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The Beethoven Mystique

by Jeffrey Dane


BEETHOVEN'S very existence precipitated the creation of a historical petri dish in which the culture of The Composer grew and flourished.

"On a walk with my father we met a stocky old man with a long gray beard. My father took his hat off to him, and he did likewise to my father. 'That was Johannes Brahms,' my father said…. 'He has written beautiful music.' I turned around and looked after the man, who walked in a very dignified manner…." Thus wrote Freud's disciple Theodor Reik, who as a child was, even if only briefly, in the presence of Brahms himself.

Reik lived into the third quarter of the 20th century. Conceptually, there could now be some living centenarian whose grandfather could have known Beethoven, or at least been in his presence and spoken with him. This possibility increases the size and strength of the links in the chain that binds us to the world's history generally, to European history specifically and to German and Austrian musical history in particular. A pianist alive today who studied with Vianna Da Motta learned from one of Liszt's own pupils; Liszt studied with Carl Czerny, and Czerny knew Beethoven. Still, Beethoven's era is beyond the recall of any living person. Da Motta died in 1948, the last surviving pupil of Liszt (who as a youth had been taken by Czerny to play for Beethoven). The last survivor of those who personally knew Beethoven, Gerhard von Breuning, died in 1892.

We live in an era where some amazing things are often taken for granted. Reactions depend not only on individual upbringing and circumstances but also on locale. Differences in national outlooks do exist and what's significant in one country may have little impact in another. In the USA, the mention of George Washington's name, for example, will more often than not prompt only a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. This isn't so in Vienna when Beethoven's name is spoken, and where even now, incredibly, some remnants of his personality still remain - remnants as distinctive as the garments (i.e., remnants) he's known to have worn.

He left a deep mark. With several museums devoted to him, some of which contain his personal effects, there exist in and around Vienna more sites associated with Beethoven than with any other composer who graced the city. Despite the passing of seventeen decades, residual effects of his presence still exist in the city and outlying areas he frequented, such as Heiligenstadt, Baden, and Mödling (now suburbs of Vienna). Indicative of the regard in which he's still held there so long after his death is that the very mention of his name even today prompts a certain intangible but unmistakable posture, even from store-owners and postal clerks, which bespeaks a palpable degree of reverence. The atmosphere may be impossible to define and difficult to explain, but it's very easy to recognize.

To say Beethoven had an arresting personality would be understatement epitomized. That personality was as powerful as his piano-playing and just as unique in his day. A product of The Age of Enlightenment, he personified revolution. Through his free and frequently fierce nature, he wrenched music out of the 18th century and into the next. (Stravinsky performed a comparable historical service a century later). What Beethoven did makes him if not the last of the Classicists (Brahms might claim title) then arguably the first of the Romantics. His adventures in disregarding prescribed 18th-century stricture, structure, requirements and protocol marked his music and his daily life, and in both areas he achieved a virtually complete freedom of expression. He lived before his time in extra-musical ways, as well: some specialists now believe his deafness, at least in its early stages, might today be cured by a relatively simple operation.

What Mozart's nature was to Beethoven's is comparable to what Beethoven's early keyboard instruments were to his Broadwood and Graf pianos - and by extension, to what these instruments were to a modern Steinway and Bösendorfer. Figuratively, where Mozart knocked vainly at the door, Beethoven simply kicked it down, triumphantly marched right in, and defiantly made himself comfortable. (And Heaven help those who objected, be they paupers in poverty or princes in palaces).

A nature like his is today called insanity in the layman (invariably ignored), eccentricity in the wealthy (invariably encouraged), and artistic temperament in the composer (invariably accepted). His personal conduct could be very embarrassing. He was seen returning to a ballroom still buttoning up his trousers from a lavatory visit. Late in life he spoke of Napoleon, using very explicit language. He once threw a chair at a prince - very determined behavior, considering the nobleman was one of Beethoven's own patrons and was helping to support the composer financially. His usual disregard of conventional, external considerations often caused friction and conflict with everyone - neighbors, janitors, servants, friends, landlords, waiters, and aristocrats.

"The Court suits him too much. It is not becoming of a poet." - Beethoven, of his meeting with Goethe.

That Beethoven wasn't an ideal companion is a matter of record - yet there are some today who, if graced with a time-machine, might sacrifice a limb to spend even a day with him, or a year of life for the chance to hear him play his own music or especially to improvise. His genius separates him from us to the extent that the only things we may have in common with him are human form and a link to music. "His talent astonished me, but his is a totally untamed personality, and he is not entirely wrong in finding the world detestable, though this attitude does not make it more pleasant, either for himself or others … To think of teaching him would be an insolence even in one with greater insight than mine, for he has the guiding light of genius, whilst the rest of us sit in total darkness, scarcely suspecting the direction from which daylight will break upon us." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of his 4-day meeting with Beethoven in July, 1812. "The Court suits him too much. It is not becoming of a poet." - Beethoven, of his meeting with Goethe.

Beethoven was 42, Goethe 63, with the publication of the first part of Faust four years behind him. Of this meeting, the following vignette has come down to us. - As Beethoven and Goethe walked, some of the nobility passed with their entourage. Goethe politely stepped aside and bowed deferentially to the nobles - while Beethoven, in a typical gesture, strode almost defiantly right through their midst, with his hands behind his back and without acknowledging the presence of the nobles, who had no alternative but to give him clear passage. When Goethe asked Beethoven how he could so disrespectfully treat these nobles, the composer replied, again characteristically, "There are countless 'nobles', but only two of us."

In one's personal relations with him, an honest and direct approach was the only feasible one, as he could be extremely difficult to deal with on a face to face basis. His sense of morality was contradictory in the extreme. Abstractly - in his music - he loved the concept of humanity; practically - in daily life - he disliked most people, especially the aristocracy. "Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine," he wrote to a friend. He also wrote in his diary, "This I feel and deeply comprehend: Life is not the greatest of blessings, but guilt is the greatest evil." The words are Schiller's but the sentiment is Beethoven's.

Beethoven conducting, appr. 1820s. Lithograph by Michel Katzaroff.

Perhaps no-one in the entire history of music better exemplifies the image of The Absent-Minded Composer than does Beethoven. He would spit into a mirror, thinking it was an open space. He once entered a restaurant, spent hours at the table sketching, lost in thought, and then asked for his bill - without having ordered. When his clothes became impossibly shabby his friends crept into his dwelling one night and substituted new ones. Beethoven never noticed the difference when he dressed the next morning. His doctor called him "a confused guy."
Because of his notorious, momentary swings of mood one never knew what he'd be like at any given time, and a life riddled with misfortune, malady, and isolating deafness later on did nothing to improve his already volatile disposition. The only thing consistently predictable about Beethoven was his consistent unpredictability. He could be abrupt and unpleasant with friends. He could also be cordial and accommodating with a total stranger who might visit him unannounced, unexpected and uninvited. It must be remembered that just because he was so far above us in his art doesn't mean he had to be far above us in general daily virtue. In the right historical context, the reason is valid and clear. Like us, he had a full set of human weaknesses, and his personal frailties make him more, not less, of a human being.

The passage and changes of time yield transformations. According to old Alamo plans and maps, James Bowie's quarters in the Low Barracks, now long gone, were located near what is now part of the vest-pocket park facing the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. There's now no trace of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. The house at 25 Brook Street in London, where Handel lived for 36 years, wrote The Messiah in three weeks, and died in 1759 is only now being restored to its original appearance and will be the first composer museum in London. The Vienna building where Brahms lived for the last 26 years of his life was demolished (but at least ceremoniously) on April 3, 1907, exactly ten years after he died there. The areas surrounding Beethoven's residences in and around Vienna would be totally unrecognizable to him today.

Remainders and reminders of the great can affect and inspire the devoted. Behind otherwise ordinary objects are the revealing Beethoven stories with their anecdotal richness. Even daily accouterments, objects of no intrinsic value, are often considered sacred relics. An official document with only his signature brings a fortune at auction, and his major manuscripts are effectively priceless. The quills he wrote with, and a lock of his hair taken from his deathbed, are kept in a glass case in the Beethoven Memorial Rooms at Mölkerbastei 8 in Vienna. Also displayed is the original green door to the Schwarzspanierhaus flat where the composer died on March 26, 1827. Exhibited also is the door's original key-hole cover-plate: in the 1880s it was "taken as a souvenir" from the door of Beethoven's flat by a young musician named Gustav Mahler, who later returned it to the appropriate organization when he was Director of the Vienna Opera. It's because of their Beethoven association that these tangible but unanimate objects are so revered.

Beethoven's impact corresponds to the then-new and unprecedented early 19th- century views characterized by the Romantic era's perceptions of musical genius and historic greatness. It could apply to almost every composer who attained fame in life or after, but it seems to apply most to Beethoven: it was he who single-handedly changed the course of musical history in his era with the composition of the Eroica, a symphony as revolutionary in its day as was Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde six decades later. The concept of the supreme authority of a composer, and the conviction that his word was considered definitive, were some of the notions of history that evolved during that age. The image of the creative mind was then respected and in some cases even enhaloed, with The Composer and the aura that surrounded him an object of reverence, and his persona being seen by many as something bordering on divinity. This was the Romantic view - "romanticized" now but quite real then. The responsibility for the fostering and impetus of the 19th-century Romantic sentiment falls to Beethoven.

The intervening decades have only deepened his seemingly impenetrable mystique and character. He had a reputation, largely warranted, of being something of a malcontent. If his chronic complaining wasn't always justified it was certainly understandable, considering his physical and emotional difficulties. He was misanthropic, impatient, ruthless and rude with servants, suspicious and distrustful of friends, sometimes vulgar, and could be unethical in business dealings (having offered a piece to five different publishers and selling it to a sixth). Money matters often concerned him, though his grumbling in this regard wasn't totally merited. Beethoven wasn't an 18th- century Vanderbilt but he was far from a pauper - as indeed were most of the great (and even the not-so-great) composers. The image of The Starving Composer is largely a myth - often believed and traditionally accepted, but usually false, and although Beethoven first made his mark as a pianist (and especially as an improvisor), he ultimately found renown as a composer.

There can be balance without symmetry: he also had a noble character, a magnetic personality, was loyal to his art, and, tellingly, he had that elusive quality of charisma. He was all of these things, and more. The colorful nature of a divergent thinker precludes black & white judgements or descriptions. What matters most is his contribution, and that he enriched posterity with creations that outlived him and which will outlive us. When the violinist Radicati asked him about the "meaning" of the late quartets, Beethoven replied, "Oh, those are not for you, but for a later age."

One of his most extraordinary characteristics sets him apart from composers who preceded him (and from most who followed): his own perpetuation of his musical growth. Where most composers reach a plain of musical maturity, Beethoven continued his ascent throughout his life. He not only climbed a musical Matterhorn but he seems actually to have created and scaled entirely new peaks of his own.

Some of his late pieces, particularly his chamber works, were extremely demanding for listener and performer, and were called "...the musical mutterings of a deaf man." The ninth symphony was premiered after only two rehearsals and was played from manuscript, which makes us wonder how musically cohesive a performance it actually was. Beethoven's late piano and chamber works, respectively, may have defied both the performance-capabilities and the comprehension of all but the most astute musical minds of his day. Some of this music was beyond the scope of his contemporaries. It took time for these works to gain general acceptance, and it wasn't until half a century after Beethoven's death that his late quartets became "accessible." Beethoven's last works may have sounded strange and perhaps even tumultous to some listeners. An example is his Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) for string quartet, a piece described by Igor Stravinsky as, "an absolutely contemporary work which will be contemporary forever." In Beethoven's day, some of his later works were as difficult to perform (and, for some, even to listen to) as his wild handwriting is difficult to read.

Our ears are accustomed to 20th-century sounds we hear today, so Beethoven's music no longer seems new or "revolutionary" to most of us, and may now sound actually old-fashioned. This was not the case when his works first appeared, and some of his later music arguably belonged to the musical dawn of the world's next century. It's conceivable that had he lived longer and continued his musical growth, his last works, viewed in proper historical perspective, might have assumed characteristics approaching the avant-garde.

Nevertheless, on the musically informed listener Beethoven's late works now make an eloquent impression. If his music no longer answers our esthetic wants, it surely serves our esthetic needs.

When we deal with someone of historic tradition and folklore, it can be difficult going beyond simple documentation - even, or perhaps especially, when it's abundant. History isn't made or written solely on the basis of documents and official decisions. Anyone can report facts, but trying to pierce the armor and enter the sanctum of personality and character is another matter, particularly in Beethoven's case, where the plethora of data about him, much of it contradictory, renders the difficulties nearly horrendous.

Some, like Melville and van Gogh, became legendary posthumously. Others, like Beethoven, even before the era of mass media coverage, became musical and even cultural icons during their own lifetimes. He lived so long ago that the distance of time renders the contradictions and confusion about him almost impenetrable, and his reputation, even in his own day, precipitated the creation of a historical petri dish in which the Beethoven culture grew and flourished. He effectively became a kind of legend so early that the records are now congealed with invention, fiction and fantasy, creating nearly insurmountable obstacles to the human features behind the mystique, if not clogging access to the man altogether. In his book, Beethoven-Stätten in Österreich (Beethoven Towns in Austria), the historian and journalist Rudolf Klein says there is no documentary proof that Beethoven lived at Probusgasse 6 in Heiligenstadt, now revered as the House of the Heiligenstadt Testament. Klein says there exists only evidence and probability that the composer inhabited this particular dwelling, and that with continuing Beethoven research, accessible data forming specific Beethoven connections could be attributed to these existing houses only afterward. Klein acknowledges that perhaps even suitable legends might later have been realized around these dwellings, and that in the absence of incontrovertible documentation, he views the house on Probusgasse mainly as a symbolic memorial place.

Beethoven's "life-mask", made by Franz Klein in 1812, when the composer was 42 years old.

We admire those we can't emulate but would like to. We also tend to invest martyrs with heroism and heroes with martyrdom: those who left life prematurely, at whatever age, prompt the most intriguing conjectures. Beethoven's life, by turns humdrum and dramatic, and his untimely death exemplify this: posterity was robbed of treasures we can now only try to imagine - including the tenth symphony (sketches for which he actually made), and perhaps a Daguerreotype, if only he had lived even another fifteen years. Conjecture is fruitless but still fascinating. As the music with which he's linked now virtually symbolizes him, his name and the very concept of The Composer have become fused. His 57-year existence contributed as much to 19th- century legend as to the depiction or representation of historical fact. In his era, locale and circumstances, Beethoven was a man whose eloquence manifested itself in his work. If his letters and personal conduct don't reveal the astounding degree of awareness, observation and clarity of mind as do those of others like Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Brahms and Mahler, his music supplies the balance, and compensates what he may have lacked as a mortal in day to day life.

With lack of proof in some respects and conflicting accounts in others, it's a given we'll never have definitive resolutions to many unanswered Beethoven questions. In dispute even now is the identity of The Immortal Beloved, though Maynard Solomon makes an excellent case for her in his book, Beethoven (Schirmer, New York, 1977). Inquiries of ten different historians, researchers and scholars can net twelve different findings. We can be sure only that there is so much of which we'll never be sure.

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