Monday, 28 April 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 3 Kasteel Betho (3)

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 Li├Ęge. 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.

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