THE Shakespeare of the realm of music, as he has been called, first saw the light on December 16, 1770, in the little University town of Bonn, on the Rhine. His father, Johann Beethoven, belonged to the court band of the Elector of Cologne. The family were extremely poor. The little room, where the future great master was born, was so low, that a good-sized man could barely stand upright in it. Very small it was too, and not very light either, as it was at the back of the building and looked out on a walled garden.
The fame of young Mozart, who was acclaimed everywhere as a marvelous prodigy, had naturally reached the father’s ears. He decided to train the little Ludwig as a pianist, so that he should also be hailed as a prodigy and win fame and best of all money for the poverty-stricken family. So the tiny child was made to practice scales and finger exercises for hours together. He was a musically gifted child, but how he hated those everlasting tasks of finger technique, when he longed to join his little companions, who could run and play in the sunshine. If he stopped his practice to rest and dream a bit, the stern face of his father would appear at the doorway, and a harsh voice would call out, “Ludwig! what are you doing? Go on with your exercises at once. There will be no soup for you till they are finished.”
The father, though harsh and stern, wished his boy to have as thorough a knowledge of music as his means would permit. The boy was also sent to the public school, where he picked up reading and writing, but did not make friends very quickly with the other children. The fact was the child seemed wholly absorbed in music of music he dreamed constantly; in the companionship of music he never could be lonely.
When Ludwig was nine his father, regarding him with satisfaction and some pride, declared he could teach him no moreand another master must be found. Those childhood years of hard toil had resulted in remarkable progress, even with the sort of teaching he had received. The circumstances of the family had not improved, for poverty had become acute, as the father became more and more addicted to drink. Just at this time, a new lodger appeared, who was something of a musician, and arranged to teach the boy in part payment for his room. Ludwig wondered if he would turn out to be a more severe taskmaster than his father had been. The times and seasons when his instruction was given were at least unusual. Tobias Pfeiffer, as the new lodger was called, soon discovered that father Beethoven generally spent his evenings at the tavern. As an act of kindness, to keep his drunken landlord out of the way of the police, Tobias used to go to the tavern late at night and bring him safely home. Then he would go to the bedside of the sleeping boy, and awake him by telling him it was time for practice. The two would go to the living room, where they would play together for several hours, improvising on original themes and playing duets. This went on for about a year; meanwhile Ludwig studied Latin, French, Italian and logic. He also had organ lessons.
Things were going from bad to worse in the Beethoven home, and in the hope of bettering these unhappy conditions, Frau Beethoven undertook a trip through Holland with her boy, hoping that his playing in the homes of the wealthy might produce some money. The tour was successful in that it relieved the pressing necessities of the moment, but the sturdy, independent spirit of the boy showed itself even then. “The Dutch are very stingy, and I shall take care not to trouble them again,” he remarked to a friend.
The boy Ludwig could play the organ fairly well, as he had studied it with Christian Neefe, who was organist at the Court church. He also could play the piano with force and finish, read well at sight and knew nearly the whole of Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavichord.” This was a pretty good record for a boy of 11, who, if he went on as he had begun, it was said, would become a second Mozart.
Neefe was ordered to proceed with the Elector and Court to Minster, which meant to leave his organ in Bonn for a time. Before starting he called Ludwig to him and told him of his in-tended absence. “I must have an assistant to take my place at the organ here. Whom do you think I should appoint?” Seeing the boy had no inkling of his meaning, he continued : “I have thought of an assistant, one I am sure I can trust,and that is you, Ludwig.”
The honor was great, for a boy of eleven and a half. To conduct the service, and receive the respect and deference due the position, quite overwhelmed the lad. Honors of this kind were very pleasant, but, alas, there was no money attached to the position, and this was what the straitened family needed most sorely. The responsibilities of the position and the confidence of Neefe spurred Ludwig on to a passion of work which nothing could check. He began to compose; three sonatas for the pianoforte were written about this time. Before completing his thirteenth year, Ludwig obtained his first official appointment from the Elector; he became what is called cembalist in the orchestra, which meant that he had to play the piano in the orchestra, and conduct the band at rehearsals. With this appointment there was no salary attached either, and it was not until a year later when he was made second organist to the Court, under the new Elector, Max Franz, that he began to receive a small salary, equal to about sixty-five dollars a year. We have seen that the straits of the family had not prevented Ludwig from pursuing his musical studies with great ardor. With his present attainments and his ambition for higher achievements, he longed to leave the little town of Bonn, and see something of the great world. Vienna was the center of the musical life of Germany; the boy dreamed of this magical city by day as. he went about his routine of work, and by night as he lay on his poor narrow cot. Like Haydn, Vienna was the goal of his ambition. When a kind friend, knowing his great longing, came forward with an offer to pay the expenses of the journey, the lad knew his dream was to become a reality. In Vienna he would see the first composers of the day; best of all he would see and meet the divine Mozart, the greatest of them all.
Ludwig, now seventeen, set out for the city of his dreams with the brightest anticipations. On his arrival in Vienna he went at once to Mozart’s house. He was received most kindly and asked to play, but Mozart seemed preoccupied and paid but little attention. Ludwig, seeing this stopped playing and asked for a theme on which to improvise. Mozart gave a simple theme, and Beethoven, taking the slender thread, worked it up with so much feeling and power, that Mozart, who was now all attention and astonishment, stepped into the next room, where some friends were waiting for him, and said, “Pay attention to this young man; he will make a noise in the world some day.”
Shortly after his return home he was saddened by the loss of his good, kind, patient mother, and a few months later his little sister Margaretha passed away. No doubt these sorrows were expressed in some of his most beautiful compositions. But brighter days followed the dark ones. He became acquainted with the Breuning family, a widow lady and four children, three boys and a girl, all young people. The youngest boy and the girl became his pupils, and all were very fond of him. He would stay at their house for days at a time and was always treated as one of the family. They were cultured people, and in their society Beethoven’s whole nature expanded. He began to take an interest in the literature of his own country and in English authors as well. All his spare time was given to reading and composition. A valuable acquaintance with the young Count Von Waldstein was made about this time. The Count called one day and found the composer at his old worn out piano, surrounded by signs of abject poverty. It went to his heart to see that the young man, whose music he so greatly ad-mired should have to struggle for the bare necessities of life while he himself enjoyed every luxury. It seemed to him terribly unjust. He feared to offend the composer’s self-respect by sending him money, but shortly after the call Beethoven was made happy by the gift of a fine new piano, in place of his old one. He was very grateful for this friendship and later dedicated to the Count one of his finest sonatas, the Op. 53, known as the “Waldstein Sonata.”
With a view of aiding the growth of the opera, and operatic art, the Elector founded a national theater, and Beethoven was appointed viola player in the orchestra besides still being assistant organist in the chapel. In July, 1792, the band arranged a reception for Haydn, who was to pass through Bonn on his way from London, where be had had a wonderful success, to his home in Vienna. Beethoven seized the opportunity to show the master a cantata he had just composed. Haydn praised the work and greatly encouraged the young musician to go forward in his studies. The Elector, hearing of Haydn’s words of praise, felt that Beethoven should have the chance to develop his talents that he might be able to produce greater works. Therefore he decided to send the young composer, at his own expense, to study strict counterpoint with Haydn. He was now twenty-two and his compositions already published had brought him considerable fame and appreciation in his vicinity. Now he was to have wider scope for his gifts.
He bade farewell to Bonn in November of this year and set out a second time for the city of his dreams-Vienna. He was never to see Bonn again. He arrived in Vienna comparatively unknown, but his fine piano playing and wonderful gift for improvising greatly impressed all who heard him. He constantly played in the homes of the wealthy aristocracy. Many who heard him play, engaged lessons and he was well on the road to social success. Yet his brusque manners often antagonized his patrons. He made no effort to please or conciliate; he was obstinate and self-willed. In spite of all this, the innate nobleness and truth of his character retained the regard of men and women belonging to the highest ranks of society. With the Prince and Princess Lichnowsky Beethoven shortly became very intimate, and was invited to stay at the Palace. The Princess looked after his personal comfort with as motherly an affection as Madame Breuning had done. The etiquette of the Palace however, offended Ludwig’s love of Bohemianism, especially the dressing for dinner at a certain time. He took to dining at a tavern quite frequently, and finally engaged lodgings. The Prince and his good lady, far from taking offense at this unmannerly behavior, forgave it and always kept for Beethoven a warm place in their hearts, while he, on his part was sincere in his affection for his kind friends.
Beethoven began his lessons with Haydn, but they did not seem to get on well together. The pupil thought the master did not give him enough time and attention. When Haydn went to England, about a year after the lessons began, Beethoven studied with several of the best musicians of the city, both in playing and composition. Albrechtsberger, one of these, was a famous contrapuntist of his time, and the student gained much from his teaching. The young musician was irresistible when he seated himself at the piano to extemporize. “His improvisating was most brilliant and striking,” wrote Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven. “In whatever company he might be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon the listeners that frequently all eyes would be wet, and some listeners would sob ; there was something wonderful in his expressive style, the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited way of playing.” Strange to say the emotion he roused in his hearers seemed to find no response in Beethoven himself. He would sometimes laugh at it, at other times he would resent it, saying, “We artists don’t want tears, we want applause.” These expressions however only concealed his inner feelingsfor he was very sympathetic with those friends he loved. His anger, though sharp, was of short duration, but his suspicions of those whose confidence he had won by his genius and force of character, were the cause of much suffering to himself and others.
Beethoven in appearance was short and stockily built; his face was not at all good looking. It is said he was generally meanly dressed and was homely, but full of nobility, fine feeling and highly cultivated. The eyes were black and bright, and they dilated, when the composer was lost in thought, in a way that made him look in-spired. A mass of dark hair surmounted a high broad forehead. He often looked gloomy, but when he smiled it was with a radiant brightness. His hands were strong and the fingers short and pressed out with much practise. He was very particular about hand position when playing. As a conductor he made many movements, and is said to have crouched below the desk in soft passages; in crescendos he would gradually lift himself up until at the loudest parts he would rise to his full height with arms extended, even springing into the air, as though he would float in space.
Beethoven as a teacher, showed none of the impatience and carelessness that were seen in his personal habits. He insisted on a pupil repeating the passage carefully a number of times, until it could be played to his satisfaction. He did not seem to mind a few wrong notes, but the pupil must not fail to grasp the meaning or put in the right expression, or his anger would be aroused. The first was an accident, the other would be a lack of knowledge of feeling.
Beethoven loved nature as much or more than any musician ever did. How he hailed the spring because he knew the time would soon come when he could close the door of his lodgings in the hot city, and slip away to some quiet spot and hold sweet communion with nature. A forest was a paradise, where he could ramble among the trees and dream Or he would select a tree where a forking branch would form a seat near the ground. He would climb up and sit in it for hours, lost in thought. Leaning against the trunk of a lime tree, his eyes fixed upon the network of leaves and branches above him, he sketched the plan of his oratorio “The Mount of Olives”; also that of his one opera “Fidelio,” and the third Symphony, known as the “Eroica.” He wrote to a friend, “No man loves the country more than I. Woods, trees and rocks give the response which man requires. Every tree seems to say ‘ Holy, holy.’ ”
Already, as a young man, symptoms of deafness began to appear, and the fear of becoming a victim of this malady made the composer more sensitive than ever. He was not yet thirty when this happened, and believing his life work at an end, he became deeply depressed. Various treatments were tried for increasing deafness; at one time it seemed to be cured by the skill of Dr. Schmidt, to whom out of gratitude he dedicated his Septet, arranged as a Trio. By his advice the composer went for the summer of 1820 to the little village of Heiligenstadt (which means Holy City) in the hope that the calm, sweet environment would act as a balm to his troubled mind. During this period of rest and quiet his health improved somewhat, but from now on he had to give up conducting his works, on account of his deafness.
It may be thought that one so reticent and re-tiring, of such hasty temper and brusque manners, would scarcely be attracted to women. But Beethoven, it is said, was very susceptible to the charm of the opposite sex. He was however, most careful and high-souled in all his relations with women. He was frequently in love, but it was usually a Platonic affection. For the Countess Julie Guicciardi he protested the most passionate love, which was in a measure returned. She was doubtless his “immortal be-loved,” whose name vibrates through the Adagio of the “Moonlight Sonata,” which is dedicated to her. He wrote her the most adoring letters; but the union, which he seemed to desire so in-tensely, was never brought about, though the reason is not known. For Bettina von Arnim, Goethe’s little friend, he conceived a tender affection. Another love of his was for the Countess Marie Erdödy, to whom he dedicated the two fine Trios, Op. 70, but this was also a purely Platonic affection. The composer was unfortunate in his attachments, for the objects were always of a much higher social standing than himself. As he constantly associated with people of rank and culture, it was natural that the young girl nobly born, with all the fascinations of the high bred aristocrat, should attract him far more than the ordinary woman of his own class. And thus it happened that several times he staked his chances of happiness on a love he knew could never be consummated. Yet no one needed a kind, helpful, sympathetic wife more than did our poet-musician. She would have soothed his sensitive soul when he suffered from fancied wrongs, shielded him from intrusion, shared his sorrows and triumphs, and at-tended to his housekeeping arrangements, which were always in a sad state of confusion.
This blissful state was seemingly not for him. It was best for the great genius to devote himself wholly to his divine art, and to create those masterpieces which will always endure.
In 1804 Beethoven completed one of his greatest symphonies, the “Eroica.” He made a sketch, as we have seen, two years before. He had intended it to honor Napoleon, to whose character and career he was greatly attracted. But when Napoleon entered Paris in triumph and was proclaimed Emperor, Beethoven’s worship was turned to contempt. He seized the symphony, tore the little page to shreds and flung the work to the other end of the room. It was a long time before he would look at the music again, but finally, he consented to publish it under the title by which it is now known.
When we consider the number and greatness of Beethoven’s compositions we stand aghast at the amount of labor he accomplished. “I live only in my music,” he wrote, “and no sooner is one thing done than the next is begun. I often work at two or three things at once.” Music was his language of expression, and through his music we can reach his heart and know the man as he really was. At heart he was a man cap-able of loving deeply and most worthy to be loved.
Of the composer’s two brothers, one had passed away and had left his boy Carl, named after himself, as a solemn charge, to be brought up by Uncle Ludwig as his own son. The composer took up this task generously and unselfishly. He was happy to have the little lad near him, one of his own kin to love. But as Carl grew to young manhood he proved to be utterly unworthy of all this affection. He treated his good uncle shamefully, stole money from him., though he had been always generously supplied with it, and became a disgrace to the family. There is no doubt that his nephew’s dissolute habits saddened the master’s life, estranged him from his friends and hastened his death.
How simple and modest was this great master, in face of his mighty achievements ! He wrote to a friend in 1824: “I feel as if I had scarcely written more than a few notes.” These later years had been more than full of work and anxiety. Totally deaf, entirely thrown in upon himself, often weak and ill, the master kept on creating work after work of the highest beauty and grandeur.
Ludwig van Beethoven passed from this plane March 26, 1827, having recently completed his fifty-sixth year, and was laid to rest in the Waring Cemetery near Vienna. Unlike Mozart, he was buried with much honor. Twenty thousand people followed him to his grave. Among them was Schubert, who had visited him on his deathbed, and was one of the torch bearers. Several of the Master’s compositions were sung by a choir of male voices, accompanied by trombones. At the grave Hummel laid three laurel wreaths on the casket.