On Beethoven and running shoes
Whenever I'm in Bonn I try to visit Beethoven's birthplace. There's nothing inherently revealing about the houses where geniuses are born. (Unless, of course, you discover that the newborn overcame the privations of a log cabin to become a great statesman.) There's certainly no clue, as one studies the bare third floor room at the back of the Beethovens' comfortable but small house, to explain why the infant cradled there should later write the ''Eroica.''Skip to next paragraph
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But I go, nevertheless.
Probably because it's reassuring, in the midst of missile protests, talk of Armageddon, and head-shaking over what material prosperity is doing to German youth, to be reminded of the spirit of a great man who grew there amid the allegedly ordinary.
Walking the floorboards where young Ludwig once crawled and scrambled, one is reminded that he was to shape extraordinary creative works while Europe was in turmoil, plumbing was poor, nobody had a stereo, monarchy was still several touchdowns ahead of democracy, and John Lennon had not yet shown how to make millions from composing.
Such musing leads to a speculation. Was it, in fact, the lack of 20th-century diversions in young Ludwig's daily life that led him to value single-mindedly the musical heritage handed down from his grandfather? To value the chance to teach music lessons to his neighbors, Stephan and Lorenz von Breuning, and in turn learn from their cultured mother? To want to pay back with his talent the admiring support he got from Count Waldstein and the Prince-Elector Maximilian Franz, who sent him off to Maximilian's native Vienna to study with Haydn?
All that early twig-bending took place in Bonn.
Of course Beethoven didn't compose the ''Eroica,'' ''Hammerklavier,'' ''Fidelio,'' late quartets, or Ninth here. Vienna is the place for those doubting Thomases who want to touch the spot where lightning struck. Where Napoleon was slashed from the dedication page of the Third Symphony. Where the Heiligenstadter Testament of despair was written by the man who had received his doctor's sentence of deafness, and then began to hear the most extraordinary musical ideas in history.
Vienna is where the music erupted - from the volcano standing between peaks labeled Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, and Mahler, overshadowing the valleys where Bruckner, Webern, assorted Strausses, and, yes, Salieri, toiled.
But Bonn will do.
The Beethoven house at the rear of No. 20 Bonngasse reminds us that this most succinct of musical talents - in whom melody, rhythm, idealism, boldness, fury against tyranny, and spiritual exaltation all fused tautly - came out of the everyday-ness of a sleepy Rhine village.
The shoe stores, of course, weren't there.
Next door today they sell elegant leather pumps. Across the steet stands a busy shop specializing in running shoes and sneakers. Joggers emerge with scarcely a glance at the facade opposite them - its stucco painted a color somewhere between puce and ocher, its dark green double doors adorned with a white Greek urn motif.
Not that the jogging generation is oblivious to Beethoven. Many of today's youth are gripped by his music. Others who don't take him pure know the disco beat version of the Fifth, or commune via T-shirt or Schroeder in the ''Peanuts'' comic strip.
Inside No. 20 we see signs of modest bourgeois style, with the exception of the attic bedroom where he was born. Today's museue connects the birth house to a more grand town house in front, where there is gesso molding on the cKilings. But even the Beethovens' small home facing on the rear garden has white beams with handsome curved connectors crowning its ceilings. Whitewashed walls glisten. Small-paned windows admit a crystalline light.
There are display cases of woodwinds and strings. And, separately, young Ludwig's viola. Copies of scores. Portraits of people who affected the composer's life, including one of his grandfather, the Kapellmeister of Bonn, that Ludwig kept all his life in Vienna. Silhouettes of the von Breunings, whose two sons and daughter moved to Vienna and were interwoven in his life there. A silhouette of Ludwig at 16, the only portrait made during his 22 years in Bonn. The Heiligenstadter Testament. And in the middle of the small attic bedroom where he was born, a somewhat incongruous marble bust of the mature man, mounted on a black pedestal so as to be, with German thoroughness, exactly his height: 5 feet, 4 inches. Otherwise that room is bare. It is as if the great composer had sprung full-grown but disembodied from the material brow and started scoring a concerto on the spot.