Sunday, 20 April 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 3 Kasteel Betho (2)

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 . . .

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