Beethoven’s eccentricities only enhanced his reputation. They confirmed the divine madness that propelled his creative genius. He was a martyr to his art, a new kind of saint whose agonies and ecstasies brought him neither peace of mind nor purity of soul, but an admixture of public renown and disrepute.
As 2020 draws to a close, The Imaginative Conservative looks back at some of its finest essays of the year. —Editors
At the fourteenth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, held between April 15 and June 27, 1902, the German sculptor Max Klinger unveiled his monument to Ludwig van Beethoven. Conceived as a tribute to Beethoven, the entire celebratory program determined to effect an artistic synthesis, integrating architecture, painting, sculpture, design, and music into a unified aesthetic vision, with Klinger’s statue providing the focal point.[i] Klinger exalted Beethoven as an artistic hero, fittingly enshrined among the gods.
For Klinger and the other contributors to the show, including the architect Josef Hoffmann, who designed the sanctum sanctorum where Beethoven sat, and the painter Gustav Klimt, whose erotic and allegorical frieze illustrated the power of art to vanquish the adversities of life, Beethoven had been instrumental in creating the modern artistic sensibility. He was arguably the first to establish the vision of the artist as genius, serving as an intermediary between God and man. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Beethoven thought he had an intimate relationship with God. “I know well that God is nearer to me in my art than to others,” he affirmed. “I consort with him without fear: evermore have I acknowledged and understood him.”[ii] Twenty years before Percy Bysshe Shelley declared in 1821 that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Beethoven had already characterized the artist and even the musician, who had heretofore been no better than a minor household servant, as the spokesmen for a “suffering humanity.”[iii] As the equal of God, Beethoven would tolerate subservience to no mere mortal.
The status of the artist was thus greater than that of the aristocrat or royal. However consequential such powerful men might be, Beethoven insisted that they could never hope to approximate his brilliance. They might, he wrote, “hang a decoration around a man’s neck” and “make a privy councilor or a minister,” but their feeble imaginations could not conceive a work of artistic genius.[iv] They must learn their place and must be taught to respect the endowments that they did not themselves possess, or even comprehend.
Beethoven could get away with such impertinence in part because of changing attitudes toward music that had emerged during the early nineteenth century. Traditionally, music was a lesser art form than poetry. Music appealed only to the senses and emotions, while poetry engaged the mind, imagination, and spirit. In addition, unlike poetry, music had no moral content and could thus elicit no moral response. An expression of the sentiments only, music had nothing to do with the reason or virtue that nourished serious, critical thought.[v] Even on those rare occasions when music did affect the mind, its influence was temporary. Devoid of concepts, music was too ephemeral to make a lasting impression.[vi]
By the turn of the nineteenth century, a different, more generous, view of music had come to the fore. It turned out that the very passions music excited made it valuable and important. Music enhanced intuition and self-consciousness. It offered the possibility of insight far exceeding any knowledge that reason alone could impart. Music “made the listener more clearly aware of the workings of the inner self,” explained G.W. F. Hegel. “The special characteristic relating the abstract inner-consciousness most closely to music is emotion, the self-extending subjectivity of the ego.” [vii] Beethoven’s piano sonatas, for instance, conveyed both intimacy and emotion. He, or sometimes his audience, bestowed on them such titles as “Moonlight,” “Pathétique,” and “Appassionata.” Beethoven also used poetry to serve music, as when he famously ended the Ninth Symphony with a chorus singing Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” As Henriette, the sister of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, observed, music as no other art form enabled “spirit to speak directly to spirit.” [viii] Music had become the unifying force around which all the other arts cohered.
Beethoven also transformed the content of music. In his opera Fidello, for example, composed between 1804 and 1805, Beethoven abandoned what he considered trivial subjects, such as sexual intrigue, and emphasized instead the quest for justice, the value of truth, and the brotherhood of man.[ix] He sought to infuse his music with the most advanced expressions of intellect and emotion, asserting that music was “a higher revelation than the whole of wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, invents. Philosophy is a striking of music’s electrical spirit. . . . So art always represents the divine, and the relationship of men toward art is religion: What we obtain from art comes from God, is divine inspiration.” [x] Yet, Beethoven was not trying to turn music in particular, or art in general, into a secular faith. A devout, if somewhat unorthodox Roman Catholic, Beethoven believed that music was the way in which human beings came to know God. At the same time, the Romantic Movement that he helped to initiate became a substitute for traditional religion and, whatever his intentions, Beethoven was its priest and prophet.
Beethoven seemed an unlikely figure to lead such an aesthetic revolution. He had been performing since the age of six and, expect for musical training, received no formal education after the age of ten. He read widely, but was of necessity an untutored autodidact who often uttered pseudo-intellectual nonsense. He was also pitifully ill for most of his adult life. Contemporaries believed him to suffer from venereal disease, alcoholism, or both.[xi] Although his behavior may have contributed to his dreadful health, he was not responsible for the numerous maladies that afflicted him. He endured colic, which produced chronic diarrhea, high fevers, and septic abscesses. He compounded the situation by refusing to follow the strict diet his doctor prescribed, which prohibited him from consuming wine, liquor, coffee, and spicy foods. But the underlying cause of Beethoven’s disorders seems to have been an autoimmune disease called systematic lupus erythematosus, which usually manifests itself in early adulthood. Symptoms include mental and emotional instability, skin rashes, rheumatism, and liver disease.
His deafness likely resulted from otosclerosis, a hereditary ailment whereby the cartilage at the opening of the inner ear turns gradually to bone and immobilizes the ossicle, the vibrations of which transmit sound waves. The disease appeared when Beethoven was twenty-seven. Within a few years, he heard incessant ringing in his ears and had frequent ear and head aches, especially in cold weather. Loud noises became increasingly painful, so much so that he routinely filled his ears with cotton to muffle them. By 1805, when Beethoven was thirty-four years old, he could no longer hear wind instruments. In 1809, when Napoleon’s forces bombarded Vienna, he had to bury his head beneath cushions and pillows. Three years later, in 1812, visitors had to shout to be heard. By 1817, he was profoundly deaf, unable to hear any music at all.
Beethoven raged against his misfortune. But even before his health deteriorated, his conduct, particularly toward members of his own family, was often appalling. He was suspicious and abusive, quarrelling with everyone at one time or another. At eighteen, he had his father, who was an alcoholic, declared incompetent. Afterward, he determined to prevent the marriages of both of his brothers. He called one of his sisters-in-law a “fat lump,” and referred to her daughter always as the “little bastard.” When his brother Karl died of tuberculosis in 1815, Beethoven insisted on having an autopsy performed, convinced that his widow had poisoned him. He then preferred legal action against her, accusing her of theft and prostitution, allegations that culminated in the assertion that she was unfit to raise his nephew. The courts, in fact, awarded Beethoven legal custody of the boy in 1816, and he became the pathetic victim of Beethoven’s obsessive love. When, after ten years, the young man tried but failed to take his own life, he confessed to the presiding magistrate that “I have become worse because my uncle insisted on making me better.” [xii]
As his illnesses worsened, Beethoven was more prone to violent outbursts. In a fit of anger, he hurled a plate of stew at a waiter. He struck Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky, a chamberlain in the Imperial Court of Austria and a generous patron of music, with a chair.[xiii] Unable to cope with his volatility, Beethoven’s servants deserted him. No woman would marry him. “Oh God,” he lamented, “may I find her at last, the woman who may strengthen me in virtue, who is permitted to be mine.”[xiv] He never did. After having tolerating Beethoven’s continual mistreatment for years, his devoted Bohemian copyist Ferdinand Wolaneck wrote him a letter of complaint. Beethoven scrawled over it in huge letters “Dummer, Eingebildeter, Eselhafter Kerl:” “stupid, conceited, asinine fellow.”[xv] He accused Wolaneck of stealing from him, but then he thought that everyone with whom he did business was dishonest and corrupt. The opposite was true. Beethoven regularly defrauded his publishers, although the injustice may have originated from negligence rather than duplicity. In 1822, for instance, he professed to be at work on three Masses, promising them to five different music publishers. He only ever completed one, the Mass in D, Opus 123, and sold it to another.
During the last decade of his life, although he continued to compose, Beethoven became a pathetic figure. Young boys reportedly threw stones at him when he passed through the streets of Vienna. In 1820, his appearance was so disheveled that, mistaken for a vagrant, the police arrested him. His friends had to rescue him from jail.[xvi] According to the composer Karl Maria von Weber, Beethoven’s living quarters were “dreary, almost sordid.” Weber described his rooms as being “in the greatest disorder: music, money, clothes lay on the floor, linen in a heap on the unclean bed, the open grand piano was covered in thick dust, and broken coffee cups lay on the table.”[xvii] Many visitors also commented on Beethoven’s heartbreaking and desperate attempts to play. No longer able to hear, he could not even tell whether the pianoforte was in tune. He pounded the keys so hard, recalled the composer, violinist, and conductor Louis Spohr, that “the music became unintelligible.” When, in 1818, the London instrument manufacturer Broadwood and Sons sent him a “Six-octave Grand Pianoforte No. 7362,” a gift from Thomas Broadwood who had met Beethoven in Vienna the previous summer, Beethoven destroyed it. The pianoforte had a tin rather than an iron frame and could not bear aggressive playing. Johann Andreas Stumpff, who himself built pianos and harps, found the instrument “in a most miserable state. When I opened it, what a sight confronted me! The upper registers were mute and the broken strings were in a tangle, like a thorn-bush whipped by a storm.”[xviii]
Beethoven’s eccentricities only enhanced his reputation. They confirmed the divine madness that propelled his creative genius. He was a martyr to his art, a new kind of saint whose agonies and ecstasies brought him neither peace of mind nor purity of soul, but an admixture of public renown and disrepute. Beethoven was a celebrity. His music entertained the delegates to the Congress of Vienna. The Battle Symphony, written to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria, along with the Seventh Symphony, received their inaugural performances in December 1813. Contemporary descriptions of the response concur that the applause boomed in ecstasy. Two days before the Congress convened, on October 28, 1814, the Vienna Opera, by order of Austrian Emperor Francis I, staged Fidelio for the delegates and their wives. A month later, on November 29, the Emperor and the Tsar, along with all the crowned heads of Europe, attended a concert of Beethoven’s music at the Hofburg. He had composed Chorus to the Allied Princes for the occasion; at the same performance, he also debuted the cantata Der Glorreiche Augenblick, The Glorious Moment. Afterward, the assembled sovereigns presented him with purses full of gold. For his part, Beethoven welcomed the accolades, even placing a notice in the Vienna newspapers:
A Word to His Admirers. How often, in your chagrin that his depth was not sufficiently appreciated, have you said that Beethoven composes only for posterity! You have no doubt now been convinced of your error, even if only since the general enthusiasm aroused by his immortal opera Fidelio! The present finds kindred souls and sympathetic hearts for what is great and beautiful, without withholding its just privileges for the future![xix]
Beethoven was sufficiently eminent to draw interest from Metternich’s secret police, who found it necessary to compile a dossier on him and, more than once, to report on his activities as well as the attitudes of other prominent men toward his person and his music.[xx]
Beethoven’s epigram for Missa Solemnis, “from the heart, may it go to the heart,” condensed in a few words the emotive spirit of Romanticism. In his compositions, Beethoven, like other Romantic artists in a variety of media, expressed every imaginable feeling, from melancholy to elation. As the conservatives who denounced his music recognized, Beethoven stood at the vanguard of a cultural revolution.[xxi] They objected to the effort to reconstruct European culture after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars in accord with the ideals, sentiments, and hopes that Beethoven’s music represented, or at least anticipated. The Renaissance had challenged the preeminence of religion and thereby facilitated the emergence of secular individualism. Just so, Romanticism defied established rules and authorities, inaugurating an era of artistic freedom. Creativity, innovation, and originality became ends in themselves and were subject only to their own internal judgments.
The Romantic Movement, (or perhaps more accurately the Romantic state of mind, since Romanticism was amorphous and no organized movement at all), immeasurably enriched Western thought, literature, music, and art. It fashioned new idioms, new musical structures (or infused a new level of emotion into traditional forms), new combinations of color, and new perspectives on the individual, society, and God. Romanticism sought to validate spontaneity and passion without, at the same time, precluding reason and introspection. It ventured to enlarge human experience and to deepen human understanding. Intellect alone was not sufficient to the task. In short, Romanticism offered a host of novel possibilities to thinkers, writers, composers, and artists who wished to see the world with fresh eyes, and to expand their vision of reality.
But in addressing the limits and confronting the errors of the Enlightenment, in attempting to integrate mind and heart, the Romantics introduced unanticipated problems of their own making. Until the advent of Romanticism, Western Civilization had rested on a consensus of values and tastes, drawn both from its classical and Christian heritage. Romanticism destroyed that consensus, or at least presided over its erosion. By rejecting an absolute, objective standard of meaning and by making self-expression and self-realization, innovation and originality, the principal aims of all art, Romanticism undermined the unity and coherence of civilization in the West. Notwithstanding the many works of genius it produced, and the astute insights into the human condition to which it gave voice, Romanticism thus also contributed to the intellectual confusion and the spiritual disarray into which the West has since fallen.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
This essay first appeared here in March 2020.
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[i] The Secessionist trend in art began in Munich in 1892, although similar movements appeared in several other European cities at about the same time. Founded in 1897 under the leadership of Gustav Klimt, the Vienna Secession (Wiener Sezession) coalesced to advance artistic modernism and internationalism, and to promote the integration of genres, freed from the dictates of conservative artistic values and prevailing commercial tastes. Members of the Vienna Secession conveyed their ideas about art and architecture in Ver Sacrum, (Sacred Spring, 1898-1903), the official journal of their organization. Whether hostile or sympathetic, critics often associated the Secession with Jugendstil (Art Nouveau). See H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art, 5th edition (New York, 1997), 763. Born in Leipzig, Max Klinger (1857-1920) was a painter, printmaker, and writer, in addition to being a sculptor.
[ii] Quoted in “Goethe’s Correspondence With a Young Lady,” Athenæum (October 17, 1835), 772.
[iii] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry (Boston, 1891), 46.
[iv] Quoted in Michael Hamburger, ed., Beethoven: Letters, Journals, and Conversations (London, 1984), 117-18.
[v] See Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. by J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley, CA, 1989) and Peter le Huray and James Day, eds., Music and Aesthetics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries, Abridged Edition (Cambridge, England, 1988).
[vi] I am summarizing Kant’s argument in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), reprinted in Huray and Day, eds., 154-69.
[vii] G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetik, reprinted in Ibid., 230.
[viii] Quoted in Hugh Honour, Romanticism (London, 1977), 120-21.
[ix] Yet, the plot of Fidelio, although not Beethoven’s score, was melodramatic, very much in keeping with the literary conventions of the time. The hero, Florestan, is imprisoned for speaking truth to power. Learning that the Minister of State is about to inspect the prison where Florestan is being held, the warden plots to murder him and dispose of his body, fearing that he might again tell the truth. Dressed as a man, Florestan’s wife arrives just in time to interrupt these proceedings and to save her husband’s life. She threatens the warden with a pistol until the Minister of State arrives to unravel the conspiracy and mete out justice to all. The story is a reworking of Jean Nicholas Bouilly’s play Lenore, or Wedded Love.
[x] See Hamburger, 86-96.
[xi] See Martin Cooper, Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817-1827 (Oxford, 1970), Appendix A: “Beethoven’s Medical History” by Edward Larkin, 439 ff.
[xii] Ibid., 78.
[xiii] In 1800, Prince Lichnowsky had granted Beethoven an annual stipend of 600 florins, a sum that he continued to pay for six years. In a letter of 1805, Beethoven called him “one of my most loyal friends and promoters of my art.” Beethoven dedicated seven of his compositions to Lichnowsky: the three piano trios, Opus 1(1793); the nine variations for piano on ‘Quant’è più bello’ from Giovanni Paisiello’s opera La Molinara (1795); the Piano Sonata in C Minor, Opus 13, “Pathétique” (1798); the Piano Sonata in A Flat, Opus 26 (1801); the Second Symphony (1802). The quarrel that ended their friendship, and Lichnowsky’s patronage, erupted in 1806 when Beethoven, who was staying at Lichnowsky’s country estate, refused to perform for French army officers.
[xiv] Hamburger, 165.
[xv] Ibid., 182.
[xvi] Cooper, 455; see also A.W. Thayer, Life of Ludwig van Beethoven, 3 vols. (London, 1960), Vol. 3, 42.
[xvii] Hamburger, 207.
[xviii] Thayer, Vol. 2, 269; Cooper, 37; Hamburger, 219. Dispatched from London in December 1817, the Broadwood pianoforte took seven months to reach Vienna by sea as far as Trieste and from thence overland to its destination. The instrument remained in Beethoven’s possession until his death in 1827, after which the music publisher C. Anton Spina bought it. Spina gave it to Franz Liszt in 1845. Liszt, in turn, donated it to the Hungarian National Museum in 1874. In 1991, it was restored to playable condition.
[xix] Quoted in Charles Osborne, Schubert and His Vienna (London, 1985), 25.
[xx] See Cooper, 16. For a review of the activities of Metternich’s police spies, see Donald Emerson, Metternich and the Secret Police: Security and Subversion in the Hapsburg Monarchy (The Hague, 1968).
[xxi] Romanticism was not confined to a specific political or ideological outlook. Political and cultural conservatives and reactionaries, such as Joseph de Maistre, Robert Southey, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, shared many of the characteristics of Romantic thought with others, such as Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, William Hazlitt, and Heinrich Heine, who were political and cultural liberals or radicals. See Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York, 2000), 466, and Charles Breuning and Matthew Levinger, The Revolutionary Era, 1789-1850, 3rd ed. (New York, 2002), 196-97.
The featured image is a photograph of Max Klinger’s sculpture of at the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts, posted by user Dguendel, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano by user Leonce49 – Hans Weingartz is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.