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 me...one 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.
Sunday, 30 November 2008
Extract from a letter Beethoven wrote from Vienna to Dr Franz Wegeler, a friend from his Bonn days, dated 29th June, 1801:
Friday, 21 November 2008
As suspected, there wasn't anything particularly revealing in the story my mother told. It turned out to be a wild and impossible farrago of persons, places and dates. Paring away the inessentials and non sequiturs, it seems likely that she bought it in Hampshire in the spring or summer of 1948 from a temporary bric-à-brac emporium, more a hut than a shop, somewhere between Fareham and Titchfield. When she passed the same way some time later, the place had disappeared, like The Moving Toyshop in Edmund Crispin's direly self-indulgent thriller. She said she'd paid £50 for it, which was a substantial sum in 1948. I think it's more likely that she paid £5. This was all she could remember about it.
But there's another mystery. If you blow up the image of the restored painting above, you may be able to see that although the new frame is perfectly straight, the edges of the canvas aren't. In fact the portrait has been cut a little irregularly from what must once have been a larger canvas, probably with a knife. It has then been glued on to a slightly larger stretcher, one of no great age, with another canvas already in place. So beneath The Dark Lady there may be another painting, which I expect only X-ray photography will reveal. Could The Dark Lady have been stolen from the portrait gallery of some great house? Was The Moving Bric-à-brac Emporium a receiver's outlet?
As we gathered last weekend, family opinion about the identity of The Dark Lady polarised neatly. The men thought it highly likely that she'd been debauched by some Restoration rake like the poet James Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who'd done up his breeches, leapt on to his horse and galloped off whistling; hence her peevish expression. The women thought no, come off it, The Dark Lady is advertising her entirely respectable, indeed desirable, availability; if she looks constipated it's because her sell-by date is approaching far too fast.
We won't ever know, will we?
Monday, 10 November 2008
Many years ago, probably in the late 40s or early 50s, my mother, who was at that time in the antiques business in Hampshire, acquired an oil painting, a portrait of a woman in the costume of a bygone and remote age. So smoke-stained and dirty was the painting that the subject was christened The Dark Lady. There was no clue to her identity.
My mother had a great affection for this painting. It was never put on sale, and it stayed with her long after she retired. She clearly felt a more than aesthetic affinity with it: when asked who the subject was, she would sometimes answer airily, after a swift assessment of her questioner's credulity, 'Oh, an ancestor'. Convinced of basic methods of picture preservation, she would sometimes wash it with soap and water. This lifted the dust, but otherwise did little more than force a caulking of soapy grime between the canvas and the frame.
The painting followed my mother through several house-moves and ended up in the north of Scotland, where it acquired further layers of tarry muck from open fires mostly of resiny pine, larch and spruce logs and occasionally of peat.
It appeared coincidentally, decorated with holly, as a detail in a general photograph of my mother's sitting room one Christmas. I've shown it above. An autumn or two later, disaster struck: the house caught fire. Although my mother wasn't harmed, thanks to the prompt action of a neighbour, many of her possessions were destroyed, everything in the house was begrimed beyond further use by greasy smoke, and the paintings were damaged beyond recognition by smoke and by a heat so ferocious that it boiled the water in the flower vases. Nearest the source of the fire was The Dark Lady, and although badly charred and scorched, with the paint pocked and pitted with burst bubbles of pigment, she didn't actually catch fire.
Afterwards my mother drew a veil of oblivion over the fire, lost interest in what had been damaged and looked to the future. What remained of the now ghostly and insubstantial Dark Lady was taken away, covered in bubble wrap and stored pending a possible restoration.
Last summer I brought it home to the south of France and took it for assessment to a picture restorer in Montpellier that I'd found in Yellow Pages. The restorer turned out to be a dishy and charming blonde, diplomée d'état (with a national diploma) in the restoration of paintings. I left The Dark Lady with her, feeling that she was in safe hands.
In the months that followed the restorer kept me up to date with her painstaking and slow progress and finally last week we went to collect it. What the restorer had done was little short of miraculous: here was The Dark Lady, still dark, but brought to light as she had never been in the last 60 years and probably much more.
We could now see that her off-the-shoulder, décolleté dress, blue-grey with white lace trimmings, red shawl, cream linen underskirt and especially her natural hairstyle dated her to a few years either side of 1670. In a fold of her skirt she has gathered pink roses, complete with stems and leaves. She's wearing a pearl necklace and a pearl earring, but no rings. She's blue-eyed, with a nose whose size she may have felt diffident about; close-mouthed, with an expression either sad or sardonic or bitter. There's no joy in her. In the portrait style of the period, she's leaning on a chest or maybe a sort of altar; to her left there's a column with some folds of drapery above it, and to her right there's a small, heavily clouded landscape, with a suggestion either of evening or of the aftermath of a storm. The shapes silhouetted against the lighter sky may be figures or, more likely, trees.
Who is she? Why was this portrait painted? We've no idea. We didn't expect an artist's signature from a painting of this period. She's evidently English, probably from the south, and the artist seems familiar with the style of Sir Peter Lely, Charles II's court painter. She's a lady of fashion, of some wealth, even. Although amply bosomed, she's no great beauty, nor is she in her first youth. But is there more to her than this?
She's clutching plucked roses in her dress, strategically - and symbolically? - held against what one might call her honour. If the roses had been white, they might have stood for virginity, and if they'd been red, some element of love might have been implied. But they're pink, and they've been ripped from the branch, stem, leaves and all. Is this a painterly metaphor for defloration? Is she pregnant? And she's wearing no wedding ring . . . but maybe we've conjectured more than is good for us. (We could find no information about the customs of ring-wearing in the late 17th century.)
When I told my 97-year-old mother about all this, she listened patiently but with an occasional hint of regret that the painting had passed to me. I asked her where she'd got it from, or if she knew anything else about it. Yes, she said, after a long pause, there was some other information, but it had better remain secret for the time being. She would tell us when next she saw us. So far, so tantalising. (If you're reading this, Dave, I'm sorry to inflict another but quite unintentional cliff-hanger on you.)
We're away to Scotland for several days, so maybe the secret will be unlocked. I'm keeping an open mind about it. Secrets lose their savour as soon as they're broached. I'll try to keep you posted, with a picture of the restored painting, when we come back, before resuming normal service with Beethoven and the pilgrimage to Vienna.
Saturday, 8 November 2008
This was the darkest despair, the lowest ebb I had ever known. I had only been saved from an attempted homosexual rape by an angry cleaner, both harridan and saviour, chasing me out of the station toilets at the end of a wet mop, kicking over her bucket in her savage indignation and screaming abuse as though I was the initiator and not the evil Herr Schniedelwutz, who vanished as though he had never existed. I ran up the steps as fast as my rucksack allowed.
Nor of course was there any sign of Hink. Nor of George. The horrid thought struck me that he might have caught the next train back to Ostend. Solid and loyal friend, easy and undemanding companion, he had finally had enough. He'd really just come along, without any particular interest in to Beethoven, for an adventure that had turned out to be as disagreeable as it was uncomfortable. He must have become increasingly fatigued by my obsession with Adèle: how could I blame him for lebbing off? It was all my fault.
Far from resisting the blandishments of Hink and his dismal catamite, whose nickname (surely?) proclaimed his chief interest, I had sought weakly to ingratiate myself with them. Between them they had stolen my pocket-book with all my Deutschmarks, my return ferry ticket and my precious photo of Adèle. Never was trout more easily tickled: I had let them steal my self-respect as well. I was unslept, filthy, hungry, none the better for at least three glasses of schnapps at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning. All the make-believe bubble world of German Romantic poetry had burst, had been shown up as a treacherous delusion, zerfliesst wie eitel Schaum, vanished like a vain mist, as the wretched Heine put it, similarly betrayed by his own nature. I sat on my rucksack and could not hold the tears back.
This was how George found me a little later, a new George, determined and quietly assertive. We were getting out. There was a train for Siegburg in forty minutes. I was to get up and follow him to the ticket office. I didn't know where Siegburg was. I thought we were heading down the Rhine, for Bonn and Coblenz. George told me it was south of Cologne, on the way to Karlsruhe, where we could pick up the autobahn that would lead us to Munich, Salzburg and on to Vienna, just as we'd planned.
- I haven't got any money. You know I haven't.
- It doesn't matter. I'll pay.
- I'll pay you back. I don't know how or when, but I will.
- Sure. You can pay me back tomorrow. Just don't worry about it.
- Tomorrow! How will tomorrow be any different?
- You'll see. We'll be out of this shit-hole, for one thing. And for another, how about having a look in the back pocket of your shorts? Your other ones. The ones in your rucksack. Where you hid all those Belgian francs we got in Liège. You can't have forgotten. We'll find a bank or a bureau de change in Siegburg tomorrow.
There was time, after George had bought our tickets, to report the theft, which exercised my German to full stretch. The station policeman to whom I reported it wasn't much interested, but he took my name and home address. I had just enough change in my pocket to buy an orange for each of us - I felt I needed the sharp, sweet scour of fresh orange to cleanse my mouth and my mood - and something from the station bookstall: Beethoven und seine Zeit (Beethoven and his times). I felt as indebted to him as I did to George: if I hadn't been in a position to sing Die Ehre Gottes aus die Natur in Josef Kula's church in Liège, with its resulting shower of money, I would have been in an even worse way.
So we shook the dust of Cologne from our sandals without regret or backward glance. I've never felt any call to go back.
Saturday, 1 November 2008
Nothing in my experience or education had taught me how to cope with the one-legged man who swung himself into a chair opposite George and me, propped his crutches against the vacant chair next to him, smiled broadly and told me he recognised the beret I was wearing. (This was a Royal Air Force beret: in place of the usual brass cap-badge I'd stuck a small Union Jack.) I smiled warily, wondering why this coarse, thick-set man, middle-aged and unclean, should choose ours when there were plenty of other unoccupied tables. He reached across and laid his hand on mine for a moment, before I had time to recoil. I remember grossly filthy and broken fingernails, but I suppose mine at this stage were no less revolting. He spoke a sort of pidgin-German, larded with a few English words: Trink, yes? He swivelled round, snapped his fingers and called zwei Schnapps, bitte to the woman behind the counter. There was no room for refusal.
At this remove it's impossible to give more than the gist of what he said and how he expressed himself. He said he'd lost his leg fighting the Russians in Poland. His comrades had left him behind with a broken leg. He'd been captured by the Russians. They'd taken him to a field hospital. They'd amputated his shattered leg. The Russians were good doctors. The Russians were his friends. He loved his Russian friends. Germans were no good. Every statement was followed by a broad smile.
See, he said, shifting back in his chair and undoing greasy strings and safety pins that held the vacant trouser leg against his thigh, preliminary to showing us a puckered and repellent mess of scarred and knitted skin covering the end of his femur.
- Come, you touch.
Incapable of resistance, I got up and laid an unwilling finger on a patch of skin that still retained a rough pelt of hair: other patches were pale pink and hairless, like newborn rats. George, arms tightly folded across his chest, didn't move.
As he put his trouser leg together again the schnapps arrived. It must be downed in one go, the German said, miming the action. I looked at George: in for a penny, in for a pound, even at 8.30 in the morning. Neither of us had drunk schnapps before. It didn't taste of anything much, but left a searing, cauterizing wake down the throat and oesophagus.
Good, good, the German said. Your friends bomb my house. Cigarette?
I took one from a packet of a brand called Ernte 3 and said Danke schön while he lit it for me, leaning across the table. (George didn't smoke.) This was my first taste of continental tobacco. Whatever taste it may have had was nullified by the effect of the schnapps. The man smiled continually.
- House kaput. All dead. My father, my woman, my dogs. Royal Air Force. Many bombs. All burning.
And still he smiled. I was beginning to feel very awkward.
- Royal Air Force hat. Give, please. I wear it, yes.
He reached forward. Powerless to resist, I took my beret off, cursing myself for ever thinking it would be a sensible thing to wear, and passed it to him.
- I show my friends now. Moment, please.
He laid it on his head, struggled to his crutches and shambled out, smiling still.
- Quick! George said. Let's bugger off before he comes back. Now. Come on.
- What? And lose my beret?
- So what? That bloke's trouble. Come on, never mind hanging about.
George left, I stayed, saying I would catch him up when I'd retrieved my beret. I was stubbing out my Ernte 3 when the German came back in with one of his friends, a small, weaselly, shifty man who called him as 'Hink' or 'Hinki'. Hink returned my beret saying you think I steal your hat, no? - or words to that effect - and asked where my friend was.
- Er musste gehen. Ich auch. Very bad German for 'He had to go. Me too.'
- No, no you stay. Drink, smoke, party, ha-ha-ha.
So the jaws closed. More schnapps arrived. I felt alone, a lamb to the slaughter, exposed, impotent to exercise my will in any way. Hink and his weasel friend, whom he introduced to me formally as Herr Schniedelwutz (a name which I reconstructed conjecturally after deep conversations with German friends many years later: Schniedelwutz means, and has the same infantile overtones as, 'willy' or 'John Thomas') plied me with drink, smiles and assurances that the English were everyone's friends now. Eventually they asked if I had a girlfriend.
There were various documents in my rucksack. I kept my passport out of harms' way at the very bottom, just above The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse - and what bloody use was that now? - but at the top, just beneath the fastening, there was a thick octavo notebook in which I kept a journal, which accounts for much of the detail in this narrative. Between the pages there were my return ferry ticket, a letter of introduction to an address in Vienna, my photo of Adèle and banknotes totalling about 40 Deutschmarks, which was all the money I had apart from some change in my pocket.
There was no easier meat in Cologne that Sunday morning. I flipped through the pages looking for Adèle, exposing as I did so my modest wad of banknotes. I found her: Hinki took the entire book; said she was beautiful; very beautiful; so very beautiful that he had to show his friends; shambled off, leaving me with Herr Schniedelwutz.
This stoat-like little man said nothing but drummed his fingers on the table. I offered him a cigarette, which he took gracelessly, without thanks. Presently, after four or five minutes, I ventured to ask what had happened to Hinki. Herr Schiedelwutz said komm, gehen wir ihn zu finden (come, let us go and find him). I shouldered my rucksack and followed him. He led me across the concourse. I looked about for George, but I couldn't see him anywhere. Steps led down to the toilets. No one was about. Were Hinki and his friends really down here? Herr Schniedelwutz led me towards the cubicles.
- We buy you drinks, he said. Now you pay.