From Bonn to Vienna, in Search of Beethoven, the Man

Even the most casual visitor to Vienna can’t help but be bombarded by the city’s Mozart-industrial complex.

Mozart’s face peers out from the wrappers of ubiquitous chocolate-covered candies called Mozart Kugeln, grand cafes offer Mozart tortes, and souvenir shops sell Mozart key chains, stuffed Mozarts, and even Mozart rubber duckies. Hawkers outside major sights aren’t pushing hop-on, hop-off bus tours, but tickets to touristy concerts dominated by Strauss waltzes and, yes, the music of Mozart.

You can’t help but wonder: What about Beethoven?

Don’t get me wrong. I love Mozart, and it’s charming to see the city where he spent the last decade of his life celebrating him with so much kitsch. But Beethoven spent his last 35 years there, and it was in Vienna that he wrote or premiered most of his major works — including all nine symphonies — and changed many of our ideas about music, art and genius. Yet outside the loftier precincts of the city’s museums and concert halls, he is far less visible.

But why? Beethoven is one of the most-recognizable, most-performed composers in the world. His music, and the story of how he fought off despair as he lost his hearing and composed masterpiece after masterpiece, still inspires. But he could be a notoriously difficult man. And if the modern Mozart myth got a boost from the Oscar-winning 1984 film “Amadeus,” the Beethoven biopic that followed, “Immortal Beloved,” failed to ignite in the same way. The most successful recent Beethoven film? That comedy about a St. Bernard.

But this year the Beethoven story is being retold to a new generation. The 250th anniversary of his birth in 1770 is being celebrated all over the world: concert halls are programming marathons of his music; museums are launching exhibitions; and new boxed sets of his complete works are being released by Warner Classics (on 80 CDs) and Deutsche Grammophon (on 118).

So the time seemed ripe for a pilgrimage in search of Beethoven, the man.

Starting out in the house in Bonn, Germany, where he was born to a family of downwardly mobile court musicians, I set out on a Beethoven odyssey, from the scenes of his upbringing to the places in and around Vienna where he lived and worked, despaired and triumphed. (To see where Beethoven gave a concert for world leaders during the Congress of Vienna, I even took a tour of the Austrian parliament; ask me how a bill there becomes a law.)

I have to confess to some apprehension when I set out. I sometimes fear learning too much about my idols: No man is a hero to his valet, or to a rigorous biographer. And Beethoven could be extremely unpleasant. (Most troubling may be the bitter court battle that Beethoven, who never married, waged to wrest custody of his nephew from the boy’s mother; his nephew wound up attempting suicide.) Would facing his faults color how I hear his music?

There were certainly moments of T.M.I. along the way: some exhibits went so far as to describe Beethoven’s chronic diarrhea. But there were also moments of wonder: Standing in the frescoed hall of the Viennese palace where his revolutionary Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” is believed to have had its first run-through, and imagining how shocked those first listeners must have been.

No one can accuse Bonn — a modest city on the Rhine that was improbably the capital of postwar West Germany, before reunification returned the seat of government to Berlin — of overlooking its most famous native son. Even if his childhood there was unhappy.

You can hardly miss him, no matter how you arrive: Signs in Bonn’s train station proudly proclaim the city as his birthplace, and “BTHVN 2020” banners flutter along the roads. Souvenir stands sell Beethoven T-shirts (in one of this year’s models he wears creepy clown makeup, à la “Joker”). The imposing bronze Beethoven monument on the Münsterplatz, which the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt helped pay for, remains one of the city’s defining images. Small Beethoven statues are everywhere, even amid the hosiery in a lingerie shop window.

His grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven, had been Bonn’s Kapellmeister — an important post that placed him in charge of music at the court. But he died when Beethoven was 3. When Beethoven’s less-talented father, Johann, failed to win the post, he descended into alcoholism; there are reports of the young Beethoven begging the police not to arrest his father for being drunk and disorderly.

A blockbuster exhibition running through April in the Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle has gathered some of the world’s most important Beethoven artifacts under one roof, in ways that both illuminate and question Beethoven mythology.

Take the story of how he had initially planned to name his “Eroica” Symphony for Napoleon — until Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, and Beethoven, disillusioned, asked, “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being?”

The exhibition displays the manuscript of the symphony’s title page, where the words “intitolata Bonaparte” (“entitled Bonaparte”) were rubbed out with such force that it scraped a hole in the paper. But other exhibits called into question how complete his repudiation of Napoleon was. When Napoleon’s brother Jerome was made king of the short-lived kingdom of Westphalia a few years later, and offered Beethoven a well-paid post, Beethoven seems to have considered taking it — at least until some Viennese nobles agreed to pay him a large salary to keep him in Vienna.

Bonn’s historic center is its own Beethoven exhibit. In a church near his birthplace, I saw the marble-bottomed baptismal font in which baby Ludwig was baptized on Dec. 17, 1770. Nearby, in what is now the university, I ducked into the Palace Church, where, as a child, he was assistant court organist. Then it was over to the market square, where Beethoven’s most influential early teacher, the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe, discussed Enlightenment ideals with local intellectuals.

The grave of Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdelena, in the city’s old cemetery, lies near the graves of the composers Robert and Clara Schumann. She fell ill in 1787 while Beethoven, 16, was on his first trip to Vienna, where he had hoped to study with Mozart. He cut his trip short to return to her.

To understand how Beethoven finally got back to Vienna, I hopped on a train to Bad Godesberg, a former spa resort.

There was never any doubt about where to start in Vienna: Heiligenstadt, which was still a wine-growing country village outside the city when Beethoven stayed there in 1802 and experienced one of the great crises of his life.

It is still possible to visit the scenes of many of his Viennese triumphs.

At the ornate Lobkowitz Palace, once the home of a major patron, and now the Theater Museum, I visited the Eroica Saal, where the first private rehearsals of his monumental “Eroica” Symphony were apparently held. In “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph,” Jan Swafford described how the guests listened as “the players stumble through the strangest music any of them had ever heard.” A group of elementary school children filed in, sat on rainbow-colored mats, and began playing air piano to Beethoven.

At the Theater an der Wien, across the street from my hotel, another Hotel Beethoven (this one quite chic), Beethoven gave the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies — on the same night, during an epically long concert in 1808, which also saw the premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto and his “Choral Fantasy.” The theater has since been rebuilt, but it was still thrilling to see where he was, literally, composer in residence — given an apartment by Emanuel Schikaneder, the impresario who built it, and who had helped create “The Magic Flute” with Mozart and been its first Papageno.

I sneaked into the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which was under construction, to see where the premiere of his Seventh Symphony was held. My tour of the Austrian Parliament, to see where the Eighth was performed during the Congress of Vienna — in a ballroom in the Hofburg, the Grosser Redoutensaal — was less successful: The ballroom was rebuilt after a 1992 fire, its Imperial grandeur replaced by strikingly modern Josef Mikl paintings. But I did learn about Hans Kudlich, an Austrian lawmaker who fought feudalism, fled in 1849, and wound up in Hoboken, N.J.

The theater where the Ninth was first performed no longer stands. But I was able to fight my way past the selfie-takers and see part of the manuscript of the score in the big Beethoven exhibition at the Austrian National Library.

I walked to Beethoven’s first grave, in what was then Währing cemetery, and where Schubert, who died soon afterward, was also buried. Both composers were moved in 1888 to the city’s ornate central cemetery, where they still lie beside one another, near Brahms’s grave. The Währing cemetery is now Schubert Park. When I visited, it was full of children playing and dog walkers who appeared to hardly notice the two grave markers that have been left in a quiet corner.

Later, I stopped in the golden-domed Secession Museum to see Klimt’s phantasmagoric “Beethoven Frieze,” which he painted in 1902. It was a reminder of how Beethoven had inspired generations of very different artists.

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