Even the most casual visitor to Vienna can’t help but be bombarded by the city’s Mozart-industrial complex.
Mozart’s face peers out from the wrappers of ubiquitous chocolate-covered candies called Mozart Kugeln, grand cafes offer Mozart tortes, and souvenir shops sell Mozart key chains, stuffed Mozarts, and even Mozart rubber duckies. Hawkers outside major sights aren’t pushing hop-on, hop-off bus tours, but tickets to touristy concerts dominated by Strauss waltzes and, yes, the music of Mozart.
You can’t help but wonder: What about Beethoven?
Don’t get me wrong. I love Mozart, and it’s charming to see the city where he spent the last decade of his life celebrating him with so much kitsch. But Beethoven spent his last 35 years there, and it was in Vienna that he wrote or premiered most of his major works — including all nine symphonies — and changed many of our ideas about music, art and genius. Yet outside the loftier precincts of the city’s museums and concert halls, he is far less visible.
But why? Beethoven is one of the most-recognizable, most-performed composers in the world. His music, and the story of how he fought off despair as he lost his hearing and composed masterpiece after masterpiece, still inspires. But he could be a notoriously difficult man. And if the modern Mozart myth got a boost from the Oscar-winning 1984 film “Amadeus,” the Beethoven biopic that followed, “Immortal Beloved,” failed to ignite in the same way. The most successful recent Beethoven film? That comedy about a St. Bernard.
But this year the Beethoven story is being retold to a new generation. The 250th anniversary of his birth in 1770 is being celebrated all over the world: concert halls are programming marathons of his music; museums are launching exhibitions; and new boxed sets of his complete works are being released by Warner Classics (on 80 CDs) and Deutsche Grammophon (on 118).
So the time seemed ripe for a pilgrimage in search of Beethoven, the man.
Starting out in the house in Bonn, Germany, where he was born to a family of downwardly mobile court musicians, I set out on a Beethoven odyssey, from the scenes of his upbringing to the places in and around Vienna where he lived and worked, despaired and triumphed. (To see where Beethoven gave a concert for world leaders during the Congress of Vienna, I even took a tour of the Austrian parliament; ask me how a bill there becomes a law.)
I have to confess to some apprehension when I set out. I sometimes fear learning too much about my idols: No man is a hero to his valet, or to a rigorous biographer. And Beethoven could be extremely unpleasant. (Most troubling may be the bitter court battle that Beethoven, who never married, waged to wrest custody of his nephew from the boy’s mother; his nephew wound up attempting suicide.) Would facing his faults color how I hear his music?
There were certainly moments of T.M.I. along the way: some exhibits went so far as to describe Beethoven’s chronic diarrhea. But there were also moments of wonder: Standing in the frescoed hall of the Viennese palace where his revolutionary Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” is believed to have had its first run-through, and imagining how shocked those first listeners must have been.
Beethoven-mania in Bonn
It was only logical to start in Bonn, not only because he did, but because it is home to perhaps the best Beethoven museum: the Beethoven-Haus, his birthplace.
No one can accuse Bonn — a modest city on the Rhine that was improbably the capital of postwar West Germany, before reunification returned the seat of government to Berlin — of overlooking its most famous native son. Even if his childhood there was unhappy.
You can hardly miss him, no matter how you arrive: Signs in Bonn’s train station proudly proclaim the city as his birthplace, and “BTHVN 2020” banners flutter along the roads. Souvenir stands sell Beethoven T-shirts (in one of this year’s models he wears creepy clown makeup, à la “Joker”). The imposing bronze Beethoven monument on the Münsterplatz, which the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt helped pay for, remains one of the city’s defining images. Small Beethoven statues are everywhere, even amid the hosiery in a lingerie shop window.
After checking into the modest-but-pleasant Hotel Beethoven (I’m an easy mark), I walked down the street to the Beethoven-Haus. There, in a cobbled inner courtyard, I found myself at the door of the vine-covered house where, in 1770, Beethoven was born into a prominent musical family that was about to fall into difficulties.
His grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven, had been Bonn’s Kapellmeister — an important post that placed him in charge of music at the court. But he died when Beethoven was 3. When Beethoven’s less-talented father, Johann, failed to win the post, he descended into alcoholism; there are reports of the young Beethoven begging the police not to arrest his father for being drunk and disorderly.
Beethoven doesn’t wear glasses in his best-known portraits, so I was startled to see a pair of his spectacles — but I suppose people were as likely to take them off for oil paintings as they are for Instagram. Then there were the ear trumpets he used, hornlike metal devices that were created for him to stick in his ears by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, an inventor who also made his metronomes.
I could not help but smile in the gift shop. It offered not only sober Beethoven busts, recordings and scholarly books and scores — but also Beethoven chocolates, Beethoven wines and, yes, Beethoven rubber duckies. Beethoven kitsch, at last!
It was in a building owned by a family of bakers on the Rheingasse, a bustling street by the Rhine, that Beethoven spent much of his youth. His father, Johann, apparently hoped to mold him into a marketable child prodigy like Mozart. He could be cruel: Contemporaries said he beat the young Beethoven to make him practice, shut him in the cellar, and came home drunk late at night and made him play.
Cäcilia Fischer, a neighbor, later recalled the young Beethoven “leaning in the window with his head in both hands and staring fixedly at one spot. ”A tall, odd-looking metal sculpture by the Japanese-born sculptor Yukako Ando now marks the site, showing desks climbing skyward, topped by a window. Standing there, looking at the one thing Beethoven would still recognize, the Rhine, it was easy to imagine him escaping into his own world.
A blockbuster exhibition running through April in the Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle has gathered some of the world’s most important Beethoven artifacts under one roof, in ways that both illuminate and question Beethoven mythology.
Take the story of how he had initially planned to name his “Eroica” Symphony for Napoleon — until Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, and Beethoven, disillusioned, asked, “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being?”
The exhibition displays the manuscript of the symphony’s title page, where the words “intitolata Bonaparte” (“entitled Bonaparte”) were rubbed out with such force that it scraped a hole in the paper. But other exhibits called into question how complete his repudiation of Napoleon was. When Napoleon’s brother Jerome was made king of the short-lived kingdom of Westphalia a few years later, and offered Beethoven a well-paid post, Beethoven seems to have considered taking it — at least until some Viennese nobles agreed to pay him a large salary to keep him in Vienna.
Bonn’s historic center is its own Beethoven exhibit. In a church near his birthplace, I saw the marble-bottomed baptismal font in which baby Ludwig was baptized on Dec. 17, 1770. Nearby, in what is now the university, I ducked into the Palace Church, where, as a child, he was assistant court organist. Then it was over to the market square, where Beethoven’s most influential early teacher, the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe, discussed Enlightenment ideals with local intellectuals.
The grave of Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdelena, in the city’s old cemetery, lies near the graves of the composers Robert and Clara Schumann. She fell ill in 1787 while Beethoven, 16, was on his first trip to Vienna, where he had hoped to study with Mozart. He cut his trip short to return to her.
The major sites are within walking distance, and shiny new kiosks that say “BTHVN” in mirrored letters mark many of them. But plans to renovate the city’s concert hall, the Beethovenhalle, for the anniversary went awry, leaving it out of commission for the big year, and all its creative Beethoven programming.
To understand how Beethoven finally got back to Vienna, I hopped on a train to Bad Godesberg, a former spa resort.
It was there, at La Redoute, an elegant ballroom, that Beethoven met Haydn in 1792, and showed him a cantata he had written. Haydn — then perhaps the greatest living composer, as Mozart had died the year before — agreed to teach him in Vienna.
It is not a museum, but when I ducked in, a man who worked there — these days it is used for weddings and events — gave me a look at the elegant blue-and-white neoclassical ballroom where they met. (Wanting to take, or try, the waters, I made a detour to the Draitsch spring, where locals were refilling crates of empty bottles with mineral water, and had a free sample.)
When Beethoven left again for Vienna — this time, for good — his Bonn friends signed an autograph album for him. The entry by Count Waldstein, a patron, proved prophetic: “With the help of unceasing diligence you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”
With Europe’s armies on the march, Beethoven had an eventful journey.
“Special tip for the coachmen,” he wrote in a notebook, which I saw at the Bundeskunsthalle, “because, at the risk of a cudgeling, the fellow went like the devil and drove right through the Hessian army.”
I saw no Hessians: I took a night train from Bonn — part of the Austrian Railways’s new Nightjet service — and got to Vienna just before 8:30 a.m.
‘It was only my art that held me back.’
There was never any doubt about where to start in Vienna: Heiligenstadt, which was still a wine-growing country village outside the city when Beethoven stayed there in 1802 and experienced one of the great crises of his life.
“O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me,” he wrote there, in a soul-baring letter addressed to his brothers, and perhaps posterity, that came to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.
The letter, discovered after his death and presumably never sent, is the key to understanding his path from shame to despair to determination as he lost his hearing. Visiting the house where he wrote it, which is now a Beethoven museum, felt almost intrusive.
“Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others,” he wrote, describing his “hot terror” of being discovered, and his anguish at losing his hearing.
“Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back,” he wrote.
Heiligenstadt still feels like a country village, though it is now part of Vienna. I took a walk there along the Beethovengang, a wooded path like the ones he loved, but it felt less Sturm und Drang and more suburban. Then I stopped at a rustic wine tavern where Beethoven had stayed, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, ordered a glass of blaufränkisch, and pondered how, so soon after despairing, Beethoven entered one of his most groundbreaking periods.
Conquering a musical capital
It is still possible to visit the scenes of many of his Viennese triumphs.
At the ornate Lobkowitz Palace, once the home of a major patron, and now the Theater Museum, I visited the Eroica Saal, where the first private rehearsals of his monumental “Eroica” Symphony were apparently held. In “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph,” Jan Swafford described how the guests listened as “the players stumble through the strangest music any of them had ever heard.” A group of elementary school children filed in, sat on rainbow-colored mats, and began playing air piano to Beethoven.
At the Theater an der Wien, across the street from my hotel, another Hotel Beethoven (this one quite chic), Beethoven gave the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies — on the same night, during an epically long concert in 1808, which also saw the premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto and his “Choral Fantasy.” The theater has since been rebuilt, but it was still thrilling to see where he was, literally, composer in residence — given an apartment by Emanuel Schikaneder, the impresario who built it, and who had helped create “The Magic Flute” with Mozart and been its first Papageno.
I sneaked into the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which was under construction, to see where the premiere of his Seventh Symphony was held. My tour of the Austrian Parliament, to see where the Eighth was performed during the Congress of Vienna — in a ballroom in the Hofburg, the Grosser Redoutensaal — was less successful: The ballroom was rebuilt after a 1992 fire, its Imperial grandeur replaced by strikingly modern Josef Mikl paintings. But I did learn about Hans Kudlich, an Austrian lawmaker who fought feudalism, fled in 1849, and wound up in Hoboken, N.J.
The theater where the Ninth was first performed no longer stands. But I was able to fight my way past the selfie-takers and see part of the manuscript of the score in the big Beethoven exhibition at the Austrian National Library.
Beethoven moved a lot. An exhibition in the city’s music museum, the House of Music, estimates that he moved 67 times during his 35 years in Vienna, citing his quarrels with landlords and his propensity to leave town each summer. It was not uncommon to see more than one location claim to be the place where he wrote, say, the “Eroica” or the Ninth. The skeptic in me wondered if it might be the Viennese version of “George Washington Slept Here.”
So I appreciated the candor of the Pasqualati House, a museum in one of his main Vienna homes. It acknowledged that there had been debate about which rooms Beethoven had actually occupied — and owned up to its tainted past, noting that the Nazis had evicted the Jewish family that lived there to create the museum, and some were killed in Auschwitz.
Finally, I made my way to the site where Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, at 56. The building, on the Schwarzspanierstrasse, no longer stands, but two plaques mark the spot. After he died, visitors cut off his hair for keepsakes; strands still fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Mourners lined the streets for his funeral; it took nearly an hour and a half for the procession to reach the nearby Church of the Holy Trinity, where his funeral was held. It took me less than 10 minutes.
I walked to Beethoven’s first grave, in what was then Währing cemetery, and where Schubert, who died soon afterward, was also buried. Both composers were moved in 1888 to the city’s ornate central cemetery, where they still lie beside one another, near Brahms’s grave. The Währing cemetery is now Schubert Park. When I visited, it was full of children playing and dog walkers who appeared to hardly notice the two grave markers that have been left in a quiet corner.
Later, I stopped in the golden-domed Secession Museum to see Klimt’s phantasmagoric “Beethoven Frieze,” which he painted in 1902. It was a reminder of how Beethoven had inspired generations of very different artists.
So what did I get from the trip?
Yes, Beethoven could be unpleasant, sometimes cruel, and his politics defied easy categorization. His deterioration over the years was heartbreaking: a museum in a house he stayed at in the spa town of Baden described how a disheveled Beethoven had once gone for a walk and been arrested for vagrancy.
But any fears I had about delving too closely into his life, warts and all, were dispelled the night I heard the Vienna Symphony recreate the epic 1808 concert Beethoven had given at the Theater an der Wien.
Listening to his “Pastoral” Symphony that night, the bird calls he wrote for the woodwinds took me back to the bird songs I’d heard retracing his footsteps on the Beethovengang. Its rustic dance rhythms reminded me of Mayer am Pfarrplatz, the old wine tavern. The five-hour concert flew by.
Knowing more, I decided, made me appreciate him more, not less.
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