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THE UNHAPPIEST OF GOD’S CREATURES
THE calendar may be a convention, but in the transition from one century to another there is something decisive that suggests crossing the Rubicon. Never was this more true than of the change from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century - a transition so marked that it might have been an isthmus between two worlds. Strangely - or perhaps not strangely, seeing how much Beethoven was an embodiment of his times - this transition synchronized with a great change in his own inner life.
Up to the end of the eighteenth century he had been the young man of genius, arrogant in his conscious power, riding his turbulent nature upon those winds of liberty, equality and fraternity that had blown away old classes and creeds in France, even if up to now his compositions had not been more than the beautiful consummations of eighteenth century ideals. Looking at him in 1799, Beethoven’s friends might well have felt that he had no anxieties and only success left to anticipate. Financially he was secure; Prince Lichnowsky had set aside a fixed sum of six hundred florins for him to draw against so long as he was without an official position worthy of him; his compositions brought him in a good income and more commissions than he could fulfil; his prestige as a solo pianist was at its zenith, and his wide circle of aristocratic patrons, pupils and intimate friends gave him the entrée to the best society in Vienna. His brother’s severe illness had had a happy issue; Beethoven’s own health, poor in the past, was now improving and even his ‘lacerated heart’ of six months earlier had recovered from the Demoiselle Willmann’s rejection.
Actually as 1799 passed into 1800 Beethoven crossed the Rubicon that sundered him for ever from his hoped-for career as a virtuoso, and divided his creative work from its ‘first period.’ Already for two years a horrible spectre had been lurking in his mind: the fear would not be beaten off; it was a disaster that advanced upon him as relentlessly as the Commandant’s statue on Don Giovanni, and he was as powerless to avert it. He, Beethoven, whose hearing had been to him his ‘noblest faculty,’ was becoming deaf. It was a hideous, an unthinkable catastrophe. At first it was slight and passed for absent-mindedness. By 1800 it had so increased that Beethoven avoided all social gatherings from the sick fear of detection. In the summer of 1801 Beethoven realized there was no likelihood of cure and saw that his career as a pianist was probably ruined. It was a mental agony all the fiercer that for the most part he suffered in a silence as proud as that of Prometheus towards his captors. Only to Amenda and Wegeler did he give a glimmering of his torment, and to them not for two years. Writing to Amenda on 1st June 1801, he says:
How often do I wish you were with me, for your Beethoven is living an unhappy life, quarrelling with nature and its Creator, often cursing the latter because He surrendered His creatures to the merest accident which sometimes broke or destroyed the most beautiful blossoms. Know that my noblest faculty, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated.
In this letter, in spite of his misery, the old haughty Beethoven still speaks; the Beethoven who refers to some of his friends as ‘instruments on which I play when I please.’
Yet all the time beneath this Lucifer-pride, a profound spiritual change was taking place. As his outer hearing failed, his inner hearing quickened. He felt that he had something for which he must live, even if he never played a note in public again. Where once in his music he had gone to poetry for an inspiration - above all to Klopstock and Shakespeare he now began to find direct access to those wellsprings of eternity to which only the greatest may come. Some stages of this tremendous struggle can be glimpsed in two letters to Wegeler, written later in this year. On 26th June 1801 he writes:
I can only say I am living a wretched life; for two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people: ‘I am deaf.’ If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is an awful state, the more since my enemies, who are not a few - what would they say? ... I have often cursed my existence; Plutarch taught me resignation. If possible, I will bid defiance to my fate, although there will be moments in my life when I shall be the unhappiest of God’s creatures. I beg of you to say nothing of my condition to anybody, not even to Lorchen. [Lorchen is Eleonore von Breuning, who became the wife of Dr Wegeler in March 1802.] ... I live only in my notes, and when one composition is scarcely ended, another is already begun. As I compose at present, I frequently work on three or four compositions at the same time.
Then on 16th November Beethoven wrote again to Wegeler:
I am living more pleasantly since I live more amongst men. You will scarcely believe how lonely and sad my life was for two years; my bad hearing hunted me everywhere like a ghost, and I fled from mankind and seemed like a misanthrope, though far from being one. This change has been wrought by a dear, fascinating girl who loves me and whom I love. There have been a few blessed moments within the last two years and it is the first time that I felt that marriage might bring me happiness. Alas! she is not of my station - and now - it would be impossible for me to marry .... If it were not for my deafness, I should before now have travelled over half the world, and that I must do. ... Do not believe that I would be happy with you. What is there that could make me happier? Even your care would give me pain. I would see pity on your faces every minute and be only the unhappier. ... Oh, if I were rid of this affliction, I could embrace the world! [‘I could embrace the world.’ Note the connection of idea with the lines, ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen in the ninth Symphony.] I felt that my youth is just beginning and have I not always been ill? My physical strength has for a short time past been steadily growing more than ever and also my mental powers. Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe. It is only in this that your Beethoven can live. Tell me nothing of rest. ... Grant me but half freedom from my affliction and then - as a complete, ripe man I shall return to you and renew the old feelings of friendship. You must see me as happy as it is possible to be here below - not unhappy. No! I cannot endure it. I will take Fate by the throat, it shall not wholly overcome me. Oh! it is so beautiful to live - to live a thousand times.
‘So beautiful to live.’ When Beethoven cries out those words, one hears the same cry echoing from a century later when a poet puts it into the mouth of a woman. ‘Why, Life is sweet,’ says Pervaneh in Flecker’s Hassan, and says it even beyond death, because she loves. Beethoven loved too with an idealism, a ‘star-born passion,’ that made it seem immortal while it lasted.
Beethoven gave no name to his lady. We have none for her now, but the probabilities point to a fascinating girl of seventeen, Giulietta Guicciardi, noble in birth, a cousin of the young Countesses Josephine and Therese von Brunswick, who were already Beethoven’s pupils. Giulietta took lessons from him too. Though the last to come, she was the first in this lovely trilogy to capture his heart. Like Shakespeare’s Juliet she kindled as swiftly to romance as she roused it in others; she may even have been the heroine of Beethoven’s famous love-letters, though the balance of evidence seems to place them six years farther on in his life. A possible claim can be made for Giulietta. The fact that Beethoven had originally dedicated the Rondo in G to her (was the initial intentional?), and then took it back to give to Countess Lichnowsky, giving Giulietta instead the so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, proves nothing either way. He might even have felt the sonata more appropriate than the rondo if Thayer’s contention is correct that the sonata was founded on Seume’s poem Die Betterin, in which a young girl kneels in prayer before the high altar. Giulietta, being a minx, must have seemed the incarnation of artlessness! Again, though Beethoven’s string Quartet in F major, Op. 18, is said to have been finished in its original form by the end of June 1799 (a date at which Giulietta may not yet have come to Vienna), it is at least worth remembering that Beethoven told Amenda the slow movement was founded upon the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet. Giulietta=Juliet?
Whatever the course of Beethoven’s love affair, during the winter of 1801 and the summer of 1802 fresh hope seems to have come to him. He changed his physician. The new one, Dr. Schmitt, ordered him to spare his hearing by living in country retirement at Heiligenstadt. It was then a charming village outside Vienna, with a view across meadows to the Danube and the far Carpathians. There Beethoven went into physical retreat while his spirit roamed into some of the happiest, brightest works of his life - perhaps as a refuge from hard, material realities. But the summer brought no improvement, and hope died within him. Also, a fresh blow. Giulietta’s marriage to Count Gallenberg a man in her own rank, was finally arranged. Given such a girl as Giulietta, nothing else could have been expected, but her behaviour hurt Beethoven bitterly. It was one more stone in a load of sorrow that brought him down near to the grave this autumn. Whether he was so ill that he anticipated death, or whether he had not altogether mastered the temptation to suicide, no one will ever know; but on 6th October he wrote the ‘Heiligenstadt Will’ - a document designed for his brothers in what he felt to be the near event of his death. Every sentence vibrates with profound feeling.
O ye men [he says] who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me - you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feeling of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady. ... My misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreation in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society, I must live like an exile ...
and so on, sentence after sentence showing the utter humiliation of his proud spirit and then - like the wonderful change into C major in the Funeral March of his own Eroica Symphony - Beethoven goes on:
I would have put an end to my life, only art it was that withheld me. Ah! it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence. ... Patience, it is said, I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable Parcae to break the thread; perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not. I am prepared. Forced already in my twenty-eighth year to become a philosopher, oh, it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for any one else. Divine One, Thou lookest into my inmost soul, Thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein.
After some direct charges to his brothers, Beethoven continues:
It is my wish that your lives may be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children; it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience; it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life by suicide. Farewell and love each other ... with joy I hasten towards death - If it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities, it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate, and I shall probably wish that it had come later - but even then I am satisfied. Will it not free me from a state of endless suffering?
Four days later Beethoven, on the verge of leaving Heiligenstadt for Vienna, added the most heartbroken cry as postscript:
Heilgenstadt, 10th October 1802, thus do I take my farewell of thee - and indeed sadly - yes, that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered, so hope has been blighted; almost as I came - I go away - even the high courage which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer - has disappeared. O Providence grant me at last but one day of pure joy - it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart. O where O when, O Divine One - shall I feel it again in the temple of nature and of men - Never? No - O that would be too hard.
The disaster was as complete as any in a Greek tragedy, and if biographers are right who believe that Beethoven’s deafness resulted from a syphilitic trouble, then it also fulfilled the Greek doctrine of Nemesis. But there was in Beethoven something that transcended the ethics of Aeschylus and Sophocles - something that set him beside blind Homer and Virgil, whose high thoughts caught and reflected ‘the radiance of some mysterious and unrisen day.’ Like them, he could pass through tragedy to the greater knowledge beyond, where birth and death, joy and sorrow, are but different sides of the same golden coin of life minted by God in eternity.
Beethoven had walked the meadows of Heiligenstadt, and his mind had roamed the Elysian fields of music before he passed into the crisis of his black sorrow. It was a veritable going down into the valley of the shadow of death. But just before the path had gone down, he had seen, as sometimes happens in mountain regions, across the near gulf and intervening ranges, a radiant vision of distant mountains on the horizon - he had seen Joy. He has left us that vision in the passages of his D major Symphony which prefigure the choral Symphony that was to come. He saw that vision because ‘he always held his head high even when in pain,’ as one of his biographers said of him.
Beethoven had entered the nineteenth century as the composer of the Symphony in C major. Toward the end of 1800 he had composed a ballet which must be considered in relation to his symphonic work, though few biographers have noticed all that is implied by The Men (or the Creations) of Prometheus In it, as in his oratorio, Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Beethoven occupied himself with the theme of a beneficent saviour of mankind. Prometheus was a turning-point in his career. His old style no longer contented him. Conventional religion Beethoven had none, but his mind was beginning to search into the deepest mysteries of the universe at the same time that he recognized the mission within himself which he must fulfil. The musician must be the liberator of mankind from sorrow. In those last weeks at Heiligenstadt Beethoven was brought down to the lowest point of his sorrow. It is in darkness, not daylight, that the stars are seen. In his blackest trouble Beethoven learned how to look straight into the face of God. The struggles, though now being fought upon an ascending plane, were not quickly over. Beethoven returned to Vienna for the winter and took up work with a rough energy and knock-about humour in which there was no happiness. Yet inwardly he must have known tremendous flashes of exaltation, for one of his grandest works, the Eroica Symphony, was now coming into being.
On 5th April 1803 Beethoven organized a concert of his own compositions at the Theater an der Wien. The programme contained the first and second Symphonies, the piano Concerto in C minor (soloist Beethoven) and the first performance of the oratorio Christus am Olberge. The rehearsal was a penance. It began at 8 a.m., by 2.30 every one was exhausted and angry. But for dear, kind Prince Lichnowsky (whom one grows to love as one sees him quietly watching over Beethoven like an undemanding providence) the day would have been a fiasco. He it was who thoughtfully provided baskets of bread and butter, meat and wine, fed the hungry men and persuaded them to try again. Even then the oratorio had not a great success. For once the crowd instinct was right: Beethoven had misjudged his style, as he himself admitted later. His treatment of the music for Christ was, he said, too modern; in other words, too secular and dramatic.
Whether the offer Beethoven received from Schikaneder (Mozart’s old impresario) to compose an opera preceded or followed the debut of the oratorio is not quite clear, but - funny as it seems - an idea got about that Beethoven would make a good operatic composer, because his oratorio had been too theatrical. However, the project fell through for the time, and Beethoven spent the summer at Baden and Unter-Döbling, hard at work on the Eroica Symphony. The first suggestion of a symphony on Napoleon had come from Bernadotte in 1798, while Napoleon was still First Consul. Beethoven admired him then, likening him to the great Roman consul. Now he fused this ideal with his own belief in the musician as hero and benefactor of mankind. The result was a symphony of such importance that its discussion must be deferred till later, though one may note here that in it life was raised to a splendour and power hitherto unknown in music, and that the Eroica remained Beethoven’s own favourite symphony even after the stupendous fifth and seventh had blazed out in their glory. But the Eroica did not please on a first hearing; it was too new, strange, difficult and original in its effects, said the critics. The faithful elect of wealthy amateurs stood by it, though. To his eternal honour Prince Lobkowitz bought the rights of performance not for one year - as was usual - but for several, and when Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia paid him a visit he entertained him with a performance.
The prince listened to it with tense attention which grew with every moment. At the close he proved his admiration by requesting the favour of an immediate repetition; and, after an hour’s pause, as his stay was too limited to admit of another concert, a second. The impression made by the music was general, and its lofty contents were now recognized.
Lucky Louis Ferdinand!
This was apparently in 1804, a year in which Stephan von Breuning and Beethoven decided in May to share lodgings. Beethoven was already in an overstrung condition when the news was brought in by his pupil Ries, that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor. A copy of the full score of the Eroica was on the table. Beethoven flashed up in anger, crying out:
‘Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his own ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!’ (Which is exactly what did happen.) ‘Beethoven,’ continues Ries, ‘went to the table, took hold of the title-page by the top’ - it contained the names ‘Buonaparte’ at the head and ‘Luigi van Beethoven’ at the foot - ‘tore it in two and threw it on the floor thus sundering himself from Bonaparte for ever.
Anger always made Beethoven ill. He fell seriously ill now. Breuning nursed him devotedly. When after weeks the strain abated, both were so unstrung that one day early in July they quarrelled violently, and Beethoven departed to Baden and Döbling. In this affair Breuning, not Beethoven, came out as the hero, for he uttered no reproaches, though Beethoven must have been an appalling patient. One can see it from what Breuning said - and did not say - in his letter to Dr. Wegeler on 13th November:
He who has been my friend from youth is often largely to blame that I am compelled to neglect the absent ones. You cannot conceive, my dear Wegeler, what an indescribable, I might say, fearful effect the gradual loss of hearing has had upon him. Think of the feeling of being unhappy in one of such violent temperament in addition reservedness, mistrust, often towards his best friends in many things want of decision. For the greatest part, with only an occasional exception when he gives free vent to his feelings on the spur of the moment, intercourse with him is a real exertion, at which one can hardly trust to oneself. Worry and the care of him tried me rather severely. Now he is completely well again.
The quarrel was typical of the worst in Beethoven; the reconciliation was typical of the best. He was great enough to recognize he could have been wrong, and noble enough to humble himself to an apology. Some biographers think he blamed himself overmuch at times, but he knew better than they the depth of the hurt he had to heal. Beethoven hardly ever lost a friend.
It can also be said there was hardly ever a time when he was not in love. The bright star of this year was the Countess Josephine von Deym, who has already been mentioned as the sister of Therese von Brunswick and cousin of Giulietta Guicciardi. Josephine had been married against her will while yet in her teens, to a man twice her age. At the end of 1803 he died, leaving her, an exquisite young widow, with four children, fragile health and financial worries, with which she was quite unable to deal. In the first months of her widowhood, Therese (who loved Josephine passionately) came to her and tried to help her in the care of the children, and the summer of 1804 was spent in the country. By accident or design Beethoven took up his quarters nearby, and saw much of the charming, exotic Josephine. No one now can tell certainly the thoughts of their hearts, but reading the facts from a woman’s point of view, it would seem that Beethoven was the real cause of the tension which developed between Therese and Josephine. Both were powerfully attracted to Beethoven; he in return was attracted by the sisters, though Josephine (more accomplished in matters of charm and finesse) held first place. Therese meanwhile had the double pain of feeling herself supplanted in Josephine’s love by Beethoven, and in Beethoven’s by Josephine. Things came to a breaking-point in this summer of 1804.
I still feel all the bitterness, the pain and the despair that took possession of me [wrote Therese] when after several attempts [to live together] she told me for the last time that she could not keep me with her, that I dragged her down, that I hindered her from advancing and that, in her sick state, with four children to look after, it was impossible for her to have the influence on me that she would have liked. ... I went away, and thought I was separated from her for ever.
Josephine knew Therese was a formidable rival.
Therese, cast out from Josephine and Beethoven’s little world of two, flung herself into a love affair with a young officer, ‘Toni,’ whose admiration and courtship apparently offered some balm to her miserable heart. From November 1804 she carried on a passionate correspondence with Toni. But her family disapproved of the match; a year later he was killed, and all that was left Therese was to write a fierce cry for vengeance on his slayers, the French. It did not ring quite true.
Meantime the summer of 1804 wore into autumn and the friendship between Josephine and Beethoven intensified. With winter it reached a bright glow. Through the correspondence between Therese and Charlotte (a younger sister) one can watch the successive stages. ‘Beethoven is extraordinarily amiable; he comes every day and stays with Pepi [Josephine] for hours,’ writes Charlotte on 20th November. A month later she thinks: ‘This is becoming a little dangerous. ... Beethoven is here almost every day.’ In January poor Therese writes asking: ‘But tell me, what is going to happen with Pepi and Beethoven. She must look out.’
The Brunswick family, though devoted to Beethoven as a friend, had no intention of allowing him to become Josephine’s husband; they were of the nobility, he of the people, and Therese had her own reasons for wishing the affair ended. Interference - and possibly a recognition by Josephine of the untamed and untamable nature of Beethoven - cooled their intercourse into something near an estrangement. Neither of them suffered permanently. Only poor Therese reproached herself years afterwards and wrote in her journal (1847): ‘Beethoven ... he who was so very like her in spirit! ... Josephine’s friend in house and heart! They were born for each other, and had they been united, they would have been living now.
Did Beethoven love Josephine greatly?
Certainly some of his most beautiful works belong to the period when Josephine was his confidante before all others. Early in 1804 he had been commissioned by Schikaneder to compose an opera for the Theater an der Wien. He chose for his libretto the theme of a wife’s courage and constancy and her husband’s rescue from death. It was a heroic story; the only one that ever really pleased him for an opera, his sturdy morals revolting from such plots as served Mozart in Don Giovanni and Figaro. Beethoven’s opera was called Fidelio. Some writers have suggested Josephine as the model for its heroine, Leonora. If she was, then all I can say is that a woman who had not the gift to accept Beethoven or to refuse him could never have been a Leonora. Yet she warmed his imagination. Indeed he was never nearer writing true love music than in these years of the composition of Fidelio with its three overtures to Leonora; the Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 (the Appassionata); and the fourth Symphony in B flat major.
Work on Fidelio was extraordinarily exacting - even for that terrific worker Beethoven - and occupied him over two years. The first performance of the opera took place on 20th November 1805. It was an ironic circumstance that, Fidelio having been founded on a true incident in France under the Terror (transferred to Spain for diplomacy), French soldiers should have formed the major part of the audience at its first performance. Those French armies which always seemed marching into Beethoven’s life, had just besieged and occupied Vienna. Bonaparte was at Schönbrunn, Murat in the palace of the Archduke Albert, General Hulin in that of Prince Lobkowitz.
Between the inherent faults of the libretto, the difficulties of Beethoven’s music, the dramatic defects of the work, and the general dislocation caused by the French occupation, Fidelio was a failure. After three performances it was withdrawn.
Strenuous efforts were made by Beethoven’s friends to get the defects remedied and Fidelio performed again. After a terrible evening at Prince Lichnowsky’s, when the prince, princess and a select group of experts battled with Beethoven from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. to persuade him to certain alterations, he gave in to their views, and Breuning was allowed to revise the libretto. ‘Though the friends of Beethoven were fully prepared for the impending battle, they had never seen him in that excitement before says one of them. Imagination fairly trembles at the scene.
In spite of the improvements, and in spite of a new overture (Leonora No. 3), Fidelio had no real success when given again in the spring of 1806. Cabals sprang up and the hoped-for performances, on which Beethoven depended for his honorarium, stopped short at two.
‘Nothing, perhaps, has caused Beethoven so much vexation as this work, the value of which will be appreciated only in the future,’ wrote Breuning to the Wegelers. ... ‘He will recover from the set-back all the more slowly since the treatment which he has received has robbed him of a great deal of the pleasure in and love for the work.’
Beethoven himself called Fidelio his ‘crown of martyrdom.’ Yet, true to the law of parenthood, by which what has been suffered for in the attaining is loved, he loved Fidelio to the end of his life.