Saint Paul Sunday from American Public Media Beethoven: The Emerson Expedition 

Beethoven's Early Life: 1770-92

We'll Hear Quite a Lot of Him

- Mozart

RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Bill McGlaughlin's Narrative
Beethoven's Early Life

Music to Browse By: Early Quartets
Played by the Emerson String Quartet
Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1798)

AT FIRST GLANCE, Beethoven's upbringing looks quite respectable; his family had been court musicians in the city of Bonn for a couple of generations. A closer look, however, would reveal what today we would call a dysfunctional family.

Beethoven's paternal grandfather seems to have been a man of integrity, a gifted singer who found employment in the chorus of the court when he arrived in Bonn, eventually rising to the position of assistant Kapellmeister. He married a lively young woman from the Rhineland who quickly became a severe alcoholic. This trait passed to her son, Beethoven's father. Thus the stories we have learned of Beethoven's father coming home late at night and getting his little boy up to play for his friends take on more sinister cast. These were drinking buddies and the sessions were undoubtedly abusive.

Music seems to have been a retreat for the young Beethoven, a safe haven. Family friends early noted his tendency to lose himself in thought. Therese von Breuning, observing these near-trances, would murmur, "Ludwig's in his raptus."

Beethoven's extraordinary talent gained him supporters in Bonn, who in 1787 raised money to send him to Vienna to meet and perhaps study with his idol, Mozart. Apparently Mozart was not particularly impressed with Beethoven's playing - until the sixteen year-old began to improvise. A friend recalled Mozart's saying, "This one will make quite a lot of noise in the world. We'll hear quite a lot from him." Beethoven never saw Mozart again.


RealAudio 3.0 28.8
Listen to an anecdote
About Beethoven and Mozart
By Quartet member Philip Setzer.

A message from Bonn arrived in Vienna. Beethoven's mother was grievously ill. Beethoven returned to Bonn in time to promise his dying mother that he would take care of his younger brothers. Taking the unusual step of having himself declared head of the family in order to secure some financial aid, Beethoven returned to life in Bonn for the next five years, playing in the court orchestra and composing in whatever time he could find.

By 1792 it was plain that this stupendous talent needed a broader stage. A Count Waldstein (known to us through the dedication of one of the greatest piano sonatas) arranged a purse to send Beethoven back to Vienna, not to study with Mozart who had died one year earlier, but "to absorb the spirit of Mozart through the hands of Joseph Haydn."

"Papa" Haydn, the most famous living composer, and a man who had spent his life in the service of the noble Esterhazy family, found Beethoven rough and unmannerly. "He looks like an unlicked bear cub." Somehow this "young mogul from the provinces" began to win over the refined Viennese society with the brilliance of his piano playing, especially with his inspired improvisations. Commissions began to come his way, pieces of music paid for and dedicated to members of the aristocracy.

There's a contradiction here: Beethoven is creating music that sings of freedom and brotherhood but is paid for by members of the most conservative court in Europe. That's a tension which will stay with Beethoven for the rest of his days.

- Bill McGlaughlin

Beethoven's Early Period
Beethoven's Middle Period
Beethoven's Late Period

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