In 1826, the year before Beethoven died, his nephew Karl—on whom the deaf composer doted and who in return thoroughly detested his uncle—rushed off in anger from their home in Vienna to the village of Baden nearby. Here the young man pulled out a pistol and shot himself in the head. The bullet lodged in his skull, but Karl survived: a passing carter happened to see him and trundled him back to Vienna, where he recovered and was reconciled with the distraught Beethoven. His nephew’s suicide attempt was the last of many upheavals in the life of the ageing musician. In his early thirties, he too had been on the verge of killing himself; in fact his entire life was a series of emotional explosions and psychological traumas which resulted, for the first time in the history of the arts, in music taking the shape of an active volcano every time he composed a piece.
Driving from Vienna to Baden over a road which wound over small hills and green undulations, vineyards giving way to other vineyards, I wondered how much of the earth now under our Volkswagen was the soil below horse-carriages in which Beethoven had travelled nearly 200 years earlier. Almost certainly none. Still, there is some compelling irrationality at the centre of every pilgrimage, an emotional need for a physical link with one’s deity, which makes the bald facts irrelevant. I was on a journey to pay homage to Beethoven, so for me it was simply true that I was breathing the same air, travelling on the same road, as he once had.
I had read of Baden in my collection of Beethoven biographies as a picturesque Austrian location to which the affluent Viennese retreated in summer, a place dotted with what the Russians call dachas. These are pretty second-homes pleasantly distant from the big city, the sort that Chekhov would have set his stories in had he been German. I had not expected to visit Beethoven’s Baden home, my interest being only in paying homage at the composer’s grave in Vienna. I had come with the idea of scattering a few flowers over the inmate’s tombstone as thanks for providing me with many years of surcharged music.
Vienna is fuller nowadays of Mozart and Strauss than of Beethoven, probably because modern tourists respond better to music which is straightforwardly tuneful. Walking past the city’s famous Lipizzaner Stables, where you can see large white stallions being run through their paces, I nearly fell into the arms of yet another stray violinist playing The Blue Danube. Beethoven is venerated in his birthplace Bonn more than in Vienna, but his presence in the city he made his home is not invisible. His grave in the Zentralfriedhof—the main cemetery, easily reached by tram—occupies the pre-eminent position within the “Musician’s Corner” where Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, and various minor fiddlers are also entombed. Soon after arriving, I found the grave and placed my flowers on it—two pots of red begonias of the kind that grow in the Kumaon, where I live. For good measure I also put a one-rupee coin near the flowers to ensure he was able to distinguish his Indian worshipper from more common devotees who only brought him flowers.
My pilgrimage was the consequence of events stretching back to my early life. Over my adolescent years I had, like most males, been through a morbid and unhappy phase. Something structural within many of Beethoven’s compositions had made me experience them as universes of sound that took me away from my daily subjection to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Though I have frequently tried to find an explanation for why this was so, pinpointing the reasons is not easy because of the difficulty, which lies at the centre of all discussions about music—the impossibility of conveying its impact in words. Only a rough explanation seems possible.
Beethoven’s music is a distinctive combination of triumphal grandeur and lyrical poignancy. Using signature motifs—the best known being the four notes which begin his Fifth Symphony—he stitches these into a massive and volatile architecture that can, with repeated listening, work its way into the listener’s bones. Almost all his compositions had mystified me when I first heard them because the melodic and the soothing are not of central importance in this music. Anger, anguish, violence, distress, trauma, and a range of troubled feelings are given expression. They mingle with the musical equivalents of quieter impulses to form a universe of titanic sound that can overwhelm the receptive listener. Each time I felt I had sufficiently digested a Beethoven sonata and understood how its individual parts cohered into a whole, it seemed to simultaneously suck me into a more sublime world. Many of these compositions made me weep for reasons I could not fathom, leaving me wondering if they were in some way auditory structures that corresponded with the chemistry of hormones inside me. Was I so moved by so many of them because I was internally twisted up in ways that resembled a Beethoven sonata?
Whatever the explanation, my experience of Beethoven’s music led to a fanatical devotion, the kind normally associated with Elvis fans. Out of this had grown my need for a pilgrimage to Vienna, the city where all that I valued most had been composed. I knew I had to get to his grave with flowers before I reached my own.
Beethoven’s grave was a flat stone slab above which rose an obelisk into which his name had been carved. A Greek lyre, symbolising classical music, served as decoration. Once the begonias and my rupee-coin had been placed on the grave, it felt like I’d fulfilled something necessary to my existence.
Away from the classical grandeur of Vienna, Baden (not Baden-Baden in Germany) is a pretty one-horse town with a central square, a circular fountain, and open-air cafés. Five minutes down what looks like its only street is Beethoven’s home, a small bedsit with low ceilings (the composer was short and squat). It is now a museum in which, all day long, versions of the Ninth are played. It was here that much of the revolutionary Eroica and Ninth were written. I hung around there for as long as I could, looking down at pleasant foliage from a first-floor balcony, trying to imagine old Ludwig standing exactly where I stood, gazing at predecessors of the same foliage. It felt strangely good just to be standing there.
Back in Vienna, I had tickets to a performance of the Eroica at Grafenegg castle, an old-world country manor with large grounds beautifully maintained, now equipped with a modern auditorium and famous the world over for its open-air concerts. The bus ride there took an hour through exquisite countryside. Surrounded in the bus by fellow devotees of the same musical God, and listening to his music in the sort of pastoral setting that he adored, made the performance special. During the interval I devoured several glasses of the house white wine. Drinking that divine fluid I felt that if a Beethoven symphony could be replicated in vineyards and wines, this must certainly be the Eroica going down my throat.
Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “Heartland of a Musical God”.
Orientation Vienna is the capital of Austria and the country’s largest city. It is located in the northeast of the country, in the Vienna Basin, which lies between the foothills of the alps and the Carpathian mountains. Vienna is around 65 km west of Bratislava, the Slovakian capital that borders Austria.
Getting there and around There are direct flights from New Delhi to Vienna. On other carriers, a minimum of one halt is required, and routes vary across airlines. For travellers already in Europe, there are a number of trains and buses to Vienna from metropolitan cities in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the other Eastern European countries. Getting around Vienna is easy, with efficient public transport that includes railways, an underground metro, trams, and buses. Visitors can procure the Vienna Pass which provides unlimited access to all public transport in Vienna for 3 days (₹1,193 for an adult; holder can be accompanied by one child below 15 years free of cost).
Visa A Schengen visa is required for Indian travellers to Austria. A tourist visa costs ₹4,300, and requires a confirmed ticket, travel insurance, and other financial documents. The processing time can take up to 15-30 working days.