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The Prodigy: Beethoven as a Music Student

  • A Child Musician
  • Keyboard Studies
  • Teachers in Vienna
  • Did Beethoven Study with Mozart?

A Child Musician

Bonn, Germany, Beethoven’s Birthplace
Steel engraving published by the Bibliographisches Institut in Hilburghausen, ca. 1850
Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2008

Engraving of Bonn

We do not know exactly when Beethoven started his musical training, but by the age of six his instruction had progressed rapidly under the strict guidance of his father Johann, who made his living as a court singer and private music tutor. At that time the Beethoven family lived with the Fischer family Bonn. Several decades later, in 1838, Cäcilia Fischer (1762-1845) and her brother Gottfried (1780-1864) began writing down their reminiscences of Beethoven as a child. The Fischer manuscript and the Biographische Notizen by Franz Gerhard Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries are the sources for many of the stories of Beethoven’s childhood, some of which cannot be confirmed.  However, Cäcilia Fischer, Wegeler, and other observers recounted seeing little Ludwig practicing for long hours, sometimes standing on a footstool in front of the keyboard instrument. [Thayer/Forbes p. 57; see also Solomon p. 22 who cites several other sources]. Despite the severity of his early training, Beethoven’s natural talent and inclination for music shined through the drudgery. By the age of seven he was performing in public on the “clavier,” a word used to describe either the clavichord, harpsichord, or fortepiano.

Beethoven at age 16
Reproduction of the silhouette by Joseph Neesen from 1786, first published in the Biographische Notizen by F.A. Wegeler and F. Ries in 1838

Beethoven silhouetteIn Bonn, many children attended the Tirocinium, a Latin school, to prepare themselves for the higher grades in the gymnasium. Beethoven’s father took him out of school before he turned 11 and made the path to a professional musical career his son’s full-time pursuit. He engaged several other teachers to instruct Ludwig. The court organist Gilles van der Eeden (ca. 1708-1782) gave him lessons on the fortepiano as well as the organ and thoroughbass (a method of improvising harmony from a figured bass line). Other occasional teachers were fellow tenants in the Fischer house, including the flamboyant actor and fortepianist Tobias Pfeifer and the violinist Franz Georg Rovantini (1757-1781), who were by many accounts very gifted musicians. For lessons in composition and music theory, Beethoven turned to Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), who succeeded van der Eeden as the court organist. Young Ludwig was appointed Neefe’s assistant in 1784, just before he turned 14.

Map of Germany in 1785
Drawn “from the latest authorities” by geographer Thomas Kitchin and printed in London. The blue dots show the location of Bonn and Vienna. Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2004

The modern nation of Germany did not exist during Beethoven’s time. On this map, the cartographer drew “Germany” as the individual states of the Kingdom of Prussia as well as parts of the bordering countries, including the Austrian Empire. Beethoven’s hometown, Bonn, is situated in the beautiful valley along the Rhine River. According to the Fischer reminiscences, as a youth Beethoven embarked on excursions outside of Bonn with his family and their friends, visiting several of the beautiful regions along the Rhine [Thayer/Forbes p. 62-63]. In 1783, during a trip with his mother to Holland to visit relatives, Ludwig’s musical prowess attracted considerable attention (but few “gifts,” to the family’s disappointment) [Thayer/Forbes p. 63, again from Fischer manuscript]. Beethoven would not leave Bonn again until 1787, when he made the long trip to Vienna, stopping at Munich, Augsburg, and other villages along the way.

Map of Germany

“Schilderung eines Mädchen,” WoO 107
First edition of Beethoven’s song composed when he was twelve and published in the collection Blumenlese für Klavierliebhaber by Bossler in Speyer in 1783. The collection also contains Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major, WoO 48. Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2004

Title page of the Beethoven’s duties as a court musician were considerable. He played organ at the court and assisted Neefe at the Minorite Church. During Neefe’s extended absense, Beethoven also served as the rehearsal fortepianist at the theater and sometimes played viola in the orchestra.  He did find some time to exercise his creative energy by composing music. By the age of twelve he had composed a set of variations and three sonatas for fortepiano. With these compositions, Beethoven transferred his skill on the keyboard to the printed page.  He also composed two small pieces published in the collection, Blumenlese für Klavierliebhaber (Anthology for Keyboard Lovers) intended for the amateur musician. One was Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major, WoO 48. The other was the song “Schilderung eines Mädchen” (“Description of a Maiden”), Beethoven’s first work for voice and fortepiano. Here is a translation of the anonymous poem:

Do you want me, my friend, to describe Elise to you?
May Uz’s spirit inspire me!
Just as stars glitter on a winter’s night,
So would Oeser paint the splendor of her eyes.

A young woman nicknamed “Elise” would later become a figure in Beethoven’s life as a teacher. “Uz” may refer to the great-grandson of Noah or to the place where Job lived. The name Oeser likely refers to Adam Friendrich Oeser (1717-1799), a German etcher, painter, and sculptor who was Goethe’s drawing teacher.

Keyboard Studies

C.F. Cramer’s Magazin der Musik, first half of 1783, published by the Musikalische Niederlage in Hamburg. Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2002

Title page of C.F. Cramer's Magazin der MusikThe first published notice of Beethoven, written by his teacher Neefe, appeared in this music magazine when Beethoven was twelve (not eleven, as stated there):

“Louis van Betthoven, son of the above-mentioned tenor, a boy of eleven years [sic] and of very promising talent. He plays the keyboard skillfully and powerfully, sight-reads very well, and to sum it up, he mostly plays The Well-Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Mr. Neefe has placed in his hands. Whoever knows this collection of preludes and fugues in all keys (which one could call the non plus ultra) will know what that means. Insofar as his other duties allow, Mr. Neefe has also given him some instruction in the thoroughbass. Now he is training him in composition, and to give him encouragement has had his variations on a march for keyboard engraved in Mannheim. This young genius deserves the support to enable him to travel. He would certainly become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue to progress as he has begun.” (Translation by Wayne Senner)

A Keyboard Method Book from 1790-1800
Two pages from a manuscript by an unidentified teacher

Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2009 and 2010

The exercises in this manuscript are typical of the keyboard passagework in which Beethoven excelled. The page on the left contains “Three-voice exercises of the fingers with motionless hand”  (with exercises for the hand in up and down motion on the reverse). Beethoven developed a connected (“legato”) style for which he became especially renowned. One observer remarked in 1803 that he “played with his hands so very still; wonderful as his execution was, there was not tossing of them to and fro, up and down; they seemed to glide right and left over the keys, the fingers alone doing the work.” Beethoven was also a master of the trill, with the ability to play simultaneous trills in two hands and double trills. The manuscript page on the right gives instruction and examples for realization of ornaments such as trills and turns.

Manuscript keyboard method Manuscript keyboard method

Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858)
Lithographed portrait printed in Braunschweig for the Gallerie berühmte Tonkünstler, ca. 1835
Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2010

J.B. CramerWe do not know if Beethoven’s teachers used method books for his lessons, but it is clear that he developed some of his skill on the keyboard by playing the music of J.S. Bach. Later, as a teacher, Beethoven also preferred the Klavierschule of Muzio Clementi and the studies by his friend Johann Baptist Cramer, whose fortepiano playing Beethoven much admired. Beethoven’s copy of the Cramer Studies is preserved today in the Berlin Library.

Fortepiano Studies by Johann Baptist Cramer
Cramer originally published his fortepiano studies in 1804. This new, revised edition was published by Tobias Haslinger in Vienna in 1821. Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 1994

Title page of Cramer Etudes

Beethoven's Teachers in Vienna

Portrait of Beethoven by NeidlBeethoven at around age 30
Portrait lithograph by Masson, Deblois and Massard based on the engraving by Joseph Neidl from 1801, published in the book Les musiciens célèbres depuis le seizième siècle jusqu’à nos jours by Félix Clèment, first published in 1868.

In Bonn Beethoven met Joseph Haydn and showed him the manuscript for his latest composition, a funeral cantata for Joseph II. Haydn was sufficiently impressed and encouraged Beethoven to continue his studies in Vienna. But after Beethoven’s arrival there in 1792, he worked not only with Haydn but with several other teachers, including Johann Baptist Schenk, Emanuel Aloys Förster, Anton Salieri, and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Clay bust by Rudolf Uffrecht, 1863. Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2003

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)
Portrait engraving by A. Ehrenreich based on a painting by Natale Schiavoni, published in Vienna by S.A. Steiner & Comp. and printed as a frontispiece for volume 3 of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 1819. Gift of the American Beethoven Society, 2004

Bust of Joseph Haydn

Portrait of Salieri

Some of you may recognize Salieri’s name from the play (and movie) Amadeus, in which he is the bitter rival of Mozart and instrument of Mozart’s untimely death. In truth, Salieri was a prominent and respected court musician, teacher, and composer of numerous operas. Beethoven turned to him for instruction in vocal composition. Salieri was also a leader of the Tonkünstler-Society and conducted the orchestra for Beethoven’s first public appearance in Vienna, in which Beethoven performed as a soloist for one of his own concertos. Beethoven expressed his respect for Salieri by dedicated his first three Sonatas for Violin and Fortepiano, Opus 12, to this teacher.

Three Sonatas for Harpsichord or Fortepiano and Violin, Opus 12, dedicated to Antonio Salieri. First edition published in Vienna by Artaria & Comp. in 1798 or 1799. Gift of Ira F. Brilliant, 1999

Title page of the Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Opus 12

Portrait of AlbrechtsbergerBeethoven briefly studied counterpoint with Albrechtsberger, from 1794-1795. Couterpoint is the art of writing one or more lines of music against an original line. Beethoven remained friendly and respectful of Albrechtsberger. After Albrechtsberger died (just two months before Haydn’s passing), Beethoven agreed to give music theory lessons to Albrechtsberger’s grandson. In 1821, a revised and enlarged edition of Albrechtsberger’s Grundliche Anweisung zur Composition was published. Beethoven recommended it to the budding composer Carl August Reichardt in 1825.

J.G. Albrechtsberger's sämmtliche Schriften über Generalbass, Harmonie-Lehre, und Tonsetzkunst(J.G. Albrechtsberger’s Collected Writings on Thoroughbass, Harmony, and Composition), published in 3 volumes in Vienna by Anton Strauss, 1826. Gift of the American Beethoven Society

Title page of Albrechtsberger's collected writings

Did Beethoven Study with Mozart?

According to reminiscences, Beethoven was taken on his 1787 visit to Mozart, who requested that the fortepianist play something for him. Mozart, assuming that what Beethoven had played was a carefully prepared show-piece, praised it in a somewhat cool manner. Beethoven, observing Mozart’s tone, begged Mozart for a theme on which to improvise, one of Beethoven’s greatest musical gifts. Beethoven improvised in such a style that Mozart, who paid more and more attention and interest as Beethoven proceeded, finally went to some friends in the adjoining room and excitedly exclaimed, “Keep your eyes on him. Some day he will give the world something to talk about.”
However, Beethoven himself was curiously silent about this experience. Most intriguing are the cryptic notes in Beethoven’s conversion books, written by his nephew Karl. “You knew Mozart?,” Karl asked. Beethoven’s verbal response is not recorded, but to that Karl replied, “Where did you see him?” Some scholars assumed that Beethoven’s encounter with Mozart must have been brief because he was called back to Bonn when his mother became seriously ill. However, new research by Dieter Haberl proves that Beethoven could have spent up to ten weeks in Vienna. Such a period of time would certainly have allowed time for him to play for and even have lessons with Mozart.

Engraving of “Beethoven chez Mozart” by Paul Allais from a painting by H. Merle; engraved by Alfred Chardon, Paris; published by Bulla frères, Paris, and L.T. Neumann, Vienna, 1858

Beethoven with MozartIn Merle’s fanciful painting, Beethoven’s classic upward gaze as he plays the organ indicates his communication with the spirit of imagination and creation. Mozart has successfully quieted the members of the nobility present, who normally regarded music as only background accompaniment to their witty conversations.