As a seven-year-old boy, Beethoven loved to improvise. Such a freed imagination he already possessed that new themes, new combinations of tones and rhythms constantly entered his mind. And they begged to be expressed, to be played by the boy’s little fingers on the piano in his home in Bonn. Ludwig van Beethoven was at the time like your most gifted young pupil – full of ideas which move beyond conventional expectations and even beyond the norms and order essential to avoiding chaos in music and to expressing comprehensible feeling. Such a student can instill fear in an instructor or at the least stir frustration.
Beethoven’s teacher in these early years was his father, Johann van Beethoven. The father had the choice of either encouraging and guiding his brilliant young son, or censuring and forbidding his improvisations. Johann chose the latter course and even, it is said, beat little Beethoven into obedience. Yet it is possible with such gifted youngsters that, while they may display overt submission, they inwardly continue exploring their imagination and developing their ideas. Such was the case with Beethoven, who as soon as he began lessons with a compatible teacher, produced a stream of increasingly brilliant compositions. One early work readily available to pianists is “Nine Variations on a March by Dressler,” composed when Beethoven was nine in 1780. It is quite reined in by convention until a middle variation, the fifth, which erupts with suppressed energy in flurries of manic, very fast notes – like a toccata in thirty-second notes. Such energy and imagination always stirred beneath the conventional surface demanded by his father.
As he grew into adolescence, it must have been difficult for Beethoven to forgive his father. And yet he was his inheritor, not only of a taste for alcohol but of the mastery of technique demanded by this disciplinarian obsessed with making his son into a virtuoso. And a virtuoso he became, able to play the smoothest, most controlled legato as well as the fleetest repeated notes and most perfect scales. This technical virtuosity was early on coupled in him with a depth of expressiveness and imagination, convincing his first serious teacher in Bonn of his genius. His name was Christian Neefe, and he was hired in 1781 as the chief organist for the Bonn court of the Elector and Archbishop of Cologne (whose reign ended in 1784).
There is a thrill and wonder for any teacher in encountering a student of such extraordinary potential as Beethoven possessed. One’s realization is that one might be able to contribute to such a student’s growth – to model an openness to inquiry and a rigor of exploration and to provide as much stimulation as one is capable of (in Neefe’s case, he led young Beethoven through the preludes and fugues of Bach). Another source of the teacher’s wonder is the realization that the student may enlarge the essential understanding of one’s field, advance its core possibilities and even alter its language. Such is the highest reward of the teacher’s service, and this thrilling possibility is suggested even in Neefe’s first, anonymous published announcement about his pupil – “a boy of eleven years of most promising talent. He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, he reads at sight very well, and – to sum up – he plays chiefly The Well-Tempered Clavichord of Bach. Whoever knows this collection – the ne plus ultra of our art – well knows what this means.”