Saturday-Sunday, September 22-23, 2018
Images of majestic alps with serrated tops decorated with an icing of snow inspired a road trip once we landed back in our winter port of Hoorn. So, we rented a car and headed south Saturday night after our friend Deborah’s book launch in Amsterdam.
But before we reached our mountain destination, a sleep-over outside of Bonn offered something we couldn’t resist: touring one of the country’s most famous musician’s birth place. Located in the former capital of West Germany during communist rule, this city houses Beethoven-Haus Bonn, a memorial and museum dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
A self-guided walking brochure accompanied by an excellent audio-guide (well-worth the 2 euros each) led us through the 12-room museum.
Formerly a front building and a separate annex, the two parts are now connected. The largest collection of this musician’s artifacts in the world, the Beethoven-Haus Bonn also includes a research center and cultural programs in a building on the other side of the enclosed garden.
When Johan Beethoven and Maria Magdalena had their second child (Ludwig) they lived in the annex (now the back of the house). Many occupants of this middle-class neighborhood worked for the royal court including Johan and his father, who lived diagonally across the street from his son. Historians believe the birth room (top window on the right) was the at the back of the annex.
Coming from a line of musicians (both his father and grandfather were court musicians), it seemed inevitable his father would become his first instructor, reputedly a harsh one at that.
The role of ‘stage dad’ played by Johan wasn’t new. Some years earlier another father (Leopold Mozart) shepherded his son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), to success. Yet, Leopold’s loving relationship with his son sharply contrasts to Johan’s tyrannical approach to Beethoven. Stories abound of an abusive father (drunkenly dragging the young boy out of bed in the middle of the night to practice, hitting him when he didn’t play well; in short, not a pleasant childhood).
So eager was he to present his son as a musical genius, Beethoven’s father supposedly knocked two years off his son’s age on an advertisement in 1778.
Fortunately, at age ten the young prodigy came under the guidance of Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), both an instructor and mentor to Beethoven.
Some say this composer and musician influenced Beethoven the most, including his pupil who wrote, “I thank you for the counsel which you gave me so often…If I ever become a great man yours shall be a share of the credit.”
In 1792 he moved to Vienna, his home until his death, and studied under Franz Josef Hayden (1732-1809) and George Albrechtsberger (1736-1809). Beethoven also had informal lessons with Johann Schenck (1753-1836) and Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).
Beethoven was reputed to be a difficult and stubborn student. As one scholar stated, the father’s unjust treatment of his son caused Beethoven to revolt against authority. To me, Beethoven’s proclivity to rebel would seem natural based on his early home life and the times in which he lived (French Revolution and Napoleon).
This rebellious streak may have inspired the stunning music Beethoven created. Whatever the cause and however he achieved it, all I can say is this man’s music gives me goosebumps, in the good sense!
We spent over an hour wandering through rooms filled with memorabilia–letters, portraits, his musical instruments and music sheets, ear trumpets,
even his death mask (which a friend said seemed pretty freaky, and I have to agree).
One of the more intriguing aspects of our time here was the audio-guide’s attempt to demonstrate the various stages of Beethoven’s hearing loss. Buzzing (tinninitis?) began in his late 20s and continued to deteriorate. It’s unclear whether he became totally deaf but by the last decade of his life he used ‘conversation books’ with friends and visitors, communicating thoughts in writing and Beethoven replying either in writing or by speaking.
A portrait of Eleanor von Breuning*, one of Beethoven’s first pupils, highlighted the close friendship he had developed with that family, largely due to Eleanor’s mother providing a sympathetic shoulder after Beethoven’s mother died in 18787. Eleanor married physician Franz Gerhard Wegeler (1765-1848) who penned a biography of Beethoven in 1838. He sourced much of his material from the exchange of letters, a biography the museum states is the first authentic one.
* I was curious why her surname prefix was “von’ and Beethoven’s “van”. Both mean ‘of’ or ‘from’ but the difference is in the origin. “Von” comes is of German origin and originally indicated a noble until after the Middle Ages when commoners also used it. “Van’ is of Dutch origin and used by pretty much anyone from the get-go.
I’ve pulled images from the Internet since photographs weren’t allowed, and here’s one I wish I’d been able to take: an 1812 bust by sculptor Franz Klein, reputedly the most authentic representation of Beethoven. Gazing at the pugnacious expression I could easily envision this guy not wasting time on politeness.
We left the museum too soon but we needed to reach our room for the night, another 6 or so hours on the road. And, as I end this I’m bobbing my head to one of his most famous composition’s…
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, and I dare you not to sway to the music… :)
Next, where we couldnt stop humming another tune…