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Beethoven at Home

Beethoven

by Maynard Solomon
Schirmer Books, 400 pp., $15.00

W.H. Auden once reviewed, in these pages, Otto Deutsch’s large Documentary Biography of Mozart.1 Without research I can’t be positive that it was the shortest review ever published here, but I’d bet on it. Auden found the whole enterprise redundant, even indecent. Mozart’s life was none of our business; and he would have said the same of Beethoven’s. One admires the purity of this attitude, but Auden himself was not always capable of holding it, for he was interested in great men and liked to pay them homage. And it is easier to do that to a person than to a shelf of books or scores. In celebrating Freud he spoke of a loved master, even of “an important Jew who died in exile”; he mourned a man. And the wonderful epiphonema of his poem might be applied with almost equal justice to Beethoven:

   sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

Once allow this more sublime style of biography and how shall we keep out the more ordinary kind, in which homage takes the form of a passion for postmarks, the journals of innkeepers, memorabilia scribbled on the back of a manuscript; in which reverence is expressed in endless explanations, which, if they fail, at least breed wonder at all there is to explain?

Since facts accumulate and explanations decay, biographies of Beethoven will presumably continue to be written. Readers who want everything will go on consulting Alexander Thayer’s Life of Beethoven in the latest edition (at present this is Elliot Forbes’s, revised 1964, re-revised 1967). Middle-aged laymen may still look back to J.W.N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, now fifty years old. It was very rich, and we may gag a little at the remembered taste. Mr. Solomon’s book is more sober, but may prove standard for the present generation. Without being vast it has much detail; it is up to, and occasionally ahead of, the progress of research. It registers efficiently Beethoven’s Times, and records, with modest conviction, the Life and its psychopathology.

The Audenesque objection would be that all this, however serious, is gossip, and tells us nothing about the music. Knowing that love made him weep his pints, and that his father beat him, will not help us to understand how he came to write the Piano Trios, op. 1, much less the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Grosse Fuge. And that is true. All we get is a great man’s Life. And Beethoven’s, though he was recognized as a great man and often, though with some unease, behaved like one, lacks the color and variety that great men’s lives should have. Bonn, and Vienna with its environs, represent virtually the whole of his world. He threatened to go to Paris, but stayed at home; he might have gone to London, but didn’t; he even spoke of emigrating to the New World, but died in Vienna. His love affairs were abortive, his friendships sentimental but shallow, his intervention in others’ lives clumsy without offering the narrative satisfactions of ultimate disaster.

Much of the detail in a biography of such a man is likely to be of the sort that gets recorded only because the greatness of the subject is pre-established: his demeanor was slightly crazy, he blew his nose into his hand, he tried to sell the Missa Solemnis to several different people, and he wrote a letter now called the Heiligenstadt Testament, which calls forth intense efforts of interpretation but might not seem of very great interest if the life in question were that of an ordinarily odd, sad man.

In short, the greatness that justifies minute inquiry has no very obvious connection with the biographical detail the inquiry uncovers. For example, his treatment of his nephew Karl might, in a lesser man, seem no more than pathetic and a bit sordid. Himself the son of a failed and alcoholic father, Beethoven more than once felt he must act as head of the family; and when his brother Caspar Carl fell ill Ludwig extracted from him a legal declaration that after his death he wanted his brother to be his son’s guardian. Caspar Carl died when Karl was nine years old, and Beethoven about forty-five. The widow, Johanna, very reasonably disputed Ludwig’s claim that he was now the child’s sole guardian. There was a long struggle, during which the composer behaved like a madman. He despised Johanna because she had been pregnant with Karl before marriage, and because her husband had had her convicted on a specious charge of stealing money from him. Since practically all their money was her dowry, this was only a technical offense, but Beethoven called it a “horrible” crime. Perhaps he held it against her that the marriage had been unhappy; perhaps, as Solomon suggests, and as later events partly confirmed, he unconsciously desired her. Anyway, he fought her with ridiculous ferocity, traducing her in the courts, and recording various fantasies about her, such as that she had poisoned her husband, and, after his death, taken to whoring (he called her, interestingly enough, the Queen of the Night).

During this long paranoid episode Beethoven harmed everybody concerned, including himself: his lifelong tacit pretense to noble status was exposed in court. Johanna suffered, obviously; and Karl had the worst of it. Though he seems to have deluded himself into thinking he was the boy’s natural father, Beethoven treated him coldly, even cruelly; one assault caused injury “in the genital region,” whereupon the composer pleaded that his “having been human, and erred now and then” was no reason why the child should be taken from its father. As Karl grew up the harassment continued; Beethoven seemed anxious to deny him any sexual life. And at nineteen he made a serious suicide attempt, openly attributing his misery to his uncle’s behavior. A little while after, Beethoven died leaving Karl his sole legatee, though he was well aware of the possibility that Johanna might be Karl’s, for he was unmarried and in the army.

Even this brief summary of the affair may suggest that while it was at its height Beethoven was so obsessed by it that he can hardly have given much attention to anything else. Nothing could be less true; in the middle of his crazy litigation he wrote the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo of the Missa Solemnis, as well as sketching the Diabelli Variations. This certainly lends color to Solomon’s thesis, that major transformations in the music are usually associated with major biographical crises. The excesses that distort behavior have quite a different effect on the inner life, enabling the discovery of what would remain inaccessible to conventional good conduct.

As Solomon is ruefully aware, it is difficult to develop the theme of these correlations by writing biographically about the music. In fact he fences off the music in four sections, one for each period of the composer’s life (Bonn, Vienna, Heroic Period, Final Phase). The “rather wide variety of categories—aesthetic, historical, psychoanalytic, sociological” that he uses are applied, mostly, to the life not the music; the category most enterprisingly used is the third. But before interpretation begins the facts have to be established. Thayer has the great mass of them, but there are questions about the dependability of early witnesses, the authenticity of transcripts, and so forth. And there is new research, including his own. This is, in other words, a major biography. Yet I doubt if Solomon would claim to have radically changed the chronicle of fact, except by one great coup, the discovery of the identity of the Immortal Beloved; and not everybody will find that knowing her name makes much difference. The main interest of Beethoven lies less in the continuous thread of the life than in Solomon’s examination of certain large knots in it.

Beethoven was the second and eldest surviving son of a very minor musician, who beat him to make him practice. A drunken, irresponsible father and a melancholy mother, perhaps obsessed with the memory of her first-born son, gave him a childhood he rarely spoke of, and then confusedly. He is said to have lacked, throughout his life, the ability to mourn. At grade school he was backward; and though he later shared, “in a sloganized and simplified form,” such Enlightenment enthusiasms as the philosophy of Kant, he never became, in the ordinary sense, an intellectual. He was a child virtuoso on the piano, but was slow to learn composition, and was doing unsatisfactory counterpoint exercises for Haydn in his early twenties. At the same age, and characteristically in a time of trouble, he had his first success as a composer; and it would be reasonable to say that thenceforth he did all his thinking in music. Always ambivalent about authority, he venerated the dead Mozart but envied Haydn, whom he treated disrespectfully, at least until he was very old, denying that he had learned anything from him. There is discernible in the history of Beethoven’s music a pattern of convention-defying forward leaps, and subsequent withdrawals to positions established by the authority of others, that may reflect this ambivalence.

It was his virtuosity that won him his uneasy place in Vienna. The social order was changing, but a musician still needed, as Mozart had needed, any proof he could come by that he belonged upstairs. Beethoven had some generous patrons; but he had to sell his art (a word he used in a sense that belonged less to their world than to the later nineteenth century) as a commodity. His manners reflect the ambiguity of his position: deference, as in dedications, but with a developing attitude of eccentric defiance. He made aristocrats beg him to perform. He despised audiences; improvising pathetically, he would make them weep, then burst into loud laughter and tell them they were fools. Near the end of his life he was contemptuous of the audience at the first performance of the string quartet op. 130 because they applauded the early movements but were confounded by the great fugue—“Cattle! Asses!” His laughter, sudden, uncouth, and loud, was remarked upon. One has noticed something similar in very withdrawn men—the inexplicable gust, outside the normal sociology of laughter, coming from an inner world with different rules.

His hearing first gave him concern in 1801, though sixteen years passed before he was totally deaf. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers written the following year, he used his affliction to excuse his misanthropic ways. They had, in fact, established themselves much earlier; but deafness or the fear of it must have deepened his isolation. Solomon finds here another benefit conferred by apparent disaster: by ending his career as a virtuoso, deafness gave the composer greater freedom in an inner world of silent tones. And the Testament, for all its talk of suicide, heralded eight years of prolific composition, mostly in a new “heroic” style.

Beethoven’s attitude to Napoleon, a curious blend of messianism and indifference, calls for a whole chapter. Like many others he cooled off his admiration for the First Consul when he had himself crowned Emperor; but the famous tearing up of the title page of the Third Symphony was not his last word. In fact he restored it, and finally removed all the reference to Napoleon when he might have lost a fee by retaining it. But his motives were more complicated than that. As late as 1810 he thought of dedicating the C major Mass to Bonaparte; and before that he had caused some comment by entertaining Tremont, an associate of the emperor’s, after the French bombardment and occupation of Vienna. This sounds like some private hero-worship fantasy leaking into everyday life. During these years Beethoven was much influenced by French music, and Solomon rejoices that he decided against going to Paris, where his career might have ended in emulation of the sterile heroics of fashionable French music. One should add that during the bombardment and occupation he wrote not only the rather military Fifth Piano Concerto but the piano sonatas op. 78, 79, 80a, and the beautiful quartet op. 74, which Solomon, like most experts, thinks of as pleasant but backward-looking, though a lay ear finds it full of original sounds.

For homing in on Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” and for a sensitive interpretation of the whole episode, Solomon deserves congratulation. She was Antonie Brentano, to whom Beethoven later dedicated the Diabelli variations. He seems to have courted her in his usual way, choosing to do so because she was married and presumably inaccessible; it was his habit either to flirt ponderously or choose women likely to turn him down, at the same time acting in a manner calculated to ensure rejection. But Antonie seems to have dumb-founded him by saying she would leave her husband. A famous and obscure letter shows Beethoven moving toward a decision to break with her, presumably with an indeterminate mixture of altruism and selfishness; he certainly believed that marriage would be disastrous to his music. He never again had a serious relationship with a woman, though soon afterward he began going with prostitutes, and seems to have accepted the loan of friends’ wives.

Now began the Final Period. The Congress of Vienna brought from Beethoven his worst music, in his moment of greatest popularity, although Fidelio, in its last recension, was at last successful. But after 1815 he rather lost touch with patrons and public. Almost completely deaf, he turned away from his own time and looked back to Handel and Bach. He took to drink, developed cirrhosis of the liver when he was fifty, and perhaps had a venereal disease. At the same time he began a series of masterpieces—the Missa Solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, the two late sets of bagatelles, and the Ninth Symphony, finished in 1824.

The remainder of his life was given to the five last quartets; only a little earlier he had remarked that if his health could be restored he might yet make a success of his life. We might say he brought it off anyway. It is right for the experts to tell us that this music is less original than we think; but all we learn from them of its Baroque elements and its debt to Palestrina reinforces our sense of its being a unique world which we understand only according to its own natural laws; a world only very tenuously related with the one in which biography moves most easily, bearing its explanations.

The chief instrument Solomon uses to untie those knots is the Freudian-Rankian Family Romance. Beethoven persistently refused to admit his true birthdate, claiming that the documents referred to his dead brother, also named Ludwig. He wanted to be illegitimate, and was reluctant to deny the rumor that he was a natural son of the king of Prussia. In drafting the Heiligenstadt letter he apparently could not bring himself to write down the name of his brother Johann; that was also his father’s name. Such fantasies relieve guilt at the father’s death, license incestuous desires, and satisfy a wish for grander parentage. Beethoven, in his dealings with his own drunken father as well as with Karl, showed himself ready to usurp the paternal role; and even his relations with Haydn and Napoleon display a filial ambivalence. Solomon develops this theme with subtle persistence, most effectively in his study of the strangely negative fantasy family Beethoven constructed, with Johanna as absent wife, Karl as absent son, and himself as absent father. And even these painful delusions turn out to be blessings in disguise Solomon says; for Karl and Johanna brought the composer’s deepest conflicts and desires to the surface, and made possible a new release of creativity.

Occasionally, as in the Third Symphony, Solomon finds a musical reflection of a non-musical conflict; but he does not attempt to relate the history of Beethoven’s delusions to his music in any specific way. Fidelio is an apparent exception, but only because it has a libretto; and the passage on the opera is the wildest thing in Solomon’s book. Leonore, helping Rocco to dig the grave, is seen as collaborating in her husband’s murder. But Florestan’s place is taken by the evil father, Pizarro; so Beethoven’s fantasy of patricide and his fantasy of father-rescue are reconciled. Moreover Florestan, in his soundless cell, is not only the deaf Beethoven but also the dying vegetation god, as Pizarro is the winter god; and mankind celebrates the new year with marriage hymns. There would be no need to change this reading if the opera were without musical interest, or even not an opera at all. It sounds like the kind of thing students used to write about The Winter’s Tale, as in Simon Gray’s Butley.

One sympathizes, however, with the feeling that the power of Fidelio calls for profound explanations. Solomon seems to agree with Winton Dean that with all the revising Beethoven never got it quite right, and that Marcelline remains too prominent. But what prevented him from making such an obvious correction? Perhaps he came to see the apparent imbalance as a true balance. Without the quartet, transfiguring the commonplace, the arrival of Pizarro and Leonore’s Abscheuliche would feel very different, and so would the ecstatic reunion of the finale.

There is an element of the unheimlich in all Beethoven’s greatest achievements. Charles Rosen2 says that with the Hammerklavier Sonata “the emancipation of piano music from the demands of the amateur musician was made official, with a consequent loss of responsibility and a greater freedom for the imagination.” But that freedom is dialectically related to the observance of self-imposed restraints, which Rosen defines; and so there is, together with the sense of frontiers mysteriously breached, a sense also of a returning home. Solomon speaks of a recurrent homecoming in Beethoven’s work, and one is reminded of Heidegger’s unique meditations on the same theme in Hölderlin—a memory which prompts the reflection that the best complement we could have to a serious biography of Beethoven would be just such a meditation, if only there were anyone in the world to write it.

  1. 1

    NYR, August 5, 1965.

  2. 2

    The Classical Style (Norton, 1972), p.404.

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