Beethoven and his loss of hearing

Beethoven Deaf by Artigas

Around 1796, by the age of 26, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered from a severe form of tinnitus, a “ringing” in his ears that made it hard for him to hear music; he also avoided conversation. The cause of Beethoven’s deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to typhus, auto-immune disorders (such as systemic lupus erythematosus), and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The explanation from Beethoven’s autopsy was that he had a “distended inner ear,” which developed lesions over time.

As early as 1801, Beethoven wrote to friends describing his symptoms and the difficulties they caused in both professional and social settings (although it is likely some of his close friends were already aware of the problems). Beethoven, on the advice of his doctor, lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, from April to October 1802 in an attempt to come to terms with his condition. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers which records his thoughts of suicide due to his growing deafness and records his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Over time, his hearing loss became profound: there is a well-attested story that, at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience; hearing nothing, he wept. Beethoven’s hearing loss did not prevent his composing music, but it made playing at concerts—a lucrative source of income—increasingly difficult. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”), which was premiered by his student Carl Czerny, he never performed in public again.

A large collection of Beethoven’s hearing aids, such as a special ear horn, can be viewed at the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, Germany. Despite his obvious distress, Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. By 1814 however, Beethoven was almost totally deaf, and when a group of visitors saw him play a loud arpeggio of thundering bass notes at his piano remarking, “Ist es nicht schön?” (Is it not beautiful?), they felt deep sympathy considering his courage and sense of humor (he lost the ability to hear higher frequencies first).

As a result of Beethoven’s hearing loss, his conversation books are an unusually rich written resource. Used primarily in the last ten or so years of his life, his friends wrote in these books so that he could know what they were saying, and he then responded either orally or in the book. The books contain discussions about music and other matters, and give insights into Beethoven’s thinking; they are a source for investigations into how he intended his music should be performed, and also his perception of his relationship to art. Out of a total of 400 conversation books, it has been suggested that 264 were destroyed (and others were altered) after Beethoven’s death by Anton Schindler, who wished only an idealised biography of the composer to survive.

Requiem (Mozart)

Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was composed in Vienna in 1791 and left unfinished at the composer’s death on December 5. A completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr was delivered to Count Franz von Walsegg, who had anonymously commissioned the piece for a requiem Mass to commemorate the February 14 anniversary of his wife’s death. It is one of the most enigmatic pieces of music ever composed, mostly because of the myths and controversies surrounding it, especially around how much of the piece was completed by Mozart before his death. The autograph manuscript shows the finished and orchestrated introit in Mozart’s hand, as well as detailed drafts of the Kyrie and the sequence Dies Irae as far as the first nine bars of “Lacrimosa”, and the offertory. It cannot be shown to what extent Süssmayr may have depended on now lost “scraps of paper” for the remainder; he later claimed the Sanctus and Agnus Dei as his own. Walsegg probably intended to pass the Requiem off as his own composition, as he is known to have done with other works. This plan was frustrated by a public benefit performance for Mozart’s widow Constanze. A modern contribution to the mythology is Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, in which a mysterious messenger appeared and ordered Mozart to write a requiem mass, giving no explanation for the order. Mozart then came to believe that the piece was meant to be the requiem mass for his own funeral.

Composition

At the time of Mozart’s death on 5 December 1791, only the opening movement (Requiem aeternam) was completed in all of the orchestral and vocal parts. The following Kyrie and most of the sequence (from Dies Irae to Confutatis) were complete only in the vocal parts and the continuo (the figured organ bass), though occasionally some of the prominent orchestral parts were briefly indicated, such as the violin part of the Confutatis and the musical bridges in the Recordare. The last movement of the sequence, the Lacrimosa, breaks off after only eight bars and was unfinished. The following two movements of the Offertorium were again partially done; the Domine Jesu Christe in the vocal parts and continuo (up until the fugue, which contains some indications of the violin part) and the Hostias in the vocal parts only.

Constanze Mozart and the Requiem after Mozart’s death

The eccentric count Franz von Walsegg commissioned the Requiem from Mozart anonymously through intermediaries. The count, an amateur chamber musician who routinely commissioned works by composers and passed them off as his own, wanted a Requiem Mass he could claim he composed to memorialize the recent passing of his wife. Mozart received only half of the payment in advance, so upon his death his widow Constanze was keen to have the work completed secretly by someone else, submit it to the count as having been completed by Mozart and collect the final payment. Joseph von Eybler was one of the first composers to be asked to complete the score, and had worked on the movements from the Dies irae up until the Lacrimosa. In addition, a striking similarity between the openings of the Domine Jesu Christe movements in the requiems of the two composers suggests that Eybler at least looked at later sections. Following this work, he felt unable to complete the remainder, and gave the manuscript back to Constanze Mozart. The task was then given to another composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr borrowed some of Eybler’s work in making his completion, and added his own orchestration to the movements from the Kyrie onward, completed the Lacrimosa, and added several new movements which a Requiem would normally comprise: Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. He then added a final section, Lux aeterna by adapting the opening two movements which Mozart had written to the different words which finish the Requiem Mass, which according to both Süssmayr and Mozart’s wife was done according to Mozart’s directions. Whether or not that is true, some people[who?] consider it unlikely that Mozart would have repeated the opening two sections if he had survived to finish the work completely. Other composers may have helped Süssmayr. The Agnus Dei is suspected by some scholar to have been based on instruction or sketches from Mozart because of its similarity to a section from the Gloria of a previous Mass (Sparrow Mass, K. 220) by Mozart, as was first pointed out by Richard Maunder. Others have pointed out that in the beginning of the Agnus Dei the choral bass quotes the main theme from the Introitus. Many of the arguments[citation needed] dealing with this matter, though, center on the perception that if part of the work is high quality, it must have been written by Mozart (or from sketches), and if part of the work contains errors and faults, it must have been all Süssmayr’s doing. A frequent meta-debate[citation needed] is whether or not this is a fair way to judge the authorship of the parts of the work. Another controversy is the suggestion that Mozart left explicit instructions for the completion of the Requiem on “little scraps of paper.” It is commonly believed[by whom?] this claim was made by Constanze Mozart after it was public knowledge that the Requiem was actually completed by Süssmayr as a way to increase the impression of authenticity. The completed score, initially by Mozart but largely finished by Süssmayr, was then dispatched to Count Walsegg complete with a counterfeited signature of Mozart and dated 1792. The various complete and incomplete manuscripts eventually turned up in the 19th century, but many of the figures involved did not leave unambiguous statements on record as to how they were involved in the affair. Despite the controversy over how much of the music is actually Mozart’s, the commonly performed Süssmayr version has become widely accepted by the public. This acceptance is quite strong, even when alternate completions provide logical and compelling solutions for the work. A completion dating from 1819 by Sigismund Neukomm has been recorded under the baton of Jean-Claude Malgoire. Salzburg-born Neukomm, a student of Joseph Haydn, provided a concluding Libera me, Domine for a performance of the Requiem on the feast of St Cecilia in Rio de Janeiro at the behest of Nunes Garcia. The confusion surrounding the circumstances of the Requiem’s composition was created in a large part by Mozart’s wife, Constanze[citation needed]. Constanze had a difficult task in front of her. She had to keep secret the fact that the Requiem was unfinished at Mozart’s death, so she could collect the final payment from the commission. For a period of time, she also needed to keep secret the fact that Süssmayr had anything to do with the composition of the Requiem at all in order to allow Count Walsegg the impression that Mozart wrote the work entirely himself. Once she received the commission, she needed to carefully promote the work as Mozart’s so she could continue to receive revenue from the work’s publication and performance. During this phase of the Requiem’s history, it was still important that the public accept that Mozart wrote the whole piece, as it would fetch larger sums from publishers and the public if it were completely by Mozart. It is Constanze’s efforts that created the flurry of half-truths and myths almost instantly after Mozart’s death. According to Constanze, Mozart declared that he was composing the Requiem for himself, and that he had been poisoned. His symptoms worsened, and he began to complain about the painful swelling of his body and high fever. Nevertheless, Mozart continued his work on the Requiem, and even on the last day of his life, he was explaining to his assistant how he intended to finish the Requiem. Source materials written soon after Mozart’s death contain serious discrepancies which leave a level of subjectivity when assembling the “facts” about Mozart’s composition of the Requiem. For example, at least three of the conflicting sources, both dated within two decades following Mozart’s death, cite Constanze as their primary source of interview information. In 1798, Friedrich Rochlitz, the German biographical author and amateur composer, published a set of Mozart anecdotes which he claimed to have collected during his meeting with Constanze in 1796. The Rochlitz publication makes the following statements:

  • Mozart was unaware of his commissioner’s identity at the time he accepted the project.
  • He was not bound to any date of completion of the work
  • He stated that it would take him around four weeks to complete.
  • He requested, and received, 100 ducats at the time of the first commissioning message.
  • He began the project immediately after receiving the commission.
  • His health was poor from the outset; he fainted multiple times while working
  • He took a break from writing the work to visit the Prater with his wife.
  • He shared with his wife that for certain he was writing this piece for his own funeral.
  • He spoke of “very strange thoughts” regarding the unpredicted appearance and commission of this unknown man.
  • He noted that the departure of Leopold to Prague for the coronation was approaching.

The most highly disputed of these claims is the last one, the chronology of this setting. According to Rochlitz, the messenger arrives quite some time before the departure of Leopold for the coronation, yet we have record of his departure occurring in mid-July 1791. However, Constanze was in Baden during all of June to mid-July, she would not have been present for the commission or the drive they were said to have taken together. Furthermore, The Magic Flute (except for the Overture and March of the Priests) was completed by mid-July. La clemenza di Tito was commissioned by mid-July. There was no time for Mozart to work on the Requiem on the large scale indicated by the Rochlitz publication in the time frame provided. Also in 1798, Constanze is noted to have given another interview to Franz Xaver Niemetschek, another biographer looking to publish a compendium of Mozart’s life. He published his biography in 1808, containing a number of claims about Mozart’s receipt of the Requiem commission:

  • Mozart received the commission very shortly before the Coronation of Emperor Leopold II, and before he received the commission to go to Prague.
  • He did not accept the messenger’s request immediately; he wrote the commissioner and agreed to the project stating his fee, but urging that he could not predict the time required to complete the work.
  • The same messenger appeared later, paying Mozart the sum requested plus a note promising a bonus at the work’s completion.
  • He started composing the work upon his return from Prague.
  • He fell ill while writing the work
  • He told Constanze “I am only too conscious…my end will not be long in coming: for sure, someone has poisoned me! I cannot rid my mind of this thought.”
  • Constanze thought that the Requiem was overstraining him; she called the doctor and took away the score.

On the day of his death he had the score brought to his bed. The messenger took the unfinished Requiem soon after Mozart’s death. Constanze never learned the commissioner’s name. This account, too, has fallen under scrutiny and criticism for its accuracy. According to letters, Constanze most certainly knew the name of the commissioner by the time this interview was released in 1800. Additionally, the Requiem was not given to the messenger until some time after Mozart’s death. This interview contains the only account of the claim that Constanze took the Requiem away from Wolfgang for a significant duration during his composition of it from Constanze herself. Otherwise, the timeline provided in this account is historically probable. However, the most highly accepted text attributed to Constanze is the interview to her second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen. After Nissen’s death in 1826, Constanze released the biography of Wolfgang (1828) that Nissen had compiled, which included this interview. Nissen states:

  • Mozart received the commission shortly before the coronation of Emperor Leopold and before he received the commission to go to Prague.
  • He did not accept the messenger’s request immediately; he wrote the commissioner and agreed to the project stating his fee, but urging that he could not predict the time required to complete the work.
  • The same messenger appeared later, paying Mozart the sum requested plus a note promising a bonus at the work’s completion.
  • He started composing the work upon his return from Prague.
  • The Nissen publication lacks information following Mozart’s return from Prague.

Mozart circa 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Quotes

“Eine kleine Nachmusik”

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius. 
I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings. 

 
Nevertheless the passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music. 

 
It is a great consolation for me to remember that the Lord, to whom I had drawn near in humble and child-like faith, has suffered and died for me, and that He will look on me in love and compassion. 

 
I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. 

 
When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly. 

 
One must not make oneself cheap here – that is a cardinal point – or else one is done. Whoever is most impertinent has the best chance. 

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791), was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era.

Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty. At 17, he was engaged as a court musician in Salzburg, but grew restless and travelled in search of a better position, always composing abundantly. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he was dismissed from his Salzburg position. He chose to stay in the capital, where he achieved fame but little financial security. During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known symphonies, concertos, and operas, and portions of the Requiem, which was largely unfinished at the time of his death. The circumstances of his early death have been much mythologized. He was survived by his wife Constanze and two sons.

Mozart learned voraciously from others, and developed a brilliance and maturity of style that encompassed the light and graceful along with the dark and passionate. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers, and his influence on subsequent Western art music is profound; Beethoven composed his own early works in the shadow of Mozart, and Joseph Haydn wrote that “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.”

Biography

Family and early years

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born to Leopold Mozart (1719–1787) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720–1778), at 9 Getreidegasse in Salzburg, capital of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, a former ecclesiastical principality in what is now Austria, but then was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. He was the youngest of seven children, five of them who died in infancy. His elder sister was Maria Anna (1751–1829), nicknamed “Nannerl”. Mozart was baptized the day after his birth at St. Rupert's Cathedral. The baptismal record gives his name in Latinized form as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. He generally called himself “Wolfgang Amadè Mozart” as an adult, but there were many variants.

Leopold Mozart, a native of Augsburg, was a minor composer and an experienced teacher. In 1743, he was appointed as fourth violinist in the musical establishment of Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Four years later, he married Anna Maria in Salzburg. Leopold became the orchestra's deputy Kapellmeister in 1763. During the year of his son's birth, Leopold published a violin textbook, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which achieved success.

When Nannerl was seven, she began keyboard lessons with her father while her three-year-old brother looked on. Years later, after her brother's death, she reminisced:

He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good. […] In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier. […] He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time. […] At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.

These early pieces, K. 1–5, were recorded in the Nannerl Notenbuch.

Biographer Maynard Solomon notes that, while Leopold was a devoted teacher to his children, there is evidence that Mozart was keen to progress beyond what he was taught. His first ink-spattered composition and his precocious efforts with the violin were of his own initiative and came as a surprise to his father. Leopold eventually gave up composing when his son's musical talents became evident. In his early years, Mozart's father was his only teacher. Along with music, he also taught his children languages and academic subjects.

Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven)

Ludwig van Beethoven

The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best-known works of the Western classical repertoire. Among critics, it is almost universally considered to be among Beethoven’s greatest works, and is considered by some to be the greatest piece of music ever written. It has been adapted for use as the European Anthem.

The symphony was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony (thus making it a choral symphony). The words are sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and a chorus. They were taken from the “Ode to Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with additions made by the composer.

Composition

Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he composed his ninth symphony.
The Philharmonic Society of London originally commissioned the symphony in 1817.[citation needed] The main composition work was done between autumn 1822 and the completion of the autograph in February 1824.[3] However, both the words and notes of the symphony have sources dating from earlier in Beethoven’s career.

The title of Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” is literally translated as “To Joy”, but is normally called the “Ode to Joy”. It was written in 1785 and first published the following year in the poet’s own literary journal, Thalia. Beethoven had made plans to set this poem to music as far back as 1793, when he was 22 years old.

Beethoven’s sketchbooks show that bits of musical material that ultimately appeared in the symphony were written in 1811 and 1817.[citation needed]

In addition, the symphony also emerged from other pieces by Beethoven that, while completed works in their own right, are also in some sense sketches for the future symphony. The Choral Fantasy Opus. 80 (1808), basically a piano concerto movement, brings in a chorus and vocal soloists near the end to form the climax. As in the Ninth Symphony, the vocal forces sing a theme first played instrumentally, and this theme is highly reminiscent of the corresponding theme in the Ninth Symphony (for a detailed comparison, see Choral Fantasy). Going further back, an earlier version of the Choral Fantasy theme is found in the song “Gegenliebe” (“Returned Love”), for piano and high voice, which dates from before 1795. According to Robert W. Gutman, Mozart’s K. 222 Offertory in D minor, “Misericordias Domini,” written in 1775, contains a melody that foreshadows “Ode to Joy”.

The theme for the scherzo can be traced back to a fugue written in 1815.

The introduction for the vocal part of the symphony caused many difficulties for Beethoven. Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler, later said: “When he started working on the fourth movement the struggle began as never before. The aim was to find an appropriate way of introducing Schiller’s ode. One day he [Beethoven] entered the room and shouted ‘I got it, I just got it!’ Then he showed me a sketchbook with the words ‘let us sing the ode of the immortal Schiller'”.[citation needed] However, Beethoven did not retain this version, and kept rewriting until he had found its final form, with the words “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (“O friends, not these tones”).

Premiere

Beethoven was eager to have his work played in Berlin as soon as possible after finishing it, since he thought that musical taste in Vienna was dominated by Italian composers such as Rossini. When his friends and financiers heard this, they urged him to premiere the symphony in Vienna.

The Ninth Symphony was premiered on 7 May 1824 in the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, along with the Consecration of the House Overture and the first three parts of the Missa Solemnis. This was the composer’s first on-stage appearance in 12 years; the hall was packed. The soprano and alto parts were interpreted by two famous young singers: Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger.

Although the performance was officially directed by Michael Umlauf, the theatre’s Kapellmeister, Beethoven shared the stage with him. However, two years earlier, Umlauf had watched as the composer’s attempt to conduct a dress rehearsal of his opera Fidelio ended in disaster. So this time, he instructed the singers and musicians to ignore the totally deaf Beethoven. At the beginning of every part, Beethoven, who sat by the stage, gave the tempos. He was turning the pages of his score and beating time for an orchestra he could not hear.

There are a number of anecdotes about the premiere of the Ninth. Based on the testimony of the participants, there are suggestions that it was under-rehearsed (there were only two full rehearsals) and rather scrappy in execution. On the other hand, the premiere was a great success. In any case, Beethoven was not to blame, as violinist Josef Böhm recalled: “Beethoven directed the piece himself; that is, he stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground, he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus. All the musicians minded his rhythm alone while playing”.

When the audience applauded—testimonies differ over whether at the end of the scherzo or the whole symphony—Beethoven was several measures off and still conducting. Because of that, the contralto Caroline Unger walked over and turned Beethoven around to accept the audience’s cheers and applause. According to one witness, “the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them.” The whole audience acclaimed him through standing ovations five times; there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven Quotes

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

  • Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. 
  • Only the pure in heart can make a good soup. 
  • Nothing is more intolerable than to have to admit to yourself your own errors. 
  • Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. 
  • What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven. 
  • Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears form the eyes of woman. 
  • Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. 
  • Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience. 
  • Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life. 
  • Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart, and cannot make a good soup. 
  • Recommend to your children virtue; that alone can make them happy, not gold. 
  • This is the mark of a really admirable man: steadfastness in the face of trouble. 
  • Music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. 
  • Friends applaud, the comedy is over. 
  • Beethoven can write music, thank God, but he can do nothing else on earth. 
  •  A great poet is the most precious jewel of a nation. 
  • Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess? 
  • The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, “Thus far and no farther.” 
  • Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes. 
  • Off with you! You’re a happy fellow, for you’ll give happiness and joy to many other people. There is nothing better or greater than that! 

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.