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 himself and then to Anton Schindler, his sometime secretary and early biographer. Schindler took possession of them when Beethoven died in 1827, along with other memorabilia. In 1846 he sold them and other Beethoven documents to the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin, where from then on they could be examined by others, including Alexander Wheelock Thayer, by far the most trustworthy of early Beethoven biographers. As Beethoven’s letters began to be published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a complete edition of the conversation books looked like the next step. Partial editions came out in Germany in the 1920s and in the early 1940s during the war, but the difficulties of transcribing, annotating, and publishing this vast material prevented any further efforts until the 1960s. It was then that a team of scholars in East Berlin led by Karl-Heinz Köhler, with Grita Herre and Dagmar Beck, began to produce what became the first complete and annotated German edition in eleven volumes, published between 1968 and 2001.

Along the way, it was discovered in the 1970s—first by Peter Stadlen, a British music critic, then confirmed by the Berlin editors—that while Schindler had the books, he made about 150 false entries in them, finding room on blank pages or unused spaces, and trying to fashion them to fit in with what had been under discussion in the original situations.4 These entries cover a wide span of topics, and Schindler artfully designed them to make it look as if he had taken part in the original conversations. In fact, he had been in direct contact with Beethoven for a much shorter time than he publicly claimed, and until his death in 1864 he worked incessantly to shore up his reputation as an “ami de Beethoven” (words he had inscribed on his visiting card).

The Berlin editorial team identified and labeled Schindler’s forgeries in their later volumes in the series, beginning in 1978. Inevitably, the discovery of them did wholesale damage to his reputation as a Beethoven authority. At the same time, Theodore Albrecht, the editor of the new English edition of the conversation books, reminds us that, here and there, Schindler’s entries “may contain elements of factual material and opinions current in Beethoven’s circle” and that they can’t be discounted entirely.5


The volumes under review here are the first two of a projected edition of the complete conversation books in English, edited, translated, and annotated anew by Albrecht. When it is completed, it should rank as one of the most important contributions to Beethoven scholarship in the English language. Albrecht’s earlier publications include the three-volume Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence (1996), and in his general introduction to his translation of the conversation books he generously acknowledges all earlier efforts to make even some of this material available in English. Those efforts include a project that I began many years ago in collaboration with the late Piero Weiss, a singularly gifted pianist and scholar, to make a selection of the conversations, which did not come to fruition, and Albrecht kindly notes that I gave our limited materials to him. Albrecht’s achievement goes far beyond what Weiss and I had thought of doing, and it brings this complex source material to readers with authority and clarity, thanks to his painstaking research over many years.6 Along with the full texts of the conversation books, he conveys an immense amount of information that both incorporates the copious documentation provided by the German edition and goes well beyond it.

For this kind of material, editorial annotations are essential, since the hundreds of situations we encounter in just these first two volumes bring us into contact with a large number of Beethoven’s conversational partners. Prominent among them in these years were Carl Bernard, a Viennese literary man and newspaper editor who took a strong interest in the custody problem and much else7; Franz Oliva, a government official who was in Beethoven’s circle at this time; Karl Peters, a tutor and estate manager, for a time a co-guardian of the nephew; and Joseph Czerny, a piano teacher, composer, and music publisher, evidently not related to the more famous Carl Czerny, who had been a pupil of Beethoven’s around 1800–1802. Others included Friedrich August Kanne, a composer and writer, and nephew Karl.

Along with Albrecht’s extensive footnotes explaining obscure details that come up in the conversations, his general index, which takes up more than thirty pages at the end of volume 1, will be an essential tool for threading one’s way through the maze of situations, people, and topics that come up in this day-by-day record of Beethoven’s interactions. Some of my favorite entries are these for Bernard: “Basks in Beethoven’s friendship” (said by Oliva); “Dislike of foreign authors”; “Goddamned pretension” (Oliva); and “Moocher.” All these and more are what readers who want to explore this vast material will need, since reading it consecutively is an unlikely prospect, as one miniature scenario and topic succeeds another. Equally valuable are Albrecht’s comments on who is speaking and on when and where an entry was written down, often including the exact date, time, and location of a conversation. Sometimes they take place in Beethoven’s apartment, sometimes in restaurants or coffeehouses, in other people’s apartments, or when he and his companions are out walking.8

The struggle over the guardianship of Karl is a central topic in the conversations of 1818–1820. It had all begun when Ludwig’s brother Kaspar Karl van Beethoven died in 1815, leaving his wife, Johanna, and their only child, Karl, then nine years old. A fierce battle then began between Beethoven and Johanna for custody, at first seemingly resolved when a court appointed them co-guardians but erupting again when Beethoven fought to become the sole guardian, which he was appointed in January 1816. He then placed Karl in a local boarding school, where the boy remained until January 1818, just before this first volume of conversations begins.

Many details of the ongoing dispute emerge during these months, as a number of Beethoven’s interlocutors, especially Bernard, have a lot to say about it. Accordingly, we are witnessing the early stages of a conflict that was of paramount emotional importance to Beethoven and that had a deeply damaging effect on young Karl, who found himself torn between the obsessive demands of his famous and dominating uncle and his desperate longing to stay close to his mother. It all led, some years later in 1826, to Karl’s failed attempt at suicide, after which he was able to recover and begin a military career.9

Of course, every reader will want to know whether and how the written conversations and implied answers in these books reflect in some way on the compositions that Beethoven was creating at the time. The answers are mixed. In a reader’s guide at the beginning of the first volume, Albrecht presents a segment on “Beethoven’s Daily Routine,” reporting that it was his normal habit to awaken at about 5 AM, work “as long as he could (composing and/or writing letters),” then leave his apartment about noon, have dinner at about 2 PM, “often with friends,” then later in the afternoon go to a coffeehouse until supper in the evening, and go to bed by 10 PM.


Karl van Beethoven


Karl van Beethoven, circa 1845

The Beethoven of these conversation books is the Beethoven of the afternoon and evening, not the composer of the morning, when he would have been enveloped in his compositional projects, large or small, with his sketchbook or working manuscript near his piano. In the two-and-a-half-year period covered by these first two volumes, from February 1818 to September 1820, we know from his sketchbooks, letters, and other evidence what Beethoven was working on, and a brief list tells an eloquent tale. Early in 1818 he was sketching ideas for the first movement of the Ninth Symphony10 and was starting work on the monumental “Hammerklavier” piano sonata, Opus 106, which he completed by August of that year. In March 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli invited a number of leading Viennese composers to write single variations on his own waltz theme, whereupon Beethoven began composing not a single variation but a gigantic set that would wholly outdo all his contemporaries. Two months later, in May 1819, he had to put the Diabelli project aside for several years to start work on the Missa Solemnis, intended for the ceremonial installation of the Archduke Rudolph, his royal pupil and patron, as archbishop of Olmütz, scheduled to take place in 1820. In turn, the Missa became a project of immense complexity and significance for him, and it was not finished until early in 1823. By this time, he had also turned to other major works, including the last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110, and 111, and was deep in work on the Ninth Symphony, first performed in May 1824.

What, then, appears in the conversations of 1818–1820 about Beethoven’s creative work? Largely reflections by his conversational partners, but nevertheless they can be of value for what they show about how musicians and others responded to his works when they were new. An example is Joseph Czerny’s comments on the recently published “Hammerklavier” Sonata in late November or early December 1819:

About one fugue fewer.//Frau Streicher [Nannette Streicher, an accomplished pianist] has already studied your last Sonata for 3 months and still cannot [play] the exposition. She complains the most about the beginning.

In volume 2, covering March to September 1820, there are more conversations on music, and in later years, when musicians close to Beethoven appear, such as the violinists Ignaz Schuppanzigh and Karl Holz, there are considerably more of them. Yet it is not for close discussion of his works that the conversation books are valuable, but for illuminating the stuff of daily life in Beethoven’s Vienna, the interests and concerns of his visitors and of Beethoven himself, as we can interpret them from this mass of conversational material. When he writes his own entries, they can vary from shopping lists or brief and elliptical entries to occasional comments that give us piercing insight into his view of larger matters.

In early February 1819, for example, we find a much-quoted entry in which Beethoven writes, “‘The Moral Law in us, and the starry Heaven above us.’…Kant!!!” The three exclamation points are of course by him, and he follows these words with the name “Littrow,” whom he identifies as director of the observatory. It has long been known that just a few days before he made this entry, Beethoven had seen an article by the astronomer Joseph Littrow that ended with a passage from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. For Beethoven, this is not just a passing thought but a moment of reflection on a basic issue in his outlook on the world. Even though he is quoting Littrow rather than Kant’s own words, it is striking in the Kantian original to find an eloquent description of the feeling with which an individual can look up at the heavens and ponder his place in the universe. Kant follows these words with this passage:

I do not merely conjecture them [the stars] and seek them as though obscured in darkness or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon: I see them before me, and I associate them directly with the consciousness of my own existence.

There is plenty of evidence that when Beethoven thought about his place in the world and his stature as an artist, he saw himself in a special, elevated position that he had to strive to maintain. Thus his disdain for the nobility, with whom he had to have dealings all his life, and his denigrating references to “our monarchs.” In a letter of 1814, he writes, “I much prefer the empire of the mind, and I regard it as the highest of all spiritual and worldly monarchies.”11 In 1825 he writes to Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, who had commissioned the first three of the late quartets, “My supreme aim is that my art should be welcomed by the noblest and most cultivated people. Unfortunately we are dragged down from the other-worldly element in art only too rudely into the earthly and human sides of life.”12

The conversation book quotation from Kant is not his only reference to the stars. Carl Czerny later reported Beethoven’s telling him that the beautiful E-major slow movement of the quartet Opus 59 No. 2, the second of the Razumovsky set, had come to him while he was “contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.”13 And it is not accidental that in the Credo of the Missa Solemnis and in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven found ways to symbolize the higher spheres with dramatic use of very high orchestral and vocal sonorities.14 In the religious portion of the finale to the Ninth Symphony, whose text is from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” the chorus asks, “Do you sense the Creator, oh world? Seek him above the stars! He must dwell above the stars!” and Beethoven’s chorus and orchestra rise to ethereal harmonies in pianissimo.

In his official brief to the Court of Appeal in 1820, Beethoven vilified his sister-in-law Johanna, beginning with his opening words, “It is painful for a man like me to have to sully himself in the smallest degree with a person like Frau Beethoven,” and going on from there to attack her credibility. But in private diary entries of 1818, he had confessed his remorse over what he was doing to take Karl away from her, in passages like, “It would have been possible without hurting the widow’s feelings, but it was not to be,” and he called on God: “My refuge, my rock, O my all. You see my inmost heart and know how it pains me to have to make somebody suffer through my good works for my dear Karl!”

Caught between his overwhelming need to have his way in the guardianship case and guilt over the tactics he was using, Beethoven was torn between the opposing dimensions of his life in the world, the ideal and the real. All this was paralleled by his constant awareness of the distance between what he knew he could achieve as an artist—above all, in these last years, in works that lay far beyond the comprehension of most of his contemporaries—and the grim demands of everyday life, in which he had to come to grips with all the patrons, publishers, visitors, money, family problems, law courts, illness, deafness, and the world at large.