With the hundreds of years that are now between us and the world of Mozart and Beethoven, it becomes difficult to understand how their lives were and what it must have been like to live in those times. Both Mozart and Beethoven were pivotal figures in Classical Music, each making an immeasurable contribution to the evolution of music. Did they meet, and what were their opinions about one another’s music?
Did Mozart and Beethoven Meet
Given the distance, in time the stories that surround these two great composers vary greatly and many are difficult to put stock into. In short, Beethoven and Mozart did meet. One account that is frequently cited was when Beethoven on a leave of absence from the Bonn Court Orchestra, travelled to Vienna to meet Mozart. The year was 1787, Beethoven was just sixteen-years-old and Mozart was thirty. Mozart’s health was already deteriorating and he was producing a huge quantity of work at the time, including Don Giovanni, with little time to accommodate visitors. Also, Mozart’s father Leopold was very unwell at this time, adding extra stress to an already difficult situation.
Beethoven had ambitions to study with either Mozart or Haydn and this opportunity to impress Mozart must have been a pressured one. Beethoven’s reputation as a child prodigy was apparently known to Mozart who cordially invited Beethoven to visit him at his Viennese residence. As the story goes Mozart received Beethoven kindly and asked him to play something for him at the piano. Here the accounts differ with some claiming that Mozart was quite abrupt with Beethoven at this point, others highlight Mozart’s disinterest. Beethoven, probably in an attempt to couch favor with the Austrian master, played the part of Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto No.24.
Mozart was suitably unimpressed with Beethoven’s rendition of the concerto saying the “anyone can play that, play something of your own.” Beethoven duly obliged Mozart and it is thought that his interest was sparked. In the other room next to where Beethoven and Mozart were Mozart’s wife Constanza was listening. Mozart is supposed to have commented to her to “Watch that boy, one day he will give the world something to talk about.”
Mozart then invited Beethoven to study privately with him. Aside from the chances that Mozart was actually impressed by the young Beethoven, he was in need of money and may well have just been looking for a way to support his income. The story takes a tragic turn here as after only six weeks in Vienna, Beethoven received a letter that contained awful news. His mother was desperately ill with consumption, and the letter asked him to return to Bonn immediately. Being the dutiful son, he was, Beethoven packed up his apartment and made his way back to Bonn. His mood was very low, not only because his mother was dying, but because he now would not be able to study under Mozart; a dream he had held for many years.
Another variation on this story tells of Mozart rejecting Beethoven. Mozart already had the young composer, Joseph Hummel living in his residence who he was tutoring perhaps to be the next prodigy in Vienna. Hummel was indeed by many accounts, an astonishing musician but whether or not this would have meant Mozart was not interested in helping Beethoven is doubtful.
In 1787, the two men parted company never to meet again. It is possible that Beethoven may have in this short window of time, had a couple of lessons with Mozart, but there can be no certainty of this. Beethoven did not return to Vienna until 1792 by which time Mozart was dead. This time Beethoven had returned intending to take lessons with Joseph Haydn which he did. Beethoven studied with Haydn for several years, but Beethoven was an impatient student and short-tempered with Haydn’s relaxed teaching methods. Following a few unfortunate misunderstandings between the two men, which included Beethoven lying about his income having borrowed money from Haydn, they parted company. Beethoven went on to quickly become a favorite in Vienna, and as the years progressed Beethoven never lost his admiration for Haydn although he never freely admitted to what extent Haydn had helped him with his work.
Some claim that Beethoven and Mozart simply never met and that Beethoven did travel and stay for a few weeks in Vienna in 1787, but the invitation from Mozart and the meeting is fiction. Part of the mystery is that Beethoven is thought to have commented on having heard Mozart’s playing the piano, remarking that it was very detached and not legato at all. This information flowed down from one of Beethoven’s s most celebrated students Karl Czerny. Czerny is often felt to be a reliable source of information regarding Beethoven but in this case, it is difficult to ascertain the viability of this claim.
Beethoven may just have heard Mozart perform in a concert whilst in Vienna, nothing more. Sadly, it does not solidify the claim that they met, or that Beethoven ever played for Mozart. In many cases, it is possible to trace the facts of historic events through diaries or letters but to date, there has been no hard evidence that can corroborate the meeting between Beethoven and Mozart.
Given that at the time, both men kept journals and wrote copious amounts of letters, the fact that there are none that survive points to the strong possibility that the composers did not meet. What we do know is that Beethoven owed a debt of gratitude to Mozart and his influence is felt through many of the works that followed. Beethoven had many scores of Mozart’s in his possession all his life and even wrote ‘7 Variations in Eb’ on a theme from ‘The Magic Flute’ for cello and piano.
If you look deeply enough you will hear many other references back to Mozart in Beethoven’s work. They may or may not have met but the connection between these monumentally important musical figures resonates still.