Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Beethoven of Bonn

Bonn on the Rhine—Beethoven’s Town”—reads the title of a small booklet issued by the city tourist bureau.  Although today Bonn is the provisional capital of West Germany’s Federal Republic, still to the city itself as well as thousands of music lovers the world over it will always remain “Beethoven’s Town.”  Here the great master was born and lived the first 22 years of his life.  Here yearly, Beethoven Festivals, Beethoven House and Archives forever perpetuate his memory.
                Bonn in only 15 miles south of bustling Cologne, but far more than a few miles separate the two cities.  Like Cologne, the provisional capital has witnessed the drastic changes of two World Wars.  It, too, has its new buildings, apartments, stores, residential areas . . . its quota of foreign cars and American jeeps.  But in its present tempo of life, in its ability to detach itself from today’s confusion and frustrations, Bonn is reminiscent of the latter 18th century when Beethoven lived there.
                If it were possible for the master again to tread the narrow cobbled streets of the old university town, he would find himself among familiar landmarks . . . The residential palace which houses the University . . . the Minoritenkirche (now St. Remigius), where as a boy he played the organ . . . the ancient Town Hall and market place in the center of the city . . . and, just a few steps beyond, his boyhood home at 20, Bonngasse.

                 The entrance to Beethoven House and adjoining Archives would attract little attention were it not for a small plate bearing these significant words:
“In Diesem Hause
Ludwig van Beethoven
Am 17th Dec. 1770”
                From the entrance a narrow stairway leads up to the birth room.  Here in November, 1767, Johann van Beethoven, tenor of the prince Elector’s private orchestra and choir, brought his pretty young bride, Maria Magdalena Beethoven.  Their three tiny rooms overlooked an equally tiny garden.  In the corner house lived Johann’s father, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bonn’s most highly respected musician.
                Three years later, December, 1770, a son was born to the young couple and named Ludwig for his grandfather.  The exact day of the great musician’s birth is uncertain, but the church register of St. Remigius (on display in the Museum) records his baptism date a December 17th.  On this day, standing next to his father and grandfather at the baptismal font was his godmother, Frau Gertrud Baum, who later held the christening party in her home adjoining that of the Beethovens.  In 1927, this house became the Beethoven Archives.
                Today, as you view the garret room where some 184 years ago Bonn’s famous son first opened his eyes, your attention is focused on its sole object:  a marble bust of the composer.  On the bare floor at the base of the pedestal lies a huge laurel wreath.  Two tiny dormer windows are the only means of light.
                The Beethovens lived in these attic rooms until Ludwig was four years old.  Even at that early age, the future composer revealed characteristics which later patterned his life; his intense craving for affection, and his passionate love of nature.  Fortunately at this time he had the companionship of his beloved mother and his grandfather.
                Although Maria Beethoven early recognized her son’s headstrong, tempestuous nature, her affectionate control tempered his actions.  In one respect, however, she utterly failed.  Let her relax her vigilance for a moment and the child would dart downstairs and out into the garden—even in the face of a violent storm.  Day after day he wandered happily through adjoining woods and fields, listening to the songs of birds, the murmur of rushing waters, the hum of insect life around him.
                Ever since his son’s birth, Johann van Beethoven had become increasingly fond of the liquor that was slowly ruining his voice and reducing his family to near-starvation.  More and more he craved money to satisfy his thirst.  Why not teach four-year-old Ludwig music—make him a child prodigy?  Hadn’t Mozart trained his son, Wolfgang Amadeus, and wasn’t he now the 18-year-old idol of the music world?  If he worked his son hard enough, he, Beethoven, would also produce a money-making prodigy!
                Accordingly, little Ludwig was set to learning music.  He stood on a hassock in front of the clavier where his father drilled him interminable hours of the day.  Later, when he was older, violin, viola and organ practice filled his daytime hours.  No matter what hour his father came in from his nightly round of taverns, the boy was yanked out of bed for additional practice.  Many a time daybreak came as a welcome relief to the drudgery that was already breaking his health.
                At eight year of age, Ludwig appeared in his first public concert.  Although he never became the “wunderkind” of his father’s dreams, still his talent developed so rapidly that successive court organists gave him lessons.  When he was 12, he played in the palace of his patron, the Prince of Cologne, and was subsequently name court cembalist and assistant organist.
                In between supporting the family, filling arduous court and church duties, the boy composed a little—a piano trio, a quarter, a few songs.  Finally when he was 17 years old (1787), friends sent him to Vienna and there arranged an audience with Mozart.  After hearing the boy play, Mozart reputedly remarked to a friend:  “Watch this lad.  Some day the world will hear of him.”
                Mozart gave him lessons, introduced him to friends, and three months later Beethoven seemed well started on his career.  Then, suddenly, he was summoned home.  His mother was dying.
                Her death, followed four months later by that of his adored, year-old baby sister, were bitter blows to the young boy.  Five years later, Beethoven again set out for the city of his dreams—Vienna.  He never returned to Bonn.
                The remaining 35 years of his life were sent in Vienna where he experienced his greatest triumphs—the creation of his Missa Solemnis and the nine great symphonies.  Here he also suffered his greatest tragedy—deafness—which sealed him off from his music for nearly 25 years.
                As you continue through Beethoven House (Birthplace and Museum), you discover many objects intimately connected with the composer’s life.  In one of the rooms stands the keyboard of the old three-manualled organ which 12-year-old Ludwig played at Minoritenkirche . . . his last piano, made especially for him by the court pianomaker, Conrad Graf.
                Over at one side is “The Advertissement,” wherein Johann van Beethoven announces the first public performance of his little son scheduled to take place in Cologne.  Sketches and miniatures made during the Bonn period picture Beethoven as a stocky, broadchested young man—presumably not much over five feet in height.  His bushy black eyebrows and hair early earned for him the nickname of “The Spaniard.”
                Carefully preserved in glass cases are some of his Conversation Notebooks (there were about 400 in all), his spectacles, visiting cards, walking canes.  Here, too, is the priceless score of the 6th Symphony in F (Pastoral).
Enjoy The Knights (Eric Jacobsen conducting) in their performance of the first movement of Beethoven's sixth symphony, "Pastoral":
                It needs but a glance at the case containing his four ear trumpets to sense his great personal tragedy.  These crude hearing aids—the largest measuring over two feet in length, the smallest not quite a foot—were made between 1812 and 1814 by Johann Nepomuk Malzel, inventor of the metronome.
                Even these aids could not transmit to the deaf Beethoven the joy of hearing his own music.  Nor did the public fully realize his suffering until his poignant revelation the night of his last concert, May 7, 1824.  When an enthusiastic audience rose to acclaim his great Ninth Symphony and its Ode to Joy with round upon round of applause, Beethoven continued to stand dejectedly at the podium.  Not until one of the young singers turned him around to see the applause, did the deaf musician know that his work was a success.
                Three years later, Bonn’s greatest musician was dead at 57.  Sketches in the Museum show the honor that was then accorded him.  The day of his funeral was one of national mourning, with all the schools closed, and thousands watching the procession pass.
                To many of the younger generation, Beethoven’s significance has become associated with recent events—World War II—when the stirring notes of his Fifth Symphonysymbolized victory’s call that was heard around the world.  However, the United States as a nation has long been Beethoven-conscious.  Early records show that the struggling American colonies recognized Beethoven’s genius during the master’s lifetime.
                As far back as 1822, two members of Boston’s “Handel and Haydn Society” commissioned the “Master of Bonn” to write an oratorio for their society.  Unfortunately, it was never started, due to a disagreement over the expected fee.
                Even earlier—in 1820—Beethoven evinced a great interest in democratic young America.  According to report, one of his German friends, Rupprecht, had just finished a libretto—“Penn’s Arrival in America”—and Beethoven had agreed to set it to music.  When a bitter quarrel later parted the two friends, Beethoven refused to continue with it.
                The Beethoven House at Bonn, now a national shrine, dates from 1889.  At that time the property, despite its intrinsic value, was up for sale.  When the municipality refused to buy it, a certain local publisher, Neusser, acquired it with the help of music-loving friends.  They formed the “Beethoven-House Society,” its charter bearing such illustrious names as Chancellor von Bismarck, Field-Marshall-General Moltke, Brahms, Gade, Joachim, Rubinstein, Clara Schumann, Verdi, and a score of others.
                Many Americans annually visit Bonn during the Beethoven Festival in May.  With gardens, flowers and chestnut trees in bloom, the old university town, back-dropped by its legend-filled “Seven Mountains,” offers a setting such as the master himself might have chosen.
                But wherever leisure moments may take you—whether to the composer’s monument on Munsterplatz, or to Beethoven House and Archives, you come away feeling closer to the great “Beethoven of Bonn,” whose deathless music appeals to all ages, all classes, all nationalities.
Enjoy Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”  (Gwyneth Jones, soprano; Hanna Schwarz, contralto; Rene Kollo, tenor; Kurt Moll, bass)(in two parts): 
by Norma Ryland Graves

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