Bonn-born cosmopolitan

Beethoven was born and raised in Bonn.

The Jubilee programme will make it possible to experience and retrace his musical education and the emergence of his moral values from the spirit of the Enlightenment, using original sites in Bonn and involving people who live in or near Bonn today.

Ludwig van Beethoven, whose 250th birthday we will celebrate in 2020, was born in December 1770 in the building known today as the Beethoven-Haus. He was baptised on 17 December in the Church of St Remigius (no longer extant) on Bonn’s Remigiusplatz (Remigius Square). The day of his baptism appears in the parish register, but the day of his birth is unknown. It was probably 16 December 1770.

The boy Beethoven grew up in the stimulating surroundings of a musical family. His grandfather Louis (1712–1773) was born in Mechelen in present-day Belgium (the town formed part of the Austrian Netherlands in the 18th century). He became a singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne in 1733 and made his career in the court chapel. In 1761 Elector Maximilian Friedrich even appointed him Hofkapellmeister, making him the head of music at his court. His son Johann – Ludwig’s father – was likewise a tenor in the court chapel, as was Ludwig himself later, first as deputy organist and from 1789 as a viola player. He presumably received his first wages at the early age of 13. By then he had already dedicated three piano sonatas to Maximilian Friedrich, the so-called 'Kürfürstensonaten'. This was a great honour, considering that a dedication had to be accepted by the dedicatee, and a decisive step toward Ludwig’s establishment in the flourishing musical scene of his native city.

There is still much to learn about the Bonn court chapel. The repertoire performed under his grandfather’s direction awaits investigation, as does the vocal repertoire of his father and grandfather. True, we know a great deal about the busy theatrical scene at court and the post-1789 opera repertoire, but the successful works of the late 18th century have vanished almost entirely from cultural memory. Among them were pieces by some of the most celebrated composers of the day, such as André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, Giovanni Paisiello or Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. These pieces are fully deserving of revival; only then can we form a picture of them, and thereby get to know the works that inspired young Beethoven to write his own music. Mozart’s operas, too, were regularly mounted in Bonn, but in unknown versions equally deserving of rediscovery.

Many other members of the court chapel contributed significantly to Bonn’s musical life with their compositions. Andrea Luchesi, who succeeded Beethoven’s grandfather as court chapel-master, specialised in church music; Beethoven’s sometime teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe was a productive composer of keyboard music and operas; and three of Beethoven’s age-mates – Andreas und Bernhard Romberg and Anton Reicha – achieved international renown with their works. Members of the court chapel also dominated areas that we refer to today as the music industry. The violinist Johann Peter Salomon became an influential concert organiser in London; it was he who put Beethoven in contact with Joseph Haydn. And the horn player in the court chapel, Nikolaus Simrock, ran a music shop that he expanded in the 1790s into one of Europe’s leading music publishing firms. Beethoven, too, had dealings with Simrock on a regular basis.

Beethoven received his first music lessons from his father, who was also a busy music teacher. However, Johann’s sometimes coarse methods were far removed from today’s notions of music teaching. Over the years Beethoven was given lessons in theory and performance as befitted a prospective court musician. He probably received his most lasting impressions from ‘learning by doing’ in the court chapel. After completing his solid training in Bonn, Beethoven perfected his skills in Vienna. The ruler at that time was Emperor Francis II, a nephew of the Bonn Elector Maximilian Franz, who had succeeded Maximilian Friedrich in 1784. Beethoven’s teacher in Vienna was Joseph Haydn, the leading composer of instrumental music, from whom he was meant to receive ‘Mozart’s spirit’, as the far-sighted Count Waldstein noted in his album. He also took lessons from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an eminent authority on the contrapuntal style and traditional techniques of composition. And last but not least, Beethoven also studied with Antonio Salieri, a conductor at Vienna’s Court Theatre and one of the most successful opera composers of his day. He taught the young man how to set Italian words to music. Even after completing his official instruction Beethoven continued to pursue his studies, assimilating interesting passages from the works of other composers by studying them and writing them out.

On 26 March 1778 the seven-year-old Beethoven, still studying with his father, gave his first public performance in nearby Cologne, the capital of the elector’s realm. Later he impressed listeners with his improvisations: one journalist enthused about the ‘virtuosic grandeur’ of the 20-year-old musician, his ‘almost inexhaustible wealth of ideas’ and ‘quite distinctive manner of expression’. Beethoven triumphed as a pianist until well into his Vienna years.

The things that he learned he also passed on to others. Among Beethoven’s most famous composition students was Archduke Rudolph of Austria, perhaps his most important patron. Carl Czerny, a noteworthy composer known today primarily for his many piano etudes, took piano lessons from Beethoven in his youth. Finally the Bonn musician Ferdinand Ries, the son of Beethoven’s former violin teacher Franz Anton Ries, travelled to Vienna to take lessons from Beethoven. After the great composer’s death he and Beethoven’s friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler wrote one of the most important of all Beethoven biographies. Beethoven’s many female piano pupils came mainly from the aristocracy; many of them received dedications of his piano works. But he also gathered teaching experience while still in Bonn, where his most important pupil, Eleonore von Breuning, came from a family that offered him a second home.

With all these musical activities, Beethoven’s general education sometimes received short shrift. He stopped attending primary school at the age of ten. But he remained an inquisitive man to the end of his days; he read widely, not only literature, but also theology, philosophy and the natural sciences. In 1789 he enrolled in the philosophical faculty of Bonn University, though it is uncertain to what extent he actually attended lectures. Not only did he maintain lively contacts with other students, he also took notice of radical adherents of the Enlightenment who taught at the university, and evidently read their books. His teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe was one of Bonn’s most influential Enlightenment proponents, and Beethoven attended Bonn’s ‘Reading and Recreation Society’, an institution patronised by Elector Maximilian Franz and likewise committed to Enlightenment ideals. It was headquartered in Bonn’s present-day Town Hall on the market square (Am Markt).

Many historical sites in Beethoven’s life are still extant today. The most important is, of course, the Beethoven-Haus. Visitors to Bonn can become acquainted with all the other Beethoven sites on the 'Beethoven Tour', specially created for the Jubilee according to the latest scholarly findings.

Artists have been erecting monuments to Beethoven in Bonn for decades. They range from the monument built on Münsterplatz by the Dresden sculptor Ernst Julius Hähnel (unveiled in 1845) and the model for Max Klinger’s Beethoven monument in Leipzig (in the Beethoven-Haus' inner courtyard) to Peter Christian Breuer’s sculpture in the Rheinaue, Klaus Kammerich’s 'Beethon' Bust in front of Beethoven Hall, and Markus Lüpertz’s monument in Bonn’s Old Customs House (Alter Zoll).

Christine Siegert & Christian Lorenz

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 Photographs on the main theme 'Beethoven as a Bonn-born cosmopolitan'

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Main themes

Read the detailed essay on the five main themes by Christine Siegert, Beethoven-Haus Bonn, and Christian Lorenz.

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