Beethoven the Nomad

Classic Arts Features   Beethoven the Nomad
Beethoven was a notorious eccentric. Anecdotes abound regarding his bizarre behavior, his explosive temper, his penchant for practical jokes.


It turns out his eccentricity also applied to his living arrangements. One need not walk far in Vienna before spotting a plaque commemorating that Beethoven once lived in that building. Actually, that's an understatement. According to the German scholar Kurt Smolle, Beethoven changed residences a whopping 87 times between 1792, the year he moved to Vienna from his native Bonn, and his death in March of 1827.

Ignaz von Seyfried, a composer and conductor who befriended Beethoven about 1802, published personal recollections of the composer in 1832, including the following:

One of Beethoven's curious manias was his passion for changing his lodgings, although moving with all his possessions always greatly discommoded him, and always was accompanied by a loss of belongings. No sooner had he taken possession of a new dwelling-place than he would find something objectionable about it, and then would run his feet sore trying to discover another.

In all fairness, the astounding statistics regarding Beethoven's nomadic existence include summer holidays, when most well-to-do Viennese abandoned the city in favor of the countryside or the mountains. Even so, 87 is a considerable number.

The places that Beethoven called home in Vienna fell into two principal categories. One was the in-town palaces of wealthy patrons, where he stayed as a privileged guest for months at a time. The second was rented apartments in central Vienna. There are exceptions to these two groups. For example, from late 1804 until autumn of 1805, Beethoven was granted the use of an apartment in the Theater-an-der-Wien.

Within the city, Beethoven is known to have had at least 30 addresses. And his living quarters are unknown between July of 1796 and May of 1799, which means the actual number is almost certainly higher.

Contemporary reports confirm that he complained regularly and quarreled with neighbors.

He was undoubtedly a fussbudget about where he lodged. As he aged and grew more famous, his demands escalated. He wanted a south-facing apartment with a nice view. Privacy was important to him, particularly in regard to his music-making; he did not want others listening while he played piano or composed.

Of course, Beethoven traveled outside Vienna as well. It was his custom during the summers to find lodging in the countryside, where he could indulge his passion for long walks. One favorite summer destination was the village of Heiligenstadt, four kilometers north of Vienna. Today it is a suburb, absorbed by urban sprawl. In Beethoven's day, Heiligenstadt was a wine-making village in the countryside with the added advantage of healthy bathing waters. Its proximity to the capital made the village an attractive and readily accessible getaway.

Other summer destinations included the spa towns of Baden and Teplitz and charming villages like M‹dling, Hetzendorf, Nussdorf, and Underd‹bling.

Outside Austria, Beethoven visited Budapest in 1796 and 1800 and may have traveled there again in 1806 and 1809. One of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, had a castle in northern Moravia in addition to a Viennese palace. Beethoven stayed at the castle in 1806 and 1811. We know that he lodged with the Countess Marie Erd‹dy both in her town house in the Petersplatz and at her estate in Jedelsee, northeast of the city; he may also have been her guest in Vienna's Krugerstrasse during the winter of 1807 _08 while he was working on the Fifth Symphony.

Sorting out these residences can be confusing. For example, in his first three years in Vienna, Beethoven rented three different apartments in the same building on the Lastergasse: one in the attic, one on the ground floor, and one on the second floor. Some of the houses in which he is known to have stayed have been demolished, including the one where he died in March of 1827 (its location is noted by a memorial plaque). On more than one occasion he maintained multiple leases at the same time.

And he had favorites. After residing for most of 1804 _08 in the Pasqualati-Haus on M‹lkerbastei, he returned there briefly in 1809, 1810, and again in 1814. The house: named for Baron Johann Baptist von Pasqualati, who owned it: is important as the location where Beethoven composed many "Heroic Decade" works: the Rasumovsky Quartets, Symphonies 4 _8, and Fidelio.

All this moving around confirms the image of Beethoven as restless, impatient, even intolerant. At the same time, our awareness of his multiple residences makes him profoundly human, and helps us to grasp the chaos of his day-to-day life.

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