Ludwig van Beethoven, His Life and Times

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It was a beautiful spring morning; the sun shone in a cloudless sky, and the birds were singing blithely on the branches of the trees just outside the window, as if inviting the child who stood within to come out into the sunshine and be as free and happy as themselves. But he could not respond to their call, for he was not yet half-way through his long task. A pitiful little figure he made, mounted on a footstool in front of the pianoforte, with his head resting wearily on his hand, and his absent, dreamy gaze fixed upon the window. Scarcely five years old, and yet condemned to practise endless finger-exercises until his eyes grew dim with straining over the notes; kept a prisoner indoors, apart from his playmates, when the sun was shining and the birds were singing—and all because he happened to possess a great gift for music, and because his father, realizing this fact, had determined to use the child’s talents for the support of the family.

Suddenly the door of the sitting-room opened, and a stern face was thrust inside.

‘Ludwig!’—the tone was harsh and severe, and at the well-known sound the boy awoke from his reverie—’Ludwig! what are you doing? Go on with your exercise at once, and remember there will be no soup for you until it is finished.’

Then the door closed again, and Ludwig turned with a sigh to his monotonous task. Why should his life be made so much harder than that of other children? he might have asked himself bitterly. It was not that he disliked music—no, he loved it—but he yearned for the brightness and sympathy which seemed to be given freely to others, and yet were denied to him. And as he strove to master his long exercise his eyes wandered from the music to a portrait which hung over the piano. It represented an elderly gentleman with a kindly face, bushy dark hair, and large dark eyes. It was a humorous face, not handsome, yet frank and pleasant, and decidedly clever. How clearly Ludwig could recall the bright blue coat, with its large gilt buttons, which the artist had faithfully portrayed! As the boy’s glance rested upon the portrait the recollection of the merry times he had spent with his grandfather was presented to his mind. Once more he heard the old man’s genial laugh, and felt the gentle pressure of his hand upon his curls. And then his playing! How little Ludwig had listened enrapt whilst Grandfather Ludwig charmed forth those mysterious melodies which seemed to be locked up at other times in the silent, prim little clavier! Those were delicious day-dreams that Grandfather Ludwig had the power to conjure up in his grandson’s mind. But two years had passed since the kindly old musician had gone to his rest, and during those years the surroundings of Ludwig’s childhood had changed for the worse.

The parents of Ludwig van Beethoven, as the boy was named, were extremely poor. Johann Beethoven, the father, was a member of the Court band of the Elector of Cologne, at Bonn, in which town Ludwig was born on December 16, 1770. The German Princes of those days maintained companies of musicians for the performance of Divine service in their chapels, as well as for their private entertainment, and such companies frequently comprised musicians of considerable ability. Johann’s position as tenor singer was but a humble one, bringing in not more than £25 a year. The grandfather, who also belonged to the band, first as bass singer, and later as music director, had, on the other hand, achieved a considerable reputation, both as performer and composer, and during his latter years his earnings had gone far to support Johann’s family, with whom he lived. With the old man’s death, however, this help ceased, and the family means became greatly reduced.

It was, no doubt, in consequence of the privation felt at this time that the father was induced to keep Ludwig so hard at work. Mozart as a boy had exhibited marvellous powers, and his performances in public at an early age were attended by success. Johann, therefore, seemed to think that his little son would have a chance of earning money by his forced capacities for music. That a child of such tender years should have been regarded in the light of a bread-winner for the family appears unreasonable and hard; and it is not to be wondered at that Ludwig failed to understand the necessity which led to such pressure being put upon him. In his mother, Marie Magdalena, however, he could always find a ready sympathy and a tenderness which must have served to counteract, to some degree, the unhappiness occasioned by the father’s severity. But not even a mother’s love could make up for the loss the child had sustained by his grandfather’s death, for the excellent qualities of head and heart which the old man had exhibited were just those which the boy missed in his father. To Ludwig music meant everything—or, rather, it would have meant everything, even at that early time, had its development only been continued under the same kindly influence.

Despite his severity and unreasonableness, however, Johann must be credited with the determination that his boy’s knowledge of music should be as thorough as it was possible to make it with the means at his command, and to this end he spared no pains. Moreover, in order that Ludwig should not grow up in complete ignorance of subjects which lay outside his art, he was sent to the public school of Bonn to pick up what learning he could, though this chiefly comprised reading and writing. With his schoolfellows Ludwig had little in common. They thought him shy, because he kept to himself, and showed no desire to join in their games. The truth was his mind was almost wholly absorbed by music, and the consciousness that this great love had taken possession of his soul, and was growing stronger day by day may have made him inapt for games or boyish society, and thus may have led to his taking refuge in his own thoughts. In the companionship of music he could never have felt lonely, and in his walks between school hours he found plenty to interest him. He never tired of sounding Nature for her harmonies, and as he pursued his way through the fields and lanes he listened to the peasants singing at their work, and then, catching up the simple tunes, he fitted his own notes to them, so as to produce beautiful and subtle effects of harmony. Many of those old folk-tunes were closely connected with the history of the country to which they belonged; they were often the musical expression of the feelings, struggles, and passions of the people, and to Beethoven’s sensitive ear they conveyed a deeper meaning than they did to the simple peasants who hummed or carolled them to the whirr of the spinning-wheel, the blows of the forge-hammer, or the speeding of the plough.

Thus, with the drudgery of unremitting toil and constant reproof, the years passed away until Ludwig was nearly nine. Hard as the lessons of those years had been, there could be no doubt as to the progress which he had made. Not even the severity and harshness of his father could lessen or abate his yearning for musical knowledge; and so it came about that one day Johann, regarding him with an expression more akin to pride and satisfaction than that which Ludwig was accustomed to read in his father’s face, said, ‘I can teach you no more; we must see about finding you another master.’

But how this was to be accomplished it is as difficult for us as it must have been to Johann himself to imagine; for, so far from the family circumstances having improved, the poverty was even more acute than before, and such further efforts as the father may have been induced to make to increase their comforts were negatived by his growing addiction to drink—a fact which must of itself have caused a further reduction in their resources. Fortunately, at this critical period help was forthcoming in the shape of a musician boarder, who agreed to give instruction to Ludwig in part return for his accommodation.

The coming of Tobias Pfeiffer, as the new boarder was named, must have been regarded by Ludwig with some curiosity. Would he turn out an even harder task-master than his own father had been? This question was soon settled by the glimpse which Tobias early gave to his pupil of his peculiar method of imparting instruction. Johann’s evenings were now chiefly spent at some tavern resort, whither it became the custom for Tobias to repair at a very late hour, in order that he might give his drunken landlord a safe convoy home. By this friendly help the erring Johann escaped falling into the hands of the police—an eventuality which would have resulted in his losing his employment. Having fulfilled his friendly mission, Pfeiffer would betake himself to Ludwig’s bedside, and, with a shake which soon became familiar, would arouse the boy with, ‘Now then, Ludwig, time for practice!’ At this gentle admonition the sleepy child would rise obediently, rubbing his eyes, and master and pupil descended to the sitting-room, where they would play together till the early hours of the morning—Pfeiffer giving out a theme, and Beethoven extemporising upon it, and then Ludwig in his turn giving the lead to Pfeiffer. Extemporisation would be followed by duets, until the approach of day gave warning that it was time to retire to bed. Such music as these two players made in the still hours of the night was, no doubt, but rarely heard in the district in which they lived, and on the other side of the open window, in the early dawn of the summer morning, a small knot of listeners frequently gathered, attracted by the unusual performance proceeding within.

For about a year this curious mode of instruction continued, and during this time Ludwig’s education received a stimulus in the shape of lessons in Latin, French, Italian, and Logic, given by a man named Zambona. This Zambona was an eccentric personage, whose peculiarities would appear to have been well adapted to the condition of things prevailing in the Beethoven home. He apparently considered himself qualified to fill a variety of posts, as he had acted as innkeeper, chamber-porter at the Court, and book-keeper, in addition to being a teacher of languages; but his worth was proved by the fact that Beethoven made good progress under his tuition. Hitherto Ludwig’s playing had been confined to the pianoforte and violin, but at this point a friendly hand was held out to him by an old friend of his grandfather, named Van den Eeden, who for many years had held the post of organist at the Court. ‘Come to me, and I will teach you the organ,’ the kindly old musician said to Ludwig, and the boy’s heart leapt with pleasure at the generous offer. No doubt Van den Eeden saw in the young player the signs of genius such as his old friend had exhibited in no small degree in past years, and felt drawn towards him in consequence. A new field was thus opened to Beethoven, and when, at the end of a year, Van den Eeden resigned on account of ill-health, and the post was given to Christian Neefe, Ludwig was happy in the discovery of a new friend, who not only expressed his willingness to carry on the instruction, but was quick to recognise the boy’s extraordinary talent. At this point of our story we get our first glimpse of the fruits of Beethoven’s work at composition. The death of a friend who had assisted the family with money gifts inspired him to write a cantata in his honour; but though it was performed at the funeral, no trace exists for us of this little outcome of gratitude on Beethoven’s part.

Ludwig was now ten years old, and in the winter of 1781 he made his first essay at bread-winning for the family. The state of things at home was wretched in the extreme, and the hopelessness of looking to the father to retrieve the condition into which they had fallen decided Ludwig’s mother upon undertaking a tour through Holland with the boy, in the hope that his playing at the houses of the rich might bring in money. We may well believe that sheer necessity alone impelled the gentle, ailing woman to such a step. Her faith in her son’s powers was evidently of a higher order than that of Johann, and she must have seen that this exhibition of his talents at so early an age not only implied an interruption to his studies, but also, to some extent, a debasing of the art which she felt that he loved for its own sake. The tour produced money—that chiefest need of the moment—and, so far, it was a success; but Ludwig himself did not carry away any pleasing recollections of his visit. ‘The Dutch are very stingy, and I shall take care not to trouble them again,’ he afterwards remarked to a friend; and there was no repetition of the experiment.

In the following year a notice appeared in Cramer’s Magazine, calling the attention of music-lovers to a young player who, though not more than eleven years old, could play with force and finish, read well at sight, and—most remarkable of all—play the greater part of Bach’s ‘Wohltemperirte Klavier’ (Well-tempered Clavier), ‘a feat,’ declared the writer, ‘which will be understood by the initiated.’ ‘This young genius,’ the article went on to say, ‘deserves some assistance that he may travel. If he goes on as he has begun, he will certainly become a second Mozart.’

The writer of this notice was Christian Neefe, and the subject of his praise was none other than his pupil, Ludwig Beethoven. That the boy should have mastered a work of such extraordinary difficulty as Bach’s collection of preludes and fugues may well have excited the astonishment of his friend and teacher, whose praise was thus deservedly given. But Neefe’s confidence in his pupil’s abilities was shown in a more substantial manner during this same year. Van den Eeden’s death took place in June, and when the Court band had played the old organist to his last resting-place Neefe received orders to proceed with the rest of the performers to Münster, whither the Elector had already gone. Two days before the band left Bonn Neefe called Beethoven to his side, and told him that he was going away for a time. ‘I must have a deputy to take my place at the organ here,’ continued the organist, looking keenly into his pupil’s face as he spoke. ‘Now, tell me, who do you think I ought to appoint to the post?’

Ludwig’s face was crossed by a shade of trouble. If his kind tutor was going away, how did he know whether he would find his deputy equally willing to teach him? But Christian Neefe was waiting for his answer, and his eyes were shining with a kindly, half-amused light. ‘I do not know,’ Ludwig began hesitatingly. But Neefe’s eyes had grown serious, and he now spoke with earnestness.

‘I have thought of a deputy, Ludwig, and I think I can trust him—yes, I am sure I may trust him. The deputy shall be yourself!’

Beethoven’s surprise and delight may be imagined. But Neefe knew what he was about, and in this preferment we may mark the first step in the recognition of Beethoven’s genius. The honour was great. To be entrusted with the conduct of Divine service at the chapel, and to receive the deference due to the position of organist—it must have seemed incredible to Ludwig at first; and he was only eleven and a half! To his mother he must first have carried the good news, and if the father’s expression had in it less of joy and thankfulness than hers it must be attributed to the fact that no pay was attached to the exalted position which Ludwig had obtained.

Beethoven had now practically the choice of three instruments to select from; but his heart did not waver for long, ere it became fixed upon the pianoforte as the fittest interpreter of his genius, and he was true to his first love to the end. His ‘Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte,’ written about this time, gives us the first record of his published works. Evidently those terrible finger exercises were beginning to bear fruit, for the young musician had acquired considerable command over the instrument of his choice—indeed, his musical life was now beginning to open itself before him, and the longing to do great things had taken possession of his soul. There were no more tears at being forced to work, for the greatest incentives to work—love and ambition—were now swaying him and impelling him onwards at a speed which nothing could check. Neefe’s confidence and praise were more than justified, and before he had completed his thirteenth year Beethoven received his first official appointment at the hands of the Elector. He could now sign himself ‘Ludwig van Beethoven, Cembalist im Orchester,’ and his duties comprised not only the playing of the pianoforte in the orchestra, but the conducting of the band at rehearsals. With this accession, however, there was still the fact staring him in the face of no money coming in. Just at this time, too, the Elector Max Friedrich died; and it was not until a year later, when Beethoven was appointed second organist to the Court, under the new Elector Max Franz, that he began to receive a small salary in return for his services. Thirteen pounds a year sounds very little for so much work and responsibility, but Ludwig was overjoyed to think that he could back up his announcement to his parents with so substantial a fact as the receipt of an income. For the poverty at home was keener than ever; Johann’s earnings did not exceed £25 a year, and as his voice was steadily declining, the outlook for the family had become exceedingly black.

The time would not appear to have been propitious for joking; nevertheless, Beethoven sat in the organ-loft one day planning a joke. He had just had a conversation with one of the chief singers of the band—a tenor named Heller—and the latter had been boasting that his knowledge of singing was so great that he could easily surmount any difficulty as it presented itself. Beethoven inherited from his grandfather a love of joking, and the temptation to lower the singer’s vanity was too great to be resisted. Accordingly, on the following Sunday, whilst Heller was singing a solo to Ludwig’s accompaniment, the latter adroitly introduced a modulation of his own. Heller unsuspectingly followed his lead, and fell into the trap devised for him, with the result that, after attempting to keep up with the organist, he lost himself entirely and, to the astonishment of the congregation, came to a dead stop; and it was only when Beethoven returned to the original key that the disconcerted singer could proceed. Heller was naturally furious at the trick played upon him, and lodged a complaint with the Elector. The latter, however, was too good a musician himself to be angry at this exhibition of skill on the part of his youngest performer, and he contented himself with admonishing Beethoven not to attempt any more clever tricks.

There was a dream which had taken possession of young Beethoven’s mind at this time. It was constantly recurring during the hours of work, and when he lay down to sleep in his poorly-furnished attic it was with the hope that the dawning of a new day might bring him nearer to its realisation. Yet for some time the dream remained only a shadowy companion to his working thoughts, ever present, it is true, and sometimes glowing in brighter colours that seemed to give to it the semblance of reality—but still, only a dream. But the vision seen afar off was to be realised at length—Beethoven was to visit Vienna! It was the city of his dreams, the centre of his longings, this Vienna, just as it was the centre of the musical world of Germany at that time. A kind friend had come forward with the offer to pay his expenses for the journey, and Ludwig knew that his dream had come true.

As we have seen, the dire straits into which the family had fallen had not hindered Beethoven’s pursuit of musical knowledge. His genius had steadily asserted itself under the most adverse conditions; and now we are to picture the young musician, at the age of seventeen, full of fire and energy, setting out on a journey which must have been fraught with the brightest anticipations. He was to meet in Vienna the greatest composer of the day. Mozart—the divine Mozart—was staying in the city, planning the production of his opera, ‘Don Giovanni,’ and it had been arranged that he should receive Beethoven and put his powers to the test.

On reaching Vienna, Ludwig made his way to Mozart’s house, and with a heart beating high with expectancy, and a face aglow with excitement, he was ushered into the presence of the maestro. Mozart received him kindly, but it was evident that his thoughts were preoccupied, for, after desiring Beethoven to play, he began to turn over his papers in a listless fashion. ‘Ah!’ thought Beethoven; ‘he imagines that I have merely come to play him something which I have practised for the occasion.’ Dismayed by this reflection, he took his hands from the keyboard and, turning to Mozart, said, ‘Will you give me a theme on which to extemporise?’ Aroused by his appeal, and the earnest look which accompanied it, Mozart sat down and played a simple theme; and then Beethoven, taking up the slender thread, improvised so finely—allowing his feelings to flow into the music as he went on—that a bystander could not fail to have been struck by the change which came over Mozart’s face as he listened. The abstracted look gave place to one of pure astonishment. Then he arose from his seat, and, stepping softly into an adjoining room, where a number of his friends were waiting to see him, he exclaimed, ‘Pay attention to this young man, for he will make a noise in the world some day.’ Beethoven, meanwhile, played on and on, lost in the intricate melodies which he was weaving out of the single thread, until the touch of Mozart’s hand upon his shoulder recalled him to earth to hear the master’s praises sounding in his ear.

Vanished in a moment were the memories of the trials and hardships which he had undergone in order to perfect himself for this day of trial, for Beethoven realised that he possessed the power of impressing so great a judge as Mozart; and praise and encouragement were needed at that time, when he was trying to do his best, rather than later on, when his powers were assured. Nor was this the only recognition which his talents received on his visit. The fame of the young player had reached the ears of royalty itself, and he was granted an audience of the Emperor Joseph, whose love of music had made him desirous of hearing for himself what the Bonn performer could do.

Beethoven’s happiness, however, was soon to be clouded by sorrow, for shortly after his return to Bonn his mother died—the mother to whom he owed so much gentleness and sympathy in his childhood; she who was always ready to forgive his outbursts of temper and impatience, and to cheer and encourage him to further effort. How deeply he felt her loss may be gathered from the letter which he wrote to a friend at the time. ‘She was, indeed, a kind, loving mother to me, and my best friend. Ah! who was happier than I, when I could still utter the sweet name of mother, and it was heard? But to whom can I now say it? Only to the silent form resembling her, evoked by the power of imagination.’ That her death inspired some of his most beautiful compositions we may suppose, for it is natural that his grief should have found its best expression in music. A few months later his little sister Margaretha died, and the sense of loneliness deepened.

And then something bright came into his life. He made the acquaintance of a family named Breuning, comprising a widow lady and her four children—three boys and a girl—all of about his own age. The youngest boy and the daughter became his pupils, and a close friendship sprang up between them. He stayed at the house for several days at a time, joined in their excursions, and in every way was treated as one of the family. As the Breunings were intellectual people, their friendship was a great help to Beethoven; his whole nature expanded in the sunshine of their society, and very soon he found himself taking a deep interest in the literature of his country—a subject of which he had previously been ignorant. An affection for English authors likewise grew from this intimacy with a family of wide tastes and acquirements—indeed, new interests and fresh paths of pleasant intercourse were opening to him every day, whilst the separation from the miserable surroundings of his own home invigorated him for work. Every hour that could be spared from his official duties or his teaching was devoted to study and composition. Most of his composing was done in the open air; and for this purpose he provided himself with rough sketch-books, one of which he always carried with him, so that he might jot down in it such musical ideas as occurred to him during his rambles through the lanes and fields.

It was during this happy intercourse with the Breuning family that Beethoven made the acquaintance of a generous young nobleman, with whom he not only became on the most friendly terms, but who both helped him and encouraged his talents. Count von Waldstein, as the nobleman was named, called one day on Beethoven in his poor room, and found the composer, whose works he so much admired, seated before an old, worn-out piano, on which he was elaborating one of his compositions. The Count said nothing at the time, but shortly afterwards Beethoven was astonished and delighted at receiving a fine new instrument, accompanied by a message from his friend praying his acceptance of the gift. It went to the Count’s heart to observe the poverty-stricken conditions under which the composer worked. That he himself should be surrounded by every luxury, whilst the gifted musician who laboured for his enjoyment was driven to practise all manner of shifts to maintain himself in food and clothing, seemed intolerably unjust. Yet Waldstein knew and respected Beethoven too well to offend his pride by offering presents of money where no service was required in return; and so he hit upon the harmless device of helping his poor friend under the pretence that the Elector was making him an allowance. But though he opened his purse in another’s name, he took care to let Beethoven see into his own heart, in order that he might there read the sympathy and affection for which, happily, no cloak was needed.

How deeply Beethoven was moved by this friendship we may understand when we listen to the grand sonata which, though it was not composed until some years later, he dedicated to the Count. We want no better title for this exquisitely beautiful work than that by which it is known to the world—the ‘Waldstein Sonata.’ As the grand chords which follow the opening bars strike the ear it seems as if Beethoven were speaking to his friend—speaking to him out of the fullness of his heart, out of his poverty and mean surroundings—and rising by the strengthening influence of love to a height of eloquence and grandeur which no spoken words could have attained.

The conditions at home, meanwhile, were growing worse. Carl and Johann, Beethoven’s two younger brothers, of whom no previous mention has been made, [232]were engaged, the one in studying music, and the other as apprentice to the Court apothecary, but neither was bringing grist to the mill. The father had sunk still deeper under the degrading influence of drink, and his voice was almost ruined by his excesses, so that it had become increasingly difficult to maintain for the family even the appearance of respectability. On more than one occasion Beethoven, in returning home at night, had encountered his drunken father in the hands of the police, from whose custody he had succeeded in rescuing him only after much persuasion, and it seemed as if his discharge from the band must be merely a question of time. The state of affairs, in fact, could no longer be concealed from the Elector, who, knowing the circumstances with which Beethoven had to contend, finally ordered that a portion of the father’s salary should be paid over to Ludwig, in order that the money might be properly expended for the support of the family.

Meanwhile, at the Court itself great changes had been effected in regard to the band. With a view to encouraging the growth of operatic art, the Elector had established a national theatre, and Beethoven was appointed viola player in the orchestra, in addition to retaining the post of second organist to the chapel. The numerous performances of operatic works by the company must have given Beethoven an insight into what was to him a new branch of his art, from which he did not fail to profit later on. His work in the band was not increased by the changes which had been made, and as the Elector was frequently absent from Bonn, he found ample leisure to pursue his studies in composition, and to enjoy the intellectual society of his friends. Four years thus slipped away, until the month of July, 1792, saw the Bonn musicians preparing to receive a distinguished visitor. Haydn was to pass through Bonn on his way to Vienna from London, where his compositions and playing had created a sensation, and the band had arranged a grand reception in his honour. Beethoven, of course, was amongst the invited guests on the occasion, and he seized the opportunity of submitting to the master a cantata which he had lately composed. Haydn praised the composition highly, and warmly encouraged Beethoven to go on with his studies—words which sent the young composer back to his work with glowing cheeks and a determination to accomplish greater things.

The commendation of so renowned a master as Haydn must have gone far towards convincing the Elector that by keeping Beethoven at Bonn he was burying talent and cramping powers that only required a wider scope in order to produce great works, and that, therefore, some step should now be taken to develop his genius. It was with a heart overflowing with joy and gratitude that Ludwig learnt that the kindly Max Franz had decided to send him to Vienna, at his own expense, to take lessons in strict counterpoint from Haydn. Surely this could mean nothing less than that the days of adversity and struggling with poverty had closed behind him for ever, and that a future bright with hope had opened, upon which, though he might not forecast its results, he could enter with courage and determination. He was now twenty-two, and his compositions—published and in manuscript—had brought him such fame and appreciation as the small German town could give to one born and reared within its narrow sphere. Now, however, the bonds which hitherto had fettered his genius were to be broken, and, freed from the restraint of Court duties, he would be able to give full vent to the powers which he was burning to express.

In November of this year he bade farewell to Bonn and his friends, and set forth on his journey, though not, we may be sure, without regrets at parting with such true helpers and sympathisers as Count Waldstein, the Breunings, and the man to whom he owed so much—Christian Neefe. With the last named he left these words of thanks: ‘Thank you for the counsel you have so often given me on my progress in my divine art. Should I ever become a great man you will certainly have assisted in it.’ In an album provided for the purpose his musical brethren inscribed their farewells, and Waldstein’s message ran as follows:

‘Dear Beethoven,

‘You are travelling to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-cherished wish. The genius of Mozart is still weeping and bewailing the death of her favourite. With the inexhaustible Haydn she found a refuge, but no occupation, and is now waiting to leave him and join herself to some one else. Labour assiduously, and receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn.

‘Your old friend,

‘October 29, 1792.

Little did either Beethoven or his friends imagine that he would never set foot in Bonn again, but so it was to be. Two years later war had broken out with France, Bonn was captured by the French Republican army, and the Elector and his retinue were forced to fly the town. Those two years had witnessed great strides in the march of Beethoven’s career. He had arrived in Vienna as a comparatively unknown musician—though not, it is true, without recommendations from Count Waldstein—but his marvellous command of the pianoforte, and, more especially, his powers of extemporisation, had electrified his hearers to such a degree as to secure for him a place in the front rank of performers of the day. He was a constant visitor at the houses of the aristocracy, with several members of whom he had become on terms of intimacy. In the Prince and Princess Karl Lichnowsky he had found true friends and sincere admirers, who not only welcomed him as one of the family, but provided apartments for him in their house, and bestowed upon him an annuity of £60. Many who had heard him play forthwith engaged him as teacher, and on every hand his genius and powers were the theme of the hour.

It is hardly to be wondered at that with all this praise and patronage on the part of the wealthy aristocracy (and it is necessary to bear in mind that in Vienna at that time the musical profession was entirely dependent upon the patronage of the nobility), Beethoven should have encountered considerable hostility from other members of his profession. For a good deal of the enmity which his success aroused he himself was no doubt to blame; he took no pains to please or conciliate, and he showed even more independence towards the rich and great than towards those of his own rank. The result was that only those who could afford to overlook his faults for the sake of his genius—and for the sake of something else which lay beneath his crust of obstinate pride and openly expressed disregard for rank and wealth—remained constant to him. Of his obstinacy and self-will several instances will be given in the course of our story; but it is necessary at this point to draw attention to the early period at which this determined force of character began to assert itself. It is an astonishing fact, and one that demonstrates the extraordinary power of Beethoven’s genius, that in spite of everything that could be urged against him—his origin, rudeness of manner and speech, refusal to pay homage to the great—even his youth and the comparative shortness of the time during which he had been before the public—Beethoven should have not only won a front place as a performer, but also retained the sincere regard and respect of men and women belonging to the worthiest as well as the highest ranks of society.

In the midst of the whirl of work and entertainment into which the musical life of Vienna had plunged him, Beethoven was constant to those whom he had left behind him at Bonn. He had not been absent more than a month before he received news of his father’s death. There had been very little affection in his heart for the parent whose severity had called forth his childish tears, and whose selfish indulgence had increased the burden of his mother’s existence, nor was Beethoven the man to pretend what he did not feel. But with the father’s death the allowance which had been paid through Ludwig for the support of the two sons, Carl and Johann, ceased, and this fact awoke Beethoven to instant action. He wrote to the Elector begging that the grant might be continued for his sake, and the request was granted. Later on we shall see to what extent he carried his affection for at least one of these brothers.

With the Prince and Princess Lichnowsky Beethoven shortly became, as we have said, on terms of the greatest intimacy. All Vienna looked to the house of Lichnowsky for patronage and help wherever art or science was concerned, and none looked in vain. To Beethoven—young, rough, and almost untutored in the usages of society, but with his commanding genius and his equally remarkable personality—the Lichnowskys were kindness itself. The Princess saw to his comforts, and arranged his engagements in the same motherly fashion as Madame Breuning had done after his mother’s death, whilst the Prince even went so far in his consideration for Beethoven’s sensitiveness as to direct his servants to attend to the musician’s bell before answering his own. Extreme sensibility to what he deemed indifference or neglect on the part of his friends was undoubtedly one of Ludwig’s chief weaknesses; but he resented angrily the Prince’s discovery of the fact, and to mark his displeasure he immediately engaged a servant of his own to wait upon him. The regularity of the household arrangements at the palace was another matter which grated against Beethoven’s love of Bohemianism; to be forced to dress for dinner, especially at a set hour of the day, was to him an abomination not to be suffered. The workings of his genius were not to be regulated by the clockwork contrivances of civilised life, and hence he first took to dining out at some tavern, where he could be at his ease, and finally went altogether into lodgings. But the Prince and Princess, like the good, sensible people they were, only smiled at the vagaries of their favourite, and if his seat at their table was henceforth but too frequently vacant, they kept for him a warm corner in their hearts; whilst, as for Beethoven himself, his affection for his kind friends remained as strong as ever.

Careless as he was with regard both to dress and manners, there was no trace of either carelessness or haste in his compositions, and he was most insistent in having the latter performed in exact accordance with his plans. One night, when his great work ‘Leonore’ was to be rehearsed, the third bassoon failed to put in an appearance, and Beethoven stamped about in a fury, heaping execrations upon the head of the absent player. Prince Lobkowitz, who was present, and who was one of Beethoven’s chief patrons, laughed heartily at the composer’s outburst, and then tried to calm him by saying: ‘Well, well, what does it matter? You have the first and second bassoons safely here, surely the third man doesn’t count for much.’ The rehearsal was at length allowed to proceed, but Beethoven could not forget that his judgment had been questioned by the Prince’s mocking laughter, and as soon as the performance had ended and the company had dispersed, he rushed across the Platz to the gates of the Lobkowitz Palace, and shouted at the top of his voice: ‘Lobkowitzscher Esel! Lobkowitzscher Esel!’ (‘Ass of a Lobkowitz! Ass of a Lobkowitz!’)

Beethoven’s temper was of the passionate order that is apt to explode at the slightest provocation, and when once aroused he seemed to lose all power of self-control. As one of his greatest friends has remarked, he needed at his elbow some one who possessed the ability to give a humorous turn to what was spoken in the heat of the moment, so as to put them all on good terms with one another again. As it was, he would say the unkindest things even to his greatest friends, and afterwards bitterly regret having said them. His manners were rude and abrupt, but his great genius, combined with the absolute simplicity and straightforwardness of his character, won him his way everywhere. A personality so rare as Beethoven’s had a charm for those who worshipped genius, and thus he was forgiven speeches which no one else in his position would have dared to utter. He manifested complete indifference with regard to what people said of him or of his works—only when his honour was in any way impeached did he blaze forth in his own defence. He hated deception of any kind; in both heart and action he was as open as the day, and he was quick to resent a suspicion of deception on the part of others. On one occasion a hitch occurred with regard to a performance of his works, and he suddenly suspected three of his friends of having created the obstacle for their own ends, although they had in reality been working hard to overcome the difficulty. He accordingly sat down and wrote to each as follows:

‘To Count Lichnowsky.

‘Falsehoods I despise. Visit me no more. There will be no concert.


‘To Herr Schindler. ‘Visit me no more until I send for you. No concert.


‘To Herr Schuppanzigh.

‘Visit me no more. I give no concert.


Haydn and Beethoven did not get on well together; there seems to have been something antagonistic in their natures which prevented anything approaching to reciprocal feeling between them. Beethoven from the first considered that he had a grievance against his master in the fact that he did not make sufficient progress, owing to Haydn’s being so much occupied with his own work. This dissatisfaction led to his seeking guidance in other quarters; but for about a year after his arrival in Vienna he refrained from doing this openly, until Haydn’s departure for England gave him the opportunity of changing masters. Thereafter he took lessons every day of the week from several of the best musicians in the city both in playing and composition. Albrechtsberger was the famous contrapuntist of his day, and Beethoven derived much from his teaching; he does not appear to have impressed his master, however, with a high opinion of his powers, for the old man advised one of his pupils to have nothing to do with the young man from Bonn. ‘He has learnt nothing,’ Albrechtsberger added, ‘and will never do anything in decent style.’ This was in allusion to Beethoven’s wilfulness in persistently transgressing certain established rules of composition. The old teacher failed to see that Beethoven’s refusal to be bound by hard-and-fast rules arose, not from mere caprice, but from the force of a genius which would not submit to be trammelled by any kind of artificial limitations. The wisdom of Beethoven is, however, shown by the fact that he wrote out his exercises with the most scrupulous care, and in exact accordance with what were regarded as the laws of composition, for his genius, great and original as it was, would not presume upon ignorance.

But who could resist the young player when he seated himself at the pianoforte and began one of those wonderful improvisations about which so much has been written, but of the effect of which we can only faintly judge by the fact that the hearers were held spellbound until the finish? Who amongst that audience, gathered from the best and most critical followers and lovers of the art that Vienna contained, gave a thought to how many rules had been broken, or were likely to be broken, by the player, or, indeed, had room for any other thought but one of admiration for the music which was filling their ears and charming their senses? ‘His improvisation was most brilliant and striking,’ wrote Karl Czerny, the player and composer, and pupil of Beethoven; ‘in whatever company he might chance to be he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs; for there was something wonderful in his expression, in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas, and his spirited style of rendering them.’ Ferdinand Ries, another of his pupils, has declared that no other artist that he ever heard could approach Beethoven in extemporisation. ‘The wealth of ideas which forced themselves on him, the caprices to which he surrendered himself, the variety of treatment, the difficulties, were inexhaustible,’ And it must be borne in mind that in respect to this art Beethoven was brought into competition with several older and undoubtedly brilliant performers of the day, who, until he came amongst them, had swayed their respective circles of admirers.

Yet, strangely enough, the emotion aroused in his hearers seemed to find no response in Beethoven himself. Frequently when he discovered how deeply he had moved his audience he would burst into roars of laughter; at other times the sight of their emotion stirred him up to angry resentment, and he would shout, ‘We artists don’t want tears, we want applause!’ That a player should open his soul in his music and then abuse his audience for their inability to suppress the feelings which he had aroused appears strange indeed. But the caprice and wilfulness which marked his public playing are shown equally in his relations with people in everyday life. What may have been his true feelings is concealed—it is only the mask which is seen; and the mask was so constantly worn that it no doubt deceived many. Every now and again, however, we get a glimpse of his true nature in his intercourse with those who knew him best. Irritable to a degree, and occasionally outrageous as his conduct appears to have been, it needed but the touch of another’s grief to draw from him the golden thread of sympathy. On one occasion he offended the susceptibilities of the company assembled in one of the most fashionable drawing-rooms of Vienna by using his hostess’s snuffers as a toothpick! Yet, later on, when that household was plunged into mourning by the loss of a beloved child, and visitors were denied, it was Beethoven to whom the bereaved mother opened her doors, and to whom she turned for sympathy.

It is much to be regretted that the nobility of nature which was really and truly Beethoven’s attribute should have been so constantly overshadowed and dominated by something else which, without being a superior force, seemed by a strange perversity to be always to the fore. Whilst, however, we would wish to give to every instance of his goodness of heart its fullest weight, it would be useless, as well as wrong, to endeavour to hide the fact that his conduct, even towards those who desired to be his friends, and to whom he owed obligations for acts of sympathy and kindness, frequently admitted of no excuse. His anger, though sharp, was short, and left no sting behind; but his unjust suspicions and scornful treatment of men whose confidence he had won by his genius and force of character, were the cause of sorrow and suffering to those whom he attacked, as well as of remorse to himself, whereby his whole life was embittered, and his better nature warped to ignoble ends.

The good people of Vienna must, indeed, have been somewhat at a loss how to take the genius who had thus burst into their midst and laid them under captivity. Attempts at conciliation were more often than not frustrated by his variable temperament; for though none was apter than Beethoven to take offence, there was no one quicker to resent any effort at mediation by a third party, on whose unfortunate head it was only too likely that the irate composer would empty the vials of his wrath. Nevertheless, his erratic behaviour did not sensibly lessen the circle of his admirers or diminish the popularity which his fame had brought him. Many of the fashionable ladies of Vienna came to him for lessons instead of requiring his attendance at their houses; but such condescension made no difference to the man who held that mind and character alone were the qualifications by which men and women were to be weighed in the social balance. If, therefore, the young ladies talked or showed inattention during their lessons, he became furious, and would tear up the music and scatter it over the floor. His rage, indeed, seems to have been quite ungovernable at times. On one occasion he was playing a duet with his pupil Ries when his ear caught some fragments of a conversation which a young nobleman was carrying on with a lady at the further end of the room. Instantly he jumped up from the piano in a rage, and, taking Ries’s hands off the keyboard, he bellowed, ‘I play no longer for such hogs!’ nor could either apologies or entreaties induce him to resume the performance.

It was often a matter of some difficulty to get him to play, especially when he was not in the humour. On such occasions he would preface the performance by striking the keys with the palm of his hand, or draw his finger along the keyboard from end to end, roaring with laughter, and in other ways behave like a spoiled child. He would not bear being pressed beyond a certain point. Once, it is related, he was asked to play before strangers at the country-house of one of his rich patrons, and flatly refused to comply; whereupon the host jokingly threatened that, if he would not play, he should be confined as a prisoner in the house. Beethoven on this jumped up and ran out of the mansion, and though it was night, he walked three miles to the next town, and thence posted to Vienna. The next day a bust of this patron which stood on Beethoven’s bookcase fell to the ground, and was shattered to pieces!

His views as to the superiority of mind and character over everything else were certainly borne out by his actions. One day, when he was walking with the poet Goethe near Uplitz, the Imperial family were observed to be approaching. Goethe at once stood aside and removed his hat, at the same time plucking his friend [245]by the sleeve, to remind him that they were in the presence of royalty. Beethoven, however, seemed to regard this as a fitting opportunity for illustrating his views on the independence of art, for, shaking off the hand that detained him, he buttoned up his coat in a determined manner, planted his hat firmly on his head, and, folding his arms behind him, marched straight into the ranks of the Imperial party! If Goethe felt dismayed at his friend’s lack of respect, he must have been astonished to note the result; for the Archduke Rodolph not only made way for Beethoven to pass, but removed his hat, whilst the Empress was the first to bow to him.

In appearance Beethoven was short, broad, and strong-looking. His face was not prepossessing. ‘He was meanly dressed, and very ugly to look at,’ wrote a lady who knew and admired him, ‘but full of nobility and fine feeling, and highly cultivated.’ It must have been difficult to describe a face which was subject to such frequent changes of expression, but its forcefulness must have been apparent to every beholder. The eyes were black and bright, and they had a way of dilating when the composer was buried in thought so as to impart to his face an expression of being inspired. Gloomily abstracted as he would be at times, when possessed by some absorbing train of ideas, nothing could have been more cordial or more winning than the smile which lighted up his face at the sight of a friend. With a mass of dark hair surmounting a high and broad forehead, and the quick, penetrative glance which shot from beneath the large overhanging eyebrows, Beethoven’s face must have struck the observer with a sense of its strong individuality. Nevertheless, only a few of the portraits have succeeded in conveying a true likeness of the man who was so unlike every one else. His hands were hairy, and the fingers ‘strong and short, and pressed out with long practising.’ He was very particular about the position of his hands when playing, and as a rule he kept his body quite still. When conducting, however, his movements were constant and curious. At a pianissimo passage ‘he would crouch down so as to be hidden by the desk, and then, as the crescendo increased, would gradually rise, beating all the time, until at the fortissimo he would spring into the air with his arms extended, as if wishing to float on the clouds.’

It was one of the most striking of Beethoven’s characteristics that he dearly loved a joke. Ever since the time when he played off the rather unkind joke on the singer Heller the passion for joking had grown upon him to such an extent that evidence of its ruling force appears in every chapter of his life. He occasionally introduced a joke into his compositions. Thus, in the ‘Pastoral Symphony,’ we come across a trio between a nightingale, a quail, and a cuckoo. Again, in other works, such as the No. 8 Symphony, the bassoons are brought in unexpectedly, in such a manner as to produce a humorous effect. He never missed an opportunity of playing off a joke upon any of his friends, both in season and out of season, and he always showed his appreciation of the victim’s discomfiture by roars of laughter. His letters are full of puns, and he bestows uncomplimentary nicknames upon his intimates. One day his brother Johann, who had acquired a small property in the neighbourhood of Vienna, called upon him in his absence, and left his card, bearing the inscription, ‘Johann van Beethoven, Gutsbesitzer’ (Land proprietor). Beethoven was so tickled with the conceit of this designation that he could not resist returning the card to his brother with the following inscription scrawled upon the back: ‘L. van Beethoven, Hirnbesitzer’ (Brain proprietor). Some of his jokes, however, were in extremely bad taste. On one occasion a lady admirer preferred a request for a lock of his hair as a keepsake, and he sent her instead a wisp cut from the beard of a goat! With his inordinate love of joking, however, he was a poor hand at bearing a joke that told against himself. It is related that, having once been rude enough to interrupt a player named Himmel in the midst of the latter’s improvisation by asking when he was going to begin, Himmel afterwards wrote to him that ‘the latest invention in Berlin was a lantern for the blind’—a joke which Beethoven not only failed to see, but ‘when it was pointed out to him he was furious, and would have nothing more to do with his correspondent.’

His carelessness in matters of dress was very noticeable. Czerny, his pupil, has described how he found him at home on his first visit, with his shock of black hair and his unshaven chin, and his ears stuffed with cotton-wool, whilst his clothes seemed to be made of so rough a material, and were so ill-fitting that he resembled nothing so much as a Robinson Crusoe. It is related that once, when he was engaging a servant, the man stated as a reason for leaving his last situation that he failed to dress his master’s hair to the latter’s satisfaction. ‘It is no object to me to have my hair dressed,’ remarked Beethoven, as he signified his approval of the engagement. He always described himself as ‘a disorderly creature,’ and he certainly merited the designation. He was clumsy and awkward in his movements; he could not shave without cutting himself, or handle delicate things without breaking them; and whilst composing he invariably spilt the ink over the pianoforte. His handwriting was so illegible as to call forth objurgations from himself whenever he was called upon to decipher it. ‘Yesterday,’ he writes to a friend, ‘I took a letter myself to the post office, and was asked where it was meant to go to; from which I see that my writing is as often misunderstood as I am myself,’ Nevertheless, he was very fond of letter-writing, as the collections which have been preserved abundantly testify.

The letters of great men are often valued for the opinions they contain on persons and subjects of the day, as well as for the insight they afford into the private thoughts and feelings of the writers. Beethoven’s letters contain no word-pictures of scenery or events; nor do they express his views on questions or matters in which the world at large might be supposed to take an interest. But they are none the less valuable on that account; for they reflect the openness and simplicity of his character, and lay bare his wishes, his hopes and his disappointments, his joys and his sorrows—and especially his love of fun—just as one or another of these feelings or aspirations was uppermost at the moment.

As a teacher Beethoven exhibited none of the carelessness or impatience that characterised his personal habits. If the rendering of a passage was not in accordance with his own ideas of what it should be, he insisted upon the pupil playing it over and over again until he was satisfied. He was comparatively indifferent to the playing of wrong notes, but failure on the part of a pupil to give the right shade of expression, or to grasp the true character of a piece, never failed to arouse his anger. The one, he would say, might be an accident, but the other showed a want of knowledge, or feeling, or attention.

beethovenBeethoven was by nature exceedingly unpunctual, and frequently kept his pupils waiting for their lessons. Even Madame von Breuning, for whom he had a strong affection, and who was one of the few people who could be said to have managed him, often failed in persuading him to be in time. ‘Ah! I may not disturb him—he is in his raptus,’ she would exclaim despairingly, in allusion to his habit of relapsing into gloomy reverie. And not even his dearest friend dared to intrude upon him at such moments. His absent-mindedness was the subject of many a joke. He often forgot to come home to dinner—a fact which, seeing that he was a man, deserves to be recorded; and it is even said that, on one occasion, he insisted on tendering money for a meal which he had not ordered, under the belief that he had dined. At another time he composed a set of variations on a Russian dance for the wife of an officer in the Russian service—a compliment which was acknowledged by the gift of a horse. Straightway Beethoven forgot all about the horse until he was reminded of its existence by a long bill presented for its keep. He persisted in shaving himself at his bedroom window, without a blind, and exposed to the view of passers-by; and when he discovered that this habit caused a crowd of jeering idlers to collect in front of the house, he flew into a rage, and exchanged his lodgings for others situated in a more retired spot, rather than discontinue the practice. His explosive temper has furnished many amusing anecdotes. One day his cook, who, in consideration of her master’s incurable unpunctuality, must be regarded as an aggrieved personage, served up some eggs which were not to his taste, and he emphasised his displeasure by throwing the entire batch at the head of the unfortunate domestic. On another occasion a waiter who mistook his order was rewarded by having the contents of a dish of stew poured over his head. Even where his temper was not concerned his manners were directly opposed to those prevailing in polite society—though, in a large measure, this may have been due to his perfect simplicity and his ignorance of what was expected of him. Thus, it is told that, returning from one of his long walks in the pouring rain, he would make straight for the sitting-room of the house in which he happened to be staying and calmly proceed to shake the water from his hat over the carpet and chairs, after the fashion of a retriever just emerged from a pond, humming to himself the while some theme which had been occupying his thoughts during his walk. One of his pleasanter habits, to which he was greatly attached, was washing. He would pour the water backwards and forwards over his hands with childish delight, and if, as frequently happened, a musical idea suggested itself to him during the operation, he became oblivious to everything else, and would continue to send the water to and fro, spilling it in huge quantities, until the floor resembled a miniature lake.

Beethoven would never allow that his disorderliness was anything more than personal, always contending that he had a love of order and neatness with regard to his surroundings and arrangements. Yet here is a sketch of the condition of his living-room, as seen by one of his friends: ‘The most exquisite confusion reigned in his house. Books and music were scattered in all directions; here the residue of a cold luncheon, there some full, some half-emptied, bottles. On the desk the hasty sketch of a new quartet; in another corner the remains of a breakfast. On the pianoforte the scribbled hints for a noble symphony, yet little more than in embryo; hard by a proof-sheet, waiting to be returned; letters from friends, and on business, spread all over the floor. Between the windows a goodly Stracchino cheese, and on one side of it ample vestiges of a genuine Verona Salami….’ If an article were missing Beethoven would declare that he knew just where to put his hand upon it; and then, when two or three days’ search failed to discover its whereabouts, he would storm at the servants, asseverating that they hid his things away on purpose to annoy him. But the storm would clear as quickly as it had gathered, and peace reign once more, until the next occasion called it forth; and the servants knew their master’s heart too well to be angered by his reproaches.

The mention of his rambles in the rain recalls his fondness for the open air. It was a passion which clung to him through life. As each summer came round, during these years of unremitting toil, he would hail with delight the moment when he could close the door of his lodgings in the hot, stuffy city, and betake himself to some retired spot where he could ramble about and hold communion with Nature, secure from interruption. ‘No man,’ he wrote to one of his friends, ‘loves the country more. Woods, trees, and rocks give the response which man requires…. Every tree seems to say, “Holy, holy.”‘ A forest was to him a paradise. He would penetrate its cool depths, and, selecting a tree which offered a seat in a forking branch close to the ground, he would climb into it and sit there for hours, buried in thought. It was amidst the trees of Schönbrunn that he made the first rough notes for several of his great works. With his back planted against the trunk of a favourite lime-tree, his legs stretched along the big branch, and his gaze fixed upon the network of branchlets and quivering leaves above him, he sketched the framework of the oratorio ‘The Mount of Olives,’ the opera ‘Fidelio’ (or ‘Leonore,’ as it was first called), and that glorious symphony which is known by the title of the ‘Eroica.’

When not resting amidst the trees Beethoven would set off on long walks through the fields, sketch-book in hand, and humming or roaring to himself as he went along. The rough jottings in the sketch-books were later on developed with the utmost care, being written out again and again, with fresh alterations and additions each time, until every trace of crudeness had disappeared, and the finished work stood out with such clearness and precision as to suggest that it had been but that moment created. Nothing, indeed, has struck those who have followed the gradual development of his work from the first sketches which have been preserved more than the number of attempts which mark the growth of the idea in the composer’s mind, until it assumed its final form. Yet there was no trace in the finished work of the process of refining and elaboration through which it had passed.

Very curious was the origin of some of the suggestions which found their way into the sketch-books. It was Beethoven’s practice to keep one of these books by his bedside, in case an idea occurred to him during the night, and it is told that he was once aroused by the knocking of a neighbour who had been accidentally locked out of his house in the small hours of the morning. The irate neighbour knocked four raps at a time, with a pause at the end of every fourth rap, and the rhythmic regularity of the sounds not only startled Beethoven out of his sleep, but suggested a musical idea to his mind. Up jumped the composer, and down went the idea in his sketch-book, and the next morning the jotting was included in one of his most striking compositions—the ‘Violin Concerto in D,’ where the passage, given to the drums, is many times repeated.

A village which formed one of his favourite resorts was Heiligenstadt, situated about seven miles from Vienna. Here he went in the summer of 1802, after a severe illness. For some time past he had been suffering from increasing deafness, and the malady seemed now to have reached an acute stage, so that his country surroundings failed to exercise their accustomed charm, and he fell into a deep melancholy. Indeed, he appeared to have become impressed with the idea that his life-work was ended, and that he had nothing to look forward to but the companionship of an affliction which must sever him from the social intercourse in which he delighted, and render his remaining years solitary and miserable. It would be difficult to imagine a more terrible calamity than that which had befallen Beethoven, or to exaggerate its effects upon an over-sensitive nature such as he possessed. As his deafness increased, his efforts to conceal the results of the malady from those outside his own immediate circle became more and more painfully evident. No one failed to observe how he was affected, yet none dared to commiserate with him; and when he discovered that his mistakes were drawing public attention to what he was so anxious to hide, his mortification was intensified to a degree that for the time destroyed his peace of mind and left him a prey to melancholy. It was whilst in this state of mental and physical depression that he penned from his village retreat the touchingly eloquent letter which has since been called his ‘will.’ In this epistle, which is addressed to ‘My brothers Carl and Johann Beethoven,’ and which they are admonished to ‘read and execute after my demise,’ Beethoven pleads for consideration both on account of his irritability and his apparent lack of affection. To his misfortunes, not to his faults, must be attributed the obstinacy, the hostility, or the misanthropic attitude which he has shown towards those whom he loves, and by whom he is loved in return. ‘My heart and my mind,’ he says, as if in extenuation of this fancied ill-feeling, ‘were from childhood prone to the tender feelings of affection.’ It is a pathetic appeal to natures which, unfortunately for the writer, were the least likely to echo its tenderness in their own hearts; for neither of the brothers had ever shown him true affection. They had followed him to Vienna to found a livelihood for themselves, and thenceforward, with selfish zeal for their own interests, they had simply served to clog his progress. Blinded by the nobility of his own character, however, Beethoven now takes upon himself the entire blame for what he imagines to be a lessening of the affection between them, and, sunk in health, and viewing his future through the darkest of glasses, he reproaches himself for what he could never have helped. Though his brothers are the only persons who are actually named in this remarkable letter, no one who reads it can doubt that Beethoven is addressing the world at large, who will judge both himself and his works.

Towards the end of this year his health had improved, but the deafness remained constant, and he was at length compelled to desist from conducting his works. Shortly after this an incident occurred which must have served to convince him of the sympathy which the public felt for him in his affliction. His great work, the ‘Choral Symphony,’ was being performed, and the composer was standing on the platform with his back to the audience, intently following the music. As the concluding chords died away the whole house broke out into enthusiastic applause. Again and again the shouts rent the air, but Beethoven stood motionless, unmoved—a pathetic figure amidst the storm. Possibly at this moment those whose ears he had charmed by his music realised to the full the ineffable sadness of his condition, for a reverential hush fell suddenly on the gathering. The next moment, however, the storm of cheers broke out afresh, for a young singer, named Caroline Unger, who had been taking part in the symphony, went up to the unconscious composer, and, taking his hand, turned him round to the audience. As the glance of the deaf man lighted upon the sea of upturned faces, and he witnessed the emotion which his work had aroused, he was deeply moved.

The ‘Choral Symphony’ ranks amongst the greatest of Beethoven’s works, but we should like to mention one of his smaller, though not less famous, compositions—that which is known by the title of the ‘Kreutzer Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin’—because no fitter illustration could be found of the rapidity with which the composer worked under pressure than is afforded by the beautiful work which he dedicated to his friend Rodolphe Kreutzer, a violinist attached to Count Bernadotte’s suite of performers. He had undertaken the writing of the sonata at the instance of a violinist, a mulatto named Bridgetower, who was staying in Vienna, and it was to be jointly performed by Bridgetower and himself. The concert was announced to begin at 8 a.m., but when the public were hastening to the theatre in the Augarten at that early hour of the spring morning, the music for the pianoforte part was practically unwritten, with the exception of a few scattered suggestions, whilst the variations, which are justly renowned for their grace and beauty, were hurriedly written in at the last moment, and had to be played by the violinist at sight from the rough manuscript. The andante is of unsurpassable beauty, and it was rendered by the composer in such a manner as to excite the audience to enthusiasm. Beethoven’s powers of playing were never shown to greater advantage than in his andante movements. His execution of the quicker parts was apt to be confused by his frequent use of the pedal, but nothing occurred to mar or obscure the clearness and depth of expression with which he rendered the slower movements, and it was in these that his playing was most truly inspired.

The year 1804 is a memorable one in the life of Beethoven, for it witnessed the completion of his grand symphony, the ‘Eroica,’ the rough idea of which had been sketched amidst the woods of Schönbrunn two years before. The suggestion of the work is said to have come from Count Bernadotte, the French Ambassador at Vienna, with whom Beethoven was on terms of intimacy; but the man whom it was intended to honour by its dedication was the General whose exploits had shaken the whole of Europe—Napoleon Buonaparte. Beethoven had been greatly attracted by Napoleon’s character. He believed in him as the one man who was capable of making his adopted country a pattern for the world, by establishing a Republic on the principles laid down by Plato. But his confidence in the unselfishness of Napoleon’s aims was soon to receive a rude shock. The fair copy of the symphony, with its dedicatory inscription, had been completed, and was on the point of being dispatched to Paris, when suddenly the news reached Vienna that the hero’s glorious entry into the French capital had culminated in his allowing himself to be proclaimed Emperor. In a moment Beethoven’s worship was turned into hatred and contempt. He seized the manuscript, tore the title-page to shreds, and flung the work itself to the other end of the room. ‘He designs to become a tyrant, like the rest,’ he exclaimed, with scornful bitterness; and it was a long time before he could even be induced to look at the music again, or to consider the question of its publication. Eventually, however, he consented to its appearing under a new title, the ‘Sinfonia Eroica,’ by which it has since been known to the world.

It is impossible within the limits of a short story-life to give even a brief description of the composer’s chief works, or to convey more than an idea of how much work, despite his irregular habits, Beethoven accomplished. His untiring industry in developing the rough jottings which formed the foundations of his compositions has been mentioned; but without following his life from year to year we can have only a very imperfect conception of the actual amount of labour which was involved in bringing to perfection the long list of works that we see appended to the biographies of the composer. When we follow the story of his life in detail, we are struck by the fact of his unceasing toil. Nothing seems to have checked the constant flow of composition; yet many causes were at work to hinder it, such as ill-health, poverty, an ill-balanced temperament, and an oversensitiveness with regard to the petty troubles arising out of his injudicious mode of life. ‘I live only in my music,’ he writes, ‘and no sooner is one thing done than the next is begun. As I am now writing, I often work at three or four things at once.’ And think what such work meant! It has been said that it is difficult to find in Beethoven’s life anything corresponding to the extraordinary beauty and grandeur of his creations—in other words, there seems to exist no parallel in his life, as he lived it, to the outpourings of his musical soul. There is, indeed, little doubt that Beethoven had but one channel through which to express his deepest thoughts and feelings—the language of music. Through his music he reaches our hearts; by his music we are brought into contact with his innermost soul; and by his music alone can we know the man Beethoven as he really was.

Yet his life was by no means devoid of noble qualities. It was in every sense a great life, full of energy, full of power, full of a determination which carried him through every obstacle, and enabled him to hold his own against the attacks of his enemies. Apart, however, from the genius that ennobled it, it was not a life which could altogether compel admiration. The down-right simplicity and directness of purpose which shone forth as Beethoven’s chief characteristics, and in themselves were undoubted virtues, were, unhappily, overshadowed by faults and shortcomings of such magnitude as to shut out much of the friendship and sympathy that he might otherwise have enjoyed; and no one reading his life can doubt that he stood greatly in need of such assistance.

Nevertheless, Beethoven’s faults were of the head, not of the heart. At heart he was a man capable of loving and worthy to be loved. His simple nature was easily touched by distress, and just as easily imposed upon by those who designed to use him for their own ends. Many of his quarrels and dislikes were either brought about or fomented by persons in whom he had placed a mistaken faith. This was notably the case with regard to the quarrel with Stephen Breuning, his best and truest friend, to whom, after a separation of years, he turned with an appeal for pardon that did honour to his heart. The letter accompanied a miniature of the composer, and ran as follows:

‘Beneath this portrait, dear Stephen, may all that has for so long gone on between us be for ever hidden. I know how I have torn your heart. For this the emotion that you must certainly have noticed in me has been sufficient punishment. My feeling towards you was not malice. No—I should no longer be worthy of your friendship; it was passionate love for you and myself; but I doubted you dreadfully, for people came between us who were unworthy of us both. My portrait has long been intended for you. I need not tell you that I never meant it for anyone else. Who could I give it to with my warmest love so well as to you, true, good, noble Stephen? Forgive me for distressing you. I have suffered myself as much as you have. It was only when I had you no longer with me that I first really felt how dear you are, and always will be, to my heart. Come to my arms once more, as you used to do.’

Carl, the brother in whose unworthy behalf Beethoven had taken up the cudgels against his best friend, was dead when this touching appeal was written, but he had bequeathed to Beethoven a solemn charge which was destined to bring to him who undertook it in the goodness of his heart a burden of sorrow and bitterness. Carl had died penniless, and his boy, who bore the father’s name, thenceforth became to his Uncle Ludwig as his own son. How good, how generous and self-sacrificing Beethoven was to his nephew is testified by all who have written of his life. He supplied him freely with money when money was by no means too plentiful; he strove to satisfy his every need, either fancied or real; and he lavished upon him a great love and solicitude to the last day of his life. But Carl showed himself to be utterly unworthy of this affection. He treated his uncle shamefully, and instead of endeavouring to repay his kindness by steady perseverance, he was a disgrace to the family whose name he bore. There is, unfortunately, only too much reason for believing that Carl’s want of affection, coupled with his dissolute habits, embittered his uncle’s existence, estranged him from his friends, and hurried on his death.

Of Beethoven’s tenderness of heart numerous instances are recorded. He devoted much of his time to arranging concerts for the benefit of the poor and suffering, and in the midst of his popularity and the heavy demands upon his time and strength he always found a means of helping others. When he first came to Vienna to reside, he made the acquaintance of a musician named Förster, from whom he received instruction in the art of quartet writing. Beethoven never forgot this kindly help, and long afterwards, when Förster was living in the upper part of his house, he gave music-lessons to his friend’s little six-year-old boy. The lessons could only be given before breakfast, and as Beethoven was an early riser, the boy had to get up in the dark on those winter mornings and go down to the practice-room. May we not picture for ourselves the little child seated beside the grave composer in the dimly-lighted room, striving with chilly fingers to find the right notes, whilst the master, bending over him, sets him right with a tenderness which no one else is near to witness?

‘I feel as if I had written scarcely more than a few notes,’ were the words used by Beethoven in writing to a friend in 1824, when he was near the close of his full and eventful life; and they serve to show how exhaustless was that energy which neither sorrow nor disease had the power to repress. Still, he yearns to ‘bring a few great works into the world, and then,’ he adds, ‘like an old child, to end my earthly course somewhere amongst good people.’ These latter years had, indeed, been very full ones, both of work and anxieties, and the inroads of disease had been steadily undermining his strength. Yet the picture which is given to us of the composer when within a few months of his death is a vivid portrayal of the triumph of mind-force over physical weakness. He was staying in the country, at the house of his brother Johann, and the picture of his daily life there is drawn by the hand of his serving-man. ‘At half-past five he was up and at his table, beating time with hands and feet, singing, humming, and writing. At half-past seven was the family breakfast, and directly after it he hurried out of doors, and would saunter about the fields, calling out, waving his hands, going now very slowly, then very fast, and then suddenly standing still and writing in a kind of pocket-book. At half-past twelve he came into the house to dinner, and after dinner he went to his own room till three or so; then again in the fields till about sunset, for later than that he might not go out. At half-past seven was supper, and then he went to his room, wrote till ten, and so to bed.’

One more picture, and our story ends. Beethoven was lying on his death-bed when the news was brought to him that Hummel, the musician, with whom he had been intimate in the old Vienna days, had just arrived in the city. Many years had elapsed since Beethoven had severed his friendship with Hummel in a sudden fit of pique, and there had been no attempt at reconciliation. But now, wasted by disease, and fast sinking into his grave, there was no room in his heart for aught but joy at the knowledge that one whom he had formerly liked was so near him. ‘Oh,’ he cried, raising himself in bed when he heard the news—’oh, if he would but call to see me!’ No one seems to have carried the message from the dying man, but it was answered. A few days later Hummel came, and the old friends were at once in each other’s arms. Hummel, struck by the terrible signs of suffering in Beethoven’s face, broke into bitter weeping. Beethoven tried to calm him, and, pulling from beneath his pillow a sketch of Haydn’s birthplace which he had that morning received, he cried, ‘Look, my dear Hummel, here is Haydn’s birthplace! So great a man born in so mean a cottage!’

Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, having recently completed his fifty-sixth year. Two days before his death he received the last Sacraments of the Church. ‘As the evening closed in, at a quarter to six, there came a sudden storm of hail and snow, covering the ground and roofs of the Schwarzspanierplatz, and followed by a flash of lightning and an instant clap of thunder. So great was the crash as to rouse even the dying man. He opened his eyes, clenched his fist, and shook it in the air above him. This lasted a few seconds, while the hail rushed down outside, and then the hand fell, and the great composer was no more.’On March 29, at three o’clock in the afternoon, Beethoven was laid to rest in the Währinger Cemetery, Vienna. The funeral was a very grand one. Twenty thousand people followed him to his grave, and soldiers were needed to force a way for the coffin through the densely packed mass awaiting its arrival at the cemetery gates. Amongst the mourners was Schubert, the composer, who had visited him on his death-bed, and who acted as one of the torch-bearers. A choir of men singers and trombones performed and sang several of the master’s compositions, as the great procession wended its way to the graveside, and Hummel laid three wreaths of laurel upon the coffin before it was lowered to its resting-place.

From STORY-LIVES OF GREAT MUSICIANS by  Francis Jameson Rowbotham


Opera: Fidelio.

[Produced in its original form in 1805, revised in 1806, and again in 1814. There are four different overtures: ‘Leonore,’ Nos. 1, 2, and 3, in C; No. 4, ‘Fidelio,’ in E. Published in 1810 as ‘Leonore,’ and in 1814 as ‘Fidelio.’]

Mass in C, Op. 86 (performed in 1807). 1812.

Missa Solennis in D, Op. 123. 1827.

Cantata: The Mount of Olives, Op. 85 (performed in 1803). 1811.

Ballet: The Men of Prometheus, Op. 43. 1801.

Overture and Incidental Music to Goethe’s ‘Egmont,’ Op. 84. 1810.

Overture and Incidental Music to ‘The Ruins of Athens,’ Op. 113. 1812.

Overture and Incidental Music to ‘King Stephen,’ Op. 117. 1812.

9 Symphonies:

No. 1 in C, Op. 21. 1800.

No. 2 in D, Op. 36. 1803.

No. 3 in E♭, Op. 55. The Eroica. 1805.

No. 4 in B♭, Op. 60. 1807.

No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67. 1808.

No. 6 in F, Op. 68. The Pastoral. 1808.

No. 7 in A, Op. 92. 1813.

No. 8 in F, Op. 93. 1814.

No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. The Choral. 1824.

Wellington’s Victory (Battle of Vittoria), Op. 91 (performed in 1813). 1816.

Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62 (performed in 1807). 1808.

Overture in C (Namensfeier), Op. 115 (performed in 1815). 1825.

[265]Overture in C (Die Weihe des Hauses), Op. 124 (performed in 1822). 1825.

Septet in E♭ for strings and wind, Op. 20. 1802.

Sextet in E♭ for wind instruments, Op. 71. 1810.

Sextet in E♭ for strings and two horns, Op. 81b. 1810.

2 String Quintets:

Op. 4 in E♭. 1797.

Op. 29 in C. 1801.

17 String Quartets:

Op. 18, Nos. 1 to 6 (F, G, D, C minor, A, B♭). 1801.

Op. 59, Nos. 1 to 3 (F, E minor, C). The Rasonmoffsky. 1808.

Op. 74, in E♭. The Harfen-quartet. 1810.

Op. 95, in F minor. 1816.

Op. 127, in E♭. 1826.

Op. 130, in B♭. The Posthumous Quartets. 1827.
Op. 131, in C♯ minor.
Op. 132, in A minor.
Op. 135, in F.
Op. 133, Great Fugue in B♭. 1827.

5 String Trios:

Op. 3, in E♭. 1797.

Op. 9, Nos. 1 to 3 (G, D, C minor). 1798.

Op. 8, in D. The Serenade Trio. 1797.

Serenade in D, for flute, violin, and viola, Op. 25. 1802.

Concerto in D, for violin and orchestra, Op. 61. 1806.

2 Romances for violin and orchestra:

Op. 40, in G. 1803.

Op. 50, in F. 1805.

5 Concertos for pianoforte and orchestra:

No. 1 in C, Op. 15. 1801.

No. 2 in B♭, Op. 19. 1801.

No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. 1804.

No. 4 in G, Op. 58. 1808.

No. 5 in E♭, Op. 73. The Emperor. 1811.

Choral Fantasia in C minor, Op. 80. 1811.

Quintet in E♭, for pianoforte and wind, Op. 16. 1801.

6 Trios for pianoforte, violin, and violoncello:

Op. 1, Nos. 1 to 3 (E♭, G, C minor). 1795

Op. 70, Nos. 1 and 2 (D, E♭). 1809.

Op. 97, Grand Trio in B♭. 1816.

10 Sonatas for pianoforte and violin.

[We must mention the Kreutzer Sonata in A, Op. 47. 1805.]

5 Sonatas for pianoforte and violoncello.

[266]32 Sonatas for pianoforte alone.

[We have only space to mention the Pathetic (in C minor, Op. 13, 1799), the Moonlight (in C♯ minor, Op. 27, No. 2, 1802), the Waldstein (in C, Op. 53, 1805), and the Farewell (in E♭, Op. 81a, 1811).]

Andante Favori in F. 1806.

23 sets of Variations.

Scena and Aria, Ah! perfido, Op. 65. 1805.

Adelaide, Op. 46. 1797.

Mignon’s Song, ‘Kennst du das Land?’ Op. 75, No. 1. 1810.

Liederkreis (six Songs), Op. 98. 1816.

60 other Songs.

For a fuller account of Beethoven’s life the reader is advised to consult—

Schindler’s Life of Beethoven (translated by Moscheles). 2 vols. Colburn. 1841.

Beethoven’s Letters (1790-1826) have been translated by Lady Wallace. 2 vols. Longmans. 1866


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