(1787 - 1792)

From Beethoven's letter to Councillor von Schaden in Augsburg we know that he went through a period of intense grief over the loss of his mother. In his letter, he also relates that he feared he, too, might have become infected with consumption, describing his shortness of breath and his melancholy over the situation. We can not be certain as to whether Beethoven had been in any way directly infected during his mother's final illness in 1787. Medical research, however, knows of various forms of tuberculosis, so that not necessarily the lungs become directly infected. This is pointed out in an attempt at having the reader investigate such issues further by reading up on Beethoven's illnesses in appropriate literature, as we have to entirely reserve our judgment on this issue, here. What we can learn from records, however, is that Maria Magdalena's terminal illness and the medical expenses related to it put the family in dire financial straits. The Bonn court musician and violinist Franz Anton Ries was the one who stood by Beethoven and his family the most. Of Johann van Beethoven it can be safely said that he literally "fell apart" after the death of his wife. His singing voice deteriorated more and more, and the more it did, the more he drowned his sorrows in wine. Ludwig had to take charge of household affairs as best as he could. With the help of some of his friends he struggled along for nearly two years in trying to keep things together so that his brothers would have food on the table which a hired housekeeper prepared. His baby sister whom Frau van Beethoven had given birth to about a year before her death, did not flourish under these conditions and died in the fall of 1787. So Beethoven was left with having to see to his brothers' Caspar Carl and Nikolaus Johannes' further education and training. Caspar Carl aimed at becoming a piano teacher, and Nikolaus Johannes entered an apprenticeship as pharmacist at the Bonn Court pharmacy.

Out of the fact that hardly any sketches and scores of Beethoven's compositions during the years 1787 to 1789 have survived, there grew a general contention that Beethoven might have stopped composing during this difficult period. If this was, indeed, the case, he might have gone through an emotional trauma that hindered him from expressing himself in his own compositions. However, in his 2000 Beethoven biography, Barry Cooper contends that:

". . . It is, of course, possible that he virtually abandoned composition during this period, for his everyday cares increased considerably, as we shall see, and he is known to have gone through a number of silent phases during his life when he felt unable to commit much to paper. But to be silent for so long, and at such an early age, seems improbable. Far more likely, he simply abandoned or mislaid most of his compositions from this period in later years, and they gradually disappeared. . . . " (Cooper: 21-22).

[Cooper does, however, not merely state his opinion here but tries to, as counter-argument against the 'general contention', present his readers with details of traces of works that Beethoven was contemplating during this period, one of which is a single draft with the heading 'Sinfonia' in which Beethoven came as far as near the end of the exposition. Cooper writes, "Its date is uncertain, but the handwriting is in a transitional form that strongly suggests it comes from this dark age between 1786 and 1790" (Cooper: 23; as source, he lists Johnson, Beethoven's Early Sketches, i. 222). Cooper also refers to Beethoven's new concerto that he appears to also have begun in this period and traces this back to a single sheet of paper, with the handwriting suggesting that it belongs to the same period (Source: Johnson, Beethoven's Early Sketches, i. 366; ii. 71-3, listed in Cooper: 23). He also suggests that this early sketch might later have been incorporated into his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19. As additional works from this period, Cooper refers to various Preludes (one in F minor, WoO 55, two in C major, Op. 39), and perhaps also 'some of the eight songs that later appear in Beethoven's Op. 52 collection (Cooper: 23).}

While we can not attain absolute certainty with respect to this issue, we may safely assume that Beethoven did go through a difficult period of adjusting to the loss of his mother, of which we know that he kept attending to his duties as a court musician, music teacher and virtual head of his family's household. What helped him to slowly heal was not in the least the positive influence Madame von Breuning had over him. In many ways, she appears to have filled the role of a second mother to Beethoven. Her family may also have favorably intervened in an embarrassing incident involving his alcoholic father whom police were about to arrest one night for disturbing the peace. Ludwig's desperate pleading with them to let his father go may have driven his own patience to the utmost so that he, too, momentarily lost his temper. Discreet intervention on the part of the von Breuning family subsequently ensured that this was not also turned into an issue by the local authorities.

Another fast friend of Beethoven became Count Waldstein [Cooper places his arrival into "late January 1788" (Cooper: 25)], an Austrian nobleman who was appointed by the Elector to manage certain aspects of Court ceremonies. This young man was also a friend and admirer of Mozart. In time, he became Beethoven's first noble patron.

By November, 1789, Johann van Beethoven's state had become so deplorable that Ludwig felt himself forced to petition to the Court to receive half of his father's salary so that he, himself, could take control of his family's finances. This petition was granted in the following manner:

To all appearances, the financial part of this settlement was carried out while Johann van Beethoven was never actually removed from Bonn.

If we were to, on the one hand, follow the 'general contention' that Beethoven had stopped composing altogether from 1787 to 1789, we might consider that this "settlement" of his family matters would have set his energies free again so that he returned to composing. On the other hand, if we were to follow Cooper's argument that Beethoven might not have entirely given up composing, altogether, we would also have to give weight to a further argument of his that we will be discussing shortly.

What appears certain, in any event, is that Beethoven also returned to increasingly taking part in the cultural life of Bonn. During the 1789-1790 semester, he enrolled at the University of Bonn as a lay student, along with some of his young fellow court musicians. He also socialized with the members of the Bonn Reading Society of which Waldstein became a member, as well. This circle of the Bonn intelligentsia also frequented the Bonn restaurant Zehrgarten which the widow Koch owned. A bookshop was part of this facility. In his duties as a court musician, Beethoven now not only acted as assistant court organist, but also as a viola player in the orchestra.

What can surely be considered Beethoven's most important composition of the year 1790 leads us back to Cooper's argument that arose out of his contention that Beethoven had not stopped composing, entirely, during the period of 1787 to 1789.

The 1790 death of Emperor Joseph II prompted the Bonn Reading Society to commission from Beethoven a funeral cantata. With respect to this commission, Cooper argues:

"The choice of composer is significant, for it provides further evidence that his talent had been recognized, and that he must therefore have written far more in the previous three years than now survives, for otherwise someone else such as Neefe or Reicha would surely have been chosen" (Cooper: 27).

This cantata, however, was not finished on time for their purposes. In it, as musicologists explain, Beethoven found an opportunity to turn his previous personal grief into an expression of grief over the loss of an enlightened ruler. Beethoven also wrote a cantata for the coronation of the new Emperor Leopold.

His continued interaction with Count Waldstein led to one of the compositions Beethoven embarked on during the 1790/1791 season. He wrote a Ritterballet which Waldstein had his permission to present as his own for the festivities. This carnival's theme were the medieval times and the lives of the nobles during that period.

The late summer and fall of 1791 brought with it for Beethoven a joyful trip, the memory of which he would cherish all of his life. The Elector, as Grand Master of the Teutonic Order (an institution that dated back to the feudal medieval times of the Crusades) had to preside over its fall 1791 session at its Mergentheim headquarters at the Main river upstream from Frankfurt.

His musical entourage followed him up the rivers Rhine and Main in two boats. On Beethoven's boat, the court musicians also took over the task of managing their daily needs. Beethoven was relegated to kitchen duty and in Rüdesheim he received a diploma for his heroic efforts. His friend Wegeler observed that he later carefully kept his diploma in his lodgings in Vienna. At Mergentheim, the orchestra rehearsed his cantatas but found them too difficult to perform.

At a prior stopover at Aschaffenburg, Beethoven met the then famous pianist, Abbé Sterkel, whose elegant manner of playing he imitated to perfection after only briefly watching him, but it also brought with it an incident which lets us, for the first time, look at the issue of Beethoven and women. When the court musicians had dinner at a restaurant, they wanted to tease the lifeblood out of their serious and shy colleague Beethoven. They convinced the pretty young waitress who was serving them to play her charms on him. He, however, only showed her his cold shoulder. Urged on by his fellow musicians, she tried it again and received a smart box on her ears from Beethoven.

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In connection with this incident, it is also appropriate and interesting to look at Wegeler's recollection of his later famous friend's youthful infatuations with two young ladies of noble birth: Jeanette d'Honrath of Cologne who stayed at the von Breuning house and, on observing his shy admiration for her, openly teased him about it in insisting on singing the farewell song If I must be separated from you already today, that would be too cruel, and his infatuation with Fräulein von Westerholt, whom he admired in a Werther-like fashion. Wegeler, however, also insisted on maintaining that these romantic notions were of an entirely adolescent nature, while Beethoven also maintained a fine friendship with his own later wife, Eleonore von Breuning.

On his return from England, Franz Joseph Haydn, Europe's foremost composer after the December 5th, 1791, death of Mozart, stopped over in Bonn to visit the Elector in the summer of 1792 (Cooper: 38).

It is generally believed that Beethoven may have shown him his cantatas on this occasion and that due to this meeting, the plan was forged that he should go to Vienna to study with Haydn. This plan was then turned to reality in the fall of 1792. From the entries in the customary farewell album Beethoven received from his friends, it becomes clear that he must have left Bonn around November 1st - 3rd, 1792. Let us quote here a passage of the most prophetic entry which Count Waldstein made:

"You are gong to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. Mozart's genius is still mourning over the death of its pupil. With the inexhaustible Haydn, it has found a refuge, but no occupation. Through arduous labor you (shall) receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands."