On the edge of an old German cemetery lies Beethoven’s best friend.
From 1787 until 1792 the Beethoven family lived in a small half-timbered house in the old town of Bonn, Germany. It was the composer’s last home there before he moved to Vienna and until 1928 it could still be seen – although in a precarious state as a contemporary photo shows. Beethoven returned to this house after his first journey to Vienna, where he studied with Haydn, and it was here that his mother, Maria Magdalena, died on 17 July 1787.
In the earliest surviving letter written by Beethoven, written here, the young composer informed the lawyer Dr von Schaden of his mother’s death:
“I found my mother still alive, but in the most wretched condition. She was suffering from consumption and in the end she died about seven weeks ago after enduring great pain and agony. She was such a good, kind mother to me, and indeed my best friend. Oh! Who was happier than I, when I could still utter the sweet name of mother and it was heard and answered; and to whom can I say it now? To the dumb likenesses of her which my imagination fashions for me?” (from the translation by Emily Anderson).
Maria Magdalena was buried in the Old Cemetery, where she lay near bourgeois representatives of one of the most important 19th century German university towns. But in 1826 the grave was sold and it vanished from memory. Only in 1932 was it rediscovered and identified as the resting place of Beethoven’s mother, when the Beethoven House Society donated a simple headstone that included a quotation from his letter: “Hier ruht die Mutter Beethovens, Maria Magdalena Beethoven, geb. Keverich gest. 17 Juli 1787. Sie war mir eine so gute liebenswürdige Mutter meine beste Freundin.”
Standing there today, one can imagine the grieving young man watching as his mother’s coffin was lowered into the grave and placing the first of many flowers on it. Maria Magdalena, in contrast, could never have imagined the adulation that awaited her son.
In the same cemetery are buried the composer Robert Schumann and his wife, the pianist Clara Schumann. In 1854 Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the River Rhine. Rescued by boatmen, he asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane and became an inmate of the sanatorium in Endenich, to the west of Bonn.
Schumann remained there until he died on 29 July 1856 at the age of 46. During his confinement he was not allowed to see Clara, although his friend and protégé Johannes Brahms was free to visit him. Two days before his death, the doctors finally allowed Clara in. Although he appeared to recognize her, Schumann was scarcely able to speak.
Brahms and Clara were the chief mourners at Schumann’s funeral and members of the local choral society carried the coffin. Again one can easily imagine the melancholy scene taking place not far from where Beethoven’s mother lay unremarked and unremembered.