An American armored column pushed through the heavy bomb damage toward downtown Bonn in the closing phase of World War II, the tanks' commander hoping to find a bridge left standing across the Rhine by the retreating German army. Near Bertha-van-Suttner Platz, the column halted, and a second lieutenant asked directions from an elderly German: "Where's Beethoven's house?"
The three-story stucco house where Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 stood then as it does today at Bonngasse 20, a shrine in peace and war for fans of the great German composer. The house and museum within form one of Bonn's most popular attractions, drawing more than 100,000 annual visitors from around the world.
If the American lieutenant did, as the tradition suggests, locate the birthplace of the city's most famous son, he found an intact but empty structure. Antique instruments, personal memorabilia and historic documents had been sent for safety to a castle northeast of Bonn. But within days of the German capitulation, Allied soldiers and trucks helped retrieve the furnishings and reopened the museum.
Bonn was rebuilt after the war and in 1949 became capital of the newly created Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany. But, I often wondered, what remains of the baroque city of Beethoven's time? Apart from his birth house, what structures survive that Beethoven knew, that still evoke a feeling of his life in 18th-century Bonn? Indulging my curiosity, I caught a train from my home in Paris to explore the home town of the master of symphony.
Arriving in Bonn, I headed straight for the building at Bonngasse 20. In a small courtyard behind it, I found the green-shuttered yellow house where Bonn's musical genius was born. Red geraniums brighten its windows and bushy vines climb the ground-floor walls. This house and the one fronting Bonngasse make up the Beethoven House museum; a neighboring structure holds the Beethoven archives.
In the museum, the composer is captured in portraits, busts and masks: a silhouette of the 16-year-old, a canvas of the mature virtuoso, the death mask of a 57-year-old composer. Other items tell of his professional and personal lives: his viola from Bonn, his piano from Vienna, ear trumpets to cope with a hearing loss that started in his twenties.
A page from the church record chronicles Beethoven's baptism on Dec. 17, 1770. He may have been born that day or the 16th; authorities aren't sure.They are fairly certain Beethoven entered the world in his parents' low-ceilinged attic bedroom. Today the room lies bare except for a pedestal holding a bust of the defiant, tight-lipped composer at the height he reached in adult life: 5 feet 4 inches.
Beethoven endured a difficult childhood. When his father was drunk or angry, he often abused the boy and sometimes roused him from bed to practice music lessons until dawn. His mother supposedly never laughed, and she died when Beethoven was 16. "Fate, here in Bonn," he wrote to a friend then, "is not favorable to me." His father died five years later, just after Beethoven had left to study music in Vienna. Beethoven sent for his two younger brothers and never again returned to the city of his birth.
Closing the door on Beethoven House, I rendezvoused with a German friend on the Mu nsterplatz, a great open space in the heart of Bonn sprinkled with park benches, shade trees, antique-style lamps and cafe' tables where people were enjoying the warm, late-summer evening. From a tall pedestal at the north end of the platz loomed a stern-faced statue of Beethoven, erected by friends in 1845. That year they also organized the Beethoven Festival, which has become a triennial music event in Bonn. The next will be in September.
Over the south end of the platz towered the Mu nster basilica and its 92-meter-high spire, built in the 12th and 13th centuries when Rhenish church architecture was passing from Romanesque to Gothic. The Mu nster and preceding churches on the site have been the center of Bonn since the start of the Middle Ages.
The city, however, owes its origin to the construction of a Roman fort closer to the river in 11 B.C. The Romans later stationed a legion there to protect the empire's border on the Rhine. When the Romans withdrew about A.D. 400, the city's focus shifted to the church site. Over the next 1,500 years Bonn was burned by attackers half a dozen times, most recently by the Allied bombings of World War II.
Beyond the Bonngasse home where Beethoven spent his first four years, Bonn has few documented connections to the composer. Two other houses his family occupied no longer exist. The Minorite Church, where the 9-year-old prodigy began organ lessons, is gone, too, but its organ console is preserved at Beethoven House. The graves of his mother and violin teacher lie in the Old Cemetery, but Beethoven is buried in Vienna.
Still standing, though, are several princely dwellings where Beethoven may have performed as a court musician for the elector of Cologne, ruler of this lower Rhine state of the Holy Roman Empire. He definitely played at the Redoute, the elector's little mansion for balls and galas in the spa town of Bad Godesberg, six kilometers south of old Bonn.
Taking the underground from the city center to Bad Godesberg one day, I found the yellow-and-white-trimmed Redoute in excellent condition, six distinguishing statues still gracing the top of its facade. The neoclassic structure is now the scene of functions for governmental and social organizations and houses a private restaurant, so it is not open to casual visitors.
Beethoven may also have visited the elector's castle and summer palace, which today house part of the University of Bonn. I headed there another day, hoping to capture something of the atmosphere of the time when Beethoven played his viola in the court orchestra.
The two former court residences, their grounds and the long avenue between them adorn Bonn like a beautiful baroque necklace. The big jewel in the center was the elector's castle, a yellow-and-white-trimmed, three-story rectangle with four small towers and a magnificent view of the Seven Mountains beyond the Rhine.
A long, narrow gallery creates one strand of the necklace running east from the one-time castle toward the Rhine. Near the river end it sports an even finer gem, Koblenz Gate, richly finished in rococo trim, slender paired columns and gilt statues. The other strand stretching west is formed by Poppelsdorfer-Allee, a lush green avenue bordered by chestnut trees and well-kept turn-of-the-century homes.
At the end of this strand is yet another ornament: Poppelsdorf Palace. Eight short towers crown this former summer palace of the elector, while a circular Italian-style arcade brings a feeling of movement to the square interior court. The palace's 18th-century beauty is brought to life by a colorful botanical garden that blends manicured French formality with the irregular "naturalness" of an English garden. Resting there on a bench, I easily imagined a youthful Beethoven playing for a lavish soiree at the palace, the music and laughter spilling through the windows and floating across the garden on a starlit summer night.
I was certainly not the first to be reminded of Beethoven by the sight of the erstwhile residence of the elector. During an Allied bombing raid of World War II, American navigator Harry Crosby saw what he thought was Bonn University from 25,000 feet up and suddenly thought that was probably where Beethoven had gone to school, he recounted in the book "Flying Fortress." Coincidentally, Crosby had been listening to Beethoven's Third and Fifth symphonies the night before the raid. Not wanting to desecrate the home town of such an immortal, Crosby countermanded orders and directed his formation of bombers north to Cologne, where he desecrated the train yards.