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From Bonn to Vienna, in Search of Beethoven, the Man

Michael Cooper ( The New York Times )

Even the most casual visitor to Vienna can’t help but be bombarded by the city’s Mozart-industrial complex.

Mozart’s face peers out from the wrappers of ubiquitous chocolate-covered candies called Mozart Kugeln, grand cafes offer Mozart tortes, and souvenir shops sell Mozart key chains, stuffed Mozarts and even Mozart rubber duckies. You can’t help but wonder: What about Beethoven?

Beethoven spent his last 35 years there, and it was in Vienna that he wrote or premiered most of his major works and changed many of our ideas about music, art and genius. Yet outside the loftier precincts of the city’s museums and concert halls, he is far less visible.

But why? Beethoven is one of the most-recognizable, most-performed composers in the world. His music, and the story of how he fought off despair as he lost his hearing and composed masterpiece after masterpiece, still inspires.

This year the Beethoven story is being retold to a new generation. The 250th anniversary of his birth in 1770 is being celebrated all over the world. So the time seemed ripe for a pilgrimage in search of Beethoven, the man.

Starting out in the house in Bonn, Germany, where he was born, I set out on a Beethoven odyssey, from the scenes of his upbringing to the places in and around Vienna where he lived and worked, despaired and triumphed.

Beethoven-mania in Bonn

No one can accuse Bonn of overlooking its most famous native son. Even if his childhood there was unhappy.

You can hardly miss him, no matter how you arrive: Signs in Bonn’s train station proudly proclaim the city as his birthplace, and “BTHVN 2020” banners flutter along the roads. Souvenir stands sell Beethoven T-shirts. The imposing bronze Beethoven monument on the Münsterplatz, which Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt helped pay for, remains one of the city’s defining images.

After checking into the modest-but-pleasant Hotel Beethoven, I walked down the street to the Beethoven-Haus. There, in a cobbled inner courtyard, I found myself at the door of the vine-covered house where, in 1770, Beethoven was born into a prominent musical family that was about to fall into difficulties.

His grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven, had been Bonn’s kapellmeister an important post that placed him in charge of music at the court. But he died when Beethoven was 3. When Beethoven’s less-talented father, Johann, failed to win the post, he descended into alcoholism.

The museum displays the console of an organ that he played as a child at early mass at a nearby church; the viola he played in the court orchestra; and his last grand piano.

Beethoven doesn’t wear glasses in his best-known portraits, so I was startled to see a pair of his spectacles. Then there were the ear trumpets he used, hornlike metal devices that were created for him to stick in his ears by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, an inventor who also made his metronomes.

The gift shop offered not only sober Beethoven busts, recordings and scholarly books and scores, but also Beethoven chocolates, Beethoven wines and, yes, Beethoven rubber duckies.

A blockbuster exhibition running through April in the Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle has gathered some of the world’s most important Beethoven artifacts under one roof.

Bonn’s historic center is its own Beethoven exhibit. In a church near his birthplace, I saw the marble-bottomed baptismal font in which baby Ludwig was baptized December 17, 1770. Nearby, in what is now the university, I ducked into the Palace Church, where, as a child, he was assistant court organist. Then it was over to the market square, where Beethoven’s most influential early teacher, composer Christian Gottlob Neefe, discussed Enlightenment ideals with local intellectuals.

The grave of Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdelena, in the city’s old cemetery, lies near the graves of composers Robert and Clara Schumann. The major sites are within walking distance, and shiny new kiosks that say “BTHVN” in mirrored letters mark many of them.

To understand how Beethoven finally got back to Vienna, I hopped on a train to Bad Godesberg, a former spa resort.

It was there, at La Redoute, that Beethoven met Haydn in 1792 and showed him a cantata he had written. Haydn, then perhaps the greatest living composer, as Mozart had died the year before, agreed to teach him in Vienna.

It is not a museum, but when I ducked in, a man who worked there these days it is used for weddings and events gave me a look at the elegant blue-and-white neoclassical ballroom where they met.

When Beethoven left again for Vienna this time, for good his Bonn friends signed an autograph album for him. The entry by Count Waldstein, a patron, proved prophetic: “With the help of unceasing diligence you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.

It was only my art that held me back.’

There was never any doubt about where to start in Vienna: Heiligenstadt, which was still a wine-growing country village outside the city when Beethoven stayed there in 1802 and experienced one of the great crises of his life.

O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me,” he wrote there, in a soul-baring letter addressed to his brothers that came to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.

The letter, discovered after his death and presumably never sent, is the key to understanding his path from shame to despair to determination as he lost his hearing. Visiting the house where he wrote it, which is now a Beethoven museum, felt almost intrusive.

Heiligenstadt still feels like a country village, although it is now part of Vienna. I took a walk there along the Beethovengang, a wooded path like the ones he loved. Then I stopped at a rustic wine tavern where Beethoven had stayed, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, ordered a glass of blaufränkisch and pondered how, so soon after despairing, Beethoven entered one of his most groundbreaking periods.

Conquering a musical capital

It is still possible to visit the scenes of many of his Viennese triumphs.

At the ornate Lobkowitz Palace, once the home of a major patron and now the Theater Museum, I visited the Eroica Saal, where the first private rehearsals of his monumental “Eroica” Symphony were apparently held.

At the Theater an der Wien, Beethoven gave the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, on the same night, during an epically long concert in 1808, which also saw the premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto and his “Choral Fantasy.” The theater has since been rebuilt, but it was still thrilling to see where he was, literally, composer-in-residence given an apartment by Emanuel Schikaneder, the impresario who built it and who had helped create “The Magic Flute” with Mozart and been its first Papageno.

I sneaked into the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which was under construction, to see where the premiere of his Seventh Symphony was held. My tour of the Austrian Parliament, to see where the Eighth was performed, was less successful: The ballroom was rebuilt after a 1992 fire, its Imperial grandeur replaced by strikingly modern Josef Mikl paintings.

Finally, I made my way to the site where Beethoven died March 26, 1827, at 56. The building, on the Schwarzspanierstrasse, no longer stands, but two plaques mark the spot. After he died, visitors cut off his hair for keepsakes; strands still fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Mourners lined the streets for his funeral; it took nearly an hour and a half for the procession to reach the nearby Church of the Holy Trinity, where his funeral was held. It took me less than 10 minutes.

I walked to Beethoven’s first grave, in what was then Währing cemetery, and where Schubert was also buried. Both composers were moved in 1888 to the city’s ornate central cemetery, where they still lie beside one another, near Brahms’ grave. The Währing cemetery is now Schubert Park. When I visited, it was full of children playing and dog walkers.

Later, I stopped in the golden-domed Secession Museum to see Klimt’s phantasmagoric “Beethoven Frieze,” which he painted in 1902. It was a reminder of how Beethoven had inspired generations of very different artists.

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