young beethoven -- 2/22/19

Today's selection -- from The Music and the Life: Beethoven by Lewis Lockwood. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), one of the most esteemed classical composers, had superb musical training as an adolescent, first as a violist in the orchestra of his hometown of Bonn, then as a young keyboardist dedicated to learning the difficult and still largely unknown works of Johann Sebastian Bach:

"For a smaller musical center the array of talent [in Bonn, Germany] was remarkable, and playing viola in the orchestra [as an adolescent] with such performers gave Beethoven a first-class introduction to the major orchestral literature of the time, including symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and many other composers. He also took part in operatic performance as seen and heard from the orches­tra pit. ... By adding the violist's experience of playing inner-voice string parts within the orchestral ensemble and probably also in quartets he undoubtedly gained a stronger feeling for orchestral sonorities and idiomatic playing than he could have had in his more limited role of keyboard virtuoso. Certainly after the years in Bonn there is no evidence that he ever played a stringed instrument in an orchestra again, and only on special occasions in later life did virtuosi of the caliber of these Bonn players turn up in any numbers to perform his orchestral works. After leaving Bonn and establishing himself as a free-lance composer, he had occasional limited access to orchestras assembled and paid for by a few wealthy patrons, such as the Lobkowitzes, but never had a regular court orchestra at his disposal for any length of time. For each of his own later public concerts of orchestral works he had to put the orchestra together himself. It often included a fair number of amateurs playing alongside a few top professionals such as the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the cellist Joseph Linke.

"Christian  Gottlob  Neefe  counts  as Beethoven's  only  important  teacher  at  Bonn. ... Beyond his role as a mentor and teacher of modern styles, Neefe earned his place in history by introducing the young Beethoven to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His burnishing of Bach's image emerges in a very important notice that Neefe published about the young prodigy Beethoven as early as March 1783, when the boy was only twelve:

Louis van Beethoven [sic], son of the tenor singer mentioned, a boy of eleven years, and of most promising talent. He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and -- to put it as simply as possible -- he plays chiefly The Well-Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe put into his hands. Whoever knows this collection of preludes and fugues in all the keys -- which might almost be called the non plus ultra of our art -- will know what this means. So far as his duties permitted, Herr Neefe has also given him instruction in thorough-bass. He is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has had nine variations for the pianoforte, written by him on a march -- by Ernst Christoph Dressler -- engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would certainly become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he progresses as he has begun.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Carl Traugott Riedel 

"This is no mere plea for support of a talented beginner. It is a profession of faith in J. S. Bach as a supreme musical model -- and this at a time when the greater part of Bach's output was still little known and hard to find, except for copies that circulated among groups of enthusiasts who included Bach's sons, a handful of surviving Bach pupils, and a few theorists wedded to Bach's achievements, as well as some lay admirers. It is indicative of Neefe's knowledge of Bach and devotion to his music that in 1800 Simrock com­missioned him to furnish a corrected text of The Well-Tempered Clavier for local publication.

"In the Germany of 1783 the name Bach for most people referred either to his best-known son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, then rounding out his career at Hamburg -- or to his youngest son, Johann Christian, who had just died in England in 1782. Musicians knew of old Sebastian's reputation as a leg­endary patriarch of music, but in the age of galant homophony, his music, though of transcendent quality to Bach enthusiasts, seemed arcane and dif­ficult to average musicians. In Bach's lifetime only two cantatas and a hand­ful of his keyboard works had been published, because music prints were expensive to produce in the earlier part of the century. For thirty years after his death in 1750 there were only twelve Bach editions, mainly his late and contrapuntally 'learned' works -- The Art of Fugue in 1750, the Musical Offering and the third part of the Clavierübung in 1761.

"It was only from about 1800 on that more publications of Bach's music began to appear, their production picking up momentum throughout Beethoven's lifetime. What little of Bach was known in these early years was regarded by most musicians as formidably difficult to perform and to understand. That Beethoven could learn to know and play The Well­ Tempered Clavier so early gave him direct exposure to Bach's unparalleled command of musical logic and depth of expression, even if he could hardly integrate it into this embryonic stage of his own compositional develop­ment, which was inevitably aimed at mastering much easier contemporary styles and techniques. Bachian counterpoint remained a latent influence for many years before it reemerged in Beethoven's later life, when he was ready to accept the very different artistic responsibility of coming fully to grips with the intricate mysteries of Bach's art."



Lewis Lockwood


The Music and the Life: Beethoven


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2003 by Lewis Lockwood


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment