Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

More Than Just Peanuts: Evidence for December 16 as Beethoven's Birthday

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

More Than Just Peanuts: Evidence for December 16 as Beethoven's Birthday

Article excerpt

For years, as long as musical marketing has found it profitable, radio stations, symphony orchestras, university music departments, and even Schroeder in Charles Schulz's popular comic strip Peanuts, have celebrated Beethoven's birthday on December 16.

While the documented identity of the exact date of the composer's birth will always remain open to some degree of question, the article in the New Grove Dictionary, either through the authors' oversight or editorial conservatism imposed upon them, has refused to take a stand or, for that matter, even to pose the question, and instead merely states, "baptized 17 December 1770".1 "Don't be so wishy-washy, Charlie Brown!" Lucy might exclaim in frustration at not seeing the date December 16 so much as mentioned in New Grove.

During much of his lifetime, Beethoven believed that he had been born in 1772 rather than 1770, simply because his father had subtracted two years from his age in order to create a sensation akin to the prodigy Mozart. A great deal has been written about this confusion in the composer's mind, including Maynard Solomon's admirable psycho-biography of a decade ago.2

The case for or against December 16 as Beethoven's birth date has not received a cumulative examination since 1937, however, when Stephan Ley published a scholarly, if somewhat discursive, article in the Neues Beethoven-Jahrbuch.3 Although Ley came to the right conclusion, his arguments were based upon incomplete or faulty evidence, which, along with recently-discovered factors, prompts a re-examination of the question now.

The first author to address the problem of Beethoven's date of birth seriously was his boyhood friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler, who, in the Biographische Notizen he co-authored with Ferdinand Ries in 1838, wrote that Beethoven had been baptized on December 17, 1770, based on the register of the St. Remigius Church in Bonn. From this document, Wegeler concluded that Beethoven had been born on December 17,4 although he himself said elsewhere that "baptism ... is usually the day of the birth itself, or indeed the day afterwards."5 This custom derived from a Catholic belief that a child might not enter heaven if he or she died un-baptized, and in view of high infant mortality, at least through the early twentieth century, this custom seems to have been widely observed.6 Even though Wegeler had opened the door to question, Anton Schindler accepted December 17 as Beethoven's birthday in all three editions of his Biographie from 1840 to 1860.7

On the basis of Wegeler's qualifying statement that a child could indeed be baptized on the day after birth, Alexander Wheelock Thayer, writing in 1866, declared that Beethoven had been born on the 16th. He added that Beethoven himself seemed to have entertained the same opinion, unfortunately without citing the source of this information.8

Thus the stage was set for the confusion, error, and misattributions concerning Beethoven's date of birth which survive to the present, and will probably continue to provide grist for future debate. The New Grove article does not help resolve the problem when it merely says "baptized 17 December 1770," nor does its bibliography of 366 items refer directly to any material which might help.9

In Catholic countries, it was more common to celebrate a person's name-day than the actual birth-date. In many cases, the child was named for the saint upon whose feast day he was baptized. Thus Mozart, baptized on January 27, was named for St. John Chrysostum, whose feast is celebrated on that day. The feast day of St. Louis or Ludwig, however, is August 25. Born in December, Beethoven was named for his grandfather Ludwig, and was given no further baptismal names beyond the simple Latin Ludovicus, probably because no saint's feast day is celebrated on December 17.10 His deceased older brother, Ludwig Maria, had been baptized on April 1, 1769; and grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven, for whom both were named, had been born in January. …

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