From Boy to Man

A Poetic Exploration of Beethoven’s Journey Down the Rhine

Horst J. Meuter, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Anne-Louise Luccarini

Six months’ paid leave, approved by Kapellmeister Lucchesi, granted by the Elector… It was quite customary: court musicians constantly criss-crossed Europe under the pretence of further study, but Beethoven was leaving with the ink barely dry in the almanac where his name appeared as Assistant Organist. Court Organist Neefe, however, was dazzled by young Ludwig and was convinced that the boy would be a second Mozart, could he but study with the master. Beethoven, although notoriously moody, did write nice letters, and corresponded with Neefe assuring him that, if he became a great man, he would share the glory with his teacher. So on 1 January, Beethoven’s mother packed several of the high white neckbands that made a short neck look longer and framed the heart-shaped face of her eldest living son. He was just 16, it was midwinter, and Vienna was a thousand miles from Bonn. 

It was upstream sailing to Mainz along the Rhine, but, on 5 January, an arrivals clerk noted that ‘Hr Bertenhoven’ had reached Regensburg by post-coach. Arriving at last in Vienna mid-January, he encountered the Willmanns from Bonn. This was fortunate, because Mozart was in Prague and, according to gossip, about to move to London. The Willmann girls were to participate in benefit concerts at the Kärntnertortheater for several of Mozart’s friends, so Beethoven may at least have heard him play, but the legendary meeting? It remains just that, an unsubstantiated legend.   

Back in Munich in early April, it was ‘Herr Bethhoffen’ who stopped at the Black Eagle – along with his new friends the von Schadens – before making an unexplained trip to Regensburg. To look at Späth fortepianos for the Elector, perhaps? The months were slipping by and he had nothing to show for it. Returning to Munich, ‘Hr von Beethaden’ went straight to Augsburg, where he re-joined the Schadens. Nanette was a virtuoso pianist who happened to be the bosom friend of Nanette Stein, soon to inherit her father’s Augsburg piano-making business, marry Streicher and move to Vienna. She was one of Beethoven’s most steadfast friends. These were happy days playing Stein instruments… but money was running out and alarming messages were starting to arrive from his father about his mother’s health, so the Schadens embraced him, lent him a month’s salary and sent him on his way.

Beethoven found Maria Magdalena in the late stages of tuberculosis. She was 40 when she died on 17 July. It took seven weeks before Beethoven could bring himself to write to Councillor von Schaden, a long, heavy letter. “My future here in Bonn is not promising.” 

Years passed. He played in the orchestra and composed works that nobody could manage. He cut his thick hair short in the new style, socialised, formed deep new friendships, read the Enlightenment philosophers, believed in the brotherhood of man and was aflame for Napoleon, the egalitarian liberator. He cared for his siblings while his father sank into alcoholism.

1791: Mozart was dead.

The following year, Haydn chanced to stop in Bonn and saw the unperformed scores. The Rhine beckoned once more…

At Beethoven’s farewell party, Count Waldstein adorned his album with a florid piece about receiving the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn: kindly meant, but singularly inappropriate.

He was Beethoven.

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