In 1779, a composer, writer, teacher, and dreamer named Christian Neefe arrived in Bonn, Germany, to work for the Electoral Court. Neefe (pronounced nay-fuh) was the definition of what Germans call a Schwärmer, a person swarming with rapturous enthusiasms. In particular, he was inflamed with visions of endless human potentials that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment promised to unleash. Like many progressives of the time, Neefe believed that humanity was finally coming of age. So he had picked the right place to get a job. Bonn was one of the most cultured and enlightened cities in Germany; the court supported a splendid musical and theatrical establishment. Before long in his new post, Neefe found himself mentoring a genius. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he signed on with a plan to, as it were, rule the world.
One of Neefe’s first students was a sullen, grubby, taciturn 10-year-old keyboard player named Ludwig van Beethoven. He was the son of an alcoholic singer who had more or less beat music into him. The kid seemed more like a charity case than a budding musician, but Neefe soon discovered that his talent could put him in the league of the musical phenomenon of the age, a child of freakish gifts named Mozart.
Ludwig was named for his grandfather, who had been Kapellmeister, head of the court musical establishment. Old Ludwig’s son, Johann van Beethoven, was a tenor in the choir; when his father died, he had made a bid to become Kapellmeister. Everybody but Johann understood that was ludicrous: He was a competent singer and music teacher, otherwise hopelessly mediocre and a devotee of the bottle. As often happens, the full ferocity of the father’s blighted ambition landed on the son. Johann van Beethoven intended to make his oldest child into another Mozart, or else.
Neighbors used to see tiny Ludwig standing on a bench to reach the keyboard, his father standing over him shouting and threatening, the boy weeping as he played. When Ludwig was 7, his father put him on display in a concert and for good measure advertised him as age 6, the same as Mozart when he became famous. Johann was hoping for a sensation, but nothing came of it (except that Beethoven was confused about his age for the rest of his life). At 7 he had been a terrifically precocious keyboard player, but he wasn’t another Mozart, at least not yet.
By the time Christian Neefe arrived in Bonn and started teaching Beethoven organ and composition, the 10-year-old was as good a keyboard player as anybody in town. Soon Neefe got into print some variations Ludwig had written, one of his first pieces—slight and conventional, still not Mozart but impressive for his age. In a newspaper article, Neefe cited the variations and said the magic words: With proper nurturing, this boy will “surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
By his midteens, Beethoven was a court musician in various capacities and making huge strides as a composer. His father had pulled him out of school after a few years so he could concentrate on music. (Beethoven learned to add and subtract but never learned to multiply. If he had to multiply 65 by 59, he wrote 65 in a column 59 times and added it up.) Meanwhile his father was promoting him relentlessly, mounting concerts in the house and taking him on tours around the Rhineland. By that point, there was little question in Ludwig’s or anybody else’s mind that he was headed for big things. One day when his landlord’s daughter accosted him with, “How dirty you’re looking again! You ought to keep yourself properly clean,” he told her, “What’s the difference? When I become a gentleman, nobody will care.”
Which is to say that Beethoven was a prodigy and had the classic prodigy’s trouble: He knew all about music, but he didn’t know how to live. He had only a hazy sense of the reality of other people. Throughout Beethoven’s youth, a row of mentors would attempt to civilize and socialize him, with mixed results.
In those years, his first serious mentor, Neefe the Schwärmer, was in an especially perfervid phase of his spiritual life. For some time he had been a Freemason, a group then in its first century as a progressive, international, secular, semisecret order open to men of all faiths. (As such, the Masons were loathed by churches and regimes alike.) But Neefe was tired of the Masons’ endless chatter of liberty and morality. He wanted a more ambitious and active kind of brotherhood—say, a new world order. That took him to one of the more bizarre sideshows of the Enlightenment: the Bavarian Illuminati. A Bonn lodge of the Illuminati formed, and Beethoven’s teacher became head of it.
Founded in 1776 by a Bavarian professor named Adam Weishaupt, the Illuminati joined radical politics and Jesuit-style hierarchy to fanatical secrecy. The aims of the order were ambitious, all right: They intended to change the world and had a plan to do it. The means were not to be by violent revolutions. The idea was to form a cadre of enlightened men who would steathlily infiltrate governments everywhere and slowly bring them to a kind of secular-humanist Elysium under the guidance of a secret ruling body. Said Adam Weishaupt: “Princes and nations shall disappear from the face of the earth peacefully, mankind shall become one family, and the world shall become a haven of reasonable people. Morality shall achieve this transformation, alone and imperceptibly.”
For every Illuminatus, the perfection of society started with the perfection of one’s own moral character. Aspiring members were given piles of text to read, required to write a rigorous self-examination and to undergo ritualized interrogations:
Where have you come from?/ From the world of the first chosen.
Whither do you want to go?/ To the inmost sanctum.
What do you seek there?/ He who is, who was, and who shall always be.
What inspires you?/ The light, which lives in me and is now ablaze in me.
For all the moony mysticism, the Illuminati had a high-Enlightenment agenda, rational, humanistic, and universal. They published a monthly magazine, Contributions to the Spread of Useful Knowledge, which was partly Enlightenment cheerleading, partly practical items relating to husbandry, housekeeping, and the like. Duty was the essence of Illuminati teaching, but it was an Enlightenment kind of duty: duty not to God or to princes but to the order and to humanity.
In practice, the Illuminati amounted to a kind of activist left wing of the Freemasons, from whom they drew most of their members. The numbers were never large, but they included people like Goethe (briefly) and Christian Koerner, a close friend and confidant of Friedrich Schiller. Koerner’s influence seems to be why some Illuminati-tinged ideas—universal brotherhood and the triumph of happiness bringing humanity to Elysium—turned up in Schiller’s famous poem Ode to Joy, which was often set to music and sung in Masonic and Illuminati circles. The poem would later enter history via the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
As an Illuminatus, an important part of Christian Neefe’s duty was to covertly inculcate promising young people in the ideals of the order, then to recruit them when they came of age. Beethoven was as promising as young people get. So did Neefe inculcate this student? Surely he did. Was Beethoven recruited to the order? No—the Illuminati dissolved in 1785, when he was 14. There is also a question as to how inculcatable Beethoven was by anybody. Even in his teens, he was so fixed on his own tack that he only intermittently took notice of the rest of the world.
Not only Neefe, but then and later most of Beethoven’s other friends and mentors and patrons were ex-Illuminati or Freemasons. Did those influences have an impact on his life and art? Among many other things, certainly. By the time Beethoven left Bonn, he was already planning to set Schiller’s Ode to music, and he had a good idea what that poem was about, from its humanistic surface to its Masonic and Illuminati depths. By then Bonn had helped give him ideas and ideals about being a composer that no one ever had before. He wanted to be something more than an entertainer. He wanted to be part of history.
If Beethoven had come from anywhere but Bonn he still might have been a genius, but he would not have been the same man and composer. True, he was more self-made than anything else, could see the world only through his own lens. He was a legendarily recalcitrant student and claimed to have learned nothing from any of his teachers. His most celebrated teacher, Joseph Haydn, sardonically dubbed Beethoven die grosse Mogul—in today’s terms, the big shot. Yet at the same time, Beethoven was by no means aloof. He soaked up every idea around him, read voluminously in classical and modern literature, studied the music of older masters and modeled what he did on them. His art drew from myriad sources, among them the extravagant humanistic ideals floating around Bonn in his youth. One of the things it all added up to was something like this: music as an esoteric language wielded by a few enlightened men for the benefit of the world. Beethoven was all about duty to the abstraction called humanity. That was what he was taught and what he lived and wrote for, through all the miseries of going deaf and a great deal of physical pain. It was people he didn’t much care about. But in taking up Schiller’s Ode for the Ninth Symphony, he proposed not just to preach a sermon about the brotherhood of humanity and the dream of Elysium. He wanted the Ninth to help bring those things to pass.
As for the Illuminati, call them one more example of the Enlightenment’s excesses of hope for human perfectibility. Since Beethoven’s day, the secrecy and world-ordering agenda of the Illuminati have made them a natural magnet for conspiracy freaks. The Illuminati actually existed only some nine years, but there are still lots of folks, including many on the American religious right and the John Birch Society, who believe the Illuminati are the mother of all conspiracies, a Jewish-dominated international cabal that has more or less run the world since they incited the French Revolution. My saying they were a short-lived and a bit pathetic phenomenon makes me, of course, part of the conspiracy—along with Beethoven. I’d like finally to meet some of my fellow conspirators. They seem like interesting people.