Note perfect: Beethoven's spirit lives on in Vienna

Ah, Vienna: Beethoven made his reputation here – and his spirit still lives on in the Austrian capital. Film-maker Phil Grabsky follows the great maestro's trail

Beethoven!" cried the landlord. "What have you done? You can't knock holes in my walls just because you want a view of the trees!" "I can. I have and I will," replied the great composer.

Well, the hole has been filled in, the trees have gone, and both men are long dead, but standing in the very spot of the argument makes it all seem so close.

Forget the "gift of God", the "genius beyond understanding" and so on – Ludwig van Beethoven was all too human. And, if you know where to look, he can still be found in the city that meant everything to him: Vienna.

Young Ludwig arrived with his cases at the city gates of Vienna in 1792. The previous year, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had died, almost unnoticed, in the city. At the time, the Austrian capital was the centre of music in Europe; while Paris, Mannheim, London, St Petersburg and others had their stars, Vienna was a cosmos all of its own. Operas, concerts, dances and masses could all be heard nightly throughout the city, so it was no foregone conclusion that a cocky, albeit talented pianist from the small town of Bonn was going to take the capital by storm. But he did. Indeed, he went much further, to become arguably the greatest pianist of his generation, before deafness forced him to switch tack and become arguably the greatest composer of all time.

To get a sense of who Beethoven was and how he achieved these heights, you need only to spend a short while wandering the Viennese streets.

Start at the Pasqualati House at Mölker Bastei 8. It is said that Beethoven moved 70 to 80 times during his time in Vienna (he was to die there in 1827). In fact, many of those moves were between summer and winter homes, and many of those winters were spent in this house – owned by the landlord Johann von Pasqualati.

Pasqualati greatly admired Beethoven, but was often exasperated by him (not least about his window-creating escapades). The tall building with the apartments on the top floor was, at that time, alongside the city walls, which afforded Beethoven the chance to wander the countryside at will and, walls permitting, stare into the woods from his piano.

These days, the city has expanded far beyond this point, but the house itself is little changed; the stone stairs that now echo to your feet once echoed to his. It takes little imagination to see him bounding up two at a time, desperate to note down some musical phrase that had come to him during his walk.

The apartment itself has, for the most part, been kept as it was during Beethoven's time. The piano on which he composed his Fifth Symphony still sits in the centre of the main room. Other personal items lie dotted among a series of paintings and scores. This is a beautiful corner of Vienna, too; keen cineastes will, alongside Beethoven's house, also spot a doorway used in the film noir classic The Third Man.

But no time to waste – it's time to see where Beethoven would have performed. Back then, there were no concert halls as we think of them today. Composers had to wait for the theatres to be free (usually that meant only during Holy Week at Easter, when plays weren't allowed and the stages were available for hire) or for invitations from aristocrats to provide an evening's entertainment. Beethoven was lucky in that he was sponsored by some of Vienna's most eminent counts and dukes. Their lavish palaces all had at least one room for playing music. And perhaps he benefited from a sense of collective guilt that Mozart and his talents had been unappreciated by Vienna's musical establishment.

Seek out Count Lobkowitz's lavish former abode at Lobkowitzplatz 2. Here you can nip up a beautifully ornate set of stairs and arrive at the music room. Beethoven was invited to premiere his Third Symphony here in December 1804. The room is unchanged and the melodies of this majestic work still echo. Beethoven sat here, biting his nails, perhaps hoping for applause, though maybe not caring whether he got it or not – he knew it was a masterpiece.

Not far from here is the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. Visit two rooms to get a real sense of the place: the Kleiner and Grosser Redoutensaal. These two ballrooms, still in use, have seen it all. In March 1783, for example, Mozart performed here during a masked ball. Here too, for the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Beethoven premiered three symphonies: the Seventh, Eighth and the so-called Wellington's Victory symphony. (The latter boasts cannons and a rendering of Rule Britannia: Beethoven hated it, not least because it was the best-received symphony during his lifetime. It was a further example, he felt, of the ignorance of his audience.)

By 1815, Beethoven was a champion. But only 14 years earlier, he had been contemplating suicide, because of his hearing problems. In a letter Beethoven wrote but then decided to hide in a secret drawer (where it lay unread until his death), he declared that only his all-consuming confidence in his creative abilities prevented him from taking his own life. His days of public piano-playing ended, but that simply concentrated his mind on composing. Socially, however, he became isolated:

"My ears continue to hum and buzz day and night, and I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years, I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people, 'I am deaf' – in my profession a terrible handicap."

The place where he wrote this heart-wrenching note, Heiligenstadt, was once a small village beyond Vienna but is now within the city limits, and reachable by tram number 37. The two-room apartment at Probusgasse 6 is much as it was and a wonderful place to get a sense of Beethoven and his life. It is now a small museum housing personal items, paintings, and works of his.

Travel now to the Theater an der Wien in the Schleifmühl quarter (a 15-minute walk from the Musikverein) – owned at that time by Emanuel Schikaneder, who commissioned Mozart's The Magic Flute. Imagine the scene back on 20 November, 1805 – a cold night, with a mist rising from the small river Wien. Beethoven is finally premiering his first (and, as it turns out, his only) opera (which we now know as Fidelio). It's been a struggle, but the work, concerning issues of freedom, power, love and equality, is opening tonight. One problem: Vienna has just been occupied by Napoleonic soldiers, who don't take kindly to Beethoven's message. The opera fails.

It's time to return to the heart of Vienna, to take tea at the beautiful Imperial Hotel (a palace in Beethoven's time) and gain a sense of the luxurious lifestyles of the Viennese nobility who backed the young German pianist. Take a glass of wine at the Griechenbeisl restaurant – which has served food for five centuries – and let your imagination picture Beethoven jotting down notes for his Ninth Symphony.

One last trip: return to the Pasqualati house. Mount those stairs one more time and stand in front of the portrait by Mahler. That's the real Beethoven (so often we see the dishevelled, white-haired, mad genius). Instead, this picture is of a young, handsome, energetic man. Without Vienna there would have been no Beethoven as we know him. The composer may be dead, but he lives on in this glorious city.

Phil Grabsky's film 'In Search of Beethoven' is premiered in high definition at the Barbican Concert Hall, London, at 7.30pm on Monday 30 March. Tickets, priced £10-£15, are available from the Barbican box office (020-7638 8891; barbican.org.uk)

Getting there

Vienna is served by Austrian Airlines (08701 24 26 25; aua.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow, by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Luton and Gatwick, and from Gatwick on Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com). Consider buying a carbon "offset" through Abta: www.reducemyfootprint.travel.

Staying there

Imperial Hotel, Kärntner Ring 16 (00 43 150 1100; starwoodhotels. com). Doubles from €388, including breakfast.

Visiting there

Pasqualati House, Molker Bastei 8 (00 43 15 35 89 05; wienmuseum. at); open 10am-6pm daily except Monday, €4.

Palais Lobkowitz, Lobkowitzplatz 2 (00 43 15 25 24 3460; theater museum.at). Open Tuesday-Sunday, 8am-6pm, admission €4.50.

Hofburg, Imperial Palace, Michaelerkuppel (00 43 15 3375 70; hofburg-wien.at). Open daily 9am-6pm, admission €10.

Beethoven Wohnung Heiligenstadt, Probusgasse 6 (00 43 13 70 54 08; wienmuseum.at). Open 10am-6pm daily except Mondays, admission €4.

Theater an der Wien, Linke Wienzeile 6 (00 43 1588 30 535; theatre-wien.at). Open 10am-7pm daily.

More information

Vienna Tourist Board: 00 43 1 24 555; wien.info

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