Maria Josepha Ball: Beethoven’s grandmother was not Spanish | Culture

One of the few mysteries to be clarified, within the genealogical tree of Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770 – Vienna, 1827), is related to the family of his paternal grandmother, Maria Josepha Ball. Her maiden name had been wrongly transcribed as Poll or Pohl. He proved it, in 1999, Theo Molberg during a congress of WGfF, one of the main associations of German genealogists. Years later, between 2008 and 2009, their ancestors could be located. Maria Josepha was the daughter of Sebastian Ball, a trumpet player to the Elector, in Bonn, and her mother was named Bernhardina Mengal. But the record of Beethoven’s grandmother’s baptism still did not appear and this fueled wild speculations about a supposed Spanish ancestry, which these days have resurfaced thanks to a study by Jordi Cos, who fixes the composer’s ancestors in the Maresme.

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Molberg has just solved this riddle in the last issue of the Die Laterne newsletter, which publishes the aforementioned WGfF in Bonn. Beethoven’s paternal grandmother was born in Châtelet, a Belgian municipality near the city of Charleroi, where her baptism on February 13, 1713 is recorded in the church records. The clue had been given to her by her colleague from Harvard University, Mario Valdés, after locating, in Châtelet, the registration of the marriage of his parents, on January 7, 1712. The finding, which is collected in the catalog of the library of the prestigious Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, allows to fit all the pieces.

Sebastian Ball is documented as a trumpeter in Bonn until 1701. Later he moved to Châtelet to serve in the Regiment d’Arré. And there he married Bernhardina Mengal, with two trumpeters from the same regiment witnessing his wedding. The documentation not only clarifies the aforementioned birth of the composer’s grandmother, in 1713, but also the transfer of his family to Bonn, in the summer of 1715, where he lived the rest of his life. There she married, in 1733, Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer’s grandfather, who became the Elector’s Kapellmeister. And in Bonn his son Johann was also born, around 1740, Beethoven’s father, after two sons died at an early age.

The composer’s grandfather completed his salary with a wine business that he ran at home. And it seems that Maria Josepha had serious problems with alcoholism, before becoming a widow, in 1773, and spending the last two years of her life confined in a convent. All of this can be read in the early and monumental three-volume biography of Alexander W. Thayer, Ludwig van Beethoven’s life (1866-1879), who attributes Maria Josepha’s problems to the fact that she lost all her children except one. Here also the famous nickname of “Der Spagnol” (Spanish) that they gave to Beethoven during his childhood in Bonn is indicated, according to collect the handwritten memories of his childhood friend, Gottfried Fischer, written in 1838, eleven years after the death of the composer.

Baptismal record of Maria Josepha Ball, on February 7, 1713, in the ecclesiastical records of Châtelet (Belgium).  / DIE LATERNE
Baptismal record of Maria Josepha Ball, on February 7, 1713, in the ecclesiastical records of Châtelet (Belgium). / DIE LATERNE

This famous nickname, which responded to his physical appearance, served the musical popularizer, Andrés Ruiz Tarazona, to outline an erroneous theory about a supposed Spanish origin of Beethoven’s grandmother. Made it inside his monograph Spain in the great musicians (Siruela, 2018), where he re-elaborates and expands several texts already published. Specifically, Beethoven’s chapter is an elongated version of an article, from 1977, in EL PAÍS, to which he adds the aforementioned theory. The source where this theory is supported is the biography of Beethoven, from 1970, written by the screenwriter and popularizer David Jacobs and advised by the musicologist and Harvard professor, Elliot Forbes. Ruiz Tarazona assures that in that book it is stated that Maria Josepha was Spanish. But it is not true. And on page 12 the opposite is stated: “In fact, [Beethoven] He was not Spanish, but of German and Flemish descent. Originally, his father’s family came from Flanders. Paternal grandmother [Maria Josepha] from Spanish [se refiere al sobrenombre de Beethoven]However, she was German, like her mother ”.

The reception of this hoax has had dire consequences. One of the craziest was a study published, in September 2019, by Cos, both in the website of the Vallès Symphony Orchestra What in the cultural foundation Institute New History. In it, he not only assures that Maria Josepha was Catalan, but also locates the erroneous transcription of her surname in the Barcelona municipality of Vilassar de Dalt. An article from The confidential I put this weekend the work of Cos as an example of the revisionist studies of the Catalan independence movement to appropriate relevant historical figures.

Marriage registration of Sebastian Ball and Bernhardina Mengal, on January 7, 1712, in the ecclesiastical registers of Châtelet (Belgium).  / DIE LATERNE
Marriage registration of Sebastian Ball and Bernhardina Mengal, on January 7, 1712, in the ecclesiastical registers of Châtelet (Belgium). / DIE LATERNE

All this coincides with the recent publication of two rigorous books on Beethoven’s relationship with Spain. Two monographs prepared by university professors that include abundant contributions on the reception of Beethoven both in Spain and in Portugal. On the one hand, Beethoven from Spain: interdisciplinary studies and musical reception, coordinated by the professors of the University of Castilla La Mancha Paulino Capdepón and Juan José Pastor Comín in the Valencian publishing house Tirant lo Blanc. And the professor at the University of La Rioja Teresa Cascudo García-Villaraco has just published, in Comares, the book An Iberian Beethoven. Two centuries of cultural transfer. They are two good examples of the importance of giving a voice to scholars.

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