Week 38 – Bob’s Beethoven Blog

Posted on August, 14th 2021

Beethoven’s Letters by Elizabeth Morrison

Of the many wonders to be found in Beethoven’s letters, the most amazing to me is the simple fact of their existence. Beethoven, our most cherished composer, whose music is now, in 2020,  keeping many of us alive, turns out to have dashed off notes–to friends, patrons, relatives, lovers and (above all) publishers–just like anyone else.

Of course, I am here addressing people who have followed Bob Swan’s Beethoven Blog through these many weeks, encountering masterpiece after masterpiece. After reading Week 37’s entry, you may now be immersed in Thayer or Swofford’s biographies. I think you would enjoy an encounter with Beethoven’s letters as well. They will give you another window into his genius, through words written by Beethoven himself.

Though Beethoven often calls himself a “poor, lazy correspondent,” and at times apologizes for having taken months or years to respond to a friend, he was actually quite prolific. I have not been able to find out how many letters he wrote; Google appears not to know; perhaps no one does. Beethoven’s Letters, from the Dover Books on Music series, claims to contain “Four hundred fifty-seven of the most important” ones, but there are thought to be more, hidden away in private collections and curio cabinets, beyond the reach of scholars and music lovers alike.

If this many letters seem daunting, why not start with Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, edited, translated and introduced by Michael Hamburger? Here you will find about 200 of them, interspersed with letters and journal entries by Beethoven’s  contemporaries, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer, the pianist Johann Nepomuk  Hummel, and many more. I must admit that I owned this book for years before I dared to open it. I’m not sure what I was afraid of – perhaps that the letters would be elevated beyond my grasp. But once I picked it up, I saw I had been quite wrong. The letters are fascinating, accessible, revealing and entertaining.

The first impression is of spontaneity. Beethoven, unlike composers like Wagner, Berlioz or Schumann, appears not to have his eye on future publication, nor to be trying to burnish his reputation later on. Hamburger calls Beethoven a careless speller and erratic capitalizer (German capitalizes most nouns; Beethoven doesn’t, unless a word should not be capitalized, in which case he does). His handwriting can be elusive, and he is a relentless punster, sometimes making it difficult to make out exactly what he means. But what comes through is startlingly intimate, a “naked thinking heart, that makes no show,” in the words of John Donne.

To give you a sense of what you will find, here are a few examples. First, a letter to his friend Eleonore von Breuning, written when he was 23:

“Only now that I have spent a whole year in the capital do you hear from me, and yet I have preserved you in my memory both vividly and constantly. Very often I conversed with you and with your dear family, only often without the inner calm for which I would have wished. It was then that I remembered the fatal quarrel, during which my behavior appeared so despicable. But it could not be undone…It is true, dear friend, that your noble character assures me of your forgiveness; but it is said that the most sincere repentance is that in which one admits his own faults; this was my intention. Now let us draw the curtain on this whole episode…”

He then goes on to offer Eleonore the dedication to his Variations on the Theme “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  I, for one, would certainly have forgiven him for whatever it was he did!

In this letter to Franz Hoffmeister, one of his publishers, written in 1802, we see another side of Beethoven. Written two years before Beethoven took back his dedication of the Eroica Symphony from Napoleon, you can see his feelings already beginning to build.

“May the devil ride the whole lot of you, gentlemen–what, suggest to me that I should write a sonata of that sort? As the time of the revolutionary fever–well, at that time it would have been worth considering, but now that everything is trying to get back into the old rut, Buonoparte has made his concordat with the Pope–a sonata of that sort? If at least it were a Missa pro Sancta Maria or a Vespers, etc.–well, in that case I should immediately take hold of the brush and write down a Credo in Unum in enormous notes weighing a pound each.”

The many letters Beethoven wrote to his publishers are especially interesting, as they have references to his compositions, his finances, and his politics. In a single letter to the publisher Nikolaus Simrock, from 1794, he compliments the publisher’s work (“I must congratulate you on the engraving, which is pleasant to look at, clear, and legible, seriously, if you continue in this way, you will soon be the very paragon of engravers.”); deplores business dealings (“I have been looking out for an agent, and have found an extremely decent, efficient man for you. All you need  to do now is to write to me or to him, proposing your terms. He asks for a third discount. May the devil understand your bargaining; I wash my hands of it.”); and weighs in on a political question of the day (“Here they have been arresting several persons of importance; they say that a revolution was about to break out–but I believe that as long as the Austrians have brown beer and sausages, they’ll never revolt.”).

On the other hand, you will rarely find Beethoven discussing his music itself. What he wanted to say in his music, he said; he felt no need to explain. This note about the 6th Symphony, the Pastoral, is one of the few times he does drop a hint, and it comes not from a letter but from an 1807 entry in his Sketchbook, which Hamburger includes in his book.

“It is left to the listener to discover the situation. “Sinfonia caracteristica” or a reminiscence of country life. Every kind of painting loses by being carried too far in instrumental music. “Sinfonia pastorella.” Anyone who has the faintest idea of country life will not need many descriptive titles to be able to imagine for himself what the author intends. Even without a description one will be able to recognize it all, for it is a record of sentiments rather than a painting in sounds.

I hope you can sense from these few examples the way Beethoven’s letters might draw you in. They reflect his daily concerns, yet his unfathomable genius never quite leaves your awareness. The contrast, indeed, is part of their attraction. But there is also the sadness of reading about his struggles with his health and above all his deafness. In a very affectionate 1801 letter to his friend Karl Amenda, he writes,

“I wish you were with me, for your Beethoven lives most unhappily, in discord with Nature and with the Creator. More than once I have cursed the latter for exposing his creatures to the slightest accident, so that often the loveliness blossoms are destroyed and broke by it. You must be told that the finest part of me, my hearing, has deteriorated. Already then, at the time you were with me, I felt signs of this and kept quiet about it; now it has grown progressively worse. Whether it can be cured remains to be seen…”

I found it heartrending to read, in letter after letter, of Beethoven’s many ailments, including abdominal pain, joint pain, eye inflammation, and much more. He died at age 56, having suffered greatly and having been profoundly deaf for at least eleven years.

Which brings us to his most famous letter, the Heiligenstadt Testament, which he wrote in 1802, when he was 31 years old. Bob pointed you to this unique document in Week 7’s blog entry. It is a letter written to his brothers Carl and Johann from the resort town of Heiligenstadt, where his doctor Johann Adam Schmidt  had sent him in pursuit of a cure for his deafness. The cure was not to be, but in the period of rest and reflection Beethoven put his feelings on paper openly, as he was never able to do in person.

Perhaps it is not strictly speaking a letter, as it was never sent, and Beethoven guarded it carefully for the rest of his life. It was found among his papers after his death, and published several months later. However, Hamburger includes it in his book, in the same chronological order as other, more conventional letters, and it is very moving to come across it almost casually, between letters to two of his publishers.

As Bob wrote, “Beethoven confessed to his brothers, and subsequently to the world, his despair. He admitted his thoughts of suicide, but felt that he would be betraying his art to do so. This is why he is my hero.” Despite his personal agony, Beethoven chose to go on, and to give us the incomparable masterpieces still to come. Even if you have already read the Testament, I hope you will go back and read through it again. That we can hear these echoes of Beethoven’s thoughts from the distance of 250 years, is a great privilege and a great joy.

Link Here to Heiligenstadt Testament

Link Here to Beethoven’s Letters by Michael Hamburger

Missing Links from previous email:

Se vuol ballere variations – Yehudi Menuhin, violin and Wilhelm Kempff, piano

Arturo Toscanini (1938)

Elizabeth Morrison and Bob Swan are old friends, having met at Norwalk Youth Symphony, in Norwalk, CT, when they were teenagers. While Bob went on to a distinguished career in the Chicago Symphony, Elizabeth became a professional writer. She is the author of four books on health and nutrition, including the New York Times Bestseller Body Type Diet, two books on Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a book on telepathic animal communication, Wisdom of the Animals. She has never forgotten her love of cello playing, and has written over 60 articles on music, focusing on chamber music and music by women composers. She is honored to be a guest contributor to Bob’s Beethoven Blog.