Ludwig van Beethoven

Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna

Ludwig van Beethoven; portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815

Early in E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For Helen, the flighty younger sister, the music functions as the soundtrack to a story unfolding in her mind. She identifies the symphony’s themes with characters and events—heroes, shipwrecks, elephants dancing. Most important is the third movement, the Scherzo, whose main theme represents “a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end.” The goblin theme insinuates to Helen that there is “no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world,” and the movement represents Beethoven’s struggle to vanquish this nihilistic thought. It is seemingly overcome by a new theme, a heroic recasting of the symphony’s opening four-note call, but then the goblin theme returns for a last, ghostly repetition, which Helen sees as Beethoven’s acknowledgment that evil and despair can never be permanently overcome. “Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall,” Forster writes. “The goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.”

The novel goes on to prove the point: when Helen rushes out of the hall, overcome by emotion, she accidentally takes an umbrella belonging to Leonard Bast, setting in motion a chain of events that will end in his ruin and death. Forster seems to be suggesting that Helen’s way of listening to Beethoven reveals the same character flaws that will lead her to destroy Leonard. She is a romantic egoist, more interested in the fantasy she creates about the Fifth Symphony than in the music itself. Whereas the wiser Margaret Schlegel, Forster says, “can only see the music,” just as she sees the reality of other people’s lives.

In this way Forster makes a moral and fictional problem out of what might seem like a strictly aesthetic issue: the relationship between music and language. Should we think of music as a narrative that can also be expressed in words? Or does this betray the abstract, nonsemantic nature of musical thought? The question was hotly debated in the nineteenth century, with musical progressives like Berlioz and Wagner in favor of “program music”—meant to illustrate an extramusical idea or story—and conservatives like Brahms opposing it.

Both sides appealed to the authority of Beethoven, making Forster’s use of the composer especially canny. Brahms, like Beethoven, composed in forms like symphonies and sonatas that obey a strictly musical logic. But Wagner claimed that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its introduction of a chorus in the last movement, showed that the development of music could only be fulfilled if it was united with language, as in his own operas. Forster’s ambiguous scene offers support for both positions: Helen’s storytelling about the Fifth Symphony can be seen as whimsical and reductive or as insightful and prescient.

Today, it is not respectable to hear classical music as a narrative. A concert program does not tell you “what happens” in a piece of music, as Berlioz did in the detailed text he wrote to accompany his Symphonie Fantastique, which depicts the dreams of a young man who has taken opium out of despair at his unrequited love for a beautiful woman. But telling stories about individual works is only one way of moralizing and psychologizing music. Telling stories about composers is another, and it is now standard for a program to explain what the composer was doing and thinking about when he wrote the piece.

For instance, any discussion of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, is sure to mention that he originally planned to dedicate it to Napoleon and then scratched the dedication out, dismayed by the revolutionary hero’s decision to assume the autocratic title of emperor. Presenting the symphony this way turns it into a more sophisticated kind of program music. Instead of being about a hero who fights goblins, it is about “the image of the masculine hero as the embodiment of virtue [that] pervaded the social culture of Beethoven’s time,” Lewis Lockwood writes in his biography Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2002).1

As that subtitle suggests, Lockwood was at pains to respect the difference between Beethoven’s life and his works, treating them in separate sections. His introduction quotes Schopenhauer: “In the composer, more than in any other artist, the man is entirely separate and distinct from the artist.” In his new book, Beethoven’s Lives: The Biographical Tradition, Lockwood returns to the dilemma of art and life from a different point of view, offering a briskly paced tour of the history of Beethoven biography, starting in 1827, the year of the composer’s death, and continuing almost to the present. It would be impossible for such a survey to be totally comprehensive and up to date, since the flood of Beethoven books is ongoing—last year, the 250th anniversary of his birth, brought a new crop. But Beethoven’s Lives shows that our understanding of the music has always been profoundly shaped by the stories we tell about the man.


Lockwood begins with what may be the most influential “biography” of all, the oration written for Beethoven’s funeral by the playwright Franz Grillparzer. By the time Beethoven died, his reputation as the greatest composer of his time was assured, but his popularity was on the wane. While the 1820s saw the premiere of large-scale works like the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, his best-known music had appeared at least a decade earlier. And his last compositions, the five string quartets completed in 1825–1826, struck listeners as bizarre. As Laura Tunbridge writes in her episodic biography Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces,2 these pieces were “unlike anything anyone had ever heard,” characterized by “experimentation, fragmentation, repetition, unusual sonorities and extended length.” Not until the twentieth century would the late quartets come to be seen as supreme masterpieces; at the time, Tunbridge writes, people “thought their exaggeration to be the result of illness and eccentricity, if not madness.”

This suggests that people were already seeing Beethoven’s music as a reflection of his personality. He was always known as a prickly man, but his deafness, which began to manifest itself in his late twenties, made him even more unapproachable toward the end of his life. He could communicate only through his “conversation books,” notebooks in which he exchanged questions and answers. (The surviving 139 books constitute a unique resource for biographers.3)

Tunbridge lists some of the details noted by observers of the celebrity on his walks in Vienna:

Grey hair flew out from underneath his battered hat, which was worn tipped back on his head; his coat was heavily loaded, a handkerchief spilling from one pocket, while notebooks for musical ideas and conversation, and a thick carpenter’s pencil, stretched the seams of another.

Some people noted his “overwhelming volubility” as he spoke without pausing for an answer he couldn’t hear, while others described him as “lost to the world, either through his deafness or being in reverie.”

The image of Beethoven as a kind of outcast, cut off from the rest of humanity by his deafness and his genius, was central to Grillparzer’s speech, delivered (by an actor, not the author) to a crowd of some 20,000 at the gates of the cemetery. Grillparzer, who was a teenager when he first met the composer, knew Beethoven was regarded by the Viennese as “a volatile, erratic, misanthropic personality,” in Lockwood’s words. But he argues that this was just the armor Beethoven was forced to wear:

Because he withdrew from the world they called him hostile, and because he held himself aloof from sentimentality, unfeeling…. He fled the world because, in the depth of his loving nature, he found no foothold from which to oppose it. He withdrew from mankind because he had given them his all and received nothing in return.

Artistically and professionally, this was hardly the case, as the enormous crowd at the funeral proved. Far from imposing himself on a resistant public, Beethoven was recognized from the very beginning of his career as the genius German music had been waiting for. When he was twenty-one and preparing to leave Bonn for Vienna, one of his patrons wrote in his personal album that “Mozart’s genius is still in mourning”—he had died the year before, in 1791—but that it would soon attach itself to Beethoven.

His career in Vienna, where he spent the rest of his life, justified these hopes. Beethoven arrived in the Austrian capital at the start of a long period of war and political turmoil, which was also a time of transition in musical culture. Composers could no longer expect to spend decades in the service of a single aristocratic patron, as Haydn did with the Esterházy family. Instead, Beethoven was a freelancer. He received regular financial support from a few wealthy patrons, including the Archduke Rudolph and the Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky, whose names are associated with some of his masterpieces. But the pledges of aristocrats couldn’t always be relied on, especially when the struggling Habsburg Empire was liable to suddenly devalue its currency. Beethoven had to take some of his patrons to court to make them pay what they promised.

Increasingly, however, composers could also write for the market. Beethoven earned money from the publication of his scores, particularly in arrangements for home performance, and from ticket sales for concerts of his music, which he had to organize personally. As a popular composer and a shrewd negotiator, he did well for himself; Tunbridge writes in her book that the value of his estate when he died placed him in Vienna’s wealthiest 5 percent. In this sense he certainly outstripped Mozart, who was buried in a pauper’s grave.


Yet Grillparzer’s sense of Beethoven as an unhappy, unrequited man captures an essential truth. This would be dramatically confirmed after his death by the publication of two letters that continue to fascinate Beethovenites today. The first is the Heiligenstadt Testament, which Lockwood calls “one of the most moving statements by an artist ever made.” Named after the village where Beethoven wrote it in the fall of 1802 at the age of thirty-one, it is a will in the form of a letter to his brothers, Carl and Johann. More important, it is the only place where Beethoven confides the full misery of his deafness, which he says transformed his personality.

“Though born with an active, fiery temperament, and receptive to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw, to live life alone,” he writes, because “it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’” He mentions occasions when someone with him heard a flute or a shepherd singing that he was unable to hear—a tragic irony for a musician whose sense of hearing was once of “the highest perfection.” Beethoven says he came close to committing suicide and only decided to keep living for one reason: “It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all the works that I felt the urge to compose.”

The Heiligenstadt Testament humanized Beethoven for a public that had only known his forbidding exterior. It also provided a “program” for his music that continues to influence the way we hear it. So many of Beethoven’s works seem to be about struggle and endurance, the clash and triumph of contending forces—the precise quality Helen Schlegel responded to in the Fifth Symphony. How Beethoven creates this effect can be explained through formal analysis, but to understand why he created it, we can only turn to biography, and the testament seems to provide the perfect answer. Beethoven made music about struggle because his life was a struggle—against deafness, loneliness, even death itself.

The same spiritual turbulence appears in the “Immortal Beloved” letter of 1812. Here the forty-one-year-old composer, who never married, addresses an unknown woman—“My angel, my all, my own self”—and urges resignation to the fate that separates them: “Can our love persist otherwise than through sacrifices, than by not demanding everything? Can you change it, that you are not entirely mine, I not entirely yours?” This letter, too, shows that qualities powerfully expressed in Beethoven’s music—passion, yearning, defiance—were also present in the man.

Naturally, every Beethoven biographer tries to solve the mystery of the beloved’s identity. Several candidates have been advanced over the centuries, but Lockwood casts his vote for Antonie Brentano, a married mother of six whose family Beethoven knew well. The case for Antonie as the Immortal Beloved was made by Maynard Solomon in his landmark 1977 biography, the first to approach Beethoven psychoanalytically; Lockwood calls it “one of the most brilliant exercises in document interpretation in many years.”

The fact that Beethoven never sent these two letters but held onto them for decades, through many moves around Vienna, suggests that he wanted posterity to see them. That happened thanks to Anton Schindler, his first serious biographer—and the villain of Beethoven’s Lives. Schindler was one of a series of musical young men who served as Beethoven’s unpaid assistants in his last decade. Upon the composer’s death he lost no time in establishing himself as the keeper of the flame. As well as finding and publishing the Heiligenstadt Testament and the Immortal Beloved letter, Schindler took over Beethoven’s conversation books, manuscripts, and even personal effects. Lockwood quotes a letter he wrote in 1828 boasting that he possessed Beethoven’s books, walking stick, compass, and coffee machine, “in which he made his own coffee for 8–9 years, always making it himself and also for his guests.”

Contemporaries seem to have found Schindler’s obsession creepy and laughable, noting that he sometimes received guests while wearing Beethoven’s old gray robe, and carried a business card identifying himself as the “ami de Beethoven.” But it made him the natural candidate to write the composer’s biography, and when Schindler’s Biographie von Ludwig van Beethoven appeared in 1840 it became, in Lockwood’s words, “the reigning authority.”

One person who was not convinced was Alexander Wheelock Thayer, an American admirer of Beethoven who was a student when Schindler’s biography came out. Comparing it to other books and memoirs about Beethoven, he noticed “errors or discrepancies” and thought of preparing a revised edition. But he soon decided to write a new biography of his own, and he would devote most of his adult life to the task, helped by his eventual appointment as US consul in Trieste. Between 1866 and 1879 Thayer published three volumes of Ludwig van Beethovens Leben, in German, taking the story up to 1816. It was completed after his death by German scholars and not translated into English until 1921.

Lockwood admires Thayer for his impartiality and rigor, calling his book “a model of close factual historical research” and “the anchor of Beethoven biography” to this day. Among his achievements was to correct many of Schindler’s factual and chronological errors. But Thayer had a soft spot for Schindler, whom he met twice and called “a perfectly honest writer…fired with a love and veneration for Beethoven’s memory.”

As it turned out, this was giving Schindler too much credit. In the late twentieth century scholars discovered that he had greatly exaggerated his intimacy with Beethoven, turning a less than two-year stint as his assistant into a ten-year friendship. He had even forged 150 entries in Beethoven’s conversation books, Lockwood writes, making up “fictitious exchanges” in order “to bolster [his] claim that he had been a close confidant of Beethoven’s during his last years.” Lockwood shows that scholars have based entire theories about Beethoven’s musical thought on remarks that turned out to have been made up.

But perhaps Schindler’s audacity makes him a perfect emblem for writers about Beethoven. Like Helen Schlegel, he loved the composer so much that he couldn’t resist telling stories about him. Lockwood and other scrupulous biographers are more constrained by facts and evidence, but ultimately they too are responding to Beethoven’s musical creativity with their own literary creativity. Every time we listen to music and translate its notes and tones into narratives and ideas, we are doing the same thing—which may mean that stories and symphonies are inseparable after all.