Sitting in the Music Room, I find myself moved to tears, and not for the first time today. A small circle of seats and a projection on the wall are the sole features of the room, but it an emotional sensory experience. Beethoven’s beautiful Moonlight Sonata is playing over a speaker, and the projection shows the composer’s original – yes, handwritten original – music for the piece, highlighting where among the scribbles the music is. I laugh at the frantic notations, the spots where the master changed his mind and crossed out whole sections. And I close my eyes and weep gently, overwhelmed by the emotion of the music, and of this incredibly personal connection to it.
Just across a small courtyard from the Music Room is the Beethoven House, the very spot where Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December of 1770. Here, visitors can pay homage to one of the greatest composers the world has ever known, and to understand the life and the music of the great man. A free audio/visual guide takes one through the rooms of the home, which, unlike most such houses of notable people, is not full of furniture. Rather, it is a museum, housing artifacts owned by Beethoven himself. The guide does its best to explain the collection, both through words and through music.
Photography is not allowed inside the Beethoven House, but the collection runs the gamut from portraits of Beethoven done by a variety of artists – unlike many other composers, Beethoven was famous in his own time – to exhibits dedicated to his relationships with friends and benefactors (complete with correspondence) to several ear trumpets used to improve hearing as the composer suffered from tinnitus in his later years. Rooms are organized by topic, regardless of their uses when the home was a home.
A book of local christenings launches the exploration of Beethoven’s life here in Bonn, giving us the first reference to the man. Here, he worked with a local teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, and was so talented that he published his first work in 1783, at the age of twelve. By the following year, he was a paid organist in the court chapel – his only regular employment in his life. Bonn’s local leader, Elector Maximilian Friedrich, took note of the young Beethoven, and both he and his successor, Elector Maximilian Franz, sponsored some of the composer’s early works. Franz also arranged for Beethoven to receive a scholarship to Vienna in 1792.
At the age of 21, Ludwig van Beethoven would leave Bonn, though Bonn never really left him, and he never truly adapted to court life in Vienna. Records of his disheveled appearance are spoken of here in the museum, with Beethoven’s own words used to illustrate his disgust with having to dress and behave in a more “appropriate” fashion. He must have yearned to return here, though his career could only truly thrive in the capital.
I wander through the Beethoven House, listening and learning. I hear of his romantic relationships, none of which produced children. I absorb the level of the composer’s ego, when he tells a prince who has been supporting him that he will not do what is asked, since while there are many princes, “there is only one Beethoven.” I marvel at his dedication to a daily routine; he would wake before 6am, work, visit a coffee house, entertain visitors for lunch, then take a long walk with a journal before dining at a local inn or taking in a concert. Many pages of these journals are on display here, in which he both notes his experiences and things that inspired him, as well as hand-jots notes of music that entered his consciousness while on his strolls.
The highlights of the Beethoven House are twofold: his handwritten music, done in pencil or ink, complete with entire sections being crossed out; and his personal musical instruments, with his seal pressed into the backs. With each display of either music or an instrument (mainly strings), the guide offers both descriptions and stories, as well as musical interludes. I listen to my favorite piece, Fur Elise, and have to close my eyes to stop the tears from running down my cheeks as I stand next to the original musical notations. I had a music box as a child that played this song, and I am transported back to that part of my life in a way only music can do.
For hours after my visit, which lasts about two hours in total, the music of Beethoven plays in my head. Everywhere I wander in Bonn, I hear it, the soundtrack to this City of Beethoven. And the city honors him, from statues to signage to an annual Beethoven Festival.
Of course, a visit to the Beethoven House itself is only one piece of the experience here. Next door, and actually sharing a wall with what was once Ludwig’s childhood room, is a small concert hall, where masters from all over the world come to perform works by Beethoven and the other great composers. Only one concert is scheduled while I am in Bonn, and it is unfortunately not one of Beethoven’s. (It seems ridiculous to use the term “unfortunate” to sit and listen to a true piano master play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the most fascinating pieces, where music alternates slow and somber melodies with fast and fun portions that test any pianist. This concert is being held as a fundraiser for Ukraine, and – for at least the third or fourth time – I am moved to tears.)
The hall seats about 200, making it an intimate musical experience. While listening to beautiful melodies on the audio guide is amazing, it can’t compete with a lovely venue and a piano. The music just sounds different in person. I have to think Beethoven would be thrilled that, right next door to his home, such a place exists, and that we were here to listen to the notes of one of his biggest influences.
Back in the Music Room of the Beethoven House museum, I close my eyes and reflect. I was expecting this to be an educational and meaningful experience; I never would have believed it would be so emotional. Listening to the notes of Ludwig van Beethoven, my mind is transfixed, my spirit soars, and my soul sings along. This is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Thank you to the Beethoven House for arranging for my admission to the museum, tickets for the concert, and a truly spectacular and meaningful experience.
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