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Bonn Trip: Beethoven's True Identity Unveiled!

This past Saturday, a combination of nice weather and guilt (we've not been there once yet as 'tourists') inspired my boyfriend and I to take the train to Bonn and look around with inquisitive attitudes and wide-open eyes.  Well, in case you were worried, fear not- we certainly liked what we saw!  Bonn is a beautiful city located on the banks of the Rhein river, about a half an hour's train ride from Cologne (also known as "Koeln" when speaking German).  The charm and beauty of Bonn lies in the architecture of its buildings and their color palette.  I'd wager that 98% of the buildings were painted in pastel hues (light yellows, pinks, blues, greens, oranges, and various shades of ivory) and looked as if NYC's Greenwich Village was relocated to Germany- I kid you not!  Nearly all of the buildings in the center of the old part of the city ("Altstadtkern" in German) had large multi-pane windows, which were sometimes also arched or in the shape of small circles that resembled portholes, and the facades of these buildings were decorated with all the love and care that romanticism could lend to classicism.  (You'll understand hopefully what I mean when you see the photos below.)

Bonn's most famous citizen :)

the Town Hall/"Rathaus" and myself

Painted on an underpass wall! :)
Me in front of the University- formerly the palace

Although the city of Bonn was a pleasant and welcome ocular surprise to both my boyfriend and myself (we don't live in such a pretty city), we had our most meaningful experience of the day when we visited the house in which Beethoven was born and lived as a child.  We were lucky to have gotten there just 10 minutes before the next guided tour (with a human being) began, and because it didn't cost anything extra, and saved us from having to hold those annoying audio guides up to our ears, we decided to do it.  Of course, we didn't realize it at the time, but it was a great choice to make- since our tour guide, a petite and sprightly older woman, possessed insider knowledge about the museum, as well as Beethoven himself.  She possessed said knowledge because she was one of the members of the organization (the "Beethoven-Haus Verein") that founded the museum and  monetarily provides for its ongoing operation. So, our tour was quite the glimpse into Beethoven as a person, as well as his musical ascent to greatness (the first half of which was quite a bit more interesting than the second half. Just wait- you'll soon agree!).

We began our tour by finding out that Beethoven himself was born in the house where the museum is housed, for lack of a better word (ha!), and that his early years of his childhood were spent there, as well as some of his later adolescent years (as it seemed that his family moved around within the city center of Bonn, as was the fashion in those days, and they came back to this house for a period of a few years when he was older).  He was brought up in a musical family, as his Grandfather was a Tenor who sang at the home of the royal family there in Bonn, and his father was a violinist who played in the royal court orchestra.  His father, like many other musicians then and nowadays, could not make a living solely on his salary from the orchestra, so he took on private violin students.  His own little Ludwig was one of his students, and he was pleased to be able to have him perform in a public concert with another of his private students when Beethoven was 8 years old (but, much to my chagrin- his father was ever the promoter for his son- and on the flyers that announced the concert debut of the 'little musical genius' he was proclaimed to be 6 years old).  So, it is obvious that even back then it was common to do a little 'fudging of the truth' in order to make people believe that your child was a wunderkind.

Nevertheless, although he was of course pressured by his father to continue his violin playing, he still was able to remain a child by the benefit of his Grandfather's acquaintance with a more well-to-do family, the 'von Breuning's' who lived nearby. They had a daughter, Eleonore, who was close to Beethoven's age with whom he became very good friends. (She is most likely the very same Leonore he composed so many pieces for later on!) While spending time at their house, he was able to learn about the world beyond music, and he devoured their conversations on politics, language, philosophy and religion. He also learned table manners. (Ha! I'd like to know what it must have been like for him to eat dinner at home beforehand if this was judged to be necessary.) All the knowledge he learned during the time he spent with the von Breunings prepared Beethoven well for the independent and trail-blazing life he would lead later on. However, again, it was very interesting to me that Beethoven, similar to many musicians nowadays, was not able to learn all the things he needed from his family life, and learned quite a lot of what proved useful to him simply through the generosity and good will of friends.

They apparently were never quite able to squelch the jovial and childlike nature of Beethoven, however, and that proved useful to him throughout the rest of his life, as his was not one without great hardships. Our tour guide explained that his father enjoyed drinking a bit too much for his own good, and when Beethoven was still only 10 years old was made to support his family, taking over his father's seat in the court orchestra. Then, as if that weren't enough, (wearing a powdered wig and playing in fancy dress suits for hours at a time is trying for even adults, let alone a child), his greatest aspiration of being able to study composition with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna was dashed because he couldn't get the money quickly together to make the trip, and then Mozart died!

It was only from sheer luck that Beethoven met Josef Haydn on the streets of Bonn while Haydn was in town on tour, and after fervent begging, he agreed to take him on as his composition student (so, at least if he didn't get to study with Mozart, he got to study with Mozart's primary teacher). Beethoven's compositional skill and piano playing was so excellent that Haydn arranged for him to travel to Vienna to perform some of his pieces there in a series of concerts, sponsored financially by some of Haydn's friends. Of course, while Beethoven was in Vienna, his mother became very sick and died, and at the age of 20 Beethoven returned home to Bonn to bury her, take care of his younger siblings and continue his composing while looking for financial means to return to Vienna.

He eventually found new sponsors, and returned to Vienna whereupon he decided that he did not want to ever work as a court musician, like his Grandfather, or Father, or even like Mozart himself, and that he wanted to be a freelancer, and earn his own money outright based solely on the merit of his musicianship. So, he didn't take the easy road, did he? I mean, we all know nowadays how difficult freelancing still is- so he certainly deserves respect for such a bold decision. Though, through his pluck, determination, and the sheer prolific nature of his composing, he managed to attract a large group of enthusiasts for his music, and moreover, for him as a person.

He moved around a lot in Vienna like many people at the time, depending on how much money he was earning, and the season, etc., and therefore, since he didn't have servants unlike other Viennese, he was able to personally interact with his fellow citizens much more often. This, in turn, gained him respect from the bourgeois, and he became a beloved son of Vienna by all who came across his path. It was only later on, through the slow deterioration of his hearing, that he was seen with a bit of pity and callousness. Though, another interesting fact about Beethoven, because he lost his hearing over a period of many years (10 or more said the tour guide), he wrote a LOT of letters. He was, after all, only trying to protect his livelihood- as our tour guide so smartly reminded us that as an independent musician, even Beethoven would have been hired only infrequently if he were to admit that he was going deaf. So, he wrote a lot instead of talking to people.

Many of his letters are still within the vaults of the museum in Bonn, and it seems he was able to hide his hearing deficiency pretty completely up until he was nearly fully deaf. Again though, as might be a sign of his indeterminable spirit, or his desire to succeed in such a great undertaking as supporting his younger siblings on a musician's income, he never lost his sense of humor. Apparently, there are even letters within the collection of his writings where he wrote things like “Mein lieber Graf, du bist ein Schaf” (My dear Duke, you are a sheep—sadly it only rhymes in German), which of course would not have been tolerated by a Duke from anyone BUT Beethoven, I am sure. However, this also underscores the fact that he didn't take life so seriously, and he always gained the respect of those with whom he associated based on his abilities and who he was as a person, therefore he didn't have to hide his true nature, even from members of the Nobility.

The most impressive thing to me, though, was that our tour guide reminded us of how Mozart died- a genius, surely, but he was buried in a pauper's grave because of his debts.  No one came to his funeral because his extravagant way of life was non-relatable to normal people of the time, and his self-assured manner estranged Noble people from him. On the other hand, Beethoven's funeral was announced by his siblings to a small circle of friends, and instead of only 20 people showing up, news spread so quickly throughout Vienna and the surrounding area, that on the day of his funeral 20,000 people showed up! And, to put that in perspective, Vienna did not even have that many inhabitants at the time, so it can be assumed that many of his funeral guests had to travel for hours in horse-drawn carriages, simply to pay their respects.

All in all, knowing now what I know about Beethoven from this visit, I feel infinitely more in awe of him as a person, and infinitely more able to aspire to his greatness as a musician, and less intimidated by him, as it is clear now that he achieved what he did through unending devotion to his music and not solely through genius.


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