The Beethoven Mystery Case

Historisches Museum der Stadt, Vienna/Bridgeman Images
Willibrord Joseph Mahler: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1804

Nine hundred and thirty pages into Jan Swafford’s new biography of Beethoven, there is an interesting juxtaposition. After the composer died, in March 1827, his funeral was “one of the grandest Vienna ever put on for a commoner.” Schools were closed. Some 10,000 people crowded into the courtyard of the building where he had lived, then followed the coffin to the local parish church—not, as Swafford has it, to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. (Among the torchbearers was Franz Schubert.) Franz Grillparzer, the leading Viennese writer of the day, wrote a funeral oration. But later that year, when Beethoven’s effects were auctioned off, a lifetime’s worth of manuscripts and sketchbooks fetched prices that Swafford calls “pathetic.” Beethoven’s late masterpiece the Missa Solemnis went for just seven florins. By comparison, his old trousers and stockings sold for six florins.

Beethoven’s last years are rich in anecdotes of neglect. The late works were too abstruse for the public, and he told a visitor (exaggerating somewhat) that even earlier ones were out of fashion and never performed in Vienna. When Rossini, then Europe’s most popular composer, paid a visit, he was appalled at the squalor in which the great man was living and left in tears. He appealed to aristocratic contacts to do something, but they refused, considering Beethoven crazy and beyond help. Even Beethoven’s successes in these years were partial: the ecstatic reception of the Ninth Symphony is well known, but Swafford suspects that the audience at the premiere had come to cheer “the man and his legacy” rather than the music.

But if Beethoven’s late music was a minority taste, the fame of the deaf, defiant genius was a public fact. The reverence accorded him in death was unprecedented for a composer. Some thirty-five years before, Mozart had been buried in an unmarked grave—not unusual for ordinary Viennese of the time, but so out of keeping with his fame that it fueled a popular legend of unappreciated genius. By the time Beethoven died, the status of composers had radically changed. Whereas music in the eighteenth century had been largely funded by aristocratic courts, now it was embraced by an urban bourgeoisie who invested it with new ideas of the sublime. Beethoven was a beneficiary of this shift, but he was also an important driver of it. “Only art and science can raise men to the level of gods,” he wrote.

Wagner recognized this aspect of Beethoven’s achievement and applauded his “tendence to emancipate his art; as he himself could be no lackey in the pay of Luxury, so should his music, too, be freed from every token of subjection to a frivolous taste.” More recently, some critics have seen this emancipation in a more equivocal light. Richard Taruskin has written that Beethoven, as the “creator spirit of classical music as we know it,” is the source of…

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