Early Training

Chapter I: Beethoven and the Organ: Early Training and Background

If he is a master of his instrument I rank an organist amongst the first of virtuosi. I too, played the organ a great deal when I was young, but my nerves would not stand the power of the gigantic instrument. — Ludwig van Beethoven [1]

Beethoven’s association with the organ began at an early age and lasted only a few years. In this respect his development was like that of Mozart, Schubert, Dvořák, and other musicians. Though of short duration, his period as organist was an important influence on his musical development.

Beethoven’s Earliest Organ Instruction

The matter of Beethoven’s earliest organ instruction is still unresolved. His first lessons were probably from the elderly Heinrich van den Eeden, Bonn court organist. [2] Although the court records show that the young Beethoven studied music with him, they do not specifically indicate that those studies included the organ. It is this lack of documentation that has led Alexander Wheelock Thayer, in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, to maintain that van den Eeden “taught the boy chiefly pianoforte playing, he being a master in that art.” [3]

If he did in fact study organ with van den Eeden, Beethoven must not have been very satisfied, for during the same period he sought instruction from Friar Willibald Koch, a respected organist at the cloister of the Franciscan monks in Bonn. He apparently progressed rapidly, and Koch soon accepted him as an assistant. [4]

At the age of twelve, [5] Beethoven sought out Father Hanzmann, organist at the fourteenth-century cloister of the Minor Friars. [6] Through Hanzmann’s friendship and encouragement Beethoven became organist for the six o’clock morning mass. [7]

Thayer writes that Beethoven may have studied organ with Zensen, [8] organist at the Münster Church in Bonn. According to Heinrich Theisen, a fellow student, the youth was even then writing pieces too difficult for his small hands. [9]

Christian Gottlob Neefe, van den Eeden’s successor, was Beethoven’s most important teacher of the Bonn period. [10] Neefe possessed a solid understanding of music theory, acquired through persevering study of the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg; he was also an excellent practical musician, as shown by his professional positions. In Leipzig he had met the famous Johann Adam Hiller, director of the Gewandhaus concerts. In 1777 Hiller gave Neefe a position as musical director of Seyler’s Theatrical Company, then in Dresden. [11] A short time later two of the company’s leading members, Karl Hellmuth and G. Friedrich Grossman, accepted an engagement with Elector Max Fredrick to set up a similar troupe in Bonn. When Seyler went bankrupt in August 1779, his employees sought work elsewhere. Neefe obtained a position as musical director of the Grossmann company in Bonn, whose season opened 3 December 1779. [12] He became court organist 15 February 1781. [13] Beethoven probably became Neefe’s pupil sometime between 1781 and June 1782, when Beethoven is first recorded playing organ at the court chapel.

Beethoven and the Electoral Chapel

Substitute organist

The Grossmann company made yearly tours from Bonn to nearby cities during the summer months. It was on one of these occasions that Beethoven is first recorded substituting for Neefe.

“On this day, June 20, 1782,” Neefe writes of himself and the Grossmann company, “we entered upon our journey to Münster, whither the Elector also went. The day before my predecessor, Court Organist van den Eeden, was buried; I received permission, however, to leave my duties in the hands of a vicar to go along to Westphalia and thence to Michaelmas fair at Frankfurt.” The Düsseldorf documents prove that this vicar was Ludwig van Beethoven, now just eleven and a half years of age. [14]

Apparently Neefe had intended for the retired van den Eeden to be his second–the latter had likely served during Neefe’s tour of the previous summer. With the former court organist dead, Beethoven had to substitute quite unexpectedly. Even with sufficient time to prepare, substituting for Neefe would have been no easy task, judging from the service schedule in the court calendar:

On all Sundays and regular festivals high mass at 11 a.m. and vespers at 3 (sometimes 4) p.m. The vespers will be sung throughout in Capellis solemnibus by the musicians of the electoral court, the middle vespers will be sung by the court clergy and musicians in plain chant with the exception of the Magnificat, which will be performed in concerted music. On all Wednesdays in Lent the Miserere will be sung by the chapel at 5 p.m. and on all Fridays the Stabat Mater. Every Saturday at 3 p.m. the Litanies at the altar of our Lady of Laretto. Every day throughout the year two masses will be read, the one at 9 , the other at 11–on Sundays the latter at 10. [15]

Beethoven filled Neefe’s post very admirably during his absence. On one occasion his improvisation before the credo was especially beautiful–so beautiful that even though it was much too lengthy, no one asked him to stop. [16]

In 1783 Beethoven’s duties increased. When Kapellmeister Andreas Lucchesi was granted a leave 26 April 1783, Neefe assumed his responsibilities, [17] and Beethoven was given more opportunity to substitute for his teacher. Furthermore, the twelve-year-old was by now playing for the early services at the Minorite Church.

Second court organist

In the summer of 1783 Beethoven again assumed Neefe’s duties while Neefe toured with the Grossmann company. Beethoven “still had no recognition as [a] member of the court chapel, not even as ‘accessist’ [18]  …, and consequently no salary from the court.” [19] When Neefe returned from the tour, Beethoven petitioned Elector Max Friedrich for an appointment. An appointment was granted in early 1784, but no salary has prescribed. Six months later, on 15 April 1784, the elector died, and all the musicians were dismissed. [20]

The new elector, Max Franz, upon reaching Bonn requested three reports: 1) a list of all members of the court chapel, 2) a description of the singers and players, with a summary of their capabilities, and 3) recommendations on a reduction of their salaries. [21] These reports nearly destroyed Neefe’s career in Bonn. Following are the contents of the first two reports on Neefe and Beethoven:

Christ. Gottlob Neefe, age 36, born at Chemnitz; married, his wife is 32, born at Gotha, has two daughters in the electorate, aged 5 and 2, has served three years, was formerly Kapellmeister with Seiler; salary 400 fl.

Christian Neffe [sic], the organist, in my humble opinion might well be dismissed, inasmuch as he is not particularly versed on the organ, moreover is a foreigner, having no Meritten whatever and of the Calvinist religion.

Ludwig van Beethoven, age 13, born at Bonn, has served two years, no salary.

Ludwig Betthoven [sic], a son of the Betthoven sub No. 8, has no salary, but during the absence of the Kapellmeisler Luchesy he played the organ, is of good capability, still young, of good and quiet deportment and poor. [22]

The reports must have stunned Neefe. It seems unlikely that a trained musician could have written these statements about Neefe. They were probably written by a lesser court functionary who was intolerant of Neefe’s Calvinist beliefs. The third report recommended that Neefe be replaced by Beethoven:

If Neffe [sic] were to be dismissed another organist would have to be appointed, who, if he were to be used only in the chapel [23} could be had for 150 florin, the same is small, young, and a son of one of the court musici. and in case of need has filled the place for nearly a year very well. [24]

The result was a compromise. On the court roster of salaries dated 27 June 1784, Neefe is listed as organist with a salary of 200 florins (a sizable reduction from his earlier salary of 400 florins); Beethoven is listed as organist with a salary of 150 florins. [25] Consequently Neefe began searching for other employment with a more livable income. Before he could locate another job, however, the elector recognized his merits and restored his former salary on 8 February 1785. [26]

Further Accounts of Beethoven’s Organ Playing

Accounts of Beethoven’s playing attest to his skill as an organist. An anecdote recorded by Franz Gerhard Wegeler tells of his improvised accompaniment to the Lamentations of Jeremiah during Holy Week sometime between 1790 and 1792. [27] They were sung by Ferdinand Heller, apparently one of the court musicians. Beethoven, accompanying at the piano (the organ being banned) [28] asked Heller,

who sat with unusual firmness in the tonal saddle, if he would permit him to throw him out [of the saddle, that is], and utilized the somewhat too readily granted permission to introduce so wide an excursion in the accompaniment while persistently striking the reciting note with his little finger, that the singer got so bewildered that he could not find the closing cadence. … Kapellmeisler Lucchesi … was astonished by Beethoven’s playing. In his first access of rage Heller entered a complaint against Beethoven with the Elector, who commanded a simpler accompaniment, although the spirited and occasionally waggish young prince was amused at the occurrence. [29]

Another account is related by a Professor Doctor Wurzer, [30] an electoral counsellor in Bonn who met Beethoven during a visit to Godesberger Brunnen in the summer of 1790 or 1791. Wurzer told Beethoven of the newly renovated church at the Marienforst cloister near Godesberg, and of its new, or at least remodelled, organ. The composer accepted his invitation to improvise at the church. Beethoven’s improvisations moved Wurzer and his party, and the

poor laboring folk who were cleaning out the débris left by the work of repair, were so greatly affected by the music that they put down their implements and listened with amazement and obvious pleasure. [31]

There are two further accounts of Beethoven’s organ playing during the Bonn period. On several occasions Beethoven spent a few weeks with the von Breuning family at their summer vacation house in Kerpen, a village between Cologne and Aix-la-Chapelle. According to Gerard von Breuning the composer often played the organ at the church there. [32] Another tradition relates that the young Beethoven played the organ in the abbey at Siegburg, a city occasionally visited by Beethoven and his father and friends. [33]

During the summer of 1621, Friedrich Starke, a Viennese regimental bandmaster, visited Beethoven in Unterdöbling. When he learned that Beethoven had studied organ in his youth, Starke asked him to improvise. They went to the Johannes Church in Döbling, where Beethoven improvised two preludes, the first con amore and the second fugal. The rendition continued for nearly a half hour. [34]

Beethoven’s Organ Career Ends

The Döbling incident followed a long period of separation from the organ. After Beethoven left Bonn in 1792 he abandoned the organ in favor of the piano. This was an outgrowth of the broadening of musical roles during his years in Bonn–his duties had grown to include composition and performance on organ, piano, cembalo, and viola. [35] Although he officially retained his position as court organist for several years after going to Vienna, Beethoven determined that his success there lay in piano virtuosity. [36]

Beethoven’s organ background influenced his piano technique. His application of legato organ technique to the piano created a style unknown to most contemporary pianists, who played non-legato. Beethoven’s opponents ridiculed his heavy touch. His proponents, however, praised his expressive legato interpretation of slow movements. [37]


Although Beethoven abandoned the organ when he went to Vienna, his association with the instrument affected his musical style and development. Neefe was his most influential teacher during the Bonn period and offered Beethoven his first systematic musical study. This training helped establish the methodical patterns Beethoven followed throughout his life. In 1793 Beethoven wrote to Neefe: “I thank you for the advice you have very often given me about making progress in my divine art. Should I ever become a great man, you too will have a share in my success.” [38]


[1] Friedrich Kerst and Henry Edward Krehbiel, eds., Beethoven: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in His Own Words (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1905; reprint ed., New York: Dover, 1964), p. 38.

[2] William Leslie Sumner “Beethoven and the Organ,” Musical Opinion 93 (March 1970): 323, states that Beethoven’s first organ lessons from van den Eeden were at the age of nine.

[3] Elliot Forbes, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, rev. ed., 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), 1:60-61 (hereafter cited as Thayer-Forbes).

[4] Cecil Austin, “Beethoven et l’orgue,” Revue musicale 18 (1937): 234.

[5] Id., “Beethoven and the Organ,” Musical Times 80 (1939): 525-26.

[6] Now known as St. Remigius Church. Sumner, p. 323. The author has been unable to locate Hanzmann’s christian name in available sources.

[7] Thayer-Forbes, 1:61. See also Austin, “Beethoven and the Organ,” pp. 525-26.

[8] Also spelled Zenser. Zensen’s christian name is not recorded in available sources.

[9] Thayer-Forbes, 1:62. Theisen stated that Beethoven was ten years old; assuming the age to be exact, the year was therefore 1781 or 1783. 1783 is a possibility because Beethoven himself thought he has born in 1772, the year given in contemporary biographical notices. Only after his fortieth year did he realize that his birthday was in 1770. Ibid., p. 54.

[10] Information on Beethoven’s organ studies thus far discussed is mainly second-hand. After this earliest period, however, his studies are more easily documented.

[11] Thayer-Forbes, 1:35. Seyler’s christian name is not recorded in available sources.

[12] Ibid., pp. 28-30.

[13] Ibid., p. 25.

[14] Ibid., p. 65.

[15] Ibid, p. 68.

[16] Austin, “Beethoven and the Organ,” p. 527.

[17] Thayer-Forbes, 1:68.

[18] Thayer describes the office of accessist as a provisional appointment that became permanent only after a demonstration of competency or when the death or resignation of a permanent member created a vacancy. Such positions were sought by aspiring musicians as stepping-stones to a musical career. Though they received no official salary, there are indications that accessists may have received some sort of remuneration. Ibid., p. 10.

[19] Ibid., pp. 70-71.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 78.

[22] Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[23] By this time Beethoven also frequently played continuo with the court orchestra.

[24] Thayer-Forbes, 1:79.

[25] A number of secondary sources maintain that Count Ferdinand Ernst von Waldstein persuaded the elector to appoint Beethoven as second organist. Stanley Lucas, “Beethoven and the Organ,” Musical Opinion 50 (1927): 704; Anton Felix Schindler, Beethoven as I knew Him, ed. Donald W. MacArdle, trans. Constance S. Jolly (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 40. Forbes, however, disagrees: “When Beethoven received his appointment as second organist in 1784, the Count was in Malta.” Thayer-Forbes, 1:92.

[26] Ibid., p. 79.

[27] Although Wegeler dates the occurrence as 1785, Joseph Schmidt-Görg, in “Ein neuer Fund in den Skizzenbüchern Beethovens: Die Lamentationen des Propheten Jeremias,” Beethoven-Jahrbuch, neue folge, zweite Reihe, 3 (1957-58): 109-10, convincingly places the date as 1790-92.

[28] Ibid., p. 109, points out that indeed the organ was not used, that the accompaniment “wohl aber an klavierartigen Instrumenten gebräuchlich war.” See also Joseph Kerman, ed., Ludwig van Beethoven: Autograph Miscellany from Circa 1786 to 1799: British Museum Additional Manuscript 29801, ff. 39-162 (the “Kafka Sketchbook”), 2 vols. (London: British Museum, 1970), 1:96r, 2:131-33, 287.

[29] Thayer-Forbes, 1:81-82. Beethoven’s sketch for the accompaniment is found in London, British Museum, Additional 29801, f. 96r.

[30] Wurzer’s christian name is not given in available sources.

[31] Thayer-Forbes, 1:100.

[32] Ibid., p. 93.

[33] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[34] Sumner p. 325. See also Austin, “Beethoven and the Organ,” p. 525.

[35] Thayer-Forbes, 1:95.

[36] Austin, “Beethoven et l’orgue,” p. 238.

[37] Id., “Beethoven and the Organ,” p. 527.

[38] Emily Anderson, trans. and ed., The Letters of Beethoven, 3 vols. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1961), 1:9.

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© Weldon Whipple. All rights reserved.

By Weldon Whipple