A scene in the life of Beethoven, the boy

Volume 114, No. 12December, 2014

BEETHOVEN_hresJust in time for Beethoven’s 244th birthday on Dec. 16, a new book about the great master was recently written by the composer and author Jan Swafford. Using new sources never before cited in English-language biographies of Beethoven, Swafford reveals how Beethoven was in some ways a “hard man.” Swafford writes: “The troubling parts of [Beethoven’s] personality, the squalor he lived in, his growing paranoia and delusions of persecution, his misanthropy, and later his double-dealings in business” are all present here “roughly in the proportion that they were on display in his life. Likewise the plaintive history of his deafness and illness and his failed love affairs. Still, I believe that in the end there was no real meanness in Beethoven. He aspired to be a good, noble, honorable person who served humanity. At times he could be entirely lovable and delightful in his quirks and puns and metaphors and notions, even in his lusty sociopolitical rants. There was something exalted about him that was noted first in his teens and often thereafter. He was utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.” Below, we are pleased to publish an excerpt in which we see a scene in the life of Beethoven as a child.

Excerpt from chapter two of “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” by Jan Swafford. Reprinted with kind permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Most of the time the extraordinary begins in the ordinary. The son reared in the family business. The father who has extravagant dreams for his child. The father who is mediocre in his trade and discovers his son is talented, so drives him all the harder. The father who expects his son to realize his own frustrated dreams. The father who drinks and lashes out. The son who is helpless to resist. The father who does not know how to express love. The mother who watches and tries to soften the blows. The wife who makes her accommodations with the wrong husband and preserves herself and her children as best she can. The wife and mother who wishes none of it had happened. All these are old, ordinary stories.

When a child is reared in a supremely difficult discipline such as music, the great plan, the impetus, usually comes from a parent.1 The child will do this and that, will do it when he is told, and will excel – or else. There is only the question of method. Johann van Beethoven knew one way to keep his son in line, and that was with shouts, threats, beatings, locking the little scamp in the basement. Perhaps his own father had trained the young Johann in music with the same hardness. In any case, Johann had the impatience and the explosive temper of his father, as would his son. The Fischer children remembered a small boy standing on a low bench to reach the keyboard, crying as he played while his father loomed over him.2

Johann began teaching his son, beating music into him, when Ludwig was four or five. First, history says, the boy was taught “clavier.” Given that this word encompasses any kind of keyboard instrument, which one is meant is not certain. The pianoforte was still expensive and relatively undeveloped when Ludwig was a child, though soon it would push the old harpsichord into obsolescence. But Bonn was still a backwater, not a center of piano development like Vienna, so Ludwig learned his notes on harpsichord or clavichord.

In those days children often started on the smaller and quieter clavichord, which had a particular advantage: whereas the mechanism of the harpsichord plucked the strings always at the same volume, each key of the clavichord was joined to a small metal hammer that struck the string, so subtleties of touch and volume were available on the clavichord that were not possible on the larger instrument. If Ludwig started on clavichord, he was already learning nuances of touch that would translate to the pianofortes of that time, which were no larger than a harpsichord and had a far more delicate touch than the instruments of a century later.

Clearly Johann’s idea was to rear Ludwig as a court musician so he would be employable as soon as possible and earn his keep. Johann had been reared to that same end by his father. As it had been with Johann, musical teenagers from the families of court musicians might have to work for years before being paid – but if Ludwig could become a clavier soloist by his teens, he might command a salary right away.3 When the boy had learned his notes at the clavier, Johann began to teach him violin and viola so he could play in the court orchestra. Eventually, most likely, the goal was that Ludwig would become Kapellmeister, like his grandfather – the post his father had failed to achieve.

Early on, the boy wanted to make up his own music. Once when his father caught Ludwig improvising on violin, he was heard to shout, “What stupid stuff are you scratching at now? You know I can’t stand that. Scratch on the notes or you’ll never get anywhere!” But the boy kept at it; again Johann caught him playing his own tunes. “Haven’t you heard what I said?” he demanded.

On his fiddle the boy played a phrase he had invented and asked, “But isn’t this beautiful?”

“That’s another matter entirely,” Johann said. “This is just something you made up yourself. You’re not to do that. Keep at your clavier and violin and play the notes correctly, that’s what will get you somewhere. When you’ve learned enough then you can and you will play from your head. But don’t try it now. You’re not ready for it.”4 Inevitably the boy continued making up music, but now in secret, as something private and forbidden.5

As a musician, at least, Johann was no fool. Before long he would have realized that this son was remarkably gifted. At that point it appears his plans broadened toward a splendid new horizon. He began to imagine that Ludwig might be in the same category as the most famous musical phenomenon of the age, a child of freakish talent named Mozart.

More benignly, there were memories of Ludwig sitting on his father’s lap at parties, and accompanying while Johann sang. A lot of people liked Johann van Beethoven, or at least enjoyed his and the family’s hospitality. Musicians and court figures were in the house constantly. From the cradle, Ludwig heard music all the time, from the songs and keyboard and chamber works of famous masters to folk music and dances and hunting songs and wedding songs.6 Holidays were celebrated with food, drink, and lots of music.

Every year saw a family festival on Maria van Beethoven’s name day. On that day, at least, she was coddled and adored. Court musicians showed up with music stands from the Kapelle, and chairs were lined up along the walls in one of the large street rooms of the Beethoven flat. The men set up a canopy decked with laurel branches and flowers and foliage; inside the canopy they hung the portrait of the patriarch, old Ludwig. Maria was ushered in, and the celebration began with a burst of music. Then came more than enough food and wine, and dancing late into the night in stocking feet so as not to wake the neighbors.7

At Christmas, Johann ordered a pig slaughtered and had a court butcher make holiday wurst. The court musicians served at midnight Mass in the chapel, the Archbishop Elector presiding, the bodyguards and the regiment appearing in full dress, the choir hoping to shine on the most joyous of holidays. After the services ended with volleys of muskets and cannons, Johann and his friends tramped home in the cold and sat down to wine, punch, coffee, a table heaped with food, and singing and playing.8 One thing seems to have been appreciated about Johann and Maria van Beethoven: they knew how to throw a party.


1 Wetzstein/Fischer, 45–46. Again, memories of Ludwig van Beethoven’s first thirteen or so years that appear in Gottfried Fischer’s memoir would have largely come from his sister Cäcilie, because Gottfried was born ten years after Ludwig, and Cäcilie eight years before.

2 To a degree, this is speculation about Johann’s goals for his son, based on old Ludwig’s training of Johann, which would have been his model – but with the added element that Ludwig the younger was far more talented than his father and was trained as a keyboard soloist rather than as a singer.

3 Wetzstein/Fischer, 46-47.

4 Skowroneck, “Keyboard Instruments,” 154–57. He points out that Johann sometimes forced Ludwig to play in the middle of the night. This implies he was playing the quiet clavichord so as not to disturb the Fischer family one floor below.

5 Wetzstein/Fischer, 22.

6 Ibid., 57–58. This story also shows that Johann, like his son, honored old Ludwig’s memory.

7 Ibid., 65–66.

8 Solomon, “Economic Circumstances,” 11.


Burnham, Scott, and Michael P. Steinberg, eds. “Beethoven and His World.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Skowroneck, Tilman. “Keyboard Instruments of the Young Beethoven.” In Burnham and Steinberg, “Beethoven and His World.”

Solomon, Maynard.”Economic Circumstances of the Beethoven Household in Bonn.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 50, nos. 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1997): 331 – 51.

Wetzstein, Margot, ed. “Familie Beethoven im kurfürstlichen Bonn: Neuauflage nach den Aufzeichnungen des Bonner Bäckermeisters Gottfried Fischer.” Bonn: Verlag Beethoven-Haus, 2006. In the notes, called “Wetzstein/Fischer.”