Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised on December 17th 1770 at Bonn. His family originated from Brabant, in Belgium. His father was musician at the Court of Bonn, with a definite weakness for drink. His mother was always described as a gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart. Beethoven referred to her as his “best friend”. The Beethoven family consisted of seven children, but only the three boys survived, of whom Beethoven was the eldest.
At an early age, Beethoven took an interest in music, and his father taught him day and night, on returning to the house from music practice or the tavern. Without doubt, the child was gifted, and his father Johann envisaged creating a new Mozart, a child prodigy.
On March 26th 1778, at the age of 7 1/2, Beethoven gave his first know public performance, at Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years old. Because of this, Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was. Even much later, when he received a copy of his baptism certificate, he thought that it belonged to his brother Ludwig Maria, who was born two years before him, and died as a child.
But the musical and teaching talents of Johann were limited. Soon Ludwig learned music, notably the organ and composition by renowned musicians, such as Gottlob Neefe. Neefe recognised the how extraordinarily talented Beethoven was. As well as teaching him music, he made the works of philosophers, ancient and modern, known to Beethoven.
In 1782, before the age of 12, Beethoven published his first work: 9 variations, in C Minor, for Piano, on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler (WoO 63). And the following year, in 1783, Neefe wrote in the “Magazine of Music”, about his student: “If he continues like this he will be, without doubt, the new Mozart”.
In June 1784, on Neefe’s recommendations, Ludwig was appointed organist of the court of Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne. He was 14. This post enabled
him to frequent new circles, other than those of his father and friends of his family. Here he met people who were to remain friends for the rest of his life: The Ries family, the von Breuning family and the charming Eleonore, Karl Amenda, the violinist, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a doctor, and a dear friend who also went to Vienna, etc.
At home, little by little, Ludwig replaced his father. Financially first of all, because Johann, often under the influence of drink, was less and less capable of keeping up his role at the court. The young Beethoven felt responsible for his two younger brothers, an idea he kept for the rest of his life, sometimes to the extent of being excessive.
Prince Maximilian Franz was also aware of Beethoven’s gift, and so he sent Beethoven to Vienna, in 1787, to meet Mozart and to further his musical education. Vienna was, after all, the beacon city in terms of culture and music. There exist only texts of disputable authenticity on the subject of this meeting between Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart is thought to have said “Don’t forget his name – you will hear it spoken often.”!
But a letter called Beethoven back to Bonn: his mother was dying. The only person in his family with whom he had developed a strong and loving relationship passed away on July 17th 1787.
Five years later, in 1792, Beethoven went back to Vienna, benefiting from another grant, for two years, by the Prince Elector, again to pursue his musical education. He never went back to the town of his birth. His friend Waldstein wrote to him: “You shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands”…