Beethoven – Background and Early Life

A bust based upon Beethoven’s life mask

Beethoven was the grandson of a musician of Flemish origin named Lodewijk van Beethoven (1712–73) who moved at the age of twenty to Bonn. Lodewijk (Ludwig is the German cognate of Dutch Lodewijk) was employed as a bass singer at the court of the Elector of Cologne, eventually rising to become Kapellmeister (music director). Lodewijk had one son, Johann (1740–1792), who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment, and gave lessons on piano and violin to supplement his income. Johann married Maria Magdalena Keverich in 1767; she was the daughter of Johann Heinrich Keverich, who had been the head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier.

Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn. There is no authentic record of the date of his birth; however, the registry of his baptism, in a Roman Catholic service at the Parish of St. Regius on 17 December 1770, survives. As children of that era were traditionally baptised the day after birth in the Catholic Rhine country, and it is known that Beethoven’s family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on 16 December, most scholars accept 16 December 1770 as Beethoven’s date of birth. Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers survived infancy. Caspar Anton Carl was born on 8 April 1774, and Nikolaus Johann, the youngest, was born on 2 October 1776.

Beethoven’s first music teacher was his father. Although tradition has it that Johann van Beethoven was a harsh instructor, and that the child Beethoven, “made to stand at the keyboard, was often in tears,” the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians claimed that no solid documentation supported this, and asserted that “speculation and myth-making have both been productive.” Beethoven had other local teachers: the court organist Gilles van den Eeden (d. 1782), Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer (a family friend, who taught Beethoven the piano), and Franz Rovantini (a relative, who instructed him in playing the violin and viola). Beethoven’s musical talent was obvious at a young age. Johann, aware of Leopold Mozart’s successes in this area (with son Wolfgang and daughter Nannerl), attempted to exploit his son as a child prodigy, claiming that Beethoven was six (he was seven) on the posters for Beethoven’s first public performance in March 1778.

Some time after 1779, Beethoven began his studies with his most important teacher in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was appointed the Court’s Organist in that year. Neefe taught Beethoven composition, and by March 1783 had helped him write his first published composition: a set of keyboard variations.Beethoven soon began working with Neefe as assistant organist, at first unpaid (1781), and then as a paid employee (1784) of the court chapel conducted by the Kapellmeister Andrea Luchesi. His first three piano sonatas, named “Kurfürst” (“Elector”) for their dedication to the Elector Maximilian Frederick (1708–1784), were published in 1783. Maximilian Frederick noticed Beethoven’s talent early, and subsidised and encouraged the young man’s musical studies.

Maximilian Frederick’s successor as the Elector of Bonn was Maximilian Franz, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and he brought notable changes to Bonn. Echoing changes made in Vienna by his brother Joseph, he introduced reforms based on Enlightenment philosophy, with increased support for education and the arts. The teenage Beethoven was almost certainly influenced by these changes. He may also have been influenced at this time by ideas prominent in freemasonry, as Neefe and others around Beethoven were members of the local chapter of the Order of the Illuminati.

In March 1787 Beethoven traveled to Vienna (possibly at another’s expense) for the first time, apparently in the hope of studying with Mozart. The details of their relationship are uncertain, including whether or not they actually met. After just two weeks Beethoven learned that his mother was severely ill, and returned home. His mother died shortly thereafter, and the father lapsed deeper into alcoholism. As a result, Beethoven became responsible for the care of his two younger brothers, and he spent the next five years in Bonn.

Beethoven was introduced to several people who became important in his life in these years. Franz Wegeler, a young medical student, introduced him to the von Breuning family (one of whose daughters Wegeler eventually married). Beethoven often visited the von Breuning household, where he taught piano to some of the children. Here he encountered German and classical literature. The von Breuning family environment was less stressful than his own, which was increasingly dominated by his father’s decline. Beethoven also came to the attention of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who became a lifelong friend and financial supporter.

In 1789 Beethoven obtained a legal order by which half of his father’s salary was paid directly to him for support of the family. He also contributed further to the family’s income by playing viola in the court orchestra. This familiarised Beethoven with a variety of operas, including three by Mozart that were performed at court in this period. He also befriended Anton Reicha, a flautist and violinist of about his own age who was a nephew of the court orchestra’s conductor, Josef Reicha.

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