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

Cäcilia Fischer, a neighbor, later recalled the young Beethoven “leaning in the window with his head in both hands and staring fixedly at one spot. ”A tall, odd-looking metal sculpture by the Japanese-born sculptor Yukako Ando now marks the site, showing desks climbing skyward, topped by a window. Standing there, looking at the one thing Beethoven would still recognize, the Rhine, it was easy to imagine him escaping into his own world.

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.

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