Beethoven for Kids
His Life and Music with 21 Activities
By Helen Bauer
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Helen Bauer
All rights reserved.
"Then let us all do what is right, strive with all our might toward the unattainable, develop as fully as we can the gifts God has given us, and never stop learning." — LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
ON A COLD day in December 1770 Ludwig van Beethoven was born. White snow covered the rooftop above the tiny attic room where his mother was now resting after his birth. All was still outside except for the wind swirling the layers of snow into soft hills, and yet the world surrounding this new baby was rapidly changing.
In the part of Europe then called the Holy Roman Empire was the town of Bonn (today a thriving city in Germany), where the family lived on a street called Bonngasse (Bonn Lane). They rented rooms in the garden wing of the house. The chilled air of Europe was vibrating with new, exciting sounds. Outside the parlor window, people were talking about gaining freedom from tyrannical rulers and monarchs in Europe and in lands far away. From the back of the house, the sounds of music, its harmonies and rhythms, pulsed from the small rooms.
Baby Ludwig's father, Johann, and his grandfather, also named Ludwig, were musicians in the court of the elector of Cologne. The elector was the archbishop placed in charge of the territory by the emperor Joseph II. Grandfather Ludwig had come to Bonn from Belgium many years before. Now Ludwig's only son was a singer in the same court. Johann also gave music lessons to the children of wealthy aristocrats. These few students brought in some additional money to help support Johann's wife, Maria Magdalena, and their new baby. Maria Magdalena had been a young widow when Johann married her in 1767, just a few days before her 21st birthday. She had lost her first husband and an infant son.
Even with the extra income from his students, Johann did not earn much, but Grandfather Ludwig often helped them, especially after his new namesake, Ludwig, was born and survived. This Ludwig was actually the second child to which the couple had given that name. Their first son had been baptized Ludwig Maria one year before but had passed away when he was only six days old. His parents and grandfather hoped and prayed that this new Ludwig would be strong and well enough to reach adulthood.
Being born into a family of musicians does not always guarantee musical talent, but in this case the youngster was clearly very musically gifted. When Ludwig was three years old, Johann began to teach him to play the violin as well as a stringed keyboard instrument called the harpsichord. Ludwig was so small he had to stand on a wooden bench to reach the keyboard. Johann noted that his son learned quickly — he seemed to breathe in the music.
Maria Magdalena was a gentle, kind, and patient woman, but her husband was harsh and demanding. Johann had a terrible temper and spent a lot of his time in the local taverns, often coming home drunk and in a foul mood. He would make little Ludwig practice for hours and even wake him up late at night for a lesson. Johann was aware that about 15 years earlier a six-year-old musical genius named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was considered a child prodigy (an unusually talented child), had earned a lot of money by performing all over Europe. Johann was sure that his son was just as gifted. He was hoping to make money in the same way from his son's talent, so he pushed Ludwig very hard. Even though his father was critical and forced him to practice, young Ludwig loved music.
Grandfather Ludwig passed away when his grandson was three years old; young Ludwig's musical talent was a great comfort in the years following his adored grandfather's death. The child always kept a small portrait of his grandfather, who had also been his godfather, close by. The artist Leopold Radoux had depicted a serious but kindly looking man in a fur-trimmed jacket and velvet robe pointing to a musical score. Even though Beethoven would move many times in the years to come, this cherished portrait always moved with him.
The Beethoven family was growing. Several more children were born, but only two boys, Nikolaus Johann and Caspar Carl, survived past infancy. Needing additional space, the family moved many times. They often found lodgings in the lower part of town near the river, in the less expensive areas of Bonn.
During Beethoven's childhood, the society, economy, and politics of Europe were changing. The ancient social traditions and political arrangements that had ruled and organized people's lives were starting to fall apart. Even in a small town like Bonn, the chimney stacks of factories were rising as power machinery replaced hand tools and manufacturing replaced farming. People who had lived in the countryside began moving to towns. Cities grew steadily as people found jobs there, and a new working class was forming. Ruling monarchies feared they would be overthrown by the common people as a revolutionary mood flooded the continent.
Learning About the World
WHEN LUDWIG was six years old he entered the local primary school. He began learning about the world outside of his home. Ludwig understood that he had been born into a lower social class than the aristocrats who rode around town in splendid carriages. He had seen how his father bowed low to the nobility and how he was careful to be extra polite when talking to them. These rich people wore beautiful and well-made clothes. The aristocratic women, holding their little dogs, would stroll through the parks of Bonn in their lovely dresses and fancy hats. The men were clad in elaborate, white-powdered wigs and colorful silk jackets. The vast differences in lifestyle between the rich and poor seemed unfair to the little boy. Even at such a young age he was not impressed by status that was based simply on someone's birth.
Ludwig did not seem to learn much in school. He was not good with numbers, had a hard time with spelling, and his handwriting was impossible to read, the teacher complained. In the classroom the children used hornbooks, which were pieces of wood with a handle on which a lesson was attached then covered with a thin piece of horn to keep the page clean. Ludwig's hornbook was always messy, and the paper containing his lesson was often torn and blurry.
Ludwig did not make many friends at school. Some of the children were cruel to him and made fun of his shabby, unwashed clothes or the fact that his hands and face always appeared to be dirty. After being teased and taunted several times, Ludwig tried to avoid his classmates. His mother suggested that the other children would be nicer to him if he would smile at them more often, but the boy did not think that a silly grin was a good reply to the ridicule of his classmates. Instead of smiling Ludwig sternly responded that when he became a famous musician no one would care about his clothes or dare to treat him badly.
When Ludwig came home from school he spent many hours practicing the violin and the harpsichord. He loved the feel of the instruments and the beautiful sounds they could make. Music made the rest of the day feel cheerful and wonderful. He especially liked to take a theme written by another composer and change it. Many ideas came into his mind about how a short tune, called a motif, could be varied and altered. His amazing talent for improvisation was astonishing for someone so young.
Needing to practice his instruments, Ludwig usually had very little time to play with other children. He must have been able to hear other youngsters in the courtyard playing their favorite games, such as Blind and Bell. His younger brothers, Caspar Carl and Nikolaus Johann, were free to run outside to join in. Music was Ludwig's playmate.
Dreams of Fame
IN MARCH 1778 Johann decided that his son was ready to give a concert and earn a reputation as a child prodigy just like Mozart. There was much money to be made and a fruitful career to build. Johann had the future all planned out when he made the arrangements for a public concert to be held in the city of Cologne, 15 miles away. Father and son traveled by stagecoach to the boy's first public performance. Johann was in a joyful mood sitting inside the coach chatting with the other passengers. He even joined in with the others singing German folk songs. Entering the city, one of the passengers pointed out the sights. Ludwig was amazed by what he saw; Cologne was much larger than Bonn. The city touched the edges of the wide Rhine River, so many boats and barges passed by as the horses trotted down the cobblestoned riverbank road. On the way to their lodgings the passengers rode by the huge Cologne Cathedral and many impressive stone buildings decorated with elegant ornaments.
Although Ludwig was seven years old, his father had told the printer of the concert announcements that his son was only six. The flyers were posted all over Cologne, attracting many people to the performance. Johann thought this "little lie" would ensure that Ludwig would be noticed by important people at the concert and would become a star performer all over Europe. Due to his father's lie, Beethoven was never certain of his age. Even years later, when he obtained a copy of a certificate that plainly displayed December 17, 1770, as the date of his baptism, he still doubted that the date was accurate. He told his friends, "There was a brother born before me, who was also named Ludwig ... but who died."
The boy knew that he had to perform perfectly. Lots of people were in the audience waiting to hear his music. He could not let his father down. His small hands must have felt icy cold. His father urged him forward. Calming himself, Ludwig walked to the center of the stage and began to play.
Although he performed very well, Ludwig could sense that his father was not happy on the return trip to Bonn. Ludwig sat very still on the bench, sometimes lifting his head up slightly so that he could peer out of the smudged and grimy window. The day after the concert Johann was even more upset and very disappointed that his dream had not come true: Ludwig had not been hailed as a child prodigy by the important people who had come to hear him perform.
A NEW TEACHER
"Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery." — LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, from his Heiligenstadt Testament
JOHANN SOON REALIZED that he could not continue teaching music to his son. Ludwig had progressed beyond his father. The local court organist and other musicians were asked to give the youngster lessons. Ludwig enjoyed their instruction, especially on the piano and the pipe organ. Christian Gottlob Neefe, a composer, court organist, and conductor, arrived in Bonn to work for the archbishop, the elector of Cologne, who ruled that part of the empire. Neefe was told about a very promising young musician. In 1781, Neefe became Ludwig's teacher.
Three years after Neefe arrived in Bonn, the elector died, and Archduke Maximilian Franz became the new elector of Cologne. The archduke was the brother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France and the brother of Emperor Joseph II and Emperor Leopold II of the Holy Roman Empire. Maximilian Franz loved music, so Ludwig's teacher brought his pupil to the court to introduce him to the new elector. Neefe told Maximilian that he wanted this youngster to be employed as a substitute organist when the teacher was absent from Bonn. Neefe also convinced the elector that the boy should be appointed as the assistant organist in the court chapel. This gave Ludwig the chance to play the organ at masses and court functions.
Neefe saw greatness in his pupil. He believed that Beethoven was "the second Mozart." Speaking to music publishers, Neefe always praised Ludwig and mentioned his extraordinary talent. He even convinced the editors of a German music magazine to publish a notice about the youngster, which called him "a boy of most promising talent" and noted, "He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power [and] reads at sight very well. ... This young genius deserves a subsidy in order to enable him to travel. He will surely become a second Mozart if he continues as well as he has begun."
Ludwig had also begun to compose music. Neefe realized that his student's gift for writing music was as great as his ability to play instruments. His teacher wanted this student to be exposed to the wider world of music outside of Bonn.
WITH NEEFE'S help and encouragement, Beethoven's first composition, nine Variations on Dressler's March in C Minor, was published when he was 13 years old. Being published meant that people could purchase his music and perform it, and the young man was paid for this piece. It was probably composed in 1782, a year before it was printed by the publisher in 1783. The boy told his teacher that he believed a muse was whispering the ideas for his compositions into his ear.
The next year a set of three piano sonatas, musical pieces of several movements, followed the first composition. The young composer dedicated these sonatas to the elector. Ludwig had always liked the piano — he felt its power under his hands and saw its possibilities. His first works were written for this instrument. In his Variations on Dressler's March in C Minor the teenager took a fairly simple march and reinvented it. In each of the nine variations he kept the original melody but added new dimensions that made the melody sparkle and glimmer. The sonatas display his love for the piano, which was still being crafted into its final form many years after these pieces were written.
Now Ludwig's world was expanding to include composition, but his home life was becoming more difficult. By 1784 the Beethoven family was poorer than ever. Johann had either spent or wasted all the money he had inherited when his father had died 11 years earlier. Ludwig, as the oldest son, now had to help support the family. He earned barely enough from his published works and employment at court to feed and clothe his mother and brothers as well as himself.
A MORE mature Ludwig was now making some friends. Franz Wegeler, a medical student, was one of them. Growing up in the same small town, they had known each other for some years before forming a friendship. Franz introduced Ludwig to a widow, Helene von Breuning. A cultured and kind lady, Frau von Breuning immediately liked the awkward teen. She hired Ludwig to teach two of her children the piano and often invited him to stay in her home. She sensed that he was uncomfortable around people and rather lonely, and she believed that his rough behavior cloaked a frightened and fragile boy. As Frau von Breuning explained to a friend, "It is our job to keep the insects off the flower."
The von Breuning family opened their home to the 14-year-old musician and made him feel welcome. Frau von Breuning had four children: Eleonore, Christoph, Stephan, and Lorenz. His friendship with Stephan lasted throughout Beethoven's life. The father of the von Breuning children had died, and their uncle, a teacher, lived with them. He taught the children about literature and engaged them in conversations about events all over the world. The atmosphere in the von Breuning house stimulated the young piano teacher's interest in culture and politics.
In the warm and friendly von Breuning home Ludwig could escape from the daily problems and turmoil of his own house. He could play their fine piano when his lessons with Eleonore and Lorenz were over. In this wealthy household Beethoven observed the gracious manners that the upper classes cherished. At their dinner table he had the opportunity to meet well-educated and cultured people, as well as many of Bonn's powerful aristocrats. From their discussions and conversations he learned about German literature, the Enlightenment, and popular ideas about government reform. In their library he especially liked to read the books of poetry; but even more, he enjoyed the dinnertime discussions and disputes about politics.
Franz Wegeler wrote that in the von Breuning's home Ludwig was "immediately treated like one of the family. He spent many days there, and many nights too." There was a stark contrast between his own household and this comfortable and happy place. In 1791, a letter Beethoven wrote to Frau von Breuning's daughter Eleonore proclaimed, "Never shall I forget you and your dear mother."
OPPORTUNITY AND UPHEAVAL
"He is no man; he is a devil. He will play me and all of us to death. And how he improvises!" — THE MUSICIAN ABBÉ JOSEPH GELINEK, describing Beethoven
IN 1787, WHEN Ludwig was 17, Neefe felt that his pupil was ready to expand his musical education and his knowledge of the world. He spoke to the elector about paying Ludwig's expenses for a trip to the city of Vienna, a major cultural center of the German-speaking world. Maximilian agreed that this would be a great opportunity for the promising young man. Ludwig was thrilled at the prospect of seeing the city that he had heard so much about and was looking forward to meeting famous musicians. Neefe said that he would talk to Ludwig's Bonn patrons about providing new clothing and funds for other expenses. Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, one of these patrons, agreed to accompany the young composer to Vienna and to introduce him to Mozart. (Continues...)
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