Even the sketchiest outline of Beethoven's Flemish ancestry shouldn't by-pass the Spanish element, if only to dismiss it.
The portrait above came up for auction in Brunswick in 1952. It caused great ripples in the pond of Beethoven iconography studies, because the back of the canvas is inscribed - in German - L.H. Beethoven as a 13-year-old. Gift of Beethoven to Baron von Smeskal. Until 1952 the portrait was unknown, and all that is known about it today is that it had belonged to a Silesian doctor, that another German doctor bought it, and that there has been a little alteration to the mouth and chin. Baron von Smeskal, more correctly spelt Zmeskall, was one of Beethoven's oldest Viennese friends, and it's entirely possible that he was given this portrait as a present. The meaning of L.H. remains a mystery. The artist's initials, perhaps?
Whoever the artist was, he did his best to capture the pubertal or pre-pubertal Beethoven features. The eyes, as dark and penetrating as Picasso's, transfix the viewer. In adult portraits, and there are many, Beethoven's eyes challenge the viewer, there's an immediate tension; in this child-portrait, they're asking for something, compassion, tenderness, sympathy. The strong, plump, not to say chubby, face is going to lose its puppy-fat as it develops into the four-square - viereckig (four-cornered), as his friends later described him - set and determined, even grim visage of so many later portraits. Yet the more I stare at this portrait, trying to reach the child behind it, the more there seems to be something not quite right with the set of the mouth and the lower jaw, and I wonder if this uncertainty is an unwitting pointer to another mystery.
Was he 13 or 15 when this portrait was painted? And did he himself know? Until well into his adult life Beethoven believed he'd been born in 1772 instead of 1770. The reason for this misconception can be laid at his father's door: as soon as Ludwig began very early to show an unusual musical talent, Johann the father lied about his age, pretending he was two years younger than he really was. He hoped thereby to capitalise on his son as an infant prodigy, as Leopold Mozart had done a decade earlier with his son Wolfgang. The Mozarts had apparently made a lot of money out of it, but the infant Wolfgang's talent was so outstanding that there was no need to lie about his age. Posters exist of Beethoven's first public appearance in 1778, on which his age is given as 6.
By the time this portrait was painted Beethoven was well known in Bonn for his mastery of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues, an extraordinary feat at 13 and pretty impressive at 15. At the time he gave this portrait to Zmeskall, the information about his age as written on the back is most likely to have come from Beethoven himself. If he believed he was 13 when he was made, probably very unwillingly, to put on that gorgeous waistcoat and crimped collar and sit still for the portraitist, he may in fact have been 15. Faces transform in adolescence; I wonder if the slight alterations to the mouth and lower jaw are linked to this possible discrepancy, if father Johann required the artist to make his son look younger than he was?
The portrait below is much better attested. It's a miniature, set in a little oval frame, and it was painted by a gifted Danish artist, Christian Horneman, who signed it and dated it in 1803, when Beethoven was 33 and well established in Vienna. Here is a Beethoven fashionably dressed, with short, sideburned hair in the contemporary style (no Mozartian wigs for Beethoven), a polished figure not much resembling the scarecrow Beethoven of his later years. Horneman, too, has captured the penetrating eyes, but above all the Beethovenian swarthiness, which caused his Viennese friends to nickname him der Spanjol, the Spaniard. Some commentators invoke a distant Spanish ancestor, maybe an administrator or soldier who got in amongst the van Bethos or the Betouwes at about the time of the Spanish Armada, when what is now southern, Catholic Belgium was ruled from Madrid, and left his genes to resurface two centuries later. There's no documentary evidence for this in Beethoven's case, although the phenomenon isn't unknown in the Low Countries, where it's referred to as spaansche bloed, Spanish blood. Add in the fact that Beethoven died in a Viennese apartment block called das Schwarzspanierhaus, the house of the black Spaniard, and you have the ingredients for a genteel little conspiracy theory, but not much else.
Tennis Racquet Woman dropped us on the northern outskirts of Liège. George and I started to walk down into the city, where extraordinary things were about to happen to us. And where Beethoven ultimately saved the day.
Monday, 28 April 2008
Even the sketchiest outline of Beethoven's Flemish ancestry shouldn't by-pass the Spanish element, if only to dismiss it.
Sunday, 20 April 2008
Our next lift took us through the towns of southern Limburg to the outskirts of Liège. Near Tongeren we passed near Kasteel Betho, Betho Castle, a place I'd never heard of before. Our driver was a comfortable, smiling woman, the sort of motherly person who might unexpectedly produce a pack of corned beef sandwiches for our onward journey. What she did produce was certainly unexpected, but food for thought rather than for the inner 18-year-old.
She spoke only Flemish and had something to do with tennis, judging by the string-tied bundles of new racquets on the back shelf. As we passed the sign to Kasteel Betho she slowed down, pointed and said 'huis van familie Beethoven' or something similar. She then sang the opening bars of the fifth symphony, ta-ta-ta-taaa, ta-ta-ta-taaa, to make certain we understood the reference. (It's shown above, slightly lopsided for some reason, in the orchestral score as it would appear to a conductor.)
We did, but it meant nothing. As far as I knew Beethoven had no connection with the Limburg province of Belgium. He was born in Bonn, in the Rhineland, and spent most of his adult life in Vienna. I would have liked to question Tennis Racquet Woman more, but every attempt at communication with people in that part of the world came up against the insuperable barrier of Flemish and I had to let it go.
Many years later I discovered that Tennis Racquet Woman was right. I'd sometimes wondered about the van in Beethoven's name, which sounded more Dutch than the von one might expect from an apparently impeccably German ancestry like Beethoven's. Names with the particle van, which the Dutch call the tussenvoegsel, like Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Cornelis van Leeuwen, Ruud van Nistelrooy - and if George had been involved in the discussion, his inevitable contribution would have been Hertz van Rental - all pointed to the Low Countries. Were Beethoven's ancestors Dutch?
The von in German surnames often implies some pretension to nobility or wealth, but the Dutch van usually shows where the name-owner came from, without overtones of supposed social superiority. A letter from Herbert Antcliffe, a leading musicologist of his time, in The Musical Times of March 1936 summarises conclusive evidence that there had been Beethovens, variously spelt, in the area Tennis Racquet Woman gave us a lift through, Mechelen, Leuven and Tongeren, since 1460 at least. Kasteel Betho, much smaller in the 15th century than it is now (though hardly as tiny as in the thumbnail below), was indeed the family seat. Mr Antcliffe both had his cake and ate it: the Beethovenian van showed where the family came from and that they were, or had been, landed gentry. Maybe this was important in 1936. He doesn't mention that in 1559 Beethoven's great-great-great-great-grandmother Josyne van Betho was burnt in the Grote Markt in Brussels as a witch.
Beethoven's grandfather, also Louis or Ludwig, moved from the Limburg province to Bonn - it isn't really very far - in 1733. Although some accounts give Antwerp as his birthplace, it's more likely that he was born in Kasteel Betho, probably in fast reducing circumstances because his father Michael gradually managed to lose a modest family fortune through ill-judged speculation, which I suspect is a euphemism for fast women and slow horses. Dwindling resources may have been the reason why Louis, who had a fine tenor voice, left to seek his fortune elsewhere. He ended up in Bonn, at the invitation of Clemens August, prince-archbishop of Cologne, who had his court there. This Clemens August, a devotee of Baroque ostentation, fine music and yielding women, was a Hapsburg, scion of the ruling dynasty in Vienna, who also counted what is now Belgium among their possessions.
In due course grandfather Louis, a gifted musician, was promoted Kapellmeister in Bonn. His son Johann van Beethoven, born about 1740, was also drafted into the Bonn musical establishment as a tenor, although he showed little of the musicianship or strength of character of his father, nor indeed of his son Ludwig, born in the winter of 1770. It has been said, unkindly, that the only justification of Johann van Beethoven's existence was providing the biological link between his father Louis and his son Ludwig. Alternate males in the family appeared to inherit a wastrel streak: after Michael and Johann, Ludwig van Beethoven's nephew Karl showed the same tendencies.
But even the sketchiest outline of Beethoven's Flemish ancestry shouldn't by-pass the Spanish element . . .
Monday, 14 April 2008
A rattling tram led out of the town before the day was into its stride. We stayed on it as long as we could, until the conductor told us this was journey's end. So we got out, looked about us, and were surprised to find ourselves back near the Atomium.
Some slight error of navigation, of the type which in other circumstances would have caused Magellan to round Cape Horn instead of discovering a quicker route through the channels of Tierra del Fuego, or which would have caused the recently-launched Sputnik to veer off orbit and lose itself, an unaccountable erratic, in space - some slight error of navigation in central Brussels had taken us a few kilometres out of our way. George, easy-going and positive, located a coffee stall that we might not otherwise have found, and the nearness of the Atomium encouraged me to air certain observations, most of which were met with non-committal uh-huh grunts, while we sipped hot coffee and ate warm buttery croissants, perhaps the best things we ever ate in Belgium.
Remembering the atmosphere in the dry cleaning van the evening before, it was perhaps as well that the designer of the Atomium, an architect called André Waterkeyn, had chosen a simple molecular structure, an iron crystal, for his giant construction rather than carbon tetrachloride, which is very complex.
- Any compound involving multiple chlorine atoms is.
- Uh-huh. I wouldn't know. I did English, Geography and Divinity for A level, remember.
- I remember you once wrote on my bedroom wall, in indelible marker pen, He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, Which saith that hunters been nat holy men.
- They were the only lines from Chaucer I could remember. Your house is always oppressively literary. It's the sort of house that makes you want to fart in it. I was strongly tempted to scribble some lines from Eskimo Nell. In big wobbly letters, but your mum wouldn't have liked it much. I couldn't possibly offend anyone who makes such wonderful apple pie.
- The problem with the Atomium is that it's all wrong, it's meaningless. Firstly, atomic particles are held together by gravitational forces, not stainless steel walkway tubes.
- Uh-huh. It's only a model. The man's done his best.
- Secondly, they move about all the time, at terrific speeds. Well, terrific speeds to us. Probably the same order of speed as things shift within the universe, maybe the universe itself among all the other countless universes. It's all relative, it's a question of scale. Sometimes the particles collide -
- Where did you get all this stuff from? You did Latin, Greek and Ancient History.
- Lucretius. De rerum natura, Book 3. It was an A level set book. And Epicurus before him. It's all there. The ancients had it. Even the shadowy Heraclitus, with his catch-all saying panta rhei, everything flows, everything is in constant movement, although I'm told this is a later attribution.
- What's this got to do with Beethoven?
- Curiously, I think more and more, the more and more I think about it. I might have sorted it out by the time we get to Vienna.
I'm afraid I can't validate this conversation with inverted commas, because at this remove I can only remember the gist. But it did seem to me that Beethoven, wittingly or unwittingly, had seen further and more clearly into great truths as his age and deafness advanced, in a way that no other composer except perhaps Bach ever achieved.
Our next lift took us by a roundabout route to the outskirts of Liège. Near Tongeren we passed a place I had never heard of called Kasteel Betho...