D ECEMBER days are not usually considered the most agreeable or most comfortable days of the year, but no December day could have been more disagreeable or uncomfortable than the seventeenth of that month in 1774. A dense, almost impenetrable fog enveloped that afternoon the city of Bonn on the Rhine, and the country for miles around, in a cold, gray veil of mist, through which hardly a ray of sunshine could find its way. A fine rain, mingled with occasional flakes of snow, drizzled through the fog and made the pavements slippery and filthy. Everything one looked upon, whether animate or inanimate, seemed disagreeable. The sky was disagreeable. Disagreeably the trees and shrubs in avenues and gardens shook their leafless branches to free them from the frozen raindrops which weighed them down. The houses in the street were disagreeable, and their usually attractive and brightly lighted windows appeared that day most inhospitable. Disagreeably and sullenly the rooks sat upon the roof-tops, and the sparrows themselves, usually the sauciest and jolliest companions among the feathered folk, fluttered about anxiously, deserted each other, and sought the warmest and driest little nooks in the cornices, or near a warm chimney, without any concern for the rest of the world. If two acquaintances met on the street, the one greeted the other with a woe-begone countenance. Everything seemed depressed and disagreeable—the huckster women in the market, the sentries at their posts, the few pedestrians on the promenade, and the few faces which appeared here and there at the darkened windows and looked with lonesome gaze into the tedious, gray, dense, cold fog.
No person or object, however, appeared more irritable, morose, and disagreeable than the court musician and singer, Herr Johann van Beethoven, who hurried through the unfriendly streets of Bonn, on the third hour of that afternoon, frequently muttering to himself imprecations and other exclamations to relieve his feelings.
"What weather!" he growled, as he wrapped his threadbare cloak around him more closely, when, in turning a street corner, a sharp gust of wind smote him fiercely. "Everything goes wrong in these ill-fated days. It is enough to drive one mad. Two hours lost already this morning. Now I am sent for again to make music because my lady is not in good humor! Do these distinguished people think that a musician of His Most Serene Highness, Max Franz, Elector of Cologne, is a bootblack? I am tired of it all! And this weather, too! Nothing but fog and rain, and not a kreuzer in one's pocket! There may be those who can bear such things patiently. I can't. Pah! The innkeeper will trust me once more. I will go to him, and better thoughts will come with something to strengthen the heart and some lively company."
Muttering these words, he turned into a side street, and after a few hundred paces entered a house, over the door of which hung a green wreath, signifying that wine was sold there. It was not until twilight fell, and the streets, already darkened by the fog, became doubly dark, that he came out. Another person followed, escorting him with a light, evidently so that he might not stumble upon the door-sill.
"Good-night, Herr van Beethoven," this person said. "I must look after my own interests. I must have the money in eight days, or credit stops. I also am the father of a family, Herr van Beethoven, and must take care of my own."
"Don't make so many words, gossip," replied the musician with some bitterness. "I give you my word of honor. You know me. Can you not act generously with me?"
The musician went on his way. The other, evidently the keeper of the wine-shop, looked after him, shaking his head.
"What a pity," he said to himself. "He well deserves better fortune. He is a pleasant, good-natured companion, but certainly his position as a member of the court chapel pays him but little, and it costs money to feed a wife and two little children. But he is past help. I cannot give him credit longer than eight days at the most. He already owes me too much."
While the wine-shop keeper was making these reflections, his guest found his way with difficulty through the dark streets. Had it been lighter, one would have noticed by his actions that his craving for a "heart strengthener" had in no way bettered his condition. On the contrary, he appeared even more sullen and morose than when he found it. His brow was wrinkled. His lips, tightly closed by his bitter feelings, opened only to utter imprecations and words of discontent, as they had done a little while before.
After walking around for about five minutes he reached the Bonn Gasse. Here he lived in a small, narrow, dark part of the "Graus Haus." He entered boisterously, and with great difficulty climbed the dark, narrow staircase.
"Is it you, Johann?" asked a gentle voice on the floor above, while at the same time a gleam of light illumined the darkness.
"It is I," replied the musician sullenly. "Have I come home a little too early, Marie?"
"Never too early, and you are always welcome, Johann," replied the first voice, with the same gentleness as before. A pretty but somewhat faded woman stepped forward and cordially gave her hand to her husband to assist him up the last steps. "What is the matter, Johann? You seem so gloomy! Think of it, this is the birthday of our little Ludwig."
The husband was visibly surprised, and pressed his hand to his brow.
"That I should have forgotten it!" he exclaimed. "But," he added bitterly, "how would it have helped matters, anyway? I have not a kreuzer with which to make the little one happy."
"Oh! do not let that trouble you, dear husband," replied his wife, smiling. "Ludwig is happy enough, and cares nothing for presents and the like. If you would sing a little bit to him and play the piano a little he would be perfectly contented."
"Certainly he can have that much, and at least it costs nothing," replied Johann Beethoven in a somewhat more cheerful manner, as he returned the cordial handshake of his wife. "Yes, I will sing and play, and thereby drive the bad spirit of discontent out of my soul."
The two stepped into a small, narrow, meanly furnished apartment, where they were welcomed with a loud cry of joy by a little four-year-old boy, who stretched out both his little hands to his mother. He may have been somewhat timid in the dark room, and the sight of his mother returning with the light elicited from him the outcry. It had little consolation for the father, however, for when the child saw him he shrank back afraid, and hid his face in the folds of his mother's dress.
"Be polite, Ludwig, dear child," she said kindly to him. "It is your father. Give him a pat of the hand."
The boy timidly stretched out his hand, but his father did not take it. It was evident the child's conduct had displeased him, for his eyes were again gloomy and his brows wrinkled.
"It's of no use," he said, repulsing the mother, who sought to conciliate her husband. "I know already what you will say, 'Children are children, and I'—well, certainly I am not always the tenderest of fathers to his own. But how can one be so when there is nothing for him but poverty, wretchedness, and thirstiness?"
Ill-humoredly he threw off his cloak, and with a gloomy countenance paced to and fro in the narrow chamber. Ludwig and his mother quietly withdrew to a corner. She could scarcely keep back the tears. Her little son clung to her anxiously and tenderly.
Some minutes passed in gloomy, oppressive stillness. At last Johann Beethoven, without saying a word, seated himself at the piano and touched the keys. The tender tones which he drew from the instrument seemed gradually to allay his agitation and brighten his darkened countenance. He played on, and finally began the pleasant melody of a folk-song, gently humming it at first, and then singing it with the full power of his voice.
Upon hearing the first tones of the song, the little Ludwig raised his head and fixed his gaze with rapt attention and glistening eyes upon his father. As he began to sing aloud, the boy got down from his mother's lap and, step by step, unheard by his father, approached him, until he stood close by his side, and clung to him as tenderly as he had clung to his mother a moment before. All his fears were dispelled by the soothing, gentle tones of the music. He listened only to them. All else was buried and forgotten. His eyes were raised to heaven, he stood transfixed, and his young soul fluttered, as if on wings, among the soft modulations of the simple yet heart-stirring, beautiful melody of the song.
His father stopped abruptly, turned round, and saw the child standing near him, as it were, in a kind of ecstasy.
"Ha! Ludwig, are you dreaming?" he asked, not harshly as before, but with an entirely changed and softer tone.
"No, father, I was only listening to you," replied the child, "and it seemed to me that I heard an angel singing in heaven. It was beautiful. Oh, if I could only play something too!"
"Try it," said his father encouragingly, as he placed the boy's fingers upon the keys. "Keep your fingers firm and let them follow as I guide them."
The little Ludwig was greatly pleased. His father repeated the melody which had so much delighted him. After he had played it a few times, the boy said:
"It is all right now, father. Now I can play it all alone."
"Oho!" said his father. "You can hardly do that yet. You are venturing a little too far."
"Only let me try," persisted the boy.
His father let him do as he wished. He seated himself at the piano; at first he ran his fingers over the keys and then accurately began the folk melody, which he played smoothly to the end without hesitation or mistake.
His father, who had not expected any kind of excellence in the performance, sat as if spell-bound and regarded the boy with wide-open eyes.
"Youngster, truly there is more in you than I have expected or thought of until to-day," he exclaimed, and, taking him upon his knee, he kissed his fresh, young lips. "You will yet become a finished musician, and a support for your father and mother."
"I wish for nothing better than to be able to make music correctly," said the boy, as he joyfully clapped his hands.
"Good! No one shall prevent you, and I myself will be your teacher," said his father. "If you are truly industrious, you will get ahead wonderfully, provided you do not go too fast and will practise regularly."
No sooner said than done. The father began at once to teach his son the piano and the violin. At first it seemed as if both father and son would enjoy the work. But it was only at first. It was soon apparent that the little Ludwig was possessed of the most extraordinary obstinacy. The continual finger and other dry exercises soon disgusted him, and he played them with unconcealed and extreme reluctance. He was willing to be faithful in his piano practice, but only in his own, not in his father's way. Owing to the latter's temper, this sometimes occasioned violent scenes. Johann Beethoven was easily excited to anger, and once irritated he lost all control of himself. He hurled taunts and reproaches at the boy, and boxed his ears; but Ludwig bore it all with unyielding firmness, and confronted his father defiantly in these outbreaks. Then his mother would weep and earnestly beseech her husband to have patience with the boy, who was too little and childish to understand. She usually appeased his anger, for, in reality, he was kind and tender-hearted. The stubborn little fellow likewise could not long withstand the piteous appeals of his mother. His defiant heart at last would yield to her caresses, and for a while he would good-naturedly submit to his father's directions.
But of course it was only for a little while. His old obstinacy would continually block the way, and sometimes the situation would become so intolerable that the boy would declare he would have nothing more to do with music. The violent outbreaks would occur afresh. Reproaches, threats, and punishment were not spared, but they served only to make the boy still more obstinate and completely to harden him against his father. In fact, the danger that the little Beethoven might abandon music altogether could not have been averted had not the happy influence of his mother's loving appeals continually drawn him back to its sweet diversion.
There was still another thing that kept the sacred flame alive in the breast of the boy, and that was the frequent absence of his father, which permitted him to follow the inclinations of his own caprice and pleasure, and to draw beautiful accords and melodies, now from the piano, now from the violin.
Upon one occasion, when his father had treated him with unusual severity and had looked at him threateningly, the boy fled with his violin to his little bed-chamber, and there, shut out from all the world, gave vent to his anger and his sorrow in mournful tones. As this did not help to allay his inward tumults his mother, as a last expedient, adopted a course which always had the happiest result; namely, she told him of his dead grandfather, of whom the boy had preserved active and loving memories, and whose life-sized portrait hung in his chamber, thus keeping him freshly in remembrance.
This grandfather in his lifetime was a highly esteemed and distinguished man, and had served as chapelmaster for Max Frederick of Cologne. The little Ludwig looked up to him as an exemplar for his future life. When his mother told him how beautifully he sang in the opera, what a fine, stately man he was, and how high he stood in the favor of his electoral patron, the boy listened with the most eager attention to every word, and not infrequently exclamations would escape from him, such as, "I shall have as great success," or, "I shall become a famous man also, mother."
Then the patient woman smiled, kissed the boy's red cheeks, and all that had happened before between father and son was buried in the sea of forgetfulness.
Some years passed in this way, ending as unsatisfactorily for the father as for the son. The former, when the little Ludwig was seven years old, at last realized that his method of teaching was not adapted to him and that they must look about for another and more suitable teacher. Fortunately they found such a one, first in the person of chapelmaster Pfeiffer, later in court organist Van den Eeden, and then in court organist Neefe, all of whom instructed him in piano, violin, and organ playing; also in composition.
Ludwig now made rapid and truly astonishing progress in his art. The applause of his teachers was accorded to him in most plentiful measure. He developed into a capable and thorough musician. Every one who knew him esteemed and loved him; and yet the already mature boy was not inwardly happy. There was a secret sorrow in his breast, which embittered his life and dispelled all his joyousness. He never had a glowing face and laughing eyes, like other young men of his age. Silent, reserved, and absorbed in himself, he went his way, and many a one who saw him walking sadly through the streets of Bonn looked wonderingly after him, and probably said, "That is a strange expression of countenance for such a young fellow to wear."
Indeed, people knew not what oppressed the young Beethoven and what had prematurely given him such a serious and melancholy disposition. Fortunately, however, the time was not far distant which would bring him a friend in whom he could fully confide, and to whom he could unreservedly pour out all the cares and troubles of his heart.