An Incident of Beethoven’s Youth

Music of Yesterday

by Mathieu Schwann

 It was a bright morning in June, in the year 1785, when a young student of Bonn set off for the Siebengebirge nearby, planning to fill his box with choice specimens of plants or minerals. The fate that many a time attends us in life was to be his that day. Setting out in the sunshine, with no thought of misfortune, he was to meet with clouds and storm.

Scarcely had he reached the foot of the Eolberg when the sky darkened and a sudden gust of wind gave warning of the storm. He hastened forward, hoping to climb to a sheltering ledge of rock before the heavy rain overtook him. There was little time to spare, for the lightning was gleaming around him, and the thunder rolling nearer and nearer. Wilder grew the storm; it tossed and shook the branches of the forest till the old oaks groaned. Then, as if the storm had paused to gather strength , there came a sudden strange calm, for an instant only. Then a terrific flash of lightning cut it through, and a crash of thunder broke over him.

“Bravissimo!” sounded a voice from above, and our astonished wanderer, waking from his confusion, saw standing, on a ledge of rock, a boy with flying hair, with a stick in his hands, directing from his high position the storm concert. The thunder claps were now coming faster, as the concertmeister shouted his “Allegro”. And presently the elements seemed to obey him, for upon his cry of “Adagio maestoso” followed a sullen roll, dying gradually away. The second movement of the symphony was over, and with a Prestissimo furioso began the finale. A wild tumult of lightning and thunder ensued, the wind shrieked and raged, and the echoing mountains increased ten fold the fearful ensemble.

With amazement the student gazed up at the boy above him, waving his staff in all directions. The little figure seemed to grow, and the bearing of the strange storm director was grave and sublime, as he moved his staff slowly, and yet more slowly. He seemed to be trying to bring to rest the wild passion within his own breast, and to coax back to the clearing sky the sunshine. It was not long, indeed, before the light broke through the clouds and fell upon the earth with gentle glow. Slowly, and more slowly moved the little staff, till, finally, as the bright sunshine poured all around him, his arm fell, and his eyes, dreamy, content, rested on the beautiful world before him.

Meanwhile, our student had climbed the rocks, and coming softly up behind the dreamer, touched him on the shoulder.

“Ludwig, what madness are you at?” he cried anxiously. “How did you come here, and what witches’ signs are you drawing in the air with that stick?”

The boy was perhaps fifteen years old and rather strange in appearance, for his features were already strongly marked. His forehead was bread; below it gleamed deep set eyes, which could be both gentle and strange, and gave the impression of a will already as strong as iron, and a depth of passion far beyond his years. After an instant’s pause, in which he recognized the intruder as an old acquaintance, the little concertmeister answered:

” Ah, that was a symphony out of the very heart of God! Neither Mozart nor Haydn can write such an one, for they do not know the passion that reigns in the world and men’s hearts. Yet someone, without limiting himself by the words of a poet, must put that passion into tone!”

Then there seemed to enter into the soul of our great master a forecast of his own lofty future, for as his friend replied that this Messiah of music would be long in coming, he shook his head dreamily, and suddenly exclaimed:

“Oh, this solitude, that leads man back to nature! It discloses the slumbering talent and shows him the path that leads toward its perfection. I could stay here forever, hearkening to the gentle voice of the great Spirit who rules over us!” Tears flowed over the face of the inspired boy, who turned slowly from the glorious picture before him and in silence began the descent of the mountain.

His companion was the first to break the silence, asking him how he happened to have come there. The young philosopher replied that he hardly knew himself.

“When I woke this morning, the sun was shining in at my window. I hastened out and ran down to the Rhine. A fisher boy, whom I knew, asked me if I would like to row across with him. So I jumped into the boat. From Deuel I walked slowly along, climbed the Ennert, and then I had to go to the highest of them all, the Oelberg.”

“Then you have not had any too much breakfast?” asked the student.

“I have not had any at all”, replied the boy.

“Then we will go to the monks in Heiterbach. We shall find enough to eat and drink there.”

So they wnadered along until they reached the monastery. Upon their knocking, the door was opened, and wine and meat refreshed the travelers. Then came in the prior, and looking sharply at our artist, inquired of his friend, “Quis juvenis ille (Who is this youth?) What is his occupation?”

“Oh,” answered the student, “if you will open the church for us he will show you with his organ playing who he is and what he does.”

The prior assented, and they betook themselves to the church. The Brother organist, however, regarded his rival, whose hair hung so wildly about his face, with some misgiving, and was not at all well pleased that he was asked to pump for the organ.

The boy sat down at the organ and began a simple prelude. Gradually his melody developed. His eyebrows took on a frown. The tone began to roll louder and fuller through the church. As if a storm raged in the wood and then broke under its lashing; as if wind and rain, lightning and thunder joined in mighty concert, so was the tumult that echoed through the resounding choir stalls, and the listeners eyed each other anxiously, for never had their pious ears heard such passion in tone. When, at last, the storm reached its height, the themes melted together, a gleam of sunshine shot through the gloom, and softly and solemnly the Te Deum, with simple chorale, closed our young master’s performance.

As he returned to the monks, they shook his hands and spoke wonderingly of his talent. Our student himself had never heard his friend play in such a manner before, and overcome with ecstacy, whispered, “Furioso, if ever you need a friend, think of me.”

So they took their departure. But the prior called after them, as they hastened away, “Your names! What are your names, my young friends?”

“I am Franz Gerhard Wegeler,” answered one; “and I” cried the boy, half turning back, “Ludwig von Beethoven.”