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."