirit of his student as well. In the end, Neefe was one of the primary conduits through which Beethoven absorbed the humanistic spirit of the time.

That spirit was in evidence all over Europe in the 1780s, the decade Beethoven came of age. There was a fever of revolution in the air. In England and America the era had, with boundless hope and faith in the powers of science and reason, named itself the Enlightenment. The German term, Aufklärung, is a direct translation, but in German lands it had a distinct character. Unlike the French, who would take murderous revenge on the old aristocracy, German Aufklärers looked to strong, enlightened leaders, “benevolent despots” whose models were Frederick the Great in Berlin and Joseph II in Vienna—and, on a smaller scale, Joseph’s younger brother Maximilian Franz, who in 1784 became elector in Bonn and made it into one of the most enlightened cities in Germany. (The electors were princes who belonged to the electoral college of the Holy Roman Empire.)

With an earnest personality and wide-ranging passions, Christian Neefe swarmed with enthusiasms about music, poetry, drama, and society, and he embraced Aufklärung beliefs with all his heart. He joined the Freemasons, the world’s first international secular brotherhood, in whose lodges the new age was brewing. In those days, many progressive figures in politics and the arts were Freemasons, from Washington and Franklin to Goethe and Haydn. Mozart’s Magic Flute, which prophesied the victory of Masonry and Enlightenment over tyranny and fanaticism, would be Beethoven’s favorite opera.

More zealous than most of his fellow Freemasons, Neefe joined a radical new offshoot of Masonry, the Bavarian Order of Illuminati, and headed its lodge in Bonn. The utopian agenda of the Illuminati was to form a secret order of enlightened men who would infiltrate governments and influence them in progressive directions, until churches and aristocracies withered away and reason and justice reigned. Each Illuminatus was to remake himself morally and intellectually by various spiritual exercises and ruthless self-examination, then go out and remake the world.

In Beethoven, Neefe found a child in need of remaking. The boy was 10 or 11 when lessons began, and unpromising in every way but musically. Sullen, dirty, and uncommunicative, Beethoven had no friends at school, where he spent only four or five years before he was pulled out to concentrate on music. His knowledge of musical literature was spotty, barely encompassing any recent German and Austrian music. Neefe introduced him to the works of Haydn and Mozart and especially the then-obscure J. S. Bach (Beethoven became perhaps the first keyboard player outside the Bach family to grow up playing Bach). Soon Beethoven was serving as Neefe’s assistant organist at court.

Under Neefe’s care, Beethoven blossomed as a composer. The teacher arranged for the publication of one of his student’s first pieces. However lightweight and naïve, the so-called “Dressler Variations” are technically correct and attractive. A year later Neefe put in print three Beethoven piano sonatas dedicated to the elector, works that show a remarkable advance in variety of ideas and handling of complex forms.

More startling are three piano quartets Beethoven wrote at around age 14, near the end of his studies with Neefe. Each closely modeled on a Mozart violin sonata (perhaps a Neefe suggestion), these works are so sophisticated, both musically and emotionally, that when they were discovered after Beethoven’s death, his greatest admirers did not believe any boy of 14, even Beethoven, could have written them. In many ways they show how he was going to proceed for the rest of his life: absorb the best models and do everything more: longer, more intense, more dramatic, more virtuosic, and so on, and in the process create something individual and new. Beethoven’s revolution in music would be from within the tradition, not in opposition to it.

Did something other than music pass from Neefe to Beethoven? Almost certainly. As an Illuminatus, Neefe had pledged to educate promising youths in the ideals of the order. Beethoven’s mature thought bears traces of that influence. Perhaps above all, Neefe preached to his student a relentless sense of duty: his gifts were owed to the world. Like any true Aufklärer, Beethoven believed that personal morality was fundamental. To be a good artist, you must first be a good person. Like an Illuminatus but entirely on his own path, he was determined to better himself both artistically and morally, then to use his talent to serve the good, the true, and the beautiful. “I do not desire that you shall esteem me greater as an artist, but better and more perfect as a man,” he would later write to his childhood friend Franz Wegeler. He went on to say, “When the condition of our country is somewhat better, then my art shall be devoted to the welfare of the poor.”

He believed absolutely that his gifts as a musician made him equal to the highborn. According to one of his intimates, the violinist Anton Schindler, Beethoven declared, “My nobility is here, and here,” pointing to his heart and head.

It is this train of thought that inspired Beethoven to dedicate his Third Symphony to the enlightened despot who proposed to remake Europe by force. Completed in 1804, the Third was first called Bonaparte. It might still be called that if Napoleon had not crowned himself emperor that year. “Now he will trample on all human rights only to feed his ambition,” Beethoven cried when told the news by his pupil Ferdinand Ries. “He will place himself above all others—become a tyrant!” With that, the composer tore the score’s title page in two and threw it to the floor.

Tyrants were the bêtes noires of Aufklärers. Beethoven renamed the symphony Eroica (“Heroic”), but the bold, Napoleonic character of the music remained. In this his breakthrough symphony, Beethoven had written a testament to the enlightened and revolutionary spirit of the age, and in the process declared himself, as artist, a world-striding hero as well.

The climax of humanistic idealism in Beethoven’s art was his Ninth Symphony, with its setting of “Ode to Joy” that he had imagined for so long. In that great ceremonial work Beethoven did not set out to preach a sermon about the pursuit of happiness and the brotherhood of humanity. Rather, he intended to create a kind of anthem for all humanity that would help bring those things to pass. To a large extent, this is what the Ninth has become in the world today. It is the anthem of the European Union, and the nearly inevitable work pressed into service at historic moments—by Leonard Bernstein when the Berlin Wall came down, by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra after the 9/11 attacks.

By his mid-teens Beethoven had escaped the influence of his father, who after his wife’s death sank into a shabby and public alcoholism. He also more or less put aside Christian Neefe when that mentor had no more to teach him. Thereafter largely his own teacher, Beethoven seems to have concentrated for some years on piano, making himself into a virtuoso the equal of any and an electrifying improviser.

Intellectually, Beethoven maintained a proud, stubborn independence. Though many of his friends and patrons were Freemasons and Illuminati, Beethoven himself apparently never joined any such group. (In any case, the Illuminati lasted only a few years.) No churchgoer, tending to Enlightenment-style Deism, Beethoven still was not antireligious and had nothing in particular against the aristocracy—as long as they were properly respectful of him. “I can have no truck . . . with people who are not willing to believe in me because I have yet to make a big reputation,” he complained after a noble in the salon of Prince Lobkowitz showed him too little deference.

In Bonn he opened up socially in his later teens, gaining not only friends his own age but mentors and champions from the aristocracy. He was adopted by the humanists, artists, and music lovers of Bonn and the new university, a hotbed of liberal unto radical Aufklärers like Fischenich and the fire-breathing professor and monk Eulogius Schneider, who served the French Revolution into the Terror until he himself ended on the guillotine in Paris. Beethoven frequented the Zehrgarten, a café and bookstore where endless debates raged over politics, poetry, music, and literature. And he pursued a quest he later described this way: “Since my childhood I have striven to learn the minds of the best and wisest of every period of time.” He studied Mozart and Haydn and Handel. He read Plutarch and Homer, Shakespeare and Schiller and Goethe.

Yet from his teens there was a contradiction in Beethoven’s nature, a paradox that would emerge again and again in his adulthood: despite his deeply ingrained humanism, humanity in the flesh often baffled and outraged him. He saw others only through his own lens, usually without the tempering influence of empathy or, for that matter, common courtesy. He insulted his aristocratic patrons (“Jackass of a Lobkowitz!”) and bullied his servants (he once threw eggs at a maid until she ran off screaming). In many ways Beethoven—trained by a father he could not love or respect, lionized and forgiven everything from his teens on—never fully understood the independent existence of other people.

Beneath his paradoxical humanism, however, lay a second, highly fruitful paradox. Even as he often scorned everyone and everything around him, he also absorbed the influence of everyone and everything around him, and turned it to his own purposes. There lies one of the secrets of Beethoven’s life and art. To cite just one example, in later life he ridiculed pictorial touches in music, but still he filled his Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, with birdcalls, brooks, dancing peasants, and a thunderstorm.

When at 21 Beethoven left for Vienna to study with Haydn, his singular personality was largely formed. He believed that he had momentous things to say in music and that people would listen to him—they always had. What he could not know was that he would never return to Bonn. The music-fancying Elector Maximilian Franz was funding his studies in Vienna, in the hope that this gifted youth would return home to become the leading light of the court’s musical establishment. But fate and history intervened. Soon the Bonn that Beethoven knew, which existed largely to serve the 600-year-old electoral court, would be wiped away by the victorious army of Napoleon. Beethoven never saw his homeland again. He lived to the end in Vienna, in a city and among a people he despised as fickle and frivolous: “From the Emperor to the bootblack,” he would declare, “all the Viennese are worthless.”

Meanwhile, Romanticism replaced the Enlightenment cult of reason with a cult of instinct, passion, and the creative genius as virtual demigod. The Romantics seized upon Beethoven’s emotionalism, his sense of the individual as hero. They were scarcely interested in the formal discipline, the Enlightenment heritage of Haydn and Mozart, on which his revolution rested. Beethoven nevertheless kept to his own path, true to his roots in the Aufklärung and the revolutionary 1780s that Schiller had epitomized in “Ode to Joy.” And he cherished the memory of Bonn. “How precious to me even now,” he wrote from his deathbed to a friend from those days, “are all the dear, beloved memories of my youth.”

JAN SWAFFORD is a composer and writer who teaches writing at Tufts and composition, theory, and musicology at the Boston Conservatory. He is the author of Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life with Music, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, as well as the Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Swafford’s own music has won a number of awards, including an NEA Composer Grant and two Massachusetts Artists Foundation Fellowships.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155