One autumn evening in 1821 or 1822 the artist Blasius Höfel was sitting with some friends at a tavern in Wiener Neu- stadt, a town near Vienna. Suddenly a local policeman appeared and announced that “we have arrested somebody who will give us no peace. He keeps on yelling that he is Beethoven; but he’s a ragamuffin, has no hat, an old coat,…nothing to identify him.”
Wandering out alone on a long walk, Beethoven had lost his way and was peering into houses to find help, whereupon some residents had called the police, who locked him up. In the middle of the night, when the prisoner kept on insisting that he was Beethoven, the police called in the local music director, a certain Herzog, who identified the pathetic vagrant and took him home. The next day, dressed in some of Herzog’s clothes, he was sent back to Baden “in the magisterial state-coach.”
Almost stone-deaf, immersed in his inner world, surrounded by a small band of associates that included his nephew Karl (whose guardianship he took on in 1820 after a fierce legal battle with his sister-in-law, Johanna), widely regarded as half-mad, Beethoven in his last years lived in Vienna in isolation, communicating with his cronies and visitors by means of his conversation books, that is, open pads on which others wrote comments and he answered aloud. Occasionally visited by musicians, sycophants, and others, he was wholly engaged in composing the works that revealed a profoundly new and significant “late style,” expressed in different ways in the last five piano sonatas, the bagatelles, the “Diabelli” Variations, the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last quartets.
The “late style” and its aesthetic underpinning is the central subject of Maynard Solomon’s new book, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, in which the author, a master of Beethoven scholarship and of biography, offers reflections on a variety of topics united by the premise that the late works, in their singularity, were not purely products of Beethoven’s musical imagination but that they also grew from a “striking metamorphosis” in Beethoven’s wider patterns of thought beginning around 1810. In Solomon’s view, this process of change “eventually amounted to a sweeping realignment of his understanding of nature, divinity, and human purpose, constituting a sea change in Beethoven’s system of beliefs.”
He finds this change recorded primarily in Beethoven’s letters, conversation books, and especially in the Tagebuch, a personal diary that Beethoven kept from 1812 to 1818. Solomon’s aim is to stimulate inquiry into “the connections—at least, the analogies—between Beethoven’s thought and his later works.”
That a well-defined “late style” emerged in Beethoven’s major works from about 1815 to his death in 1827 is indeed incontestable; that it arose in conjunction with a change in Beethoven’s “system of beliefs” is a new view of Beethoven’s artistic development that will be much discussed. This view is radical in two ways. First, in …