The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 7/Beethoven: His Childhood and Youth
|The Atlantic Monthly
Beethoven: His Childhood and Youth
(From Original Sources.)
There is upon record a remark of Mozart--probably the greatest musical genius that ever lived--to this effect: that, if few had equalled him in his art, few had studied it with such persevering labor and such unremitting zeal. Every man who has attained high preëminence in Science, Literature, or Art, would confess the same. At all events, the greatest musical composers--Bach, Handel, Haydn, Gluck--are proofs that no degree of genius and natural aptitude for their art is sufficient without long-continued effort and exhaustive study of the best models of composition. And this is the moral to be drawn from Beethoven's early life.
_"Voila Bonn! C'est une petite perle!"_ said the admiring Frenchwoman, as the Cologne steamboat rounded the point below the town, and she caught the first fair view of its bustling landing-places, its old wall, its quaint gables, and its antique cathedral spires. A pearl among the smaller German cities it is,--with most irregular streets, always neat and cleanly, noble historic and literary associations, jovial student-life, pleasant walks to the neighboring hills, delightful excursions to the Siebengebirge and Ahrthal,--reposing peacefully upon the left bank of the "green and rushing Rhine." Six hundred years ago, the Archbishop-Electors of Cologne, defeated in their long quarrel with the people of the city of perfumery, established their court at Bonn, and made it thenceforth the political capital of the Electorate. Having both the civil and ecclesiastical revenues at their command, the last Electors were able to sustain courts which vied in splendor with those of princes of far greater political power and pretensions. They could say, with the Preacher of old, "We builded us houses; we made us gardens and orchards, and planted trees in them of all manner of fruits"; for the huge palace, now the seat of the Frederick-William University, and Clemensruhe, now the College of Natural History, were erected by them early in the last century. Like the Preacher, too, "they got them men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts." Music they cherished with especial care: it gave splendor to the celebration of high mass in chapel or cathedral; it afforded an innocent and refined recreation, in the theatre and concert-room, to the Electors and their guests.
In the list of singers and musicians in the employ of Clemens Augustus, as printed in the Electoral Calendar for the years 1759-60, appears the name, "Ludwig van Beethoven, Bassist." We know little of him, and it is but a very probable conjecture that he was a native of Maestricht, in Holland. That he was more than an ordinary singer is proved by the position he held in the Chapel, and by the applause which he received for his performances as _primo basso_ in certain of Mosigny's operas. He was, moreover, a good musician; for he had produced operas of his own composition, with fair success, and, upon the accession of Maximilian Frederick to the Electorate in 1761, he was raised to the position of Kapellmeister. He was already well advanced in life; for the same record bears the name of his son Johann, a tenor singer. He died in 1773, and was long afterward described by one who remembered him, as a short, stout-built man, with exceedingly lively eyes, who used to walk with great dignity to and from his dwelling in the Bonngasse, clad in the fashionable red cloak of the time. Thus, too, he was quite magnificently depicted by the court painter, Radoux, wearing a tasselled cap, and holding a sheet of music-paper in his hand. His wife--the Frau Kapellmeisterinn--born Josepha Poll--was not a helpmeet for him, being addicted to strong drink, and therefore, during her last years, placed in a convent in Cologne.
The Bonngasse, which runs Rhineward from the lower extremity of the Marktplatz, is, as the epithet _gasse_ implies, not one of the principal streets of Bonn. Nor is it one of great length, notwithstanding the numbers upon its house-fronts range so high,--for the houses of the town are numbered in a single series, and not street by street. In 1770, the centre of the Bonngasse was also a central point for the music and musicians of Bonn. Kapellmeister Beethoven dwelt in No. 386, and the next house was the abode of the Ries family. The father was one of the Elector's chamber musicians; and his son Franz, a youth of fifteen, was already a member of the orchestra, and by his skill upon the violin gave promise of his future excellence. Thirty years afterward, _his_ son became the pupil of _the_ Beethoven in Vienna.
In No. 515, which is nearly opposite the house of Ries, lived the Salomons. Two of the sisters were singers in the Court Theatre, and the brother, Johann Peter, was a distinguished violinist. At a later period he emigrated to London, gained great applause as a virtuoso, established the concerts in which Haydn appeared as composer and director, and was one of the founders of the celebrated London Philharmonic Society.
It is common in Bonn to build two houses, one behind the other, upon the same piece of ground, leaving a small court between them,--access to that in the rear being obtained through the one which fronts upon the street. This was the case where the Salomons dwelt, and to the rear house, in November, 1767, Johann van Beethoven brought his newly married wife, Helena Keverich, of Coblentz, widow of Nicolas Laym, a former valet of the Elector.
It is near the close of 1770. Helena has experienced "the pleasing punishment that women bear," but "remembereth no more the anguish for joy that a man is born into the world." Her joy is the greater, because last year, in April, she buried, in less than a week after his birth, her first-born, Ludwig Maria,--as the name still stands upon the baptismal records of the parish of St. Remigius, with the names of Kapellmeister Beethoven, and the next-door neighbor, Frau Loher, as sponsors. This second-born is a strong, healthy child, and his baptism is recorded in the same parish-book, Dec. 17, 1770,--the day of, possibly the day after, his birth,--by the name of Ludwig. The Kapellmeister is again godfather, but Frau Gertrude Müller, _née_ Baum, next door on the other side, is the godmother. The Beethovens had neither kith nor kin in Bonn; the families Ries and Salomon, their intimate friends, were Israelites; hence the appearance of the neighbors, Frauen Loher and Müller, at the ceremony of baptism;--a strong corroborative evidence, that No. 515, Bonngasse, was the actual birth-place of Beethoven.
The child grew apace, and in manhood his earliest and proudest recollections, save of his mother, were of the love and affection lavished upon him, the only grandchild, by the Kapellmeister. He had just completed his third year when the old man died, and the bright sun which had shone upon his infancy, and left an ineffaceable impression upon the child's memory, was obscured. Johann van Beethoven had inherited his mother's failing, and its effects were soon visible in the poverty of the family. He left the Bonngasse for quarters in that house in the Rheingasse, near the upper steamboat-landing, which now erroneously bears the inscription, _Ludwig van Beethovens Geburtshaus_.
His small inheritance was soon squandered; his salary as singer was small, and at length even the portrait of his father went to the pawnbroker. In the April succeeding the Kapellmeister's death, the expenses of Johann's family were increased by the birth of another son,--Caspar Anton Carl; and to this event Dr. Wegeler attributes the unrelenting perseverance of the father in keeping little Ludwig from this time to his daily lessons upon the piano-forte. Both Wegeler and Burgomaster Windeck of Bonn, sixty years afterward, remembered how, as boys, visiting a playmate in another house across the small court, they often "saw little Louis, his labors and sorrows." Cecilia Fischer, too, a playmate of Beethoven in his early childhood, and living in the same house in her old age, "still saw the little boy standing upon a low footstool and practising his father's lessons," in tears.
What indications, if any, the child had given of remarkable musical genius, we do not know,--not one of the many anecdotes bearing upon this point having any trustworthy foundation in fact. Probably the father discovered in him that which awakened the hope of some time rivalling the then recent career of Leopold Mozart with little Wolfgang, or at least saw reason to expect as much success with his son as had rewarded the efforts of his neighbor Ries with his Franz; at all events, we have the testimony of Beethoven himself, that "already in his fourth year music became his principal employment,"--and this it continued to be to the end. Yet, as he grew older, his education in other respects was not neglected. He passed through the usual course of boys of his time, not destined for the universities, in the public schools of the city, even to the acquiring of some knowledge of Latin. The French language was, as it still is, a necessity to every person of the Rhine provinces above the rank of peasant; and Beethoven became able to converse in it with reasonable fluency, even after years of disuse and almost total loss of hearing. It has also been stated that he knew enough of English to read it; but this is more than doubtful. In fact, as a schoolboy, he made the usual progress,--no more, no less.
In music it was otherwise. The child Mozart seems alone to have equalled or surpassed the child Beethoven. Ludwig soon exhausted his father's musical resources, and became the pupil of Pfeiffer, chorist in the Electoral Orchestra, a genial and kind-hearted man, and so good a musician as afterward to be appointed band-master to a Bavarian regiment. Beethoven always held him in grateful and affectionate remembrance, and in the days of his prosperity in Vienna sent him pecuniary aid. His next teacher was Van der Eder, court organist,--a proof that the boy's progress was very rapid, as this must have been the highest school that Bonn could offer. With this master he studied the organ. When Van der Eder retired from office, his successor, Christian Gottlob Neefe, succeeded him also as instructor of his remarkable pupil.
Wegeler and Schindler, writing several years after the great composer's death, state, that, of these three instructors, he considered himself most indebted to Pfeiffer, declaring that he had profited little or nothing by his studies with Neefe, of whose severe criticisms upon his boyish efforts in composition he complained. These statements have hitherto been unquestioned. Without doubting the veracity of the two authors, it may well be asked, whether the great master may not have relied too much upon the impressions received in childhood, and thus unwittingly have done injustice to Neefe. The appointment of that musician as organist to the Electoral Court bears date February 15, 1781, when Ludwig had but just completed his tenth year, and the sixth year of his musical studies. These six years had been divided between three different instructors,--his father, Pfeiffer, and Van der Eder; and during the last part of the time, music could have been but the extra study of a schoolboy. That the two or three years, during which at the most he was a pupil of Pfeiffer, and that, too, when he was but six or eight years of age, were of more value to him in his artistic development than the years from the age of ten onward, during which he studied with Neefe, certainly seems an absurd idea. That the chorist may have laid a foundation for his future remarkable execution, and have fostered and developed his love for music, is very probable; but that the great Beethoven's marvellous powers in higher spheres of the art were in any great degree owing to him, we cannot credit. Happily, we have some data for forming a judgment upon this point, unknown both to Wegeler and Schindler, when they wrote.
Neefe was, if not a man of genius, of very respectable talents, a learned and accomplished organist and composer, as a violinist respectable, even in a corps which included Reicha, Romberg, Ries. He had been reared in the severe Saxon school of the Bachs, and before coming to Bonn had had much experience as music director of an operatic company. He knew the value of the maxim, _Festina lente_, and was wise enough to understand, that no lofty and enduring structure can be reared, unless the foundations are broad and deep,--that sound and exhaustive study of canon, fugue, and counterpoint is as necessary to the highest development of musical genius as mathematics, philosophy, and logic are to that of the scientific and literary man. He at once saw and appreciated the marvellous powers of Johann van Beethoven's son, and adopted a plan with him, whose aim was, not to make him a mere youthful prodigy, but a great musician and composer in manhood. That, with this end in view, he should have criticized the boy's crude compositions with some severity was perfectly natural; equally so that the petted and bepraised boy should have felt these criticisms keenly. But the severity of the master was no more than a necessary counterpoise to the injudicious praise of others. That Beethoven, however he may have spoken of Neefe to Wegeler and Schindler, did at times have a due consciousness of his obligations to his old master, is proved by a letter which he wrote to him from Vienna, during the first transports of joy and delight at finding himself the object of universal wonder and commendation in the musical circles of the great capital. He thanks Neefe for the counsels which had guided him in his studies, and adds, "Should I ever become a great man, it will in part be owing to you."
The following passage from an account of the virtuosos in the service of the Elector at Bonn, written in 1782, when Beethoven had been with Neefe but little more than a year, and which we unhesitatingly, attribute to the pen of Neefe himself, will give an idea of the course of instruction adopted by the master, and his hopes and expectations for the future of his pupil. It is, moreover, interesting, as being the first public notice of him who for half a century has exercised more pens than any other artist. The writer closes his list of musicians and singers thus:--
"Louis van Beethoven, son of the above-named tenorist, a boy of eleven years, and of most promising talents. He plays the piano-forte with great skill and power, reads exceedingly well at sight, and, to say all in a word, plays nearly the whole of Sebastian Bach's 'Wohltemperirtes Klavier,' placed in his hands by Herr Neefe. Whoever is acquainted with this collection of preludes and fugues in every key (which one can almost call the _non plus ultra_ of music) knows well what this implies. Herr Neefe has also, so far as his other duties allowed, given him some instruction in thorough-bass. At present he is exercising him in composition, and for his encouragement has caused nine variations composed by him for the piano-forte upon a march[A] to be engraved at Mannheim. This young genius certainly deserves such assistance as will enable him to travel. He will assuredly become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, should he continue as he has begun.
[Footnote A: The variations upon a march by Dressler.]
"'Wem er geneigt, dem sendet der Vater der
Menschen und Götter
Seinen Adler herab, trägt ihn zu himmlischen
Höh'n und welches
Haupt ihm gefällt um das flicht er mit
liebenden Händen den Lorbeer.'
In the mere grammar of musical composition the pupil required little of his master. We have Beethoven's own words to prove this, scrawled at the end of the thorough-bass exercises, afterward performed, when studying with Albrechtsberger. "Dear friends," he writes, "I have taken all this trouble, simply to be able to figure my basses correctly, and some time, perhaps, to instruct others. As to errors, I hardly needed to learn this for my own sake. From my childhood I have had so fine a musical sense, that I wrote correctly without knowing that it _must_ be so, or _could_ be otherwise."
Neefe's object, therefore,--as was Haydn's at a subsequent period,--was to give his pupil that mastery of musical form and of his instrument, which should enable him at once to perceive the value of a musical idea and its most appropriate treatment. The result was, that the tones of his piano-forte became to the youth a language in which his highest, deepest, subtilest musical ideas were expressed by his fingers as instantaneously and with as little thought of the mere style and manner of their expression as are the intellectual ideas of the thoroughly trained rhetorician in words.
The good effect of the course pursued by Neefe with his pupil is visible in the next published production--save a song or two--of the boy;--the
"Three Sonatas for the Piano-forte, composed and dedicated to the most Reverend Archbishop and Elector of Cologne, Maximilian Frederick, my most gracious Lord, by LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, _Aged eleven years_."
We cannot resist the temptation to add the comically bombastic Dedication of these Sonatas to the Elector, which may very possibly have been written by Neefe, who loved to see himself in print.
"Already in my fourth year Music began to be the principal employment of my youth. Thus early acquainted with the Lovely Muse, who tuned my soul to pure harmonies, she won my love, and, as I oft have felt, gave me hers in return. I have now completed my eleventh year; and my Muse, in the hours consecrated to her, oft whispers to me, 'Try for once, and write down the harmonies in thy soul!'--'Eleven years!' thought I,--'and how should I carry the dignity of authorship? What would _men_ in the art say?'--My timidity had nearly conquered. But my Muse willed it:--I obeyed and wrote.
"And now dare I, Most Illustrious! venture to lay the first fruits of my youthful labors at the steps of _Thy_ throne? And dare I hope that Thou wilt deign to cast upon them the mild, paternal glance of Thy cheering approbation? Oh, yes! for Science and Art have ever found in Thee a wise patron and a magnanimous promoter, and germinating talent its prosperity under Thy kind, paternal care.
"Filled with this animating trust, I venture to draw near to _Thee_ with these youthful efforts. Accept them as a pure offering of childish reverence, and look down graciously, Most Exalted! upon them and their young author,
"LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN."
"These Sonatas," says a most competent critic,[B] "for a boy's work, are, indeed, remarkable. They are _bonâ fide_ compositions. There is no vagueness about them.... He has ideas positive and well pronounced, and he proceeds to develope them in a manner at once spontaneous and logical.... Verily the boy possessed the vital secret of the Sonata form; he had seized its organic principle."
[Footnote B: J.S. Dwight.]
Ludwig has become an author! His talents are known and appreciated everywhere in Bonn. He is the pet of the musical circle in which he moves,--in danger of being spoiled. Yet now, when the character is forming, and those habits, feelings, tastes are becoming developed and fixed, which are to go with him through life, he can look to his father neither for example nor counsel. He idolizes his mother; but she is oppressed with the cares of a family, suffering through the improvidence and bad habits of its head, and though she had been otherwise situated, the widow of Laym, the Elector's valet, could hardly be the proper person to fit the young artist for future intercourse with the higher ranks of society.
In the large, handsome brick house still standing opposite the minster in Bonn, on the east side of the public square, where now stands the statue of Beethoven, dwelt the widow and children of Hofrath von Breuning. Easy in their circumstances, highly educated, of literary habits, and familiar with polite life, the family was among the first in the city. The four children were not far from Beethoven's age; Eleonore, the daughter, and Lenz, the third son, were young enough to become his pupils. In this family it was Ludwig's good fortune to become a favorite, and "here," says Wegeler, who afterward married Eleonore, "he made his first acquaintance with German literature, especially with the poets, and here first had opportunity to gain the cultivation necessary for social life."
He was soon treated by the Von Breunings as a son and brother, passing not only most of his days, but many of his nights, at their house, and sometimes spending his vacations with them at their country-seat in Kerpen,--a small town on the great road from Cologne to Aix la Chapelle. With them he felt free and unrestrained, and everything tended at the same time to his happiness and his intellectual development. Nor was music neglected. The members of the family were all musical, and Stephen, the eldest son, sometimes played in the Electoral Orchestra.
No person possessed so strong an influence upon the oft-times stubborn and wilful boy as the Frau von Breuning. She best knew how to bring him back to the performance of his duty, when neglectful of his pupils; and when she, with gentle force, had made him cross the square to the house of the Austrian ambassador, Count Westfall, to give the promised lesson, and saw him, after hesitating for a time at the door, suddenly fly back, unable to overcome his dislike to lesson-giving, she would bear patiently with him, merely shrugging her shoulders and remarking, "To-day he has his _raptus_ again!" The poverty at home and his love for his mother alone enabled him ever to master this aversion.
To the Breunings, then, we are indebted for that love of Plutarch, Homer, Shakspeare, Goethe, and whatever gives us noble pictures of that greatness of character which we term "heroic," that enabled the future composer to stir up within us all the finest and noblest emotions, as with the wand of a magician. The boy had an inborn love of the beautiful, the tender, the majestic, the sublime, in nature, in art, and in literature,--together with a strong sense of the humorous and even comic. With the Breunings all these qualities were cultivated and in the right direction. To them the musical world owes a vast debt of gratitude.
Beethoven was no exception to the rule, that only a great man can be a great artist. True, in his later years his correspondence shows at times an ignorance of the rules of grammar and orthography; but it also proves, what may be determined from a thousand other indications, that he was a deep thinker, and that he had a mind of no small degree of cultivation, as it certainly was one of great intellectual power. Had he devoted his life to any other profession than music,--to law, theology, science, or letters,--he would have attained high eminence, and enrolled himself among the great.
But we have anticipated a little, and now turn back to an event which occurred soon after he had completed his thirteenth year, and which proved in its consequences of the highest moment to him,--the death of the Elector, which took place on the 15th of April, 1784. He was succeeded by Maximilian Francis, Bishop of Münster, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, a son of the Emperor Francis and Maria Theresa of Austria.
A word upon this family of imperial musicians may, perhaps, be pardoned. It was Charles VI., the father of Maria Theresa, a composer of canons and music for the harpsichord, who, upon being complimented by his Kapellmeister as being well able to officiate as a music-director, dryly observed, "Upon the whole, however, I like my present position better!" His daughter sang an air upon the stage of the Court Theatre in her fifth year; and in 1739, just before her accession to the imperial dignity, being in Florence, she sang a duet with Senesino--of Handelian memory--with such grace and splendor of voice, that the tears rolled down the old man's cheeks. In all her wars and amid all the cares of state, Maria Theresa never ceased to cherish music. Her children were put under the best instructors, and made thorough musicians;--Joseph, whom Mozart so loved, though the victim of his shabby treatment; Maria Antoinette, the patron of Gluck and the head of his party in Paris; Max Franz, with whom we now have to do,--and so forth.
Upon learning the death of Max Frederick, his successor hastened to Bonn to assume the Archiepiscopal and Electoral dignities, with which he was formally invested in the spring of 1785. In the train of the new Elector, who was still in the prime of life, was the Austrian Count Waldstein, his favorite and constant companion. Waldstein, like his master, was more than an amateur,--he was a fine practical musician. The promising pupil of Neefe was soon brought to his notice, and his talents and attainments excited in him an extraordinary interest. Coming from Vienna, where Mozart and Haydn were in the full tide of their success, where Gluck's operas were heard with rapture, and where in the second rank of musicians and composers were such names as Salieri, Righini, Anfossi, and Martini, Waldstein could well judge of the promise of the boy. He foresaw at once his future greatness, and gave him his favor and protection. He, in some degree, at least, relieved him from the dry rules of Neefe, and taught him the art of varying a theme _extempore_ and carrying it out to its highest development. He had patience and forbearance with the boy's failings and foibles, and, to relieve his necessities, gave him money, sometimes as gifts of his own, sometimes as gratifications from the Elector.
As soon as Maximilian was installed in his new dignity, Waldstein procured for Ludwig the appointment of assistant court organist;--not that Neefe needed him, but that he needed the small salary attached to the place. From this time to the downfall of the Electorate, his name follows that of Neefe in the annual Court Calendar.
Wegeler and others have preserved a variety of anecdotes which illustrate the skill and peculiarities of the young organist at this period, but we have not space for them;--moreover, our object is rather to convey some distinct idea of the training which made him what every lover of music knows he afterward became.
Maximilian Francis was as affable and generous as he was passionately fond of music. A newspaper of the day records, that he used to walk about the streets of Bonn like any other citizen, and early became very popular with all classes. He often took part in the concerts at the palace, as upon a certain occasion when "Duke Albert played violin, the Elector viola, and Countess Belderbusch piano-forte," in a trio. He enlarged his orchestra, and, through his relations with the courts at Vienna, Paris, and other capitals, kept it well supplied with all the new publications of the principal composers of the day,--Mozart, Haydn, Gluck, Pleyel, and others.
No better school, therefore, for a young musician could there well have been than that in which Beethoven was now placed. While Neefe took care that he continued his study of the great classic models of organ and piano-forte composition, he was constantly hearing the best ecclesiastical, orchestral, and chamber music, forming his taste upon the best models, and acquiring a knowledge of what the greatest masters had accomplished in their several directions. But as time passed on, he felt the necessity of a still larger field of observation, and, in the autumn of 1786, Neefe's wish that his pupil might travel was fulfilled. He obtained--mainly, it is probable, from the Elector, through the good offices of Waldstein--the means of making the journey to Vienna, then the musical capital of the world, to place himself under the instructions of Mozart, then the master of all living masters. Few records have fallen under our notice, which throw light upon this visit. Seyfried, and Holmes, after him, relate the surprise of Mozart at hearing the boy, now just sixteen years of age, treat an intricate fugue theme, which he gave him, and his prophecy, that "that young man would some day make himself heard of in the world!"
It is said that Beethoven in after life complained of never having heard his master play. The complaint must have been, that Mozart never played to him in private; for it is absurd to suppose that he attended none of the splendid series of concerts which his master gave during that winter.
The mysterious brevity of this first visit of Beethoven to Vienna we find fully explained in a letter, of which we give a more literal than elegant translation. It is the earliest specimen of the composer's correspondence which has come under our notice, and was addressed to a certain Dr. Schade, an advocate of Augsburg, where the young man seems to have tarried some days upon his journey.
"Bonn, September 15, 1787.
"HONORED AND MOST VALUED FRIEND!
"What you must think of me I can easily conceive; nor can I deny that you have well-grounded reasons for looking upon me in an unfavorable light; but I will not ask you to excuse me, until I have made known the grounds upon which I dare hope my apologies will find acceptance. I must confess, that, from the moment of leaving Augsburg, my happiness, and with it my health, began to leave me; the nearer I drew toward my native city, the more numerous were the letters of my father, which met me, urging me onward, as the condition of my mother's health was critical. I hastened forward, therefore, with all possible expedition, for I was myself much indisposed; but the longing I felt to see my sick mother once more made all hindrances of little account, and aided me in overcoming all obstacles.
"I found her still alive, but in a most pitiable condition. She was in a consumption, and finally, about seven weeks since, after enduring the extremes of pain and suffering, died. She was to me such a good and loving mother,--my best of friends!
"Oh, who would be so happy as I, could I still speak the sweet name, 'Mother,' and have her hear it! And to whom _can_ I now speak? To the dumb, but lifelike pictures which my imagination calls up.
"During the whole time since I reached home, few have been my hours of enjoyment. All this time I have been afflicted with asthma, and the fear is forced upon me that it may end in consumption. Moreover, the state of melancholy in which I now am is almost as great a misfortune as my sickness itself.
"Imagine yourself in my position for a moment, and I doubt not that I shall receive your forgiveness for my long silence. As to the three Carolins which you had the extraordinary kindness and friendship to lend me in Augsburg, I must beg your indulgence still for a time. My journey has cost me a good deal, and I have no compensation--not even the slightest--to hope in return. Fortune is not propitious to me here in Bonn.
"You will forgive me for detaining you so long with my babble; it is all necessary to my apology. I pray you not to refuse me the continuance of your valuable friendship, since there is nothing I so much desire as to make myself in some degree worthy of it. I am, with all respect, your most obedient servant and friend,
"L. v. BEETHOVEN,
"Court Organist to the Elector of Cologne."
We know also from other sources the extreme poverty in which the Beethoven family was at this period sunk. In its extremity, at the time when the mother died, Franz Ries, the violinist, came to its assistance, and his kindness was not forgotten by Ludwig. When Ferdinand, the son of this Ries, reached Vienna in the autumn of 1800, and presented his father's letter, Beethoven said,--"I cannot answer your father yet; but write and tell him that I have not forgotten the death of my mother. That will fully satisfy him."
Young Beethoven, therefore, had little time for illness. His father barely supported himself, and the sustenance of his two little brothers, respectively twelve and thirteen years of age, devolved upon him. He was, however, equal to his situation. He played his organ still,--the instrument which was then above all others to his taste; he entered the Orchestra as player upon the viola; received the appointment of chamber-musician--pianist--to the Elector; and besides all this, engaged in the detested labor of teaching. It proves no small energy of character, that the motherless youth of seventeen, "afflicted with asthma," which he was "fearful might end in consumption," struggling against a "state of melancholy, almost as great a misfortune as sickness itself," succeeded in overcoming all, and securing the welfare of himself, his father, and his brothers. When he left Bonn finally, five years later, Carl, then eighteen, could support himself by teaching music, and Johann was apprenticed to the court apothecary; while the father appears to have had a comfortable subsistence provided for him,--although no longer an active member of the Electoral Chapel,--for the few weeks which, as it happened, remained of his life.
The scattered notices which are preserved of Beethoven, during this period, are difficult to arrange in a chronological order. We read of a joke played at the expense of Heller, the principal tenor singer of the Chapel, in which that singer, who prided himself upon his firmness in pitch, was completely bewildered by a skilful modulation of the boy upon the piano-forte, and forced to stop;--of the music to a chivalrous ballad, performed by the noblemen attached to the court, of which for a long time Count Waldstein was the reputed author, but which in fact was the work of his _protégé;_--and there are other anecdotes, probably familiar to most readers, showing the great skill and science which he already exhibited in his performance of chamber music in the presence of the Elector.
We see him intimate as ever in the Breuning family, mingling familiarly with the best society of Bonn, which he met at their house,--and even desperately in love! First it is with Fraülein Jeannette d'Honrath, of Cologne, a beautiful and lively blonde, of pleasing manners, sweet and gentle disposition, an ardent lover of music, and an agreeable singer, who often came to Bonn and spent weeks with the Breunings. She seems to have played the coquette a little, both with our young artist and his friend Stephen. It is not difficult to imagine the effect upon the sensitive and impulsive Ludwig, when the beautiful girl, nodding to him in token of its application, sang in tender accents the then popular song,--
"Mich heute noch von dir zu trennen, Und dieses nicht verhindern können, Ist zu empfindlich für mein Herz."
She saw fit, however, to marry an Austrian, Carl Greth, a future commandant at Temeswar, and her youthful lover was left to console himself by transferring his affections to another beauty, Fraülein W.
We behold him in the same select circle, cultivating his talent for improvising upon the piano-forte, by depicting in music the characters of friends and acquaintances, and generally in such a manner that the company had no difficulty in guessing the person intended. On one of these occasions, Franz Ries was persuaded to take his violin and improvise an accompaniment to his friend's improvisation, which he did so successfully, that, long afterwards, he more than once ventured to attempt the same in public, with his son Ferdinand.
Professor Wurzer, of Marburg, who well knew Beethoven in his youth, gives us a glimpse of him sitting at the organ. On a pleasant summer afternoon, when the artist was about twenty years of age, he, with some companions, strolled out to Godesberg. Here they met Wurzer, who, in the course of the conversation, mentioned that the church of the convent of Marienforst--behind the village of Godesberg--had been repaired, and that a new organ had been procured, or perhaps that the old one had been put in order and perfected. Beethoven must needs try it. The key was procured from the prior, and the friends gave him themes to vary and work out, which he did with such skill and beauty, that at length the peasants engaged below in cleaning the church, one after another, dropped their brooms and brushes, forgetting everything else in their wonder and delight.
In 1790, an addition was made to the Orchestra, most important in its influence upon the artistic progress of Beethoven, as he was thus brought into daily intercourse with two young musicians, already distinguished virtuosos upon their respective instruments. The Elector made frequent visits to other cities of his diocese, often taking a part or the whole of his Chapel with him. Upon his return that summer from Münster, he brought with him the two virtuosos in question. Andreas Romberg, the violinist, and now celebrated composer, and his cousin Bernhard, the greatest violoncellist of his age. With these two young men Beethoven was often called to the palace for the private entertainment of Maximilian. Very probably, upon one of these occasions, was performed that trio not published until since the death of its composer--"the second movement of which," says Schindler, "may be looked upon as the embryo of all Beethoven's scherzos," while "the third is, in idea and form, of the school of Mozart,--a proof how early he made that master his idol." We know that it was composed at this period, and that its author considered it his highest attempt then in free composition.
A few words must be given to the Electoral Orchestra, that school in which Beethoven laid the foundation of his prodigious knowledge of instrumental and orchestral effects, as in the chamber-music at the palace he learned the unrivalled skill which distinguishes his efforts in that branch of the art.
The Kapellmeister, in 1792, was Andrea Lucchesi, a native of Motta, in the Venetian territory, a fertile and accomplished composer in most styles. The concert-master was Joseph Reicha, a virtuoso upon the violoncello, a very fine conductor, and no mean composer. The violins were sixteen in number; among them were Franz Ries, Neefe, Anton Reicha,--afterward the celebrated director of the Paris Conservatoire,--and Andreas Romberg; violas four, among them Ludwig van Beethoven; violoncellists three, among them Bernhard Romberg; contrabassists also three. There were two oboes, two flutes,--one of them played by another Anton Reicha,--two clarinets, two horns,--one by Simrock, a celebrated player, and founder of the music-publishing house of that name still existing in Bonn,--three bassoons, four trumpets, and the usual tympani.
Fourteen of the forty-three musicians were soloists upon their several instruments; some half a dozen of them were already known as composers. Four years, at the least, of service in such an orchestra may well be considered of all schools the best in which Beethoven could have been placed. Let his works decide.
Our article shall close with some pictures photographed in the sunshine which gilded the closing years of Beethoven's Bonn life. They illustrate the character of the man and of the people with whom he lived and moved.
In 1791, in that beautiful season of the year in Central Europe, when the heats of summer are past and the autumn rains not yet set in, the Elector journeyed to Mergentheim, to hold, in his capacity of Grand Master, a convocation of the Teutonic Order. The leading singers of his Chapel, and some twenty members of the Orchestra, under Ries as director, followed in two large barges. Before, starting upon the expedition, the company assembled and elected a king. The dignity was conferred upon Joseph Lux, the bass singer and comic actor, who, in distributing the offices of his court, appointed Ludwig van Beethoven and Bernhard Romberg scullions!
A glorious time and a merry they had of it, following slowly the windings of the Rhine and the Main, now impelled by the wind, now drawn by horses, against the swift current, in this loveliest time of the year.
In those days, when steamboats were not, such a voyage was slow, and not seldom in a high degree tedious. With such a company the want of speed was a consideration of no importance, and the memory of this journey was in after years among Beethoven's brightest. Those who know the Rhine and the Main can easily conceive that this should be so. The route embraced the whole extent of the famous highlands of the former river, from the Drachenfels and Rolandseek to the heights of the Niederwald above Rüdesheim, and that lovely section of the latter which divides the hills of the Odenwald from those of Spessart. The voyagers passed a thousand points of local and historic interest. The old castles--among them Stolzenfels and the Brothers--looked down upon them from their rocky heights, as long afterwards upon the American, Paul Flemming, when he journeyed, sick at heart, along the Rhine, toward ancient Heidelberg. Quaint old cities--Andernach, with "the Christ," Coblentz, home of Beethoven's mother, Boppard, Bacharach, Bingen--welcomed them; Mainz, the Electoral city, and Frankfurt, seat of the Empire. And still beyond, on the banks of the Main, Offenbach, Hanau, Aschaffenburg, and so onward to Wertheim, where they left the Main and ascended the small river Tauber to their place of destination.
Among the places at which they landed and made merry upon the journey was the Niederwald. Here King Lux advanced Beethoven to a more honorable position in his court, and gave him a diploma, dated from the heights above Rüdesheim, attesting his appointment to the new dignity. To this important document was attached, by threads ravelled from a boat-sail, a huge seal of pitch, pressed into a small box-cover, which gave the instrument a right imposing look,--like the Golden Bull in the Römer-Saal at Frankfurt. This diploma from His Comic Majesty Beethoven carried with him to Vienna, where Wegeler saw it several years afterward carefully preserved.
At Aschaffenburg, the summer residence of the Electors of Mainz, Ries, Simrock, and the two Rombergs took Beethoven with them to call upon the great pianist, Sterkel. The master received the young men kindly, and gratified them with a specimen of his powers. His style was in the highest degree graceful and pleasing,--as Father Ries described it to Wegeler, "somewhat lady-like." While he played, Beethoven stood by, listening with the most eager attention, doubtless silently comparing the effects produced by the player with those belonging to his own style, which was rather rough and hard, owing to his constant practice upon the organ. It is said that this was his first opportunity of hearing any distinguished virtuoso upon the piano-forte,--a mistake, we think, for he must have heard Mozart in Vienna, as before remarked. Still, the delicacy of Sterkel's style may well have been a new revelation to him of the powers of the instrument. Upon leaving the piano-forte, the master invited his young visitor to take his place. Beethoven was naturally diffident, and was not to be prevailed with, until Sterkel intimated a doubt whether he could play his own very difficult variations upon the air, "Vieni, Amore," which had then just been published. Thus touched in a tender spot, the young author sat down and played such as he could remember,--no copy being at hand,--and then improvised several others, equally, if not more difficult, to the surprise both of Sterkel and his friends. "What raised our surprise to real astonishment," said Ries, as he related the story, "was, that the impromptu variations were in precisely that graceful, pleasing style which he had just heard for the first time."
Upon reaching Mergentheim, music, and ever music, became the order of the day for King Lux and his merry subjects. Most fortunately for the admirers of Beethoven, we have a minute account of two days (October 11 and 12) spent there, by a competent and trustworthy musical critic of that period,--a man not the less welcome to us for possessing something of the flunkeyism of old Diarist Pepys and Corsica Boswell. We shall quote somewhat at length from his letter, since it has hitherto come under the notice of none of the biographers, and yet gives us so lively a picture of young Beethoven and his friends.
"On the very first day," writes Junker, "I heard the small band which plays at dinner, during the stay of the Elector at Mergentheim. The instruments are two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns. These eight performers may well be called masters in their art. One can rarely hear music of the kind, distinguished by such perfect unity of effect and such sympathy with each other in the performers, and especially in which so high a degree of exactness and perfection of style is reached. This band appeared to me to differ from all others I have heard in this,--that it plays music of a higher order; on this occasion, for instance, it gave an arrangement of Mozart's overture to 'Don Juan.'"
It would be interesting to know what, if any, of the works of Beethoven for wind-instruments belong to this period of his life.
"Soon after the dinner-music," continues our writer, "the play began. It was the opera, 'King Theodor,' music by Paisiello. The part of _Theodor_ was sung by Herr Nüdler, a powerful singer in tragic scenes, and a good actor. _Achmet_ was given by Herr Spitzeder,--a good bass singer, but with too little action, and not always quite true,--in short, too cold. The inn-keeper was Herr Lux, a very good bass, and the best actor,--a man created for the comic. The part of _Lizette_ was taken by Demoiselle Willmann. She sings in excellent taste, has very great power of expression, and a lively, captivating action. Herr Mändel, in _Sandrino,_ proved himself also a very fine and pleasing singer. The orchestra was surpassingly good,--especially in its _piano_ and _forte_, and its careful _crescendo._ Herr Ries, that remarkable reader of scores, that great player, directed with his violin. He is a man who may well be placed beside Cannabich, and by his powerful and certain tones he gave life and soul to the whole....
"The next morning, (October 12,) at ten o'clock, the rehearsal for the concert began, which was to be given at court at six in the afternoon. Herr Welsch (oboist) had the politeness to invite me to be present. I was held at the lodgings of Herr Ries, who received me with a hearty shake of the hand. Here I was an eye-witness of the gentlemanly bearing of the members of the Chapel toward each other. One heart, one mind rules them. 'We know nothing of the cabals and chicanery so common; among us the most perfect unanimity prevails; we, as members of one company, cherish for each other a fraternal affection,' said Simrock to me.
"Here also I was an eye-witness to the esteem and respect in which this chapel stands with the Elector. Just as the rehearsal was to begin, Ries was sent for by the prince, and upon his return brought a bag of gold. 'Gentlemen,' said he, 'this being the Elector's name-day, he sends you a present of a thousand thalers.'
"And again I was eye-witness of this orchestra's surpassing excellence. Herr Winneberger, Kapellmeister at Wallenstein, laid before it a symphony of his own composition, which was by no means easy of execution, especially for the wind instruments, which had several solos _concertante_. It went finely, however, at the first trial, to the great surprise of the composer.
"An hour after the dinner-music, the concert began. It was opened with a symphony of Mozart; then followed a recitative and air, sung by Simonetti; next a violincello concerto, played by Herr Romberger (Bernhard Romberg); fourthly, a symphony, by Pleyel; fifthly, an air by Righini, sung by Simonette; sixthly, a double concerto for violin and violoncello, played by the two Rombergs; and the closing piece was the symphony by Winneberger, which had very many brilliant passages. The opinion already expressed as to the performance of this orchestra was confirmed. It was not possible to attain a higher degree of exactness. Such perfection in the _pianos, fortes, rinforzandos_,--such a swelling and gradual increase of tone, and then such an almost imperceptible dying away, from the most powerful to the lightest accents,--all this was formerly to be heard only at Mannheim. It would be difficult to find another orchestra in which the violins and basses are throughout in such excellent hands."
We pass over Junker's enthusiastic description of the two Rombergs, merely remarking, that every word in his account of them is fully confirmed by the musical periodical press of Europe during the entire periods of thirty and fifty years of their respective lives after the date of the letter before us,--and that their playing was undoubtedly the standard Beethoven had in view, when afterward writing passages for bowed instruments, which so often proved stumbling-blocks to orchestras of no small pretensions. What Junker himself saw of the harmony and brotherly love which marked the social intercourse of the members of the Chapel was confirmed to him by the statements of others. He adds, respecting their personal bearing towards others,--"The demeanor of these gentlemen is very fine and unexceptionable. They are all people of great elegance of manner and of blameless lives. Greater discretion of conduct can nowhere be found. At the concert, the ill-starred performers were so crowded, so incommoded by the multitude of auditors, so surrounded and pressed upon, as hardly to have room to move their arms, and the sweat rolled down their faces in great drops. But they bore all this calmly and with good-humor; not an ill-natured face was visible among them. At the court of some little prince, we should have seen, under the circumstances, folly heaped upon folly.
"The members of the Chapel, almost without exception, are in their best years, glowing with health, men of culture and fine personal appearance. They form truly a fine sight, when one adds the splendid uniform in which the Elector has clothed them,--red, and richly trimmed with gold."
And now for the impression which Beethoven, just completing his twenty-first year, made upon him.
"I heard also one of the greatest of pianists,--the dear, good Beethoven, some compositions by whom appeared in the Spires 'Blumenlese' in 1783, written in his eleventh year. True, he did not perform in public, probably because the instrument here was not to his mind. It is one of Spath's make, and at Bonn he plays upon one by Steiner. But, what was infinitely preferable to me, I heard him extemporize in private; yes, I was even invited to propose a theme for him to vary. The greatness of this amiable, light-hearted man, as a virtuoso, may, in my opinion, be safely estimated from his almost inexhaustible wealth of ideas, the altogether characteristic style of expression in his playing, and the great execution which he displays. I know, therefore, no one thing which he lacks, that conduces to the greatness of an artist. I have heard Vogler upon the piano-forte,--of his organ-playing I say nothing, not having heard him upon that instrument,--have often heard him, heard him by the hour together, and never failed to wonder at his astonishing execution; but Beethoven, in addition to the execution, has greater clearness and weight of idea, and more expression,--in short, he is more for the heart,--equally great, therefore, as an adagio or allegro player. Even the members of this remarkable orchestra are, without exception, his admirers, and all ear whenever he plays. Yet he is exceedingly modest and free from all pretension. He, however, acknowledged to me, that, upon the journeys which the Elector had enabled him to make, he had seldom found in the playing of the most distinguished virtuosos that excellence which he supposed he had a right to expect. His style of treating his instrument is so different from that usually adopted, that it impresses one with the idea, that by a path of his own discovery he has attained that height of excellence whereon he now stands.
"Had I acceded to the pressing entreaties of my friend Beethoven, to which Herr Winneberger added his own, and remained another day in Mergentheim, I have no doubt he would have played to me hours; and the day, thus spent in the society of these two great artists, would have been transformed into a day of the highest bliss."
Doubtless, Herr Junker, judging from the enthusiasm with which you have written, it would have been so; and for our sake, as well as your own, we heartily wish you had remained!
Again in Bonn,--the young master's last year in his native city,--that _petite perle_. It was a fortunate circumstance for the development of a genius so powerful and original, that the place was not one of such importance as to call thither any composer or pianist of very great eminence,--such a one as would have ruled the musical sphere in which he moved, and become an object of imitation to the young student. Beethoven's instructors and the musical atmosphere in which he lived and wrought were fully able to ground him firmly in the laws and rules of the art, without restraining the natural bent of his genius. His taste for orchestral music, even, was developed in no particular school, formed upon no single model,--the Electoral band playing, with equal care and spirit, music from the presses of Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London. Mozart, however, was Beethoven's favorite, and his influence is unmistakably impressed upon many of the early compositions of his young admirer.
But the youthful genius was fast becoming so superior to all around him, that a wider field was necessary for his full development. He needed the opportunity to measure his powers with those of the men who stood, by general consent, at the head of the art; he felt the necessity of instruction by teachers of a different and higher character, if any could be found. Mozart, it is true, had just passed away, but still Vienna remained the great metropolis of music; and thither his hopes and wishes turned. An interview with Haydn added strength to these hopes and wishes. This was upon Haydn's return, in the spring of 1792, after his first visit to London, where he had composed for and directed in the concerts of that Johann Peter Salomon in whose house Beethoven first saw the light. The veteran composer, on his way home, came to Bonn, and there accepted an invitation from the Electoral Orchestra to a breakfast in Godesberg. Here Beethoven was introduced to him, and placed before him a cantata which he had offered for performance at Mergentheim, the preceding autumn, but which had proved too difficult for the wind-instruments in certain passages. Haydn examined it carefully, and encouraged him to continue in the path of musical composition. Neefe also hints to us that Haydn was greatly impressed by the skill of the young man as a piano-forte virtuoso.
Happily, Beethoven was now, as we have seen, free from the burden of supporting his young brothers, and needed but the means for his journey.
"In November of last year," writes Neefe, in 1793, "Ludwig van Beethoven, second court organist, and indisputably one of the first of living pianists, left Bonn for Vienna, to perfect himself in composition under Haydn. Haydn intended to take him with him upon a second journey to London, but nothing has come of it."
A few days or weeks, then, before completing his twenty-second year, Beethoven entered Vienna a second time, to enjoy the example and instructions of him who was now universally acknowledged the head of the musical world; to measure his powers upon the piano-forte with the greatest virtuosos then living; to start upon that career, in which, by unwearied labor, indomitable perseverance, and never-tiring effort,--alike under the smiles and the frowns of fortune, in sickness and in health, and in spite of the saddest calamity which can befall the true artist, he elevated himself to a position, which, by every competent judge, is held to be the highest yet attained in perhaps the grandest department of pure music.
Beethoven came to Vienna in the full vigor of youth just emerging into manhood. The clouds which had settled over his childhood had all passed away. All looked bright, joyous, and hopeful. Though, perhaps, wanting in some of the graces and refinements of polite life, it is clear, from his intimacy with the Breuning family, his consequent familiarity with the best society at Bonn, the unchanging kindness of Count Waldstein, the explicit testimony of Junker, that he was not, could not have been, the young savage which some of his blind admirers have represented him. The bare supposition is an insult to his memory. That his sense of probity and honor was most acute, that he was far above any, the slightest, meanness of thought or action, of a noble and magnanimous order of mind, utterly destitute of any feeling of servility which rendered it possible for him to cringe to the rich and the great, and that he ever acted from a deep sense of moral obligation,--all this his whole subsequent history proves. His merit, both as an artist and a man, met at once full recognition.
And here for the present we leave him, moving in Vienna, as in Bonn, in the higher circles of society, in the full sunshine of prosperity, enjoying all that his ardent nature could demand of esteem and admiration in the saloons of the great, in the society of his brother artists, in the popular estimation.