Beethoven as a Bonn Composer: The Historiography of a Marginalized Topos

John Wilson


Beethoven spent the first twenty-two years of his life in Bonn, the last decade as a prominent member of the Electoral Hofkapelle. He also composed close to fifty works – for ensembles large and small, for himself or for his colleagues as soloists – most of which presumably found their first performances in courtly or at least aristocratic music-making contexts. And as recent research has emphasized, the Hofkapelle during his formative years was far from a provincial hive of mediocrity: not only was it one of the most celebrated ensembles in Europe, but it performed a massive, diverse repertoire of opera as well as instrumental and sacred music.
If these facts are seldom ignored in the literature, Beethoven’s Bonn years have just as seldom been considered as the formative musical and social education they must have been. Rather, they are typically treated cursorily as a mere prelude to his life in Vienna, the works only arousing interest to the degree that they directly foreshadow much better-known works from later years. Moreover, the narrative of Beethoven’s permanent move to Vienna as a fulfillment of destiny has so solidly taken hold that the actual purpose of the journey – as a temporary conclusion of his compositional studies under Joseph Haydn – is often downplayed.
This marginalization of the Bonn years in Beethoven historiography began soon after his death and has left behind many tropes that still are difficult to shake even in more recent scholarship. This paper explores some of the early actors in this process of memorialization, especially Anton Schindler and Alexander Wheelock Thayer, whose modern reputations for factual accuracy could not be more different, but whose attitudes and assumptions show striking affinities. Set against these biographical landmarks is the quiet, measured, less ambitious “Erinnerungen” by Beethoven’s friends and fellow Bonners Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries, whose folksy stories were gladly taken up into biographical lore while the occasional flashes of contrariness against prevailing legends were taken less seriously. It will be seen in selected cases from the Bonn years that their version of events very often holds up in light of evidence discovered since, and that their narrative should be reevaluated as its own, competing form of memorializing.


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