By Ian Woodfield
Fathers do not always receive the kindest press, but any man who unwittingly produces an icon of western culture will find his parental techniques under an especially harsh spotlight. Such was the fate of Johann van Beethoven, a singer of modest achievements, who ended up dividing his time unequally between the Bonn Hofkapelle and the local taverns. With the exception of Leopold Mozart, no eighteenth-century parent has undergone such scrutiny, and none has emerged from the examination with so little credit. Not to put too fine a point on it, the conclusion was reached early that Johann was a drunken sot whose loutish behaviour had profoundly damaged the young composer.
Marion M. Scott, early champion of women in British musical life, reported in a manner suitable for polite society, an epitaph more generally known in cruder versions: ‘Johann van Beethoven’s sole achievement in life was to have provided a biological link between his father and his son’. It is hard to pour such scorn on a blank canvas, and a candidate image of Johann soon emerged from the ranks of unattributed Bonn portraits. While acknowledging that the sitter remained unidentified, Scott felt able to discern in his image ‘that indefinable coarsening and slackening of the features that follows upon drinking or fast living’. We have been duly warned!
Stories of Beethoven’s upbringing were lurid in the extreme. Scott again: ‘One gets the impression of the child prisoned within himself, chained-dog-like, savage with captivity, glowering out from his kennel upon a world that seemed to him infested with fools whom he never learned to suffer gladly.’ It is hard to see this feral wolf-child in the personable young man depicted in 1803 at the start of his career as a society keyboard virtuoso, even though the image captures something of his force of personality and inner reserve.
The mythology was eventually revealed for what it was. Tales of abuse at the hands of drunken Flemings or brutish Saxons, of the weeping child forced to receive his tuition in the early hours, were expunged from the record. Yet there remained the question of the family’s economic circumstances. Maynard Solomon demonstrated that Johann’s alcoholism did not reduce him to outright penury; the picture was rather one of uncertainty, of a family living on the edge, never quite knowing what was going to happen next. When he finally died, the Elector of Bonn acidly observed that his revenues from liquor excise duty were about to take a big hit.
A recently uncovered letter throws additional light on Johann late in life. Its author describes a public opera rehearsal, rating the performers on a scale from good to so-so. He apparently had second thoughts about ‘Bithoven’ whom he first ranked as ‘gut’ (good), but subsequently qualified this with ‘zimlich’ (quite) in the margin. This word can have a negative connotation: only ‘rather’ good, as opposed to simply good. Yet a more positive slant is also possible as in the English ‘actually rather good’ or ‘really rather good’. If the implied thought was that he sang ‘better than might have been expected’, the reason is not hard to imagine.
The opera in which Beethoven’s father appeared was Monsigny’s Le déserteur. The plot revolves around a soldier unjustly imprisoned for desertion whose freedom is obtained only at the last moment. Johann played the father-figure, although in view of his well-known drink problem, one wonders whether consideration was given to type-casting him as the inebriated dragoon Montauciel who imbibes copious amounts, acts in a tipsy fashion, and sings volubly in praise of wine.
The role was not vocally demanding. The character’s only moment in the limelight as a singer comes in the fugal trio at the climax of Act II when the nature of the impending tragedy becomes apparent to all three: the soldier Alexis, Louise his betrothed, and Jean-Louis her father. It was not perhaps Sedaine’s finest moment as a librettist. Louise begins: ‘Heavens above! You’re going to die’. Jean-Louis responds: ‘Heavens above!: he’s going to die!’ Alexis is more sanguine: ‘Oh no! I’m not going to die!’ Monsigny set this as a baroque-style fugue with a regular countersubject. Horrified by what he has done, Jean-Louis insists upon taking the blame; no one but he the father is responsible for the trauma being inflicted upon his family, a reference that can hardly have been lost on Johann’s fellow performers or the audience.
A question that cannot yet be answered is whether the young Beethoven was present to witness his father’s performance. It would be helpful to establish his whereabouts during this period with certainty, but the evidence falls tantalisingly short of allowing a definitive conclusion. That Johann van Beethoven was able to appear on-stage in a public rehearsal with some success seems to confirm the view that the period of his serious decline dates from the death of his wife later that year.
Ian Woodfield is the author of “Christian Gottlob Neefe and the Bonn National Theatre, with New Light on the Beethoven Family” (available free for a limited time) in the most recent issue of Music and Letters. He teaches music at Queen’s University Belfast and has research interests in eighteenth-century opera. His most recent monograph Performing Operas for Mozart (CUP, 2012) was a study of the Prague Italian opera company which gave the première of Don Giovanni. His current project is an investigation into the political and military background to Mozart’s operas in Josephinian Vienna.
Music & Letters is a leading international journal of musical scholarship, publishing articles on topics ranging from antiquity to the present day and embracing musics from classical, popular, and world traditions. Since its foundation in the 1920s, Music & Letters has especially encouraged fruitful dialogue between musicology and other disciplines. It is renowned for its long and lively reviews section, the most comprehensive and thought-provoking in any musicological journal.