HE was born on December 16, 1770. Bonn was the seat of the prince-archbishop elector of Cologne, one of those Rhineland principalities which, before Napoleon “secularized” them, were ruled by Catholic archbishops engagingly secular and inclined to support well-behaved artists. A considerable part of Bonn’s 9,560 population was dependent upon the electoral establishment. Beethoven’s grandfather was a bass singer in the Elector’s choir; his father, Johann van Beethoven, was a tenor there. The family, of Dutch stock, had come from a village near Louvain. The Dutch van indicated place of origin, and did not, like the German von or the French de, indicate titled and propertied nobility. Grandfather and father were inclined to excessive drinking, and something of this passed down to the composer.
In the year 1767 Johann van Beethoven married the young widow Maria Magdalena Keverich Laym, daughter of a cook in Ehrensbreitstein. She developed into a mother much beloved by her famous son for her soft heart and easy ways. She gave her husband seven children, four of whom died in infancy. The survivors were the brothers Ludwig, Caspar Karl (1774–1815), and Nikolaus Johann (1776–1848).
The father’s salary of three hundred florins as “Electoral Court tenorist” was apparently his sole income. The family lived in a poor quarter of Bonn, and the young Beethoven’s surroundings and associations were not of a kind to make him a gentleman; he remained a roughhewn rebel to the end. Hoping to improve the family income by developing a son into a child prodigy, Beethoven’s father induced or compelled the four-year-old boy to practice at the clavier or on the violin many hours in the day, occasionally at night. Apparently the boy had no spontaneous urge to music,1 and (according to divers witnesses) he had to be urged on by a severe discipline that sometimes brought him to tears. The torture succeeded, and the boy came to love the art that had cost him so many painful hours. At the age of eight, with another pupil, he was displayed in a public concert, March 26, 1778, with financial results unrecorded. In any case the father was encouraged to engage teachers who could lead Ludwig into the higher subleties of music.
Aside from this he received little formal education. We hear of his attending a school where he learned enough Latin to salt some of his letters with humorous Latin inventions. He picked up enough French (which was the Esperanto of the time) to write it intelligibly. He never learned to spell correctly in any language, and seldom bothered to punctuate. But he read some good books, ranging from Scott’s novels to Persian poetry, and copied into his notebooks morsels of wisdom from his reading. His only sport was in his fingers. He loved to improvise, and in that game only Abt Vogler could match him.
In 1784 Maria Theresa’s youngest son, Maximilian Francis, was appointed elector of Cologne, and took up his residence in Bonn. He was a kindly man, enthusiastic about food and music; he became “the fattest man in Europe,”2 but also he brought together an orchestra of thirty-one pieces. Beethoven, aged fourteen, played the viola in that ensemble, and was also listed as “deputy court organist,” with a salary of 150 gulden ($750?) per year.3 A report to the Elector in 1785 described him as “of good capability, … of good, quiet behavior, and poor.”4
Despite some evidence of sexual ventures,*the good behavior and growing competence of the youth led to his receiving from the Elector (1787) permission and funds for a trip to Vienna for instruction in musical composition. Soon after his arrival he was received by Mozart, who heard him play, and praised him with disappointing moderation, apparently thinking that the piece had been long rehearsed. Suspecting this suspicion, Beethoven asked Mozart to give him, on the piano, a theme for variations. Mozart was astonished at the youth’s fertility of invention and sureness of touch, and said to his friends, “Keep your eyes on him; someday he will give the world something to talk about”;6 but this story has too familiar an air. Mozart appears to have given the boy some lessons, but the death of Mozart’s father, Leopold (May 28, 1787), and news that Beethoven’s mother was dying, cut this relationship short. Ludwig hurried back to Bonn, and was at his mother’s bedside when she died (July 17).
The father, whose tenor voice had long since decayed, wrote to the Elector, describing his extreme poverty, and appealing for help. No answer is recorded, but another singer in the choir came to the rescue. In 1788 Ludwig himself added to the family income by giving piano lessons to Eleonore von Breuning and her brother Lorenz. Their widowed, wealthy, cultured mother received the young teacher into full equality with her children, and the friendships so formed helped in some measure to smooth the sharp corners of Beethoven’s character.
Helpful, too, was the kindness of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762–1823), himself a good musician, and a close friend of the Elector. Learning of Beethoven’s poverty, he sent him occasional gifts of money, pretending that they were from the Elector. Beethoven later dedicated to him the piano sonata (Opus 53 in C Major) that bears his name.
Ludwig needed help more than ever now, for his despondent father had surrendered to alcohol, and had been with difficulty rescued from arrest as a public nuisance. In 1789 Beethoven, not yet nineteen, took upon himself the responsibility for his younger brothers, and became legal head of the family. A decree of the Elector (November 20) ordered that the services of Johann van Beethoven should be dispensed with, and that half of his annual salary of two hundred reichsthalers should be paid him, and the other half to his eldest son. Beethoven continued to earn a small sum as chief pianist and second organist in the Elector’s orchestra.
In 1790, flush with a triumph in London, Franz Joseph Haydn stopped at Bonn on his way home to Vienna. Beethoven presented to him a cantata that he had recently composed; Haydn praised it. Probably some word of this reached the Elector’s ear; he listened favorably to suggestions that he allow the youth to go to Vienna for study with Haydn, and to continue for some months to receive his salary as a musician on the Elector’s staff. Probably Count von Waldstein had won this boon for his young friend. He wrote in Ludwig’s album a farewell note: “Dear Beethoven, you are traveling to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-cherished wish. The genius of Mozart [who had died on December 5, 1791] is still weeping and bewailing the death of her favorite…. Labor assiduously and receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn. Your true friend Waldstein.”
Beethoven left Bonn, father, family, and friends on or about November 1, 1792. Soon afterward French Revolutionary troops occupied Bonn, and the Elector fled to Mainz. Beethoven never saw Bonn again.