Beethoven’s Bonn

21 October 2020

Once the capital of West Germany, today Bonn is heavily associated with Beethoven, who lived and worked in the city for 22 years. 2020 should have seen Bonn thrust back into the spotlight as the city geared up to mark Beethoven’s 250th birthday but Covid-19 had other plans. A year-round line-up of concerts drawing world famous orchestras, soloists and conductors had to be delayed and the city’s yearly Beethovenfest postponed, as were many performances celebrating this great composer across the globe.

The tradition of the Beethovenfest in Bonn goes back to the year 1845. In 1835, the Bonn Association for Beethoven’s Monument was established, and Robert Schumann circulated the appeal for funds all over Europe. After 10 years of fundraising, including a generous contribution by Franz Liszt, a three-day long festival took place to unveil the Beethoven Monument on the Münsterplatz. Famous faces such as Queen Victoria, Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and renowned intellectuals such as Alexander von Humboldt were in attendance, as well as many important musicians.

The house in which Beethoven was born in 1770 is one of the world’s most frequently visited music museums. When Bonngasse 20 was due to be demolished in 1889, the citizens of Bonn established an association for its preservation. Today, visitors to the Beethoven-Haus can admire original scores, imagine him sitting at his last grand piano and marvel at the huge ear trumpets he used to combat his increasing deafness. In addition to the museum, the Beethoven-Haus houses the world’s most comprehensive Beethoven collection, a chamber music hall, and an internationally renowned research institute for the study of the composer’s life and work.

Like many 18th century musicians, Beethoven was born into the profession. His Grandfather (also Ludwig) moved from Flanders to Germany in 1733 and was soon appointed a court musician in Bonn. In 1761 he was made court Kapellmeister, in charge of all Bonn's official musical activities, a position he held until his death at the age of 61. His son Johann, Beethoven’s father, was also a singer in the electoral choir.

Beethoven made his first public appearance on 26 March 1778 in Cologne, less than twenty miles up the Rhine from Bonn. His father promoted him as a child prodigy and advertised his age as six, although he was in fact seven, to draw favourable comparisons with Mozart. He started formal composition and piano lessons with court organist Gottlob Neefe in 1780, and by 1784 he became his assistant. After his mother died in 1787, young Ludwig increasingly took on the responsibility of supporting his family through teaching, and playing the viola in the theatre orchestra, where he got to know the opera repertory.

When Joseph Haydn stopped in Bonn on his way back from England in 1792, Beethoven presented him with some of his works. Haydn decided to take him on as a pupil, and in November Beethoven left for Vienna, never to return. In 1800 he wrote to his friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler in Bonn ‘The region where I first saw the light of the world is still so beautiful and clear before my eyes. I will always regard this time as one of the most fortunate things of my life: to greet Father Rhine’.