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Classical Music

Tracing Beethoven's steps in Bonn

Visitors can wander through the tree-lined streets of where Beethoven spent his childhood and youth. It's a travel back in time in the composer's birth city, though a number of things have been lost along the way.

An afternoon in September: We leave the winding streets of Bonn's old town and enter St. Remigius Church. The stillness in the sole Gothic church in the city is calming, while the autumn sunlight glitters through high, narrow windows. It was here, on December 17, 1770, that the second child of a local musical family - the van Beethoven's - was christened with the name Ludwig.

A portrait of Beethoven at 13
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Beethoven http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Thirteen-year-old_Beethoven.jpg

Ludwig van Beethoven at the age of 13

Ludwig was also the name of his grandfather - himself a singer and choir leader. Hailing from the Flemish city of Mechelen, he was appointed to a post in a Bonn cathedral where he went on to achieve the rank of Hofkapellmeister, a senior position among a royal court's musicians. Until his death, Grandfather Ludwig was the uncontested family leader. When he died, his grandson, who would go on to achieve world fame, was just three years old.

Little Ludwig always spoke about his grandfather with the greatest respect, but his relationship with his father - also a musician - was often problematic.

During this trip back in time in Remigius Church, Bonn city tour leader Roswitha Samson leads a small group of tourists to the marble baptismal font. She tells them that Grandfather Ludwig, as well as a neighbor of Beethoven's parents, were the godparents. Beethoven later played the organ in this church, and Samson invites the guests to have a look at a beautiful one situated there. It is not, however, the Baroque one the famous composer played as it was destroyed during World War II. In Beethoven's day, it was the largest organ in Bonn - with 33 registers - and the musician enjoyed playing it.

Tough rules

A portrait of Johann van Beethoven, Beethoven's father
(picture-alliance/akg-images)

Johann van Beethoven was a strict father and teacher

The composer began with his musical education very early on, with his father, Johann, being his first teacher. An extremely strict educator, Johann would quickly lose his patience with son Ludwig, who would improvise on the piano and let his imagination run wild. Johann wanted his son to play the notes - otherwise, nothing would come of the training, he often said.

Johann himself enjoyed drinking a beer or two - or sometimes one too many. When he came home from a night of drinking in the local bars, he would often wake "Klein-Louis" (Little Louis), as Beethoven was nicknamed, to play for Johann and his drinking buddies. Mayor Windeck of Bonn wrote at the time: "I've often seen little Ludwig standing at the piano with tears in his eyes."

Johann sent his son at the age of seven to his first piano competition for gifted young players. He penned a public invitation with flowery language: "He will have the honor of presenting piano concertos and trios, and he flatters himself in the hope that he will be able to provide profound enjoyment for all of his most esteemed guests," read an announcement on March 26, 1778.

Admired by nobles

A portrait of Maximilian Friedrich
(picture-alliance/akg-images)

Maximilian Friedrich was among Beethoven's prominent supporters

Beethoven, who never wanted to take after his father, never sought to curry favor with the nobles - neither in his youth nor as an adult. Rather, he came to be admired by certain members of the class - Count Waldstein, for example, and the Breunings. 1787 brought the death of Beethoven's mother, a woman rumored never to have laughed. Her grave can still be visited today in a Bonn cemetery. That same year, Beethoven's father was asked to leave his post as a tenor in the church due to his alcohol addiction.

Thanks to support offered by the local archbishop and elector Maximilian Friedrich, Beethoven was able to move to Vienna in the fall of 1792. In a farewell letter to his friend, Waldstein wrote:

"Dear Beethoven, You are traveling now to Vienna to fulfil your dreams that have so long been contested. Mozart's genius is still mourning the death of its host. It could indeed find a home - but no engagement - in Haydn, inexhaustible as he was. Through him, it still hopes to be united with someone. With steadfast industriousness, you can wrest Mozart's genius from the hands of Haydn. - Bonn, October 29, 1792 - Your true friend, Waldstein."

Out for a walk

St. Remigius Church in Bonn
Copyright: cc-by/Andreasdziewior

St. Remigius Church in Bonn

Remigius Church is actually the third station in a tour through Bonn that retraces Beethoven's steps. It begins at a city square called Münsterplatz, where a famous monument to the composer is located. There, he stands elevated on a pedestal, shrouded in the folds of a cape, holding a quill in one hand and a musical score in the other. His eyes seem to radiate inspiration. The pigeons nearby seem to have less respect for the maestro, though, often perching unceremoniously on his head.

The monument was dedicated in 1845. Tour guide Roswitha Samson explains that the palace of the von Breuning family - friends with Beethoven's family - once stood just a few meters away from the monument. They recognized Ludwig's genius early on and encouraged him as much as possible. A garish department store now stands in place of the Breunings' city palace.

Münsterplatz with its famous statue of Beethoven

Münsterplatz with its famous statue of Beethoven

Next, the tour heads on to a square called Kaiserplatz, a place with book stands and a touch of Parisian charm, then passes a former palace now serving as a building for the University of Bonn, and reaches a spot with tall chestnut trees and a picturesque view of the Rhine. The Beethoven family lived for a long time directly on the river in a pretty, gabled house. Where once a customs station for captains of freight barges to register stood, young Beethoven would point his telescope in the direction of the Siebengebirge - The Seven Mountains - a range of hills southeast of Bonn and on the opposite side of the Rhine.

The tour guide shows a drawing of the Beethoven house, which was destroyed during World War II and never rebuilt. Hotel Beethoven occupies this location today.

Into the museum

The last station on the two-hour tour is the house where Beethoven was born - the only home of his here that has been preserved over the course of more than two centuries. Today it houses a museum. Beethoven's parents lived in the little home with three rooms and a tiny attic just after their marriage.

Ear trumpets on display at the Beethoven House
(picture-alliance/Beethovenhaus-Bonn)

Ear trumpets on display at the Beethoven House

Delicately written notes and documents can be admired here in the Beethoven Museum, which exhibits a total of 150 objects, letters, music instruments, strands of hair, ear trumpets, scowling caricatures of Beethoven during his Vienna years and an image of the 16-year-old in Bonn, with tidily plaited hair, lips pressed firmly together and hints of his later knobby nose. It was in the attic here that the composer came into the world, explains Roswitha Samson.

"On the 16th or the 17th of December, he was born in this little room. That was the staircase that led up here from the rest of the house. In the last century, this house - like the church - was nearly lost because it was quite dilapidated. But 12 volunteers from the city, who had founded an association centering on the Beethoven House, managed to keep it from being destroyed. They bought the building. It was renovated, and the first Beethoven memorial was established."

Homesick for the Rhine

The Siebengebirge chain of hills along the Rhine near Bonn
Photo: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Beethoven longed to see the banks of the Rhine once more

Today the composer's birth home houses the largest private Beethoven archive in the world. Many students come here to study original writings that have been preserved, as well as many objects that recall Beethoven's life. House furnishings from Beethoven's time have not remained, but some are present from his time in Vienna - the period in which all of his greatest compositions were written.

But it was Beethoven's years as a youth in Bonn that formed his personality. His musical gifts got a decisive push in the small but liberal university town, and he was raised in an environment informed by the spirit of the Enlightenment and humanism.

"Beethoven never returned to Bonn after he arrived in Vienna," Roswitha Samson explained. "1792 was when the archbishop and elector sent him there. What was planned as a brief period of study unfolded into a lifetime. But just before his death, he still had a desire to see Bonn once again. He wrote: 'I will view it as the one true fortune in my life if I can see you all (his friends) and the Father Rhine once more.'"

DW.DE