The Magazine

Hello, Beethoven

A look at the life behind the music.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Elsewhere, Suchet recounts the celebrated row between Beethoven and his patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky. In 1806, Lichnowsky invited Beethoven and a group of French Army officers to dine together, despite the fact that Beethoven’s animosity towards the French (who were occupying Vienna at the time) was well known. In Suchet’s retelling, the officers repeatedly ask Beethoven to play the piano, which he refuses to do. When Lichnowsky joins in the pleading, Beethoven storms out of the hall, goes to his room upstairs, locks the door, and packs his things to leave. Lichnowsky follows and has servants force open the door. An angry confrontation succeeds, during which Beethoven picks up a chair and threatens to strike Lichnowsky. 

At this point, the prince is persuaded to leave, and an indignant Beethoven then pens the oft-cited remark: “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth. What I am, I am through myself. There have been and will always be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Beethoven later seizes the marble bust of Lichnowsky in his Vienna apartment and smashes it to the ground. Suchet admits that there are several versions of this story, but assures us that he has chosen the most dramatic.

Rigorous Beethoven scholarship this is not. Yet, somehow, we forgive Suchet, for if he is shameless, he is also sincere. He has most of the facts right, and he alerts us to the fabrications along the way. This is not just Beethoven revealed, but Beethoven hyped—the great anecdotes related and embellished by an enthusiastic, engaging raconteur.

The most compelling portions of Suchet’s book are the detailed discussions of the “Immortal Beloved” and Beethoven’s troubled guardianship of his nephew Karl. On the latter: When Kaspar Anton Carl van Beethoven died in 1815, he named his wife, Johanna, and his brother Ludwig as co-guardians of his 9-year-old son, Karl. This was not acceptable to Beethoven, who sued for sole possession of the child on the grounds—fully unsupported—that Johanna was unfit to be a mother. The Landrecht, or court of the nobility, ruled in Beethoven’s favor, and he assumed Karl’s care. Three years later, Johanna appealed the case before the Magistrate, or lower court, and won Karl back. Two years after that, Beethoven appealed the case once again—and prevailed, this time not only winning Karl but obtaining an injunction against visiting rights for his mother. Thus began Beethoven’s overbearing attempt to raise his nephew as a pianist, even though the boy had neither talent nor interest in music. It also became quickly apparent that Beethoven was unsuited for parenting. 

The disastrous guardianship eventually came to a head with Karl’s attempted suicide at the age of 20. Beethoven’s maliciousness towards Johanna, and his misguided treatment of his nephew, have been difficult for biographers to handle. How does one reconcile the composer of such radiant pieces as the middle movements of the Emperor Piano Concerto and the Pathétique Piano Sonata with the vengeful, slandering uncle who emerges during this ugly affair? Suchet relates the story well and gives us a good sense of the legal tangles and emotional upheaval caused by Beetho-ven’s actions. Of Beethoven’s perplexing relationship with Johanna, he writes:

A modern-day psychiatrist would require many sessions with Beethoven on the couch to try to get to the bottom of just why he disliked Johanna so intensely. Was it to mask a hidden desire for her? Was it more simply that he was envious of his brother’s success in finding a wife? Was it that he thought she was unworthy to carry the name “Beethoven”? We cannot know.

Suchet also presents ongoing reports regarding Beethoven’s gastrointestinal issues, which run through the book like an idée fixe. These begin with a description of the stomach pains and diarrhea that Beethoven experienced before his first concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1794, followed by periodic updates on his irritable bowel syndrome, bad digestion, irregularity, acute constipation, colic, distended stomach, and more. While these disorders have been noted elsewhere, they are presented in unusual detail here, so much so that one begins to wonder whether the book might have been more aptly titled The Inner Beethoven. This may be more information about Beethoven’s bodily functions than we want to know.

Not unexpectedly, Suchet rounds out his story by taking us back to the Schwarzspanierhaus for the dramatic account of Beethoven’s last moments. Late in the afternoon of March 26, 1827, as the composer’s closest friends gathered in his living quarters in anticipation of the end, a violent storm arose, with driving snow and hail. It was unusual weather for early spring, and to those present it seemed to reflect the tumult of heaven as it prepared to receive the soul of the defiant composer. Beethoven had been ill and bedridden for some time, suffering from an acute deterioration of the liver. Several days earlier he had conceded to those present: “Plaudite, amici, comedia finite est” (“Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over”). Now, as the curtain was about to fall on the final act of that comedy, he rallied one last time. The pianist Anselm Hüttenbrenner later reported:

At around a quarter to six, there was an enormous clap of thunder, which startled everyone present. Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand, and looked up for several seconds with fist clenched, as if he wanted to say, “Inimical powers, I defy you! Away with you! God is with me! Courage, soldiers! Forward! Trust in me! Victory is assured!”

In the spirit of this book, we may imagine there was a bit more: “And do not allow a certain John Suchet to delve into the particulars of my private life after I am gone!” But for one reason or another, the inimical powers did not oblige, and as a result we have this pleasurable and highly entertaining read.

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and distinguished professor of music history at Rutgers.