Beethoven’s Empire of the Mind

Beethoven; illustration by Joanna Neborsky
Beethoven; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

“Live only in your art, for you are so limited in your senses. This is nevertheless the only existence for you.” When Beethoven wrote this diary entry in 1816, he had been growing increasingly deaf for about eighteen years. This means that roughly from the time of his early string quartets and piano sonatas, through the major works of his middle years and into the opening stages of his last period, he had been struggling with hearing loss. His basic reaction, as he put it in the diary, was “Endurance. Resignation. Resignation.”1 What sustained him over the years despite his isolation, his bouts of depression, and his suicidal impulses was his profound sense of stature and purpose as a composer, his bedrock faith in his ability to write great works. As long ago as 1802, in the Heiligenstadt Testament, the confessional document he kept hidden until the end of his life, he had written, “It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”2

These were the circumstances in which Beethoven began to use conversation books to communicate, beginning in 1818 and continuing until his death in Vienna in 1827. They were small blank booklets that he could use at home or carry with him out of doors, in which friends, acquaintances, and visitors could write down whatever they wanted to say; he then replied orally. Sometimes he would enter brief remarks in them or jot down musical ideas, but essentially these are documents in which Beethoven’s comments have to be inferred. They are nonetheless a rich source of evidence for his life and milieu in his last decade, during which he completed the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, the last piano sonatas, the “Diabelli” Variations, and, finally, the last quartets, from Opus 127 to Opus 135.

The conversations are mainly about personal matters, including Beethoven’s long and painful legal campaign to get custody of his nephew, Karl (he disapproved of his brother’s widow, who had been convicted of embezzlement in 1811), and many other current topics. They testify to his visitors’ literary interests, their opinions on current composers, performers and performances of his works and works by others, plus references to Austrian and European politics in these post-Napoleonic years. There is also local gossip, comments on people and contemporary events, and much else. They give us an unmistakable feeling of close contact with the world in which Beethoven lived in his last years; it is not surprising that excerpts have been quoted since the earliest biographies of him, and there is at least one modern novel based on them, Conversations with Beethoven by the late Sanford Friedman.3

That these booklets were preserved, all 139 of them, we owe in the first place to Beethoven…

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