It’s difficult to imagine Beethoven as a little boy.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in a tiny garret on the second floor of a small house in Bonn, Germany, where his parents were renting rooms. It’s not clear if his birthday was on 16 or 17 December 1770, but he was certainly baptised in the nearby Franciscan church of Sankt Remigius on December 17. It must have been cold.
Little remains of the Sankt Remigius that Beethoven knew. It was destroyed during the Second World War, but there remains a Baroque pulpit adorned with wooden statues of the Apostles. Aged 10, Beethoven played on the church organ, also destroyed, although the remnants of its keyboard and foot-pedals can be seen – although not touched – in today’s Beethoven-Haus.
Beethoven lived in Bonn until 1792, when he moved to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn. Before that, at the age of 14 no less, he was organist and later violist in the orchestra of the Elector of Cologne, whose court lay 20 kilometres north of the city. He may have had to walk there and back or travel by coach or perhaps by boat on the River Rhine, which flows through the two cities.
It was in Cologne on 26 March 1778 that Beethoven gave his first public performance on a fortepiano, the instrument that was transformed by his own compositions. The museum at the Beethoven-Haus contains Beethoven’s last grand piano, by the famous Viennese maker Conrad Graf, moved to Bonn from Beethoven’s last lodgings in the House of the Black-robed Spaniards in Vienna.
The Beethoven-Haus also displays numerous other mementoes of Beethoven’s life. Among the most moving are four ear trumpets – one a monstrous and unwieldy contraption – marking the composer’s increasing deafness, which began in 1798 when he was only 28 years old. Ear trumpets were only of limited help and Beethoven eventually resorted to the famous conversation books that reveal much about his day-to-day life.
Beethoven must have been a regular visitor to Bonn Minster, one of Germany’s oldest churches, once the cathedral of the Archbishop of Cologne and where Beethoven attended Latin School in the chapter house. It’s easy to imagine the young man being captivated by the Minster’s Romanesque grandeur and the chiming of its famous bells.
When Beethoven died in Vienna in 1827 he was aged only 57. Over 20,000 people walked in the funeral procession. Not bad for a boy born in a humble garret, whose compositions still lie at the very heart of Western classical music.