Beethoven, short biography

Beethoven! Of all the great geniuses produced by humanity none has generated such passionate interest and stimulated again and again such curiosity as has the composer of the "Eroica" and the Ninth Symphony. His life and work ever since his death have been treated of incessantly, beginning with the biographies of his contemporaries, Johann-Alois Schlosser, Franz-Gerhard Wegeler, Ferdinand Ries and mainly Anton Schindler, to the more recent of Emmanuel Buenzod, from the musicological studies of Thayer, Nottebohm, Grove and Colombani to the more or less fictional ones of Edouard Herriot or Emil Ludwig. The biographical sketch with which I begin this book does not claim to add anything new to the knowledge of Beethoven, already extensive. The sole aim of this introduction is to furnish the reader of the documents of the book a few points of departure, or if it is a more appropriate term, a basis of reference which would enable him to correlate the pictorial material reflecting the life of suffering of this great musician with his biography.

"Watch him, this fellow will one day be talked about in the whole world." (Mozart)


IN a poor garret, in the dim light of which the master's bust is to be seen today, Ludwig van Beethoven was born December 16, 1770. He was of Flemish origin, a child and grandchild of musicians. His grandfather--his name was Ludwig--was Court Kapellmeister of the Kurfürst and Archbishop of Cologne, and his father served the court as one of the musicians.

Biographers have very different opinions on the milieu in which Beethoven was born and grew up. Some, basing theirs on the idyllic picture by the baker Fischer, a neighbor, describe it in lovely colors; others like Romain Rolland see but miserable family affairs, with everything suffering from the violence of a father with a penchant for excellent Rhine wines.

Be that as it may, it appears that alcohol did not becloud Johann van Beethoven to such an extent that he remained oblivious to the obvious musical talent of his son. Very early he had Ludwig learn the rudiments of music. First the Franciscan monks teach him the playing of the organ, then one of his cousins, Rovantini, the severe Pfeiffer and Franz Ries introduce him to piano and violin playing. Above all, Christian Gottlob Neefe, the most important of his teachers, exercises his influence upon him so that at barely twelve young Ludwig becomes his substitute as court organist.

Neefe, an educated musician, an erudite man with philosophical interests, has the great merit of having imparted to his pupil most widely differing ideas and a broad knowledge; first he teaches him theory on the basis of the "Well Tempered Keyboard" of Bach, using examples of Italian and French masters, and also referring to Handel--the purest sources possible. Then he introduces him to the duties of an orchestral musician and teaches him musical literature so that Beethoven becomes a competent viola player and coach. For the future creator of "Fidelio" this later proves to be of considerable significance.

In 1787 Beethoven suffers the loss of his mother. The parental home--two additional sons had been born meanwhile--does not survive this fate for any length of time: the father, with his regrettable addiction to liquor, drowns his sorrow. At that moment, for the first time in Beethoven's life, a number of friends and admirers group around the timid and lonely young man, a circle of the type he was to have around him practically all his life. As the family of the archivist von Breuning, to which his friend Wegeler introduced him, accepts Beethoven, he enters an atmosphere which gives his soul and mind refreshing recreation and considerable enrichment. Through Frau von Breuning whom he later called his guardian angel and who knew how "to keep the insects away from the blossom", he contacts a milieu which furthers his culture and education and at the same time soothes his feelings and stimulates friendship. In this hospitable house of poetry and music cultivated with taste and enthusiasm, the evenings are filled with readings of Klopstock and Schiller by Eleonore (later Frau Wegeler), daughter of the house, and her uncles Lorenz and Philipp, and with incomparable musical delights offered largely by young Ludwig himself. In this atmosphere where the fastidious cultivation of the arts is balanced with refinement of education, Beethoven forms friendships of utmost value for his career. Particularly important is that with the Count von Waldstein to whom he was later to dedicate his piano sonata, op. 53, entitled "l'Aurore". This young aristocrat, eight years the composer's senior but of like taste and persuasion, is not content with donating to Beethoven his first piano and commissioning him to write scores (the best known is ≪Musik zu einem Ritterballet≫) , but also, together with Neefe, persuades Beethoven to change his residence from Bonn to Vienna. Haydn, just returned from a trip through the Rhineland, is astounded that Beethoven had not come previously to Vienna to meet him. Waldstein, not satisfied that he had induced the Kurfürst and Archbishop to give Beethoven a furlough and the necessary travelling expenses to pay for a sojourn in a foreign country, beyond that puts very many wonderful contacts to the Viennese aristocracy at his friend's and protégé's disposal. Beethoven, scarcely arrived in the city of the Danube, finds the drawing rooms of the Swietens, Lichnowskys, Fries, Schwarzenbergs and Liechtensteins wide open to him.


BEETHOVEN at the time of his settling in Austria is by no means a beginner. In his luggage he has forty-nine works; of these only twenty-one were published during his lifetime, to be sure. Yet, in his estimation, none would be worthy of being called "opus1". The new settler in Vienna, despite a career so auspiciously started in Bonn, acts as though his recent past had meant nothing.

Without neglecting the contacts made through introductions proferred him by the Kurfürst and Count Waldstein he delights in playing the role--in aristocratic circles--of the unpolished small towner. These traits are evident only in his exterior, however, and in the appearances of the brilliant virtuoso--such as he now is. As a creative artist he is not yet conspicuous. He seeks greater profundity and systematic growth in solitude and introspectiveness.

In the manner with which he projects his own future and the discipline with which he subjects himself to his own plans, the passionate desire for construction, indispensable and essential for the art of the symphonist, is reflected. "Must it be? It must be!" is written later at the beginning of one of his quartets.

Now, in 1792, he commences strict studies in counterpoint and fugue under Albrechtsberger's supervision and completes his compositional education under Salieri and Haydn. He makes his living, a much admired pianist, by giving piano lessons. For several years he leads the life of an extrovert, giving concerts in Vienna and touring even Bohemia and Germany. He accepts an invitation to the court of Berlin where he receives a golden tobacco box from the King of Prussia and forms a friendship with Prince Louis Ferdinand, an excellent musician.

From this period derive works under Haydn's predominant influence. They are the beginning of the "first period". Here belong the Trios, op. 1-dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky--the piano sonatas dedicated to Haydn, and the first two cello sonatas, to name but the better known. Three other works, to be sure of differing value, contribute through their immediate success to making Beethoven a most famous personality and to consolidating his prestige: the Sonata for the piano, op. 13, the "Pathétique", the cantata "Adelaide" on lyrics by Matthisson, and a song whose title hints at a somewhat antiquated romanticism ≪Seufzer eines Ungeliebten≫ ("Sigh of One Not Loved"). In reality the ≪Seufzer≫ rushes things, for it is unlikely that at that time a serious love or grave disappointments disturb his life with tempestuous onslaught. A few years later Beethoven was to have experience, and thoroughly so, also in that respect.

However, now in 1800--Beethoven is doing famously in Vienna. The pianist whose improvisations never fail to make a great impression receives invitations to the finest salons and from the most prominent society. First vying for his presence in their palatial homes, these aristocrats are fully satisfied only when they have turned over the musical education of their families to this young musician.

Beethoven has every reason to be satisfied with the treatment these rich people of the world accord him despite his simple unpolished appearance and his Republican ideas and attitudes which scarcely make him a ≪natural≫ for such adulation. Prince Lichnowsky subscribes to 32 copies of the Trio, op. 1. Furthermore, every chamber music work from Beethoven's pen immediately upon completion is performed in this nobleman's palace where the excellent Schuppanzigh plays quartets with Zmeskall, the violinist Weiss, the cellists Kraft and Linke. In Prince Lobkowitz' palace Beethoven has the opportunity to hear his larger scores performed by an impressive orchestra whenever he wishes.

To hear, to hear . . .! The first shadows arise in this happy life with its future of rich perspectives and hopes. Since 1796 his hearing has begun to deteriorate. For a long time he keeps the secret of growing suffering to himself and reveals it only to his intimate friends, Amenda and Wegeler.

Vexed by torturing fear, he rushes from one specialist to another. But all these medical consultations, all these treatments prove failures: cold and lukewarm baths, oil injections, plaster follow in rapid succession and for a short time nourish the hope for convalescence. They fail to bring comfort, real and permanent. Despair overtakes him, he becomes unsociable, escapes the world, avoids even his greatest admirers, hoping to keep his infirmity which so oppresses him a secret.

And another trial begins to overpower this unhappy man who, on certain days, is already completely desperate: the first great love's sorrow. Of all salons (in which despite his fate he must show himself) he loves best that of the Countess Deym née Brunswick. Named "Pepi" in the circle of her friends, she is a pupil of Beethoven as is her older sister Therese. The ties which bind the musician to these sisters and their brother, Count Franz, are source of a solid friendship and mutual sympathies; but these ties were to precipitate him into a painful, unsuccessful romance. For the time being at least he is not in love with either the intelligent melancholy Therese nor her younger sister, but is irresistibly infatuated with one of their cousins who has come to Marton-Vásár, the Hungarian residence of the Brunswicks: she is the attractive young Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. Conscious of his significance as an artist adored by aristocrats, and deriving therefrom his right to dare everything, Beethoven--and never will we know if and to what degree his feelings were reciprocated--begins to dream of marriage and without qualm asks for the hand of the beautiful Countess.

Would he have been happy with this lovable but coquettish, superficial child? One doubts it. The rejection by her parents nevertheless is painful to him beyond belief and when, two years later, the young lady to whom Beethoven dedicates the "Moonlight" sonata marries the Count Gallenberg, the composer exclaims: "There are horrible periods in life which one must survive." Even after two years the wound is not completely healed.

Even more telling of the situation in which Beethoven is during this dark period, and more principally significant and grave, is the document generally known as the "Testament". It is written at the beginning of October 1802 in Heiligenstadt near Vienna. In this attractive hamlet he seeks the refuge befitting his melancholy and feeling of isolation. In the famous letter to his brothers Beethoven reveals his total hopelessness from the utmost consequences of which only his morality protects him.

However, just because of these gruesome experiences and as a result of his being so frequently torn between depression and brief moments of hope, Beethoven's artistry assumes its essential traits in the midst of struggle between sorrow and effort. The piano sonatas op. 26, op. 27, 1 and 2, op. 31, 2 and the piano violin sonata op. 47, the "Kreutzer" sonata--each in its own fashion distinctly bears the stamp of the torture from which the Titan suffers, and is a noteworthy document of his mental unrest.

While problems of various kinds thusly accumulate for Beethoven, Napoleon's victories bring French cannons to Vienna. In this agitated air of warfare Beethoven, whose Second Symphony had still exuded a certain optimism, undertakes the composition of his Third, the "Eroica". It is planned full of enthusiasm and admiration for the young Corsican conqueror, a much glorified, practically legendary figure. Yet Beethoven's enthusiasm is replaced with bitter disappointment when Bonaparte becomes Emperor Napoleon I. Now Beethoven can see in him but an ambitious genius--the man whom he had hopefully viewed as a hero of Roman Republican stature. In an attack of uncommon furor he abolishes the dedication of his "Eroica" to Bonaparte and hence this work is to have no other meaning than that of "celebrating the memory of a great man" (≪composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand'uomo≫). In 1821 when Beethoven hears of the death of the French Emperor on St. Helena, his final appraisal of the man is contained in that often-referred-to comment, I have composed the music suitable to this event seventeen years ago."

Curiously enough, the troubled war years which transform the environs of Vienna into an armored camp and during which the French (to whom Beethoven does not show friendliness) rattled sabers on the Prater coincide with the period in which Beethoven's feelings of love gain musical and dramatic expression in "Fidelio". This work which lays bare the master's innermost sentiments as few others do, is presented on the stage in November 1805 at the Theater an der Wien; it is the day after Austerlitz when it is heard by an audience consisting partly of French military personnel of occupation troops, we would say today.

In spite of the absence of truly dramatic qualities, the Bouilly libretto, following an authentic episode from the persecution period of the French Revolution, is a source of great satisfaction to Beethoven for it provides him with an opportunity to glorify marital love and fidelity.


AFTER the brief and modest success of his sole opera, Beethoven is absorbed, between 1805 and 1808, in working on his C minor Symphony, the Fifth; the two overtures "Leonore" (Nos. 2 and 3) for the opera "Fidelio", and the Fourth Piano Concerto (G major). In addition, the so-called "Appassionata", op. 57, a monumental piano sonata, is born as is the Fourth Symphony.

The latter, a symphony luminous and replete with happy moods, represents an obvious contrast to so many works preceding it, and which are darker and more austere, so that certain biographers recognize therein the strong dualism of the composer and point to it as a reflection of his amorous adventures having its source in his passionate love for Therese von Brunswick and in a secret engagement to her. Here we touch upon a problematical and controversial question the core of which lies in the mystery surrounding the letter to the "Immortal Beloved". Even if the engagement to Therese is probable--her own words would justify the assumption that they were affianced--it is also certain that their plans met with an opposition similar to that which several years before had suddenly ended the musician's romance with Therese's cousin, Giulietta Guicciardi.

Beethoven almost would have left Vienna. A concert of December 22, 1808 given under his own direction is a grave disappointment--the performance of the C minor Symphony, followed by the just completed "Pastorale" and, finally, by the Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra, another of his just completed works. The hall is badly heated, the soloists make mistakes, the ensemble performing the Fantasy practically falls apart. Finally when the latter work is repeated all goes wrong again and the entire affair turns out to be a catastrophe. The music lovers of Vienna walk out on him.

At that time, however, King Jerome of Westphalia, Napoleon's brother, makes a most attractive proposition, an annual salary of 600 gold ducats if Beethoven would move to Kassel and conduct several concerts there every season--whereas the remainder of the time would be at Beethoven's disposal for composing. At the instigation of a faithful friend, Countess Erdödy (who upon hearing of the offer alarms Beethoven's Viennese friends). three patrons unite; the Austrian capital is indebted to this triumvirate--she can retain one of the greatest geniuses she has ever given asylum. On March 1, 1809 Archduke Rudolf of Austria, Prince Ferdinand Kinsky and Prince Lobkowitz sign an agreement obligating themselves to the annual payment of 4000 florins to the master. Now Beethoven need not quit Vienna; at least for some years to come his financial situation is assured "in accordance with the personal needs of the composer". The result is an unhampered outpouring, and is particularly evident from 1809 to 1812. This is the period of the Fifth Piano Concerto, the overture and stage music to "Egmont", and especially of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies.

In addition to these orchestral works, the string quartets op. 74 and op. 95 must be mentioned as well as the piano sonata op. 78, so often underestimated, and the marvelous piano sonata op. 81 a, the last movement of which (≪Wiedersehen≫) spontaneously celebrates the return of the "beloved Archduke Rudolf to his dear Vienna". To him, Beethoven's treasured patron, U+226ALes Adieux≫ is dedicated.

Testimonies of close friends such as Wegeler and Zmeskall reveal that during this period Beethoven suddenly indulges in certain luxuries in his wardrobe and household, and they are first to be astounded by such new traits. The reason lies in the fact that now with fewer financial cares he again becomes involved in sentiments of the heart. Baron Gleichenstein, one of his friends, is about to become engaged to Anna Malfatti, a charming young woman. With her sister Therese Beethoven soon falls passionately in love. She is a lovable creature, to be sure, but superficial and irresponsible. The creator of the "Appassionata", to flatter her, goes as far as to walk her dog. Yet his submissiveness is futile. Therese Malfatti has set her mind on becoming a Baron's wife and Beethoven soon discovers her social ambitions.

Another romance has ended in tragedy. However, Beethoven makes acquaintance with other young ladies so as to heal, more or less, the wounds inflicted by this affair. Among these women the brilliant Bettina Brentano shines most conspicuously but at the same time ambiguously. A young woman of high intelligence she is youthful and yet mature, aggressive, educated, excessive in her passionateness, untiring in her ambitiousness. The role to which she appoints herself in Beethoven's and Goethe's lives leaves a peculiar impression, yet one can scarcely deny that this young woman who (before she married Achim von Arnim) made old Goethe's heart fly higher, was most stimulating for Beethoven. We know very little about the Teplitz meeting of the composer of the "Eroica" and the creator of "Faust". thing is certain, however: while Beethoven had profound admiration for the famous poet, Goethe, in matters musical following staunchly the ideas of his friend Zelter, regarded Beethoven as a genius, but at the same time as a radical. Beethoven's decisive independence and autonomous conduct displeased the poet. 1813 and 1814 are decisive years in European history: the edifice Napoleon's cannons had built becomes shaky in many sections and the nations he had subjugated one after the other are being liberated. The economic consequences of this general deterioration--the subsequent devaluation of monies--influence Beethoven's financial situation. Despite that fact, and notwithstanding the further decline of his health, the composer makes unselfish efforts to help relatives and friends who are in a situation worse than his own. The many aggravations cannot but hamper his musical productivity. In 1813 his output is relatively meager, and in 1814 he writes casual works such as "Wellington's Victory or the Battle of Vittoria", "Germania's Rebirth", and "The Glorious Moment". The latter work is written in honor of the Congress of Vienna which followed Napoleon's final breakdown. Beethoven's prominent patron Archduke Rudolf affords him the opportunity of meeting the rulers gathered in the Austrian capital. His official appearances and name add to the lustre of the Congress, which in turn heightens his fame but his significance is much more enhanced through the revival of "Fidelio" in a revised form that same year, 1814.


THE remaining twelve years before his death are lacking in important or exciting events. At forty-five, Beethoven, almost a prisoner, retires from the world due to his deafness, now nearly complete. His contact is confined to a few friends whose fidelity is not shaken by the composer's inconsistencies and capriciousness: Breuning, Schindler, Count Moritz Lichnowsky, Countess Erdödy and Archduke Rudolf (who, though remaining in the background, is nevertheless always ready to meet the obstacles of daily living). Beethoven's intellectual and musical energies are now wholly directed towards his inner life.

There is still no end to trials and tribulations! His brother, recently deceased, has left him the guardianship of an undisciplined nephew. The boy is annoyed by the extreme concern of a peculiar uncle and gives Beethoven continuous grave sorrow because of all sorts of stupid pranks. The results are numerous quarrels with an apparently incorrigible good-for-nothing, and then again the sorrow of painful disagreements with the boy's mother, his sister-in-law.

Even though Beethoven has reached the pinnacle of his fame, he nevertheless experiences so much misfortune that his misanthropic tendencies appear intensified. When the "Imperial Director of the Orchestra" passes away, Beethoven fails to succeed to the position and title for which he had hoped. The position remains unfilled.

Should such setbacks matter to one now in the midst of working on gigantic masterworks, the "Missa Solemnis" and the Ninth Symphony, to one who already has completed the two cello sonatas, op. 102, as well as the lofty piano sonatas, op. 101, 106 and 109?

At the same time one must not pass over lightly or ignore the deep financial distress now casting a shadow over the composer's fame. When the Ninth Symphony is performed, the executants, enthusiastic about the work, generously renounce rehearsal fees and say: "All for Beethoven!" Romain Rolland quotes the master as saying that he must give the impression of needing nothing despite his terrible poverty.

Certain satisfactions, however, fill him with pride, such as the cordial reception of the just published "Missa Solemnis" by all the courts of Europe. Louis XVIII, King of France, even adds some flattering remarks to the fifty ducats for a subscription plus a medal with his portrait and the inscription "The King to Monsieur Beethoven". In the three years after the publication of the Mass and the Ninth, he creates the astonishing "Diabelli Variations" and the five string quartets, perhaps the purest emotions expressed through music.


JUST as had Carl Maria von Weber (who died in London the day after an "Oberon" performance a year before) so Beethoven lived the last month of his life in relative relief from monetary concern--thanks to the generosity of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Towards the end of 1826 he stays in the environs of Vienna for several months. He becomes gravely ill. After terrible agonies he succumbs to a complicated pulmonary congestion--according to his physician--on March 26, 1827. It is the result of a cirrhosis of the liver. He passes on while Vienna experiences a sudden spring thunderstorm. Upon a friend of Schubert, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, falls the duty of closing Beethoven's eyes. What irony of fate that Beethoven's belongings, including his great treasure of manuscripts, are auctioned off by court decree! And the price? For 252 books of his music library plus the manuscripts 982 florins and 37 kreutzers were salvaged.