On Beethoven and running shoes

By

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.''

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.

Recommended: You've heard Gioachino Rossini's music, even if you've never heard of him

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.

Compared with homes of more recent big names, 20 Bonngasse is more a museum of related objects than a frozen habitat of genius. Freud's house in Vienna has coat, hat, and walking stick in the front hall, memorabilia left in place on bookshelves - as if the inhabitant were about to emerge from his sitting room and go for a walk. It hs so perfectly appointed that one suspects the hero is fictional, like Sherlock Holmes, whose imaginary lodgings in London have been so impeccably re-created by the Baker Street Irregulars.

In Vienna, also, the living room of the Hapsburg emperors, Franz Josef, has been so realistically preserved that one feels he has just stepped out for soma hot chocolate mit schlag. The overstuffed sofa and homely floor lamps leave a portrait of middle-class domesticity, placed as they are like a cmall stage set within the high bargque ceilings of his palace, that one can picture the emperor's austere work habits and simple tastes as he tended the helm of a dying empire. The last absolute monarch performeby Calvin Cootzy.

Beethovenhaus in in Bonn lacks such spoor of daily life. Even its somewhat ltaubrious plasterdeath mask - a favorite conceit of the period - seems disconnected from its ostensible lose model.

The mask serves as a reminder, though, of an extraordinary, if foolish, scene that took place nearly a century ago. The year was 1889. The place, a chapel outside Vienna. A group of Viennese scientists had obtained permission to exhume Beethoven (among others) and measure his skeleton and skull. The theories of Lombroso, the Italian physician/criminologist, were in vogae. Presumably they had influenced the event in question. Lombroso's idea, long since discredited, was that you could discern a person's intelligence by measuring his brainpan. As the calipers were brought out for this bizarre business, the composer Anton Bruckner suddenly darted across the chapel room and seized the Beethoven skull. He cradled it in reverence. But Bruckner apparently didn't gain any more benefit from this move than did the scientists from their attempt to measure genius with calipers.A recent magazine ad reminds us that human beings haven't entirely outgrown such attempts to make physical measurements of intelligence, or its unhindered expression we call genius. The ad shows any hostess' favorite dinner party guest list - Plato, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Jefferson, Darwin, Mme. Curie (the token woman?), and Einstein. Its headline asks, ''Of all the world's great thinkers, which is the greatest?'' The copywriter's answer is tangential. But the reader is led to believe that the ultimate answer just may be some successor to today's computer chip, which can remember 256,000 bits of information.All right. Any probability mathematician with a Hewlett-Packard can calculate how many variations it would take of all the notes playable on all the orchestral instruments to arrive at the exact sequence of the first movement of, say, Beethoven's marvelous Eighth Symphony. And from there he could go on to calculate how many googolplexes of random notes would be needed to arrive at the entire four movements.With a superfast computer, it may become theoretically possible to compose the works of Beethoven, Mahler, or Prokofiev, or to write Shakespeare plays or Dantean cantos. By programming clues as to writing style, one might just possibly limit the number of false starts - the dross - to only some quintillions of wrong combinations. But you would still need a genius (make that a bored pedant) to pore through all that dross looking for the unimaginably rare flecks of gold.All in all, it's infinitely preferable to let Beethoven or Shakespeare do the job. Their Creator gave them a more subtle form of computer.I always come away from 20 Bonngasse feeling glad there are so many gaps in the detail of how Beethoven lived and composed. One of those completely furnished homes wouldn't help a bit. For Proust, maybe. But for Beethoven, it's better to listen to the music.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...