(1784 - 1787)
In the previous section we looked at the growth of Beethoven's self-confidence as a musician while we also began to anticipate the next step he would take to help increase the income of his family. While Franz Gerhard Wegeler*, in his Biographical Notes, points out that he first met Beethoven when the latter was twelve years old, research determined that this first meeting might most likely have taken place in 1784.
*Wegeler, as the son of a poor Alsatian immigrant to Bonn, took his high school and later his medical studies very seriously. Ultimately, he found his place in life as a highly respected physician. His earnest striving may have been what impressed the widow Helene von Breuning and her brother-in-law, so that Wegeler was accepted into the family circle as an older friend of her children.
Frau von Breuning was looking for a piano teacher for two of her children, Eleonore and Lenz. This need opened the doors of this generous house to the thirteen-to- fourteen-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven whom Wegeler introduced to the family. Beethoven would earn some much-needed extra money in teaching Eleonore and Lenz piano, but he soon also became friends with all of the von Breuning children, in addition to Wegeler. The relaxed atmosphere of this congenial family helped him to develop his interaction skills in a highly appropriate environment. Frau von Breuning and her brother-in-law, a teacher who moved in with the family to tutor the children, were both in favor of instilling in their young people a love of literature, the liberal arts, and of music. It was in this circle that Beethoven was first introduced to the works of contemporary German literature such as the works of Klopstock, Lessing, Wieland, Herder, Goethe and Schiller, as well as to the works of writers of the established world literature (such as the works of Shakespeare, Plutarch and other classical writers). The positive influence Frau von Breuning exercised over Beethoven would become ever more important in years to come. While Beethoven accepted the von Breuning household as his second home in which he spent many nights as a guest, improvising on the piano to the delight of the company into all hours, his entrenched inability to let go of his reservations, haughtiness and stubbornness would surface on occasion. The von Breuning children would then not know what to do with him. Frau von Breuning would ask for their understanding, excusing the young genius as having his raptus again. Beethoven also began to tutor children of other well-to-do Bonn families. While this was a tremendous financial help to his family, we can also imagine that the contrast between the atmosphere in his parental home and that in the homes he entered as a piano teacher who had only his highly developed skills to offer but who could not match their worldly sophistication, would cause him, the fiery introvert, endless embarrassment. On many occasions he was found to loathe going to the houses of some families. Once Frau von Breuning insisted and watched him cross the Marktplatz to enter another house. He soon returned, confessing to her that he could not teach that day. He promised to make up for it the next day by giving two lessons.
While we now have before our eyes a vivid picture of Beethoven's social activities, we should not miss to draw a comparison between the lively interest in the von Breuning circle in matters of contemporary art and the overall climate in Bonn that the new Elector Maximilian Franz created.
From a musical viewpoint it should be mentioned that he was one of Empress Maria Theresia's children with whom the six-year-old Mozart might have played during his first visit to Vienna and that the elegant outfit Wolfgang Amadeus would be seen with on a painting was Maximilian Franz' before it was given to Mozart.
In adult life, Maximilian Franz became a fervent admirer of Mozart who might even have considered calling him to Bonn as Kapellmeister, had he not had to consider that he already had an able man in this position whom he could hardly dismiss without just cause. Moreover, the new Elector felt that he had to "clean house" in the finances of his state before he could set a new tone. In eventually doing so, his influence on the cultural life of Bonn was very positive. He raised the local academy to university status and appointed able lecturers to it. He also began to introduce similar reforms in the spirit of enlightened absolutism which his brother, Emperor Joseph II, implemented in Vienna after the 1780 death of his mother. The citizens of the Bonn Electorate thus began to feel that sciences, culture, and the education of his subjects was more important to their Elector than keeping up the clerical traditions of this church state as they had been entrenched.
During the 1784/85, 1785/86 and 1786/87 theater seasons, Maximilian Franz brought different opera companies to Bonn. Beethoven was thus able to become acquainted with the works of Gluck (such as his operas Alceste and Orpheus), but also his later teacher and Mozart's rival Salieri's opera Armida. With this, Maximilian Franz tried to create a bit of Viennese musical atmosphere in Bonn. Kapellmeister Lucchesi having returned and having a new assistant, Anton Reicha from Bohemia at his side, court organist Neefe was once again relegated to his organist duties. This left Beethoven, apart from his substituting duties, ample time for composing and for his social activities. Wegeler has this to report about Beethoven's growing confidence as a performing musician:
"In the Catholic church the lamentations of Jeremiah are sung on three days of holy week . . . Since the organ must remain silent during those three days, the singer received only an improvised accompaniment from a pianist. Once when it was Beethoven's turn to perform this duty, he asked the singer Heller who was very secure indeed in his intonation, whether he could throw him off, and he used the rather rashly given permission to wander about so much in the accompaniment that the singer was completely bewildered and could no longer find the closing cadence, even though Beethoven kept striking the note to be chanted in the treble with his little finger."
The Elector is reported as having been secretly amused but as also having requested a more no-nonsense accompaniment in future.
Ludwig van Beethoven
at the age of 16
We do not know for certain who in particular supported Beethoven's spring 1787 journey to Vienna and how it was precisely financed, but we must conclude that Beethoven at least had the Elector's permission and some letters of reference along with him. Records show that Beethoven arrived in Vienna in early April, 1787. Since we do not have any first-hand reports of Beethoven's activities during his brief stay in Vienna, we have to very cautiously look at the existing reports of his having played and improvised before Mozart and as possibly having received a few lessons from him.
Mozart scholars generally advise that there is no direct evidence of such lessons having taken place. Anecdotal recollection also created the much-told story of Beethoven first playing a well-rehearsed piece which Mozart praised coldly and politely; realizing this, Beethoven supposedly asked him to give him a theme on which he then improvised so astonishingly well that Mozart ran out into the adjoining room and is supposed to have commented to his friends, "keep an eye on this one. Some day, he will give the world something to talk about." More reliable fact is that Beethoven could not stay even for two weeks, since a letter reached him from his father in Bonn, urging him to return home immediately as his mother had fallen seriously ill.
Beethoven returned home as fast as he could via Munich and Augsburg. There he met the piano maker Stein and also a lawyer by the name of von Schaden. When he returned home, he arrived just in time to witness his mother's final suffering from tuberculosis. She died in July, 1787.
The first letter we have of Beethoven is that of October, 1787, to Councillor von Schaden in Augsburg.
In it he apologizes for not returning some money that gentleman had evidently advanced him so that he could continue his journey. He also describes his emotional state during the ordeal of his return journey, his mother's death and his following grief. A few passages are highlighted here:
"I must confess to you that from the time I left Augsburg, my joy and with it my health began to vanish. . . . I found my mother still alive, but in such a very deplorable state of health. She had consumption and passed away seven weeks ago after much pain and suffering. She was to me such a good, loving mother, and my best friend. Ah, who was happier than I, when I could still utter the sweet name mother and it was heard? And to whom can I say it now? To the images of her only, which my imagination calls up..."
Let us look at some key words and phrases in these sentences: Joy, Pain, Suffering, Images which my imagination calls up...
...are these not the key words that would describe the entire life of Beethoven?