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Baptizing Beethoven - 250th Year Anniversary

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

(Click on the music links to give background music!)

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized today (for as long as it is the 17th), the 17th of December, 1770, in Bonn, a small city on the Rhine River. Children died at a fearfully high rate before modern health practices, so it was not so unusual to not bother to note the birth date, but only record the baptismal date.

(Here's a lovely little minute and a half clip of Beethoven's Eroica being performed in the forest for thousands of young Dutch girls- all the more appropriate, since his name and his grandfather came from the Netherlands).

The Young Musical Prodigy

His hometown, Bonn, was the residence of the Archbishop of Cologne, church prince and secular lord of that region of Germany. The Archbishop noted Beethoven’s musical gift early on, and 1786-87, he sent a teenage Beethoven to Vienna to study with Mozart for a few months before returning home- there is, frustratingly, no clear record whether Beethoven ever actually met Mozart.

By 1790 the spirited young Beethoven had begun to find noble patrons to support him, such as Count Waldstein, for whom he wrote Die Musik zu einem Ritterballett WoO 1 (Music for a ballet of knights) (Here a link to ten minutes of that - so stately.) and Variationen über ein Thema von Graf Waldstein WoO 67.

Once he was back home in Bonn, he was just a day’s ride east of France where the French Revolution was raging, European monarchs were on the verge of war with the new anti-monarchic Republic. It was a good time to be away from the French border, and at age 21, in 1792, Beethoven does move back to Vienna.

Musical (and Safe) Vienna

More than safe, Vienna was the cultural capital of the central Europe, and a magnet for musicians. It had drawn Mozart and Haydn, and would draw Brahms, among other greats. Haydn, passing through Bonn, had already met Beethoven, and taught Beethoven music in Vienna, as did Salieri, and many already considered him the next Mozart.

Beethoven’s patron the Archbishop expected him to end his time in Vienna and return to provincial Bonn in 1794, since teacher Haydn had gone to England. However, the French soon occupied Bonn, upending things for that patron. While Beethoven’s stipend dried up, he already had found patrons in Vienna, and so he could stay put.

The next year, 1795, revolutionary France took all German lands west of the Rhine River, including Bonn, and soon formally annexed them. Beethoven was still German (and Germany was a region and confederation at that time, not a single formal country), but also Viennese, while his relatives had become citizens of France, as we mentioned recently.

Young Beethoven was still walking in the footsteps of Mozart and Haydn, as with his near-first published works the piano trios, here the third piano trio (Haydn's critique wounded the young hotheaded Beethoven greatly).

Napoleon's Impact

Beethoven started off dedicating his third symphony, the Eroica to Napoleon, champion of the common folk, democracy, progress and... and Napoleon crowned himself emperor, and became an aristocrat like the rest of them, so Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication and wrote "Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man".

(! someone had fun making this little clip. Helen Hsu, specifically)

Napoleon marched through Vienna the following year, 1805, the same year that Beethoven’s works started being performed for the public in the young United States.

Napoleon surged and ebbed, and in 1815, Waterloo brought an end to Napoleon’s reign. Austria lost its scattered territories near the French border, France kept Alsace-Lorraine, and the swath of Germany that Napoleon had annexed was awarded to several German powers. Bavaria got the Rhineland-Palatinate for a time (some of my ancestors suddenly became Bavarian that way). But most of the Rhineland lost their independence to Prussia.

Beethoven 250 Years On

Beethoven lost his hearing, but continued to write some of his most enduring pieces, struggling on until his death in 1827. Beethoven, so international - the grandson of a Dutch musician, a Rhinelander who became an Austrian and not quite a Frenchman, went on to join Napoleon among the immortals.

But his music lives on with us today as the joyous flash mob video from Nürnberg. Happy baptism day, Beethoven.

(Beethoven the Flash Mob)


You might be curious about the linguistic history of van typical of Dutch and the von more common in German. Read all about it in our earlier blog here.


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