Before we visited the under-appreciated town of Bonn, Germany, we knew two things about Beethoven: He was a composer and he was deaf. Fast-forward to our multi-day trip to the old capital of West Germany and we became troves of knowledge about the 19th-century composer. Primarily, we were fascinated with the house he once lived in, now a museum educating thousands of tourists each year. If you’re headed to Deutschland, consider stopping into the Beethoven House; it will change how you see the composer and the art of musical composition. Here’s a primer:
The life of Ludwig van Beethoven
Born into a family of musicians in Bonn in 1770, Beethoven was quickly wrapped up in musicals lessons. His early musical education came from his father, who was, unfortunately, not the best teacher; he was often impatient and condemnatory.
When young Ludwig turned 21, however, he moved to Vienna to master the piano, explore composition, and study under virtuoso Joseph Haydn. He became quite the figure in classical music circles, drawing the attention of high-profile church patrons and many established musicians, eager to collaborate. Unfortunately, the peak of his celebrity in Vienna coincided with his loss of hearing – which progressed until he was entirely deaf by 1815.
In the years leading up to his loss of hearing, Beethoven became more of a recluse. Still, he continued composing. In fact, his famed Ninth Symphony was completed in 1824. And while tumultuous family troubles and illnesses plagued him up until his death in 1827, he remained committed to composition. He died in Vienna and was celebrated with a procession attended by some 10,000 admirers.
The Beethoven House
Beethoven’s birth home, located at Bongasse 20 in Bonn, was preserved late in the 19th century and has since become a museum. The surrounding buildings have become a musical archive – both of the composer’s own work and of music he collected from masters around the world.
The building itself is something of a time capsule, erected in 1700 on top of 12th or 13th-century cellars. On the first floor is the kitchen and a utility room; the second floor houses three rooms, likely used to entertain and work; and the third floor (the attic) housed bedrooms.
Today, these rooms showcase more than 150 pieces and collections connected to the Beethoven family. For instance, visitors get a look at Ludwig’s own viola and grand piano, while a well-worn writing desk suggests where the master might have worked on his many symphonies. The museum even has Beethoven’s death mask on display so you know exactly what he looked like in 1827.
In the archive buildings flanking the museum, several original Beethoven manuscripts are stored, including “Moonlight Sonata” and the “Pastoral” symphony. Additionally, letters, pictures, busts, and instruments are kept safely – unless and until they are exhibited at the museum. There are digitized versions of many of the original pieces available for those who are interested in viewing them online; visit the Beethoven House website for access.
General information for visitors
Admission to the Beethoven House Museum is 10€ ($11). This includes a free tour that lasts between 45 and 60 minutes. You can pay for a separate tour but we don’t think it’s worth it.
The Beethoven House also offers education programs, including support materials to help kids learn more about music, and concerts open to the public. In fact, the Beethoven House Society had a separate chamber music hall built in 1989 that now hosts celebrated musicians – playing a wealth of Beethoven classics as well as the work of his contemporaries. A full concert calendar is available on the Beethoven House website.
Lastly, if you’re lucky enough to be in Bonn in January or February, keep an eye out for BTHVN Week – a full seven days packed with performances celebrating the great German composer. These change year to year, so expect a fresh lineup whenever you visit.