Sunday, 30 November 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 9 Eroica (1)

Extract from a letter Beethoven wrote from Vienna to Dr Franz Wegeler, a friend from his Bonn days, dated 29th June, 1801:

...over the past three years my hearing has become increasingly weaker. It seems that my stomach, which even then [i.e. during Beethoven's youth in Bonn] was in a poor state, as you know, has worsened here. I am plagued continually by colic, and consequently by a dreadful tiredness. This seems to be the cause of my deafness. Frank wanted me to strengthen my body with powerful tonics and my hearing with oil of almond. But Cheers! that did me no good at all, my hearing declined further and my digestive problems stayed the same. This continued all last year until the autumn. Sometimes I was reduced to complete despair... [Despite - or because of - being prescribed cold baths in water from the Danube, Beethoven's hearing deteriorated further] ...This winter I was really in a bad way. I suffered dreadfully from colic, and returned to my former state. This continued until about four weeks ago, when I went to see Vering, as it occurred to me that my condition might really require a surgeon, and in any case he was a man I trusted. He almost managed to stop the violent diarrhoea...I must say I find myself better and stronger now, although my ears buzz and hum all the time, day and night. I may tell you that I lead a wretched life. Over the past two years I have avoided almost all social contact because I can hardly say to people 'I am deaf'. If I practised any other profession things would be easier, but in my profession this is a terrible affliction...

Extract from another letter to Dr Wegeler, dated 16th November 1801

...I am leading a more pleasant life now, and I go about more among my fellow men. You can scarcely imagine how empty and how miserable my life has been over the past two years. My deafness haunted me everywhere, like a ghost, so I avoided people. I must have seemed a misanthrope, which is far from the case. This change has been wrought by an adorable and charming girl who loves me and whom I love. So after two years I can now enjoy a few happy moments, and for the first time I think that marriage might bring happiness. Unfortunately, she is not of my station, so of course I cannot marry her. I must just keep going...

Extract from Beethoven's will, sometimes known as the Heiligenstadt Testament and shown above, dated 6th October 1802 but not found until after his death in 1827.

For my brothers Carl and [empty space] Beethoven

O you men, who think or say I am hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how unfair you are to me, because you are not aware of the reasons why I may appear so. Since childhood my heart and soul have always been filled with warm feelings of goodwill...but consider that for six years I have suffered with an incurable affliction, made worse by incompetent doctors, disappointed year after year of any hope of improvement, forced now to face the prospect of a permanent disability...My misfortune is doubly hard to bear, because I shall certainly be misunderstood; I can take no pleasure in the fellowship of others, no intelligent conversation, no exchange of ideas...I am forced to live like an outcast.

...Maybe my condition will improve, maybe it will not. I have been obliged - when only in my twenty-eighth year - to become philosophical about this, which is not easy, and harder for an artist than for others. O men, when you read this, consider that you have wronged who, despite the obstacles that nature has placed in his path, has yet done everything in his power to be counted among the ranks of worthy artists and men.

[My translation.] These heart-rending documents, spanning some fifteen months, illustrate the depths of Beethoven's sufferings in 1801 and 1802. By 1800 he was already a famous man in Vienna, celebrated equally as a composer and as a pianist. That deafness should strike him was the cruellest of ironies. The colic that he describes never left him. For the rest of his life he was terribly afflicted, and it led to his premature death at the age of 57. Only one thing eased this condition: wine, which had very likely caused the condition in the first place, in an extraordinarily bizarre and entirely unexpected way that I'll outline in due course.

The 'adorable and charming girl' was a 17-year-old countess called Giulietta Guicciardi. The 30-year-old Beethoven gave her piano lessons (dangerous situation!) and immortalized her as the dedicatee of his 'Moonlight' Sonata. Because of the differences in their social rank their love was doomed. Lost love, lost hearing, lost health: little wonder that the Heiligenstadt Testament is such a desperate outpouring of grief.

Two small points: Beethoven had two younger brothers, Carl and Johann. No one has ever offered any explanation as to why in his will Johann is never mentioned, although spaces are left for his name. It's as though Beethoven had temporarily forgotten his brother's name, and intended to add it later, which seems very unlikely. Then he refers to himself as being 28: I've already mentioned that he believed he had been born in 1772 instead of 1770.

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