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BEETHOVEN THE MAN
‘You make upon me the impression of a man who has several heads, several hearts and several souls,’ said Haydn when Beethoven once asked him for a criticism of himself and his work.
That is a shrewd summing-up of Beethoven’s nature and genius. In a lesser man these multiple elements would have split into the fragments of insanity: with Beethoven they were synthesized into a magnificently unified mind - a mind at peace with itself upon the heights.
A writer who should in words describe Beethoven as fully and truly as Beethoven in music depicted Napoleon, hero and symbol of glorious Liberty, would himself first have to be a Beethoven - and Beethoven was unique! To achieve a description faithful so far as it goes seems almost impossibly hard.
First impressions of a man are usually received from his appearance. Posterity has not been well served in this respect. The painters, etchers, sketchers and sculptors who ‘took Beethoven’s likeness’ were a poor set, without a spark of that vital intuition which made Houdon’s bust of Gluck incomparable. Klein’s bust of Beethoven cannot be named in the same breath. The life-mask (1812) which probably served as Klein’s starting-point is technically mechanical and unfaithful, because the weight of wet plaster slightly depressed the softer parts of the face and gave undue prominence to the bones. The death-mask, heart-rendingly expressive though it is, shows Beethoven after the doctors had finished their ghoulish post-mortem examination to discover - among other things - why his brain was so musical and his ears were so deaf. Of portraits on the flat the eminent authorities Th. von Frimmel and the late W. Barclay Squire agree that among early pictures the engraving by J. Neidl from a drawing by Stainhauser (1801), a miniature by C. Horneman (1803) and a painting by W. J. Mahler (1804 or 1805) are the best, while among the later ones they single out Ferdinand Schimon’s painting (1818 or 1819), quietly made while Beethoven was at work on the Credo of the Missa Solemnis, also J. C. Stieler’s portrait of Beethoven holding that work (1820) and J. P. Lyser’s little sketches of later date, showing how Beethoven ‘used to leap and run rather than walk about the streets of Vienna.’ The chalk drawing by Aug. von Klöber (dating perhaps from 1818) is also held in some esteem.
Aided by these representations, and by a number of written descriptions that have come down to us, it is possible to arrive at some idea of Beethoven’s appearance.
He was, then, not more than five feet five inches in height - broadly made, vigorous, muscular, very quick in his movements (therefore impatient of slowness in others) - with a fine torso hidden away beneath his carelessly worn clothes. That fine torso indeed looks like having been the raison d’être for a modern statue by Max Klinger, which continental critics admire, but which to the uneducated English sense of humour almost inevitably suggests Beethoven sitting with a towel over his legs while he reasons earnestly with an eagle to persuade it to let him get into his bath. The towel tactfully conceals the fact that in life Beethoven’s legs were short in proportion to his body. His hands were broad and red, with short fingers and bitten nails, hands ineffably clumsy in the commonplaces of existence such as food, dressing, trinkets, crockery, glass. But on the keyboard these clumsy hands were divinely different - capable of producing a cantabile tone that moved people to tears by its beauty.
Beethoven’s head was large, his forehead (perhaps his sole handsome feature) broad and noble. A story goes that at some party a lady exclaimed: ‘What a noble brow he has!’ to which Beethoven promptly replied: ‘Salute it then, madam,’ and offered it her to kiss. (No doubt she was pretty!)
His nose was ‘square (viereckig - four-cornered) like that of a lion.’ In that simile the observer has left us a marvellous impression of Beethoven’s strength and sensitivity. The mouth too was broad, strong, sensitive, with a slightly protruding lower lip and a chin divided by a deep cleft that became more conspicuous as he grew older. His teeth were even and white. His hair, very dark and black, turned steel-grey in 1816; it stood out straight in tumbled masses, not because of coarseness - on the contrary it was very fine but probably because of some extra charge of electricity in his constitution. At the time of his death his hair had turned white, just as his complexion, swarthy in youth, red in middle age, became a sickly brown in his last months. Like Gluck, Haydn and Mozart, he had suffered from smallpox and showed the marks on his skin.
Those eyes of his - what can one say that will give an idea of their terrifying power? Even across a century they excite and frighten. Black eyes, said one observer; bluish-grey, said another; brown, thought a third. Myself, I think that, like those of some other men with a dash of genius, they literally changed colour with their owner’s changing emotions. Probably the foundation colour was a sort of flecked hazel-grey, though M. Rolland hazards blue-grey as the real colour. Under strong feeling such eyes might easily look black; indeed, Beethoven’s eyes did dilate in an extraordinary way when in a raptus; yet in moods of contentment they might just as well seem bluish-grey with the iris calm and clear. In any case they were short-sighted and Beethoven wore glasses till about 1817, when his sight lengthened. Were they beautiful eyes? Dr. Muller (1820) said yes: ‘Beautiful, speaking eyes, sometimes gracious and tender, sometimes roving, menacing and terrible.’ But in anger they must have kindled to such glinting sparks of fury as might scatter from a devil’s eyes. In later life their habitual expression was stern, with an upward gaze - ‘nach oben’ - which Klöber tried to reproduce in his portrait. It was typical of the opposites in his character that he was careful or careless of his appearance with equal equanimity. As a schoolboy he had been negligent, with no distaste for dirt. On settling in Vienna he turned over a new leaf, dressed carefully, bought black silk stockings, took dancing lessons, sported a cravat made for him by Eleonore von Breuning and wrote (November 1793) begging her to give him ‘a waistcoat knit of hare’s wool by your hands, my dear friend. Pardon the immodest request, my dear friend, but it proceeds from a great predilection for everything that comes from your hands.’
For a number of years he remained reasonably careful of his appearance or perhaps it is truer to say he went through regular phases of carelessness when he was at work on some great composition, and carefulness when he was not. Every morning he had a wash all over. When very absorbed in thought, he continued pouring water over his hands for ages (so nice for the ceilings below!), and also at times in the heat of composing he would empty a jug of cold water over his head, a very Beethovenish version of the proverbial wet towel. Shaving was a comprehensive business; he had to shave almost up to his eyes. Apropos of this his pupil Ries told an absurd story, which Thayer quotes. Ries had just returned from a prolonged visit to Silesia and went to see Beethoven. The master ‘was just about to shave, and had lathered himself up to the eyes ... he jumped up, embraced me cordially and, behold! he had transferred the soap from his left cheek to my right so completely that there was nothing left of it on him. Didn’t we laugh!’
One usually reads of Beethoven in his later years as wearing light trousers and an old blue or green coat, with a low top-hat crammed on to the back of his head. He had a best coat of fine brown cloth though, with mother-of-pearl buttons. In his last years everything, even clothes, somehow gets tied up in the tangle of grotesque comedy and heartrending pathos that constituted his contact with the world. I feel as if I could cry when I read Beethoven’s letter to Karl: ‘I should have gone on with the walking coat for two years. True, I have the bad habit of always wearing an old coat at home, but Mr. Karl - oh, what a shame! And why? the money-bag, Mr. L. v. B-n is here only for the purpose.’ Yet when Karl had needed clothes, Beethoven had written sending money, telling his ‘dear son’ that ‘the upper or lower sample for twenty-one florins seems to me the best ... however, for the sake of one florin (per ell) it is wiser to have the best. Choose yourself, or let anybody else choose between the two at twenty-one florins, but it must be the best.’ Generous Beethoven, who went shabby himself!
In speech Beethoven’s voice was loud and harsh, with the lack of modulation often noticeable in the wholly deaf; his singing voice was raucous; his laughter loud, with something almost frightening about it. Some observers say that from his face it was impossible to judge what he felt. Much of his own knowledge of the world was gleaned through his eyes, for after he could no longer hear what people said, their questions had to be written down in the book he carried for this purpose. Usually he spoke his answers, but sometimes he wrote them down, so that these conversation books became an extraordinarily valuable record of his daily life. Nothing brings home to one more pitifully than these books the isolation in which Beethoven passed over a quarter of a century - unless indeed it be the entries which he made for no eyes but his own, since his deafness denied him the solace of human sympathy tenderly spoken in free intercourse.
‘God help me, Thou seest me abandoned by all men, for I do not wish to wrong, hear my supplication, only for the future to be with my Karl, since the possibility shows itself nowhere, oh, harsh fate, oh, cruel testimony, no, no, my unhappy condition will never end.’
Beethoven’s handwriting is not easy to read, but it conveys an overwhelming impression of his personality. As a young Hungarian girl once said: ‘Beethoven’s handwriting is like an elemental force.’ That is true, his letters have lines and curves such as Michelangelo might have traced. But in Beethoven’s musical manuscripts the writing is still more a revelation of himself, because it changes with the developments of his genius. One may follow these changes through the manuscripts preserved in the Beethovenhaus at Bonn. In early manhood the general character of the writing is bold, legible, orderly and distinctive. Later, in the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the tremendous urgency of the inspiration is reflected in the manuscript; the notes look as if driven forward on to the paper by a whirlwind. In the last period the writing is less complete in the formation of the signs but infinitely grander in their suggestions; there is something about it hard to express except by the word apocalyptic.
Beethoven had a desultory education, and he was no mathematician, but he knew French, Latin and Italian & Italian after a fashion, while the range of his interests, and the quality of mind he brought to bear on them, rightly placed him beside the great intellectuals in an age when intellect was functioning at its keenest. He was acquainted with Persian, Egyptian and Hindu philosophy. A quarter of a century after his death Giulietta Guicciardi, when speaking to Thayer, specially recalled Beethoven’s nobility, refined feeling and culture. That would be easily believed from the books in his library, even were they the sole testimony that remained to us. They included Kant’s Theory of the Heavens, the Bible in French and Latin, the Apocrypha, La Fontaine’s Fables, Thomas à Kempis, Goethe, Schiller’s and Klopstock’s complete works, Shakespeare’s plays, Plutarch’s Lives, Cicero’s Epistola, also twenty volumes of Campe’s Tales for Children, an entry which gives one an odd lump in the throat, because Beethoven must have got them for Karl. The classical authors were those whom Beethoven knew and loved when a boy. As a young man he had first learned resignation from Plutarch in the stormy crises of his life; when death approached he turned again to the classics he loved so well. Little Gerhard von Breuning, Stephan’s son, running in and out of Beethoven’s sick-room, knew this and brought his school-book with pictures of classical antiquities because he thought it might please the dying man. It did. What a charming boy! Beethoven called him Trouser Button, because he clung so to him, and Gerhard with his eager heart gave Beethoven an affection such as Karl had never felt. If Gerhard had been Karl ...
Poetry was indissolubly woven into the nature of Beethoven’s musical thought, and one can hardly separate the two. He read poetry constantly. In his earlier days Klopstock’s poems were his delight; later Goethe and Schiller, with Ossian and Homer were his favourites. He told Rochlitz: ‘He [Goethe] has killed Klopstock for me. Aha! You smile that I should have read Klopstock! I gave myself up to him many years - when I took my walks and at other times. Ah well! I did not always understand him. He is so restless; and he always begins too far away, from on high down; always maestoso, D flat major! ... But why should he always want to die? That will come soon enough. ... But Goethe - he lives and wants us all to live with him. That is the reason he can be composed. Nobody else can be so easily composed as he.’
Beethoven was a man of intense vitality. He should have been a healthy one. Yet while his work went on from strength to strength his physical health was seldom good and failed lamentably in the last years. No doubt it was partly his own fault, for though abstemious by the code of the day (he ‘only’ drank one bottle of wine at a meal!), he still took more than was wise for him with his family history. In the same way, though frugal over food (fish being the delicacy he most liked), he took his meals so irregularly that one imagines he was chronically over or under fed. Worst of all were the medicines he swallowed. The Austrian doctors prescribed ‘cures’ of a kind more likely to kill according to modern ideas. One gets a glimpse into such affairs from a letter Beethoven wrote to the Countess Erdödy. It is dated Heiligenstadt, 16th June 1817.
MY HONOURED, SUFFERING FRIEND! MOST WORTHY COUNTESS, - I have been worried all along, am too much loaded with cares, and since 6th October 1816 I have been constantly ill; moreover, on 15th October I caught a very severe cold which forced me to keep my bed for a long time, and many months passed before I could venture to go out, even a little. I still feel the effects from it. I changed doctors, as mine, a crafty Italian, had such strong, underhand designs on me and lacked both honesty and intelligence. This was in April 1817. I had now from 15th April to 4th May to take every day six powders, six cups of tea; this lasted up to 4th May; after that, I received again some kind of powder which I had to take six times a day, and I had to rub myself with a volatile ointment. Then I journeyed here, where I am taking the baths. Since yesterday I have received a new medicine, namely, a tincture of which I have to take twelve spoonfuls a day. Every day I hope that the end of this wretched state of things has come; although I feel somewhat better, it seems that it will be a long time before I am quite restored to health.
Of his last illness the medical details are so melancholy that one fairly moans over them. He suffered as much from the treatments as the maladies. In the first month alone he was made to swallow seventy-five bottles of physic, without counting powders. ... Left to himself, Beethoven’s own ideas of hygiene were often sensible. In the matter of lodgings, he insisted that the rooms must be light and airy, not over-looked, with a pleasant view and within easy reach of the country. Most careful. Anyone who knows Vienna knows that rooms looking into an inner courtyard are less healthy. Where the careless side of Beethoven’s nature showed was in recklessly renting several lodgings at the same time. If he liked the rooms, furnishing them was a secondary affair. His bed was of military hardness. Practically all accounts agree on the poverty and scarcity of his furniture and on the frightful confusion of manuscripts, old meals, old clothes, old anything else, layers of dust, and floor with many places wet. To visit him was an adventure.
Major-General Kyd discovered that when Dr. Bertolini, at Kyd’s urgent request, took him to call on Beethoven in September 1816. They found the great man shaving; he looked frightful, his face disfigured by razor cuts, bits of paper and soap. The major-general sat down; the chair immediately crashed under him. (No doubt it had seen service as a missile against a servant!) Kyd naturally supposed Beethoven was in poverty. He offered him two hundred ducats (a hundred pounds) to compose a symphony which he undertook to have performed by the Philharmonic Society in London. Unfortunately Kyd wanted the symphony to be in the style of Beethoven’s earlier, rather than his later, ones. Kyd’s chance of the symphony crashed like the chair. Beethoven was angry, deeply affronted as an artist. ... Next day when he saw Kyd in the street, he told Simrock: ‘There’s the man whom I threw downstairs yesterday!’ Yes, certainly, to visit Beethoven was an adventure.
His personal habits heightened the nightmare. He used to spit out of the window when he remembered, but often enough into the mirror as a substitute. His public manners were so primitive that people usually avoided his table at a restaurant - what must they have been at home! Yet in the midst of his home-slum conditions were to be found his valuables, in the shape of several pianos and the quartet of precious pedigree Italian instruments (a Joseph Guarnerius violin, a Nicholas Amati violin, a Vincenzo Ruggieri viola and an Andreas Guarnerius violoncello) given to him by Prince Lichnowsky. The pianos are reported as looking in a perilous condition. Inkpots had been overturned into their interiors (which is easy to understand), and some of them were without legs (which is difficult to explain). One biographer hazards the guess that Beethoven liked to work lying on the floor! It seems to me arguable that, as he changed his lodgings frequently, the pianos were better carried up and down stairs without their legs. Specht sees in this passion for moving an instance of the same instinct that produce Beethoven’s numerous sets of variations, and his fondness for puns; an instinct for bringing the last ounce of development out of some small root. An acute view of the variations and puns, but I am not so sure about the residences. There neighbours must be taken into account. The deaf Beethoven could not realize how much his noises disturbed other people; also he was nervously ready to be disturbed himself. Two stories from his later life illustrate this. Having spent some time at Baden in 1822 with enjoyment, he wished to return to the same rooms next year. The landlord refused, but finally relented on the condition that Beethoven replaced the window shutters which had been removed. Beethoven agreed - and was a good deal amused to learn then that the landlord was killing two birds with one stone, for Beethoven had a habit of writing notes on the shutters, which the landlord had sold as autographs to admiring visitors!
The other story belongs to the year 1824, when Beethoven took rooms on the first floor of a house in Penzing. All promised well; only an old couple inhabited the parterre. But the house was near the bridge over the river Wien: people crossing it stopped to gaze at Beethoven’s windows. He probably did look out, and at no time more so than when dressing. Czerny, who as a child first saw Beethoven about 1803, logically mistook him for Robinson Crusoe, Beethoven being attired in a hairy suit, and with a growth of beard that almost matched the bush of his hair. When he shaved by the window or stood there in his nightshirt he was perfectly unself-conscious; he could not understand why he attracted notice. ‘What are those damned boys looking at?’ he asked. Rochlitz, the tenor singer, described Beethoven as giving the impression of ‘a very able man reared on a desert island and suddenly brought fresh into the world.’ So it was that at Penzing the sophisticated act of pulling the curtains did not appeal to him. Off he went to Baden, and for the rest of the summer paid for both sets of rooms and his flat in Vienna. Unreasonable? Yes, by ordinary standards. But who shall say what obscure laws govern the creation of great art work? The early morning was one of Beethoven’s best times for ideas - just as it was with Virgil - and Beethoven had in a tremendous degree the instinct which shields any creative work from observation until it is complete. Outside comments, made too soon, paralyse the growth of a poem or composition.
Beethoven’s relations towards his fellow creatures were a bundle of contradictions. For mankind in general he entertained the loftiest fraternity. This had begun in the generous liberating spirit of the Revolution; it continued under the stimulus of Goethe and Schiller, and was completed by his own nobility. But where individuals were involved, detachment vanished and Beethoven became intensely human and impulsive.
Family loyalty he held sacred. His veneration for his grandfather has been already described. For his father there was always a stern, sheltering silence. To his life’s end Beethoven never allowed any one to disparage Johann in his hearing. For his mother there was always tender love and tender memory. Towards his brothers Beethoven acknowledged the blood-tie by repeated acts of financial assistance (highly acceptable to them) and by torrents of advice (non-acceptable), but he felt under no obligations to them, and still less so to their wives. Johann, who incurred his special wrath, he persistently named his pseudo-brother; Johann’s wife and her illegitimate daughter he called Fettlümmerl and Bastard, and Karl’s wife was of course ‘The Queen of Night.’ Such nicknames do not increase family happiness. Thayer excepted, most biographers have represented Beethoven as receiving all the provocation; actually he gave a good fighting account of himself. If brother Johann borrowed money from him, he later borrowed from Johann and was highly unwilling to repay. If his brothers, under cover of helping him with his business affairs, purloined and sold to publishers his early pieces, which he did not intend to publish, he redressed the balance by butting in over their matrimonial affairs, and when Johann sent him a card inscribed ‘Johann van Beethoven, Landowner,’ he returned the compliment by a card with the words ‘ Ludwig van Beethoven, Brainowner.’ Beethoven was indeed remarkably well able to look after his affairs, so long as his emotions were not too deeply involved. An American music publisher once assured me that, on the evidence of Beethoven’s correspondence with his publishers, Beethoven was a first-class business man. He was capable of singular expedients to meet singular emergencies. The episode of the pirated string Quintet, Op. 29, is an instance. It seems that Breitkopf & Härtel at Leipzig were to publish the work in 1802. Simultaneously and mysteriously an edition issued from the house of Artaria in Vienna - Artaria by sharp practice having obtained a copy of the score from Count Friess, to have it copied hurriedly and surreptitiously. The edition was full of mistakes. Beethoven was furious about the whole thing. However, he requested Artaria to send all the printed copies to Ries, that they might be corrected. ‘At the same time’ says Ries, ‘he instructed me to use ink on the wretched paper and as coarsely as possible; also to cross out several lines so that it would be impossible to make use of a single copy or sell it. The scratching-out was particularly in the scherzo.’ One can imagine the gusto of young Ries over the job.
The matter was eventually settled, but not without a terrific amount of rushing about. Beethoven and brother Karl, who rallied to his assistance, both left racy accounts. Beethoven wrote to Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘My poor brother is very much occupied with work, yet he did all he could to save you and me; in the confusion he lost a faithful dog, which he called his favourite; he deserves that you should thank him personally as I have done on my own account’ - the thanks being due for a signed agreement extracted from Artaria to withhold his edition from sale till Breitkopf & Härtels had been in circulation in Vienna for fourteen days.
Beethoven had some ground for his resentment against publishers, yet even for those times his feelings were extreme - what modern psychologists call ‘extrovert’ - when he wrote in 1825, apropos of his great B flat major Quartet: ‘It is immaterial which hellhound licks and gnaws my brains, since it must needs be so, only see that the answer is not too long delayed, The hellhound in L. can wait and meanwhile entertain himself with Mephistopheles (the editor of the Musik, L Zeit.) in Auerbach’s Cellar; he will soon be plucked by the ears by Beelzebub the chief of devils.’
To be frank, Beethoven too was not above reproach. His strong natural probity warped when money had to be wrung out of his compositions to support Karl. On Karl he centred everything: his love for him was the sum total of his nature, yet by its intensity and possessiveness it defeated itself.
Every year increased the heartbreak for Beethoven. Reading his letters to Karl their poignant humanity leaps out of the pages as agonized as if they had been written yesterday. Of course they are all wrong for the result they were intended to produce, but a hundred years ago people still believed in the efficacy of moral precepts, reminders and reproaches. Here is an example of the precepts (quoted in Lady Wallace’s Victorian translation):
MY DEAR SON,
The old woman is just come, so you need be under no uneasiness; study assiduously, and rise early, as various things may occur to you in the morning, which you could do for me. It cannot be otherwise than becoming in a youth, now in his nineteenth year, to combine his duties towards his benefactor and foster-father with those of his education and progress. I fulfilled my obligations towards my own parents.
Here is a specimen of the reproaches - Karl having concealed the fact that he had got money from some unknown person:
Spoiled as you have been, it would do you no harm at last to study simplicity and truth, for my heart has suffered too much through your crafty behaviour towards me, and it is difficult to forget and even if I, like a yoke-ox, drag along without murmuring, yet if you behave towards others in the same manner, it will never win for you people who love you. God is my witness that I dream only of you, of my wretched brother, and of the joy of having nothing more to do with this deceiving, abominable family foisted on me. May God hear my prayer, for I can never trust you any more.
or better still, not your Father.
Karl’s point of view remains to us in a record of a conversation between him and his uncle in 1826.
‘You consider it insolence’: says Karl, ‘if after you have upbraided me for hours undeservedly, that this time at least I cannot turn from my bitter feeling of pain to jocularity and much more in the same strain. Yet even in his natural resentment at being treated like a child, Karl’s posing and vanity peep out, and as one reaches the point at which the fear of Karl’s suicide dawned on Beethoven, one’s heart is wholly with the foster father when he wrote:
For God’s sake do come home again today, who knows what danger might be threatening you; hasten, hasten.
MY DEAR SON,
Only nothing further - only come to my arms, you shall hear no harsh word. For Heaven’s sake do not rush to destruction - you will be received as ever with affection - as to considering what is to be done in future, we will talk this over in a friendly way, no reproaches, on my word of honour. ... Only come - come to the faithful heart of your father, BEETHOVEN.
Come home at once on receipt of this. ... Si vous ne viendrez pas vous me tuères surement.
If love and anxiety kill, Karl did ultimately bring Beethoven to his grave.
Beethoven’s love affairs, numerous, romantic and mysterious though they be, are incidental by comparison - a set of variations on the single theme of a search for the ideal wife. Like a white Don Juan he always sought and never found. One of his biographers - Specht, I think - shrewdly remarks that all his love affairs were in reality with the same woman - the ideal being, she whom he had imagined in his youth and sighed for till the end. Perhaps she did not exist, but had she done so, Beethoven could never have found her. He had not the great understanding, loving and giving heart requisite for a true-love marriage. That requires two constant souls, like the meeting halves of a token ring.
Yet in the corrupt Vienna of that day, where most married women of fashion took a lover as a matter of custom, Beethoven kept his honour sternly. ‘It is one of my first principles never to stand in other than friendly relationship with the wife of another man. Never by such a relationship would I fill my breast with distrust against her who may one day share my life with me - and so taint for myself the most beautiful, the purest life.’
Herein lay one secret of Beethoven’s marvellous circle of friends. Men and women alike trusted him morally. What friends they were! The Breuning family and Wegeler, like Good Deeds in Everyman, went with him to his life’s end. Then there was that fine old loud-voiced aristocrat Prince Lichnowsky, and his delicate wife, who was a second mother to Beethoven.
Prince Lobkowitz has already been mentioned. His friendship survived even insults. At one of the general rehearsals for Fidelio in 1805 the third bassoon was absent. Lobkowitz tried lightly to pacify Beethoven by saying that as two bassoons were present ‘the absence of the third could make no great difference.’ This infuriated Beethoven, who vented his wrath on the way home by shouting ‘Lobkowitzian ass’ into the door of the Lobkowitz palace!
Among other friends were the Archduke Rudolph, who could play Beethoven’s music so well, the generous Prince Kinsky, Count Franz von Brunswick, whom Beethoven called ‘brother,’ Zmeskall, and then the unceasing stream of young men who admired and saved Beethoven, chief among them Ferdinand Ries, Schindler, Holz. These men saw more of the rough side of Beethoven’s nature than his women friends, with whom he was often astonishingly intuitive, especially in time of sorrow. Every one knows the story of his playing to Baroness Ertmann, and probably saving her reason, when she was overwhelmed with grief by the death of her child. Less well known and not less touching is the story that relates how, when Madame Brentano was laid up ill for long weeks, he used to come regularly, seat himself at a pianoforte in her ante-room without a word and improvise; after he had finished ‘telling her everything and bringing comfort’ in his language, he would go as he had come, without taking notice of another person.
These friendships with women were a remarkable feature in his character, for though he was seldom without some romantic attachment, he could and did carry on fine, frank friendships with a number of gifted women that for lack of a better name must be called Platonic. The Countess Erdödy and Nanette Streicher have been mentioned already. Others were the pianists Marie Bigot and Marie Pachler-Koschak, and the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, an amateur so musical that he called her his ‘dear Dorothea Cecilia.’ Women it is said, played his piano works better than men at that time - at least they appear to have grasped what he wanted more quickly, though one finds it hard to believe any woman could have played the Sonata Op. 111 to his satisfaction.
But man or woman, friendship with Beethoven was no sinecure. The strong peasant vein of suspicion running through his nature had been increased by his deafness, and his experience of Viennese intrigue made it worse. Friends might suddenly find themselves smitten with a thunderbolt of Beethoven’s anger. Fat, kindly Hummel (whose coming brought comfort to the dying Beethoven) had been so struck years earlier, and had preserved the letters. The first, written in the distant third person, read:
He is not to come to me again. he is a treacherous dog and may the flayer get all such treacherous dogs.
The second - after the matter had been explained:
You are an honest fellow and I now see you were right. Come, then, to me this afternoon. You will find Schuppanzigh here also and we two will bump, thump and pump you to your heart’s delight. A kiss from
also called Mehlschöberl
[‘Mehlschöberl, said to be Viennese dialect for a sort of soup dumpling, but Specht gives ‘a person who stacks flour.’]
It is to be hoped he entertained Hummel more enjoyably than those friends whom he once invited to a meal cooked by himself. Genius has a foible of priding itself on second-string accomplishments, as Browning knew when he wrote:
None but would forgo his proper dowry, -
Does he paint? he fain would write a poem, -
Does he write? he fain would paint a picture.
(Though it is a shame to wrest those lines from their lovely context.)
Well, Beethoven had become sufficiently Viennese to regard food and cookery as an art, and when his guests arrived he greeted them in the guise of a cook, a nightcap on his head, a white apron tied round him and a ladle in his hand. After a long wait the meal appeared - the soup dishwater, with a little grease, the beef leather, the vegetables a nondescript paste. The master, it is related, beamed with satisfaction; he never noticed that his guests starved!
To be a special crony of Beethoven’s was to attract nicknames from him as steel pins go to a magnet. They sometimes pricked, but the devoted Zmeskall seemed to thrive on them. Beethoven’s letters to him are full of knockabout humour - as, for instance, when he asked for some more pens:
His Highness von Z. is commanded to hasten a bit with the plucking out of a few of his quills (among them, no doubt, some not his own). It is hoped that they may not be too tightly grown. As soon as you have done all that we shall ask we shall be, with excellent esteem, your
His whole intercourse with Zmeskall, until just before the end, was like a succession of his scherzos enacted in life. That humour was no light play of wit (like the French) nor kindly fun (like the English), but a tremendous force that leaped out, struck and buffeted, laughed like the waves under a dashing wind and high sun. Beethoven hurled his puns, hit or miss; he loved a bad pun better than none at all, and sometimes went beyond discretion, as when he made play with the name of Holz and ‘Holz vom Kreuze Christi,’ the wood of the Cross. Sometimes his humour became a bear’s rough-and-tumble, though not quite so much out of hand as it appeared. In a letter of his which had never been published until 1933, and which has now appeared in an English translation, [Music and Letters, January 1934. Six New letters of Beethoven, translated by A. H. Fox Strangways.], he says to Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘So in Saxony they say "rude as a musician," and I expect that’s how it was with me - my jokes with you have now and then contained a few home-truths.’ Yes, Beethoven was very well able to fend for himself when he spared time and thought to do so, and one is inclined to impute some of his comparative freedom from enemies to this salutary knowledge among his compatriots.
His immunity from political molestation was, however, due to other causes. Politics were his favourite subject. He discoursed on them freely in public, criticized the Austrian Government, the aristocracy and the police to his heart’s content.
‘The police paid no attention to his utterances,’ says Thayer, ‘either because they looked upon him as a harmless fantastic or had an overwhelming respect for his artistic genius.’ [Possibly their attitude was that of the sergeant during an inspection in the war, when the colonel remarked that one man’s hair was too long, and the sergeant replied: "E can’t ‘elp it, sir. ‘E’s a musician!’] Yet here again Beethoven had a shrewd side, for he said: ‘There is nothing smaller than our great folk, but I make an exception of the archdukes and as a political forecast, few things more ready hit the mark than his letter to Simrock where he says:
It is very warm here - the Viennese are afraid that it will soon be impossible for them to have any ice-creams: for, as the winter was mild, ice is rare. Many persons of importance have been arrested; they say there was fear of a revolution breaking out - but it is my belief that so long as an Austrian can get his brown beer and sausages, there will be no revolution.
That prophecy, written in 1794, was fulfilled in 1918. Not so bad for a young man of twenty-four!