Portrait of Beethoven in His Thirtieth Year
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE music of Beethoven is the daughter of the same forces. of imperious Nature that had just sought an outlet in the man of Rousseau's Confessions. Each of them is the flowering of a new season.
I admire these youngsters who shake their fist at Rousseau, at Beethoven! It is as if they were falling foul of the spring or the autumn, the inevitable fall of the leaves, the inevitable shooting of the buds! Rousseau and the Sturm and Drang, these April showers, these equinoctial storms, are the signs of the breakup of an old society and the coming of a new. And before the new can take shape, there must be an emancipation of man as individual. The claim of individualism in revolt is at once the token and the harbinger of the Order that is on the way. Everything at its own time! First the Ego, then the Community.
Beethoven belongs to the first generation of those young German Goethes (less different than one thinks from the old Lynceus!), those Columbuses who, launched in the night on the stormy sea of the Revolution, discovered their own Ego and eagerly subdued it. Conquerors abuse their power; they are hungry for possession; each of these free Egos wishes to command. If he cannot do this in the world of facts, he wills it in the world of art; everything becomes for him a field on which to deploy the battalions of his thoughts, his desires, his regrets, his furies, his melancholies. He imposes them on the world. After the Revolution comes the Empire. Beethoven hears them both within himself, and, the course they run in his veins is the circulation of the blood of history itself; for just as the imperial gesture that had to wait for Hugo to find a. poet worthy of it inspired its own Iliad--the Beethoven symphonies of the years before 1815—50, when the Man of Waterloo has fallen, Beethoven imperator also abdicates; he, too, like the eagle on his rock, goes into exile on an island lost in' the expanse of the seas—more truly lost than that island in the Atlantic, for he does not hear even the waves breaking on the rocks. He is immured. And when out of the silence there rises the song of the Ego of the last ten years of his life, it is no longer the same Ego; he has renounced the empire of men; he is with his God.
But the man whom I am studying in this portrait is the Ego of the period of combat. And I must sketch his portrait in the rough. For if it is easy enough to see at a glance, after the lapse of a century, in what respect this mountain is part of the range of a distant epoch, it is necessary also to distinguish the respects in which it dominates the range, and the declivities, the precipices, the escarpments that separate it from its attendant peaks. True, the Ego of Beethoven is not that of the romantics; it would be absurd to confuse these neo-Gothics or impressionists with the Roman builder. Everything that was characteristic of them would have been repugnant to him—their sentimentality, their lack of logic, their disordered imagination. He is the most virile of musicians; there is nothing—if you prefer it, not enough—of the feminine about him. Nothing, again, of the open-eyed innocence of the child for whom art and life are just a play of soap-bubbles. I wish to speak no ill of those eyes, which I love, for I too find that it is beautiful to see the world reflected in iridescent bubbles. But it is still more beautiful to take it to you with open arms and make it yours, as Beethoven did. He is the masculine sculptor who dominates his matter and bends it to his hand; the master-builder, with Nature for his yard. For anyone who can survey these campaigns of the soul from which stand out the victories of the Eroica and the Appassionata, the most striking thing is not the vastness of the armies, the floods of tone, the masses flung into the assault, but the spirit in command, the imperial reason.
But before we speak of the work, let us consider the workman. And first of all let us reconstitute the carpenter's framework—the body.
He is built of solid stuff well cemented; the mind of Beethoven has strength for its base. The musculature is powerful, the body athletic; we see the short, stocky body with its great shoulders, the swarthy red face, tanned by sun and wind, the stiff black mane, the bushy eyebrows, the beard running up the eyes, the broad and lofty forehead and cranium, "like the vault of a temple," powerful jaws "that can grind nuts," the muzzle and the voice of a lion. Everyone of his acquaintance was astonished at his physical vigor. "He was strength personified," said the poet Castelli. "A picture of energy," wrote Seyfried. And so he remained to the last years—until that pistol shot of the nephew that struck him to the heart. Reichardt and Benedict describe him as "Cyclopean"; others invoke Hercules. He is one of the hard, knotty, pitted fruits of the age that produced a Mirabeau, a Danton, a Napoleon. He sustains this strength of his by means of vigorous ablutions with cold water, a scrupulous regard for personal cleanliness, and daily walks immediately after the midday meal, walks that lasted the en-tire afternoon and often extended into the night; then a sleep so sound and long that he thanklessly complained against it! His way of living is substantial but simple. Nothing to excess; he is no glutton, no drinker (in the evil sense of the word) as some have wrongfully described him. Like a good Rhinelander he loved wine, but he never abused it—except for a short period (1825-1826) with Holz, when he was badly shaken. He was fonder of fish than of meat; fish was his great treat. But his fare was rough and countrified: delicate stomachs could not endure it.
As he grows older, the demon that possesses him brings more and more disorder into his way of living. He needs a woman to look after him, or he will forget to eat; he has no hearth of his own. But there is to be found no woman who will devote her-self absolutely to him; and perhaps his independence would revolt in advance against the rights that devotion of this kind would establish over him.
Yet he likes women and has need of them; they occupied a greater place in his life than in that, I will not say of a Bach or a Handel, but of any other musician. I will come back to this point. But though his avid nature cries out for love, and though love fled from him less than has been supposed (as we shall see later, he fascinated women, and more than one offered herself to him), he is on his guard against them, on his guard against himself. His sexual continence has been exaggerated. Certain entries of the year 1816 in his journal testifying to his disgust, testify also that he has had experience of the light-o'-love. But his conception of love is too lofty for him to be able, without a sense of shame, to degrade it in these—to use his own word—bestial (viehisch) unions. He ended by banishing the sensual from his own passional life; and when Giulietta Giucciardi, the beloved of the old time, still beautiful, comes to him in tears and offers herself to him, he repulses her with disdain. He guards the sanctity of his memories against her, and he guards his art, his deity, against contamination: "If I had been willing thus to sacrifice my vital force," he said to Schindler, "what would have remained for the nobler, the better thing?"
This governance of the flesh by the spirit, this strength of constitution, both moral and physical, this life without excess, ought to have assured him an unassailable health: Rockel, who in 1806 saw him nude, splashing about in the water like a Triton, said that "you would have predicted he would live to the age of Methuselah."
But his heredity was flawed. It is more than likely that he derived from his mother a predisposition toward tuberculosis while the alcoholism of his father and his grandmother, against which he fought morally, must. have left its mark on his system.
From early days he suffered from a violent enteritis; also, perhaps, from syphilis; his eyes were weak, and there was the deafness. He died of none of these, however, but of cirrhosis of the liver. Moreover, in his last illness there were fortuitous circumstances that brought about the fatal result: first of all pleurisy, the result of the furious return from the country to Vienna in an ice-cold December in a milkman's cart, without any winter clothing; then, when this first trouble seemed to have been stemmed, a fresh outburst of anger that brought on a relapse. Of all these cracks in the building, the only one that affected the soul—and that terribly—was, as we know, the deafness.
But at the point of departure of about the year 1800--for other men it would have been a point of arrival—when, in his thirtieth year, he has already won the foremost place for himself by the side of the venerable Haydn, his strength appears intact, and he is proudly conscious of it. He who has freed himself from the bonds and the gags of an old rotting world, freed himself from its masters, its gods, must show himself to be worthy of his new liberty, capable of bearing it; otherwise, let him remain in chains! The prime condition for the free man is strength. Beethoven exalts it; he is even inclined to overesteem it. Kraft uber alles! There is something in him of Nietzsche's superman, long before Nietzsche. If he can be fierily generous, it is because such is his nature and because it pleases him to distribute royally, to "friends in need," largesse from the booty he has won. But he can also be pitiless, lacking in all consideration, as, indeed, he sometimes is. I refer not to those furious outbursts of rage in which he respects no one, not even his inferiors; he professes at times a morality of the stronger—Faustrecht: "Strength is the morality of the men who stand out from the others, and it is mine."
He is rich in scorn—scorn for the feeble, the ignorant, the common people, equally so for the aristocracy, and even for the good souls who love and admire him; a scorn of all men, terrible in itself, of which he never quite succeeded in purging himself.
As late as 1825, for instance, he says: "Our epoch has need of powerful spirits to lash these wretched, small-minded, perfidious scoundrels of humanity." In a letter of 1801 to his friend Amenda he speaks thus insultingly of a man (Zmeskall) who will remain faithful to him to his last breath, and who, to share with him the terrors of his last days, has his own sick body carried to a house near that in which Beethoven is undergoing the final agony: "I rate him and those of his species only according to what they bring me; I regard them purely and simply as instruments on which I play when I please."
This bragging cynicism, which he displays ostentatiously before the eyes of the most religious of his friends, bursts out more than once in his life, and his enemies fasten upon it. When Holz, around 1825, is about to become intimate with him, the publisher Steiner lets him know that it is very good of him to do anything for Beethoven, who will cast him aside when he has made use of him, as he does all his famuli; and Holz repeats the remark to Beethoven.
Imputations of this kind are belied at every period, of his life by the torrent of his warm humanity. But we must recognize that the two currents, vast love, vast scorn, often came to a clash in him, and that in the full flush of his youth when victory broke down all the floodgates, the scorn poured out in torrents.
May gentle souls forgive me! I do not idealize the man: I describe him as I see him.
But it is here we become conscious of the antique sublimity of the destiny that smites him, like Oedipus, in his pride, his strength, just where he is most sensitive—in his hearing, the very instrument of his superiority. We remember the words of Hamlet:
and that should teach us
We who at a century's distance can see that tragedy for what it was, let us prostrate ourselves and say, "Holy! holy! Blessed is the misfortune that has come upon thee! Blessed the sealing-up of thine ears!"
The hammer is not all: the anvil also is necessary. Had des-tiny descended only upon some weakling, or on an imitation great man, and bent his back under this burden, there would have been no tragedy in it, only an everyday affair. But here destiny meets one of its own stature, who "seizes it by the throat," who is at savage grips with it all the night till the dawn—the last dawn of all—and who, dead at last, lies with his two shoulders touching the earth, but in his death is carried victorious on his shield; one who out of his wretchedness has created a richness, out of his infirmity the magic wand that opens the rock.
Let us return to the portrait of him in this decisive hour when destiny is about to enter; let us savor deliberately the cruel joy of the combat in the arena between the Force without a name and the man with the muzzle of a lion!
This superman over whose head the storm is gathering (for the peaks attract the thunderbolt) is marked, as with smallpox, with the moral characteristics of his time—the spirit of revolt, the torch of the Revolution. They declare themselves already in the Bonn period. The youthful Beethoven has attended at the University the lectures of Eulogius Schneider, the future public prosecutor for the department of the Lower Rhine. When the news of the taking of the Bastille comes to Bonn, Schneider reads from his pulpit an ardent poem that arouses the enthusiasm of his pupils. In the following year the Hofmusicus Beethoven subscribes to the collection of revolutionary poems in which Schneider hurls in the face of the old world the heroic defiance of the democracy that is on the way:
"To despise fanaticism, to break the scepter of stupidity, to fight for the rights of humanity, ah! no valet of princes can do that! It needs free souls that prefer death to flattery, poverty to servitude. . . . And know that of such souls mine will not be the last!"
Who is it that is speaking? Is it Beethoven already? The words are Schneider's, but it is Beethoven who clothes them with flesh. This proud profession of republican faith is arrogantly carried by the young Jacobin—whose political convictions will indeed change in time, but never his moral convictions—into the upper-class salons of Vienna, in which, from the days of his first successes, he behaves without ceremony toward the aristocrats who entertain him.
The elegance of a world that is nearing its end has never been finer, more delicate, more worthy of love (in default of esteem) than on this the eve of the last day, when the cannon of Wagram were to arrive. It recalls Trianon. But these grand seigneurs of Vienna on the threshold of the nineteenth century, how superior they are in taste and culture to their princess in exile, the daughter of their Maria Theresa! Never has an aristocracy loved the beauty of music with a passion more complete or shown more respect for those who bring down its blessings to mortals. It is as if they would win pardon for their neglect of Mozart, who had been thrown into a common grave. In the years between the death of poor Wolfgang and that of Haydn the Viennese aristocracy bends the knee before art, pays court to artists; its pride is to treat them as equals.
March 27, 1808 marks the apogee of this consecration, the royal coronation of music. On that date Vienna celebrates the seventy-sixth birthday of Haydn. At the -door of the University the highest aristocracy, accompanied by the musicians, awaits the son of the Rohrau wheelwright, who is coming in Prince Esterhazy's carriage. He is conducted into the hall with acclamations, to the sound of trumpets and of drums. Prince Lobkowitz, Salieri, and Beethoven come to kiss his hand. Princess Esterhazy and two great ladies take off their cloaks and wrap them round the feet of the old man, who is shaken with emotion. The frenzy, the cries, the tears of enthusiasm, are more than the composer of the Creation can bear. He leaves in tears in the middle of his oratorio, and as he goes out he blesses Vienna from the threshold of the hall.
A year later the eagles of Napoleon swoop down on Vienna, and Haydn, dying in the occupied city, carries the old world to the tomb with him. But the young Beethoven has known the affectionate smile of this old world that so nobly throws the mantle of its aristocracy under the feet of the artist, and he despises it; he tramples the mantle underfoot. He is not the first of these peasants of the Danube and the Rhone (the first two of them were Gluck and Rousseau) to see the proud nobility anxious to please them, and who revenge themselves on it for the affronts that generations of their own class have had to endure. But whereas the "Chevalier Gluck" (a forester's son), who is artful by nature, knows how to blend the permitted vialences with what he owes to the great, and even how to make these violences an advertisement for himself, and whereas the timid Jean Jacques bows and stammers and does not remember until he is descending the stairs all the bold things he should have said, Beethoven blurts out straight to their faces in the crowded salon the contempt of the insult that he has on his tongue for this world. And when the mother of Princess Lichnowsky, the Countess von Thun, the noble woman who had been the friend of Gluck and the protectress of Mozart, falls on her knees before him and begs him to play, he refuses with-out even rising from his sofa.
How kind this princely house of Lichnowsky is to him! They have adopted this little savage from Bonn as a son, patiently set themselves to hewing him into shape, all the while taking infinite pains to avoid rousing his susceptibilities. The princess shows him the affection of a grandmother (the word is Beethoven's own) ; "she would put him under a glass so that no unworthy breath should touch him"; and later we have the story of that soirée at the Lichnowsky palace in December 1805 at which some of his intimates are trying to save Fidelio, which Beethoven, after the first failure, has refused to revise, and the princess, who is already mortally ill, appeals to the memory of his mother and conjures him "not to let his great work perish." Yet a few months after that it will need only a word that seems to him to be directed against his independence for Beethoven to smash the prince's bust, run out of the house, and bang the door behind him, vowing that he will never see the Lichnowskys again. "Prince," he writes to him on separating from him, "what you are, you are by the accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven."
This spirit of proud revolt breaks out not only against the people of another class but against those of his own, against other musicians, against the masters of his own art, against the rules: "The rules forbid this succession of chords; very well, I allow it."
He refuses to take for granted the edicts of the classroom; he will believe only what he has himself experienced and tested. He will yield only to the direct lesson of life. His two teachers, Albrechtsberger and Sailed, confess that he owes nothing to them, for he has never been willing to admit that they taught him anything; his real master was his own hard personal experience. He is the rebellious archangel; according to Czerny, the astounded and dismayed Gelinek said, "There is Satan in this young man!"
But patience! The spear of St. Michael will bring forth the God concealed in him. It is not from a vain pride that he refuses to bow before the judgments of authority. In his day people thought it monstrous that this young man should regard himself as the equal of a Goethe and a Handel. But he was.
If he is proud before others, he has no pride before himself. Speaking to Czerny of his faults and his imperfect education, he says, "And yet I had some talent for music!" No one has ever worked harder, more patiently, more tenaciously, from his first days to his last. The theoreticians whom he rejected at twenty he returns to and rereads at forty; he makes extracts from Kirnberger, Fux, Albrechtsberger, Turk, Philipp Emanuel Bach —and this in 1809, after he has written the Pastoral and the C minor! His intellectual curiosity is enormous. Near the end of his life he says, "Now I am beginning to learn." Patience! Al-ready the iron is emerging from the fusing ores. The jealous passion for glory that is nourished by the rivalries of the virtuosos and the exciting contact with the public is only, as it were, an infantine skin eruption. When his friends, says Czerny, speak to him of his youthful renown, he replies: "Ah, nonsense! I have never thought of writing for renown and glory. What I have in my heart must out; that is why I write." Everything is subordinated to the imperious voice of his interior life.
Every true artist has within himself, diffuse and intermittent, this dream life that flows in great streams in his subterranean world. But in Beethoven it attains to a unique intensity, and that long before the closing of the doors of his hearing blockade him from the rest of the universe. Think, for example, of the magnificent Largo e mesto in D minor in the Sonata Op. 10, No. 3—that sovereign meditation that dominates the vast plain of life and its shadows! It is the work of a young man of twenty-six (1796) . And the whole of Beethoven is already there. What maturity of soul! If not so precocious as Mozart in the art of smooth harmonious speech, how much more precocious he was in his interior life, in knowledge and mastery of him-self, of his passions and his dreams! His hard childhood, his premature experiences developed these aptitudes early. I see Beethoven as a child as his neighbor, the baker, used to see him, at the window of that garret of his that looked out over the Rhine, his head in his hands, lost in his "beautiful, profound thoughts." Perhaps there is singing within him that melodious lament, the poetic adagio of his first pianoforte sonata. Even as a child he is a prey to melancholy; in the poignant letter with which his correspondence begins we read, "Melancholy, that for me is an evil almost as great as illness itself...." But even in the early days he has the magic power to win free of it by fixing it in tones.
But conqueror or conquered, he is always alone. From his infancy, wherever he may be, in the street or in the salons, he isolates himself with a peculiar strength. Frau von Breuning used to say when he was thus lost in the distance, oblivious of everything, that he had his raptus. Later this becomes a gulf in which his soul disappears from the sight of men for hours and days. Do not try to recall him! That would be dangerous; the somnambulist would never forgive you.
Music develops in its own elect that power of concentration on an idea, that form of yoga that is purely European, having the traits of action and domination that are characteristic of the West; for music is an edifice in motion, all the parts of which have to be sensed simultaneously. It demands of the soul a vertiginous movement in the immobile, the eye clear, the will taut, the spirit flying high and free over the whole field of dreams. In no other musician has the embrace of thought been more violent, more continuous, more superhuman.
Once Beethoven takes hold upon an idea, he never lets it go until he possesses it wholly. Nothing can distract him from the pursuit. It is not for nothing that his piano playing is characterized by its legato, contrasting in this respect with the Mozart touch that was delicate, pointed, clean-cut, as well as from that of all the pianists of his own time. In Beethoven's thought everything is connected, and yet it appears to gush out in tor-rents. He controls the thought, and he controls himself. He appears to be delivered up to the world by his passions; but in fact no one can read the thought that is moving in the depths of him. In these early years of the nineteenth century Seyfried, who studies him at close quarters both in drawing rooms and at home (they live in the same building), is struck not so much by the traces of emotion in his face as by its impassiveness: "It was difficult, even impossible," he says, "to read either approbation or dissatisfaction on his face [when he was listening to music]; he remained always the same, to outward appearance cold and reserved in his judgments. Within him the mind was working without respite; the fleshly envelope was like a marble without a soul."
This is a different Beethoven from the ordinary conception of him as looking like King Lear in the storm! But who really knows him? One is always inclined to accept the impression of the movement.
In his thirtieth year his mind is a formidable equilibrium of opposing elements. If in the outer world he gives free rein to his passions, in his art he holds their mouth in with a bit con-trolled by a wrist of steel.
He rejoices in improvisation; it is then that he comes to grips with the element of the unforeseen in genius; the sub-conscious forces are unchained, and he must subdue them. Many of the great musicians have been masterly improvisers, especially in the eighteenth century when music, its joints still supple, cultivated the faculty of free invention. But this public of connoisseurs, which only yesterday had been spoiled by Mozart, unanimously vows that in this field no one can compare with Beethoven. They agree also that in the whole art of Beethoven itself there is nothing to compare with the unheard-of power of his improvisation. It is difficult for us to form an idea of it in spite of the fact that expert pianists like Ries and Czerny have described for us its inexhaustible wealth of ideas, its bewildering posing and solving of difficulties, its unexpected sallies, its swirl of passion. These professionals, on their guard as they are, fall as easy victims to the conqueror as the others. Wherever he happens to be playing, says Czerny, there is no resisting him; the public is staggered. "Apart from the beauty and originality of the ideas, there was something extraordinary in the expression." Aloys Schlosser speaks of his "poetic fury." Beethoven is like Prospero: he calls up spirits from the very depths to the very heights. The listeners break into sobs; Reichardt weeps bitterly; there is not a dry eye any-where. And then, when he has finished, when he sees these fountains of tears, he shrugs his shoulders and laughs noisily in their faces: "The fools! . . . They are not artists. Artists are made of fire; they do not weep."
This aspect of Beethoven—his contempt for sentimentality- is hardly known. They have turned this oak into a weeping willow. It was his listeners who wept; he himself has his emotion under control. "No emotion!" he says to his friend Schlosser at parting: "Man must be strong and brave in all things." We shall see him give Goethe a, lesson in insensitivity.
If he ignores in his art the torments that ravage his inner life, it is because he wills it so. The artist remains master of them; never do they sweep him away. Has he been their plaything? Well, it is his turn now! He takes them in hand and looks at them, and laughs.
I have been describing so far the man of 1800, the genius as he was at thirty—with the big, repellent traits that indicate an abuse of strength, but strength indubitably, an immense interior sea that does not know its own boundaries. But there are grave risks that it may lose itself in the sands of pride and success. This God whom he bears within himself, will he prove to be a Lucifer?
I do not use the word "God" as a mere figure of speech. When we speak of Beethoven we have to speak of God: God to him is the first reality, the most real of realities; we shall meet with him throughout all his thinking. He can treat him as an equal or behave as his master. He can regard him as a companion to be treated roughly, as a tyrant to be cursed, as a fragment of his own Ego, or as a rough friend, a severe father qui bet-to castigat. (The son of Johann van Beethoven had learned as a child the value of this treatment.) But whatever this Being may be that is at issue with Beethoven, he is at issue with him at every hour of the day; he is of his household and dwells with him; never does he leave him. Other friends come and go: he alone is always there. And Beethoven importunes him with his complaints, his reproaches, his questions. The inward monologue is constantly a deux. In all Beethoven's work, from the very earliest, we find these dialogues of the soul, of the two souls in one, wedded and opposed, discussing, warring, body locked with body, whether for war or in an embrace who can say? But one of them is the voice of the Master; no one can mistake it.
Toward 1800 Beethoven, while still recognizing it, contends with it. The struggle goes on again without intermission. Each time the Master imprints his burning seal on the soul. And he waits and watches for the fire. As yet comes only the first flame, kindled by the feeble breath of Beethoven's religious friend Amenda. But the flame and the pyre are ready. Only the wind is wanting!
The misfortune that descends on him between 1800 and 1802, like the storm in the Pastoral—though in his case the sky never clears again—smites him in all his being at once; in his social life, in love, in art. Everything is attacked; nothing escapes.
First of all, his social life; and that is no small matter for the Beethoven of 1800! Imagine the brilliant position of an artist who has given to the world in five years the first ten pianoforte sonatas (among them the Pathetique ), the first five sonatas for piano and violin, the first eight trios, the first six quartets (thrown at Prince Lobkowitz' feet in a single sheaf), the first two piano concertos, the septet, the serenade! And these are merely the most famous of the works, those whose fires are still unpaled after a century. Conceive to yourself the treasures of poetry and of passion that this young genius has poured into them—the melodic grace of them, the humor and the fantasy, the unleashed furies, the somber dreams! A whole new world, as, indeed, his contemporaries, especially the younger of them, immediately perceived; as Louis Schlosser put it, "the musical hero whose genius has unchained the interior infinite and created a new era in art."
This piano music and chamber music (for the impetuous genius has had the rare patience not to attempt the conquest of the symphony until after he has made himself master of the whole domain of Kammermusik) enjoys an unprecedented popularity. Before he is thirty years of age he is recognized as the greatest of all clavier composers; and as regards other music, only Mozart and Haydn are regarded as his equals. From the first years of the century he is performed all over Germany, in Switzerland, in Scotland, in Paris (1803). At thirty he is already the conqueror of the future.
Take now a look at this conqueror, this Beethoven of thirty, the great virtuoso, the brilliant artist, the lion of the salons, who fascinates youth, kindles transports, and thinks little of this elegant, vibrant, refined world, though he has need of it (he has always lived in it, from the time when, as a child, he became a little Hofmusicus; when he emerges from his father's poor hearth or now, at Vienna, from his untidy bachelor's rooms, it is always to breathe the most aristocratic atmosphere in Europe and taste the intoxication of it), this Beethoven whose bad manners the good Princess Lichnowsky has patiently polished, and who affects to despise fashion but for all that carries his chin well up over his fine white three-deep cravat and out of the corner of his eye looks proudly and with satisfaction (though at heart a little uneasy) at the effect he is creating on the company, this Beethoven who dances (but how?), this Beethoven who rides a horse (unhappy animal!), this Beethoven whose charming humor, whose hearty laugh, whose delight in life, whose concealed grace and elegance (very much concealed, and yet there!) find expression in ravishing works like the Bonn Ritterballet (1790), the Serenade of 1796, the exquisite Variations on Vieni amore (1791), on a Russian dance tune (1795-1797), on an air from La Molinara (1795), the frisky German dances (1795-1797), the youthfully happy waltzes and Landler. Do not fall into the error of regarding this man as unsociable. He may clash with this society, but he cannot do without it. And that fact gives us the measure of what it must have cost him later to be deprived of it.
But for the moment he is enjoying it. He is its favorite. Yet the poor plebeian young man knows how precarious is this favor, this attachment, how much of irony, benevolent or malevolent, there is blended with it—the suspicious young bumpkin believes in his heart that it is so, and he is right; he knows that these noble admirers are on the lookout for his gaucheries, his absurdities, his weaknesses, and that (we know this sort of friend!), however much they may like him, tomorrow they would not mind throwing him over. Observe that he has not troubled to conciliate them; he conciliates no one; that is a natural impossibility with him; he would rather die than mince the truth. If he has many a devoted Maecenas, he has also, it goes without saying, enemies, jealous rivals whom he has mortally offended, virtuosos whom he has discomfited, embittered colleagues, fools whom he has deflated, and even young artists whom he has not gone out of his way to flatter. He is rough with people who show him their insipid works, and he lacks the address to build round himself a clientele of obsequious disciples (all he has, at the most, are one or two professional pupils). Never was anyone less the "dear Master" than he.
He is alone on his tightrope; below is the gaping crowd awaiting the false step. He has given them no thought so long as he was sure his body was whole. To be one against them all rejoiced him; he sported with vertigo. . But today, now that destiny has dealt him a grievous wound? Imagine the man on the tightrope suddenly becoming dizzy. What must he do? Confess that he can no longer see clearly? He clenches his teeth; so long as there is a glimmer of light for his eyes he will go forward.
The imminence of the night that is about to descend on him increases the fury of creation in him.
And it increases love.
Beethoven is a man possessed with love. The fire burns unceasingly from his adolescence to the shadows of his last days.
"He was never without a love affair," one of his intimates tells us. Sensitive to beauty, he can never see a pretty face without being smitten, as we learn from Ries. It is true that none of these flames lasts very long; one expels the other. (He is cox-comb enough to boast that the most serious of them lasted only seven months.) But this is only the outer zone of love. Within it there are sacred passions of the kind that leave forever in the soul the Wonne der Wehmut, the wound that never ceases to bleed. There are the "little friends"; there are the women he has been in love with; and there is the "Immortal Beloved." Between the one kind and the other it is often difficult where a Beethoven is concerned to draw a dividing line: more than one of these little affairs commences in jest and ends by being serious.
Every variety of passion and of love is contained in these first years of the century, just when his malady is about to immure him. There is not a day when he is not surrounded in some Vienna salon or other by a swarm of young girls, several of whom are his pupils—that kind of pupil he never refused!--while all pay him court. Let us insist on this fact, which at first sight is astonishing! He is the fashion; it is he who writes for Vigano and La Casentini the new ballet, Die Geschöpfe der Prometheus (The Creations of Prometheus) given at the Court Theater on March 26, 1801.
In every epoch the virtuoso, the artist who is in the public eye, has attracted women. Beethoven has always exercised a fascination over them. Ugly and common as he appears at first sight, unpleasant as the first approach to him may be, hardly has he begun to speak or smile when all of them, the frivolous and the serious, the romantic and the quizzical, are at his feet. They notice then that he has a fine mouth, dazzling teeth, and "beautiful speaking eyes that mirror the changing expression of the moment, by turns gracious, agreeable, wild, angry, menacing." No doubt they laugh at him and are delighted to find ridiculous things in him that they can quiz him about: these indeed are their defense, for without them he would be dangerous; in this little duel of hearts they assure their advantage over him. And of course there can be no question of these young girls, beautiful, rich, titled, letting the adventure go any further than a drawing-room flirtation. No one will blame them for that! What surprises us rather is that the heart of more than one of them is touched. The women's letters published by La Mara and M. A. de Hevesy often mention Beethoven, "who is an angel!" And even while they are making fun of him their imagination is sometimes a trifle too occupied with him. They take him about with them in their castles in Hungary; and behind the thickets at night sweet words pass, kisses are exchanged—perhaps promises too, that are only thistledown on the wind. (But we hear the wind blowing hot and furious through the presto agitato of the finale of the Moonlight Sonata.)
These years 1799-1801 see the beginning of the intimacy with the two related families of the Brunswicks and the Guicciardi. He loves the three cousins, Tesi (Therese), Pepi (Josephine), and Giulietta by turn and all together. (They are aged respectively twenty-five, twenty-one, and sixteen.) And his feelings are reciprocated as well as they can be by these volatile creatures intoxicated with their spring—the beautiful and coquettish Giulietta, the fascinating Josephine, who is tender and proud (the one of the three who most truly loved him at this time), and the serious (though not so serious then as later!) Therese Brunswick, who remained so long uncertain of herself and unhappy. Giulietta carries the day over her rivals; she unchains a tempest of passion in Beethoven. It is not to her, however, that the letter of eleven years later to the "Immortal Beloved" is addressed. But in November 1801 she is "this dear girl, this enchantress" (ein liebes, zauberisches Mädchen), who has captured Beethoven's heart and by whom he believes him-self to be loved. She alone dissipates the clouds of melancholy and misanthropy that have gathered about him since he became haunted by the "specter of deafness," only to let them descend again, alas, more crushingly than before!
Precisely because he feels the trouble approaching—that mortal infirmity that soon he will no longer be able to conceal! —he feels the need to fly to a woman for refuge. And now it is not a question merely of love but of marriage. From now until 1816 this will be his constant hope—and his constant deception. The poor, man sees the light going out, and he searches for the faithful hand that will guide him. But who will reach him that hand? It will not be any of the women who then attract him. Apart from their pride of caste—and if they themselves have none, their families see to that for them—what means of existence has he to offer them? Until the first onset of his malady he has lived without thought for the morrow. At present his compositions bring him in little, he does not see to getting paid for the lessons he gives, he exists on provisional pensions that are always wounding to his susceptibilities. To lay anything by he would have had to tour Germany and Europe as a virtuoso. The idea occurs to him. But the deafness comes on so swiftly that already the project makes him uneasy. In any case it would be years before he could amass sufficient to marry on. Giulietta does not wait for him. She marries—a double affront, this!—a musician (and what a musician!), a man of the world, an amateur, a handsome fellow, one of those dandies who play at being the great artist without having the faintest idea of the gulf there is between insipidities like theirs and a work of genius. This little Count Gallenberg, a cub of twenty, will have the impertinence, at the orchestral concerts of the winter of 1803, to put side by side with the symphonies of Beethoven his own overtures, pieced together out of Mozart and Cherubini; and Giulietta is no more conscious of the difference than he is. She marries him on November 3, 1803, a year and a half after Beethoven had dedicated "alla Damigella Contessa" the sorrowful Sonata quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2 (the Moonlight). The illusion had been short-lived; and already the sonata showed more suffering and wrath than love. Six months after this immortal ode, Beethoven, in despair, writes the Heiligenstadt Testament (October 6, 1802).
There are biographers who love to read their hero a lesson. Beethoven's have not spared him in this respect. All through the monumental works that Thayer and his German successors have devoted to him, they set themselves to prove that Beethoven well deserved his troubles—almost, even, his deafness!
It is true; his crime was not to know how to adapt himself to ordinary standards. They show no less zeal in demonstrating that, all in all, he was not so unhappy! Again it is true; the unfortunate man had within him the immense joy of the symphonies. But when they use his laughter as an argument against his sorrow, they show themselves lacking not only in a sense of grandeur but in the most elementary humanity. History in the hands of conscientious savants who go to the archives for the life of a man but forget to look for it in the man himself is a form of treason. I do not wish to be unjust. These men with the patience of ants have meticulously amassed a treasure of documents for which we cannot be too grateful to them; and every now and then there comes a glow into the blood of the good musicians that they are that makes them render fine homage to the perfection of the art. But how destitute of life they are, and what a sealed enigma life. remains to them! They have no psychology. And nowhere do they suspect. the true proportions of the hero. They measure him with the measuring rod of ordinary men. They are right, and they are wrong. Their measuring rod authorizes them to declare the mountain lacking in proportion; that is because they see it from below. The mountain, in its turn, would have the right to tax them with that "spirit of smallness" (Geist der Kleinichkeit) which Beethoven abominated, and which, in a moment of irritation, he attributed to one of his good friends.
Beethoven would not be Beethoven if he were not too much of whatever he was. I do not praise him; I do not blame him; I am trying to paint him whole. Whoever would understand him must be able to embrace the excess of his contrasts that brings about his mighty equilibrium. Yes, Beethoven is capable —at any rate in his youth—of feeling joy and sorrow almost simultaneously. The one does not exclude the other; they are the two poles of his "electrical genius"; it is by means of these that he discharges and recharges his formidable vitality. The most extraordinary thing about him is not his enormous capacity for suffering and loving but the elasticity of his nature. Of this the crisis of 1802 is the most magnificent example.
Beethoven is felled to the ground; never has a more heart-rending cry of despair than this testamentary letter (which was never dispatched) been torn from a human breast. He measures his length on the ground—but like the Titan of the fable, only to raise himself again at a bound, his strength multiplied by ten. "No, I will not endure it!" . . . He seizes destiny by the throat.... "You will not succeed in bowing me down utterly."
In natures such as this the excess of suffering determines the salutary reaction; the strength increases with that of the enemy. And when the prostrated one finds himself on his feet again, he is no longer merely one man: he is the army of the Eroica on the march.