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Beethoven's Childhood

Beethoven was born in this house, at 515 Bonngasse,
Bonn, on 17 December 1770. This pencil drawing was
made in 1889 by R.Beissel, 58 years after the death
of the composer

For someone who was destined to be lionized by the aristocracy of his time, Beethoven's start in life was inauspicious. He was born in Bonn in 1770, the son of an obscure tenor singer in the employ of the Elector of Cologne. Though the exact date of his birth is not known, it is known that Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770. It was customary for people to be baptized the day after they were born and indeed it is known that his family celebrated his birthday on December 16th. There is also some debate in the field centering around the fact that Beethoven told people he was born in 1772 and that it was his older brother Ludwig Maria was was born in 1770. However, Ludwig Maria is believed to have been baptized in 1769. Some scholars believe that Beethoven's farther tried to move Beethoven's birth year to 1772 in order make him younger and there more of a musical prodigy. In the end Beethoven most probably born on December 16, 1770. His father was said to be a violent and intemperate man, who returned home late at night much worse for drink and dragged young Ludwig from his bed in order to "beat" music lessons into the boy's sleepy head. There are also stories of his father forcing him to play his violin for the amusement of his drinking cronies. Despite these and other abuses - which might well have persuaded as lesser person to loathe the subject - the young Beethoven developed a sensitivity and vision for music.

When, despite his father's brutal teaching methods, Ludwig began to show signs of promise, other teachers were called in. By the age of seven he was advanced enough to appear in public. A year or so later the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe took over his musical training and progress thereafter was rapid. Ch. G. Neefe introduced Beethoven to the works of Bach and Mozart. Beethoven must have felt immense pride when his Nine Variations for piano in C minor were published, and was listed later in a prominent Leipzig catalogue as the work of 'Louis van Betthoven (sic), aged ten'. (The former is an intentional misspelling)

In 1787, Beethoven went to Vienna, a noted musical center, where then Count Waldstein engaged Beethoven was piano teacher and became his friend and patron. Beethoven must have felt a little out of his depth for he was clumsy and stocky; his manners were loutish, his black hair unruly and he habitually wore an expression of surliness on his swarthy face. It was here that Beethoven met the great Mozart, who was dapper and sophisticated. He received the boy doubtfully, but once Beethoven started playing the piano his talent was evident. "Watch this lad," Mozart reported. "Some day he will force the world to talk about him."
The death of Beethoven's mother in the summer of 1787 brought him back to Bonn.

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  Copyright (C) 2005 William Lane