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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In truth, Beethoven thrived as a strong-willed but socially adept virtuoso pianist and composer for his first 25 years or so. As he developed hearing problems in his late 20s, however, and moved toward the realization that the malady was irreversible, he began to turn inward. As he descended into deafness in his 30s and 40s, he grew increasingly mercurial, irritable, and paranoid. At times, he appeared to be fully irrational. He wrote emotional confessionals and fought with members of his family. He flirted with numerous women but was unable to sustain a lasting relationship. He moved restlessly from dwelling to dwelling, changing residences in Vienna more than 30 times in 35 years. A smart dresser in his youth, he appeared increasingly unkempt and disheveled. In his final decade, he became so dissipated that he was once mistaken for a vagabond and thrown into jail. By any measure, Beethoven’s personal life was bizarre.

All this is well-documented in his diary and conversation books (in which acquaintances wrote questions that the deaf Beethoven answered verbally), his voluminous correspondence, court proceedings and printed reports, and eyewitness accounts. Anton Schindler’s Biographie von Ludwig van Beetho-ven (known to English readers as Beethoven As I Knew Him), written and revised within 20 years of Beethoven’s death, is filled with tantalizing anecdotes about the Vienna years. Beethoven himself contributed fuel to the fire by leaving behind neatly written, carefully preserved testimonials seemingly aimed at posterity. As Suchet points out, the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven describes his inner battle with deafness and declares that he will live to compose, as well as his letter to an “Immortal Beloved,” in which he confesses his passion for a mysterious, unnamed woman, were thoughtfully preserved through the composer’s many moves in Vienna from one dwelling to another.

The Beethovenian paradox of “crisis and creativity”—to use the phrase coined by Solomon—has been well described in the past. But no one before Suchet has focused quite so intensely, and so eagerly, on the crisis part—and the composer’s melodramatic highs and lows: stopping the orchestra during an already overly long performance and insisting that the players start again from the beginning; refusing to bow before passing royalty when walking in the park with Goethe; receiving a distinguished visitor with an unemptied chamber pot under the piano. Such stories, well known to historians, are too good to make up.

Or so one thought. Suchet doesn’t hesitate to embellish them further when the facts are insufficient to make a truly memorable tale. Consider his recounting of Haydn’s visit to Bonn in December 1790. Haydn was traveling to London for the first performance of his symphonies at the Salomon concerts, and on a stopover in Bonn, he was treated by the elector to a surprise banquet with local musicians. Two years later, Beethoven would set off for Vienna to study with Haydn (carrying with him Count Waldstein’s famous benediction: “With persistent hard work you shall receive Mozart’s Spirit through Haydn’s Hands”). But Beethoven’s initial encounter with Haydn may have taken place at the Bonn dinner. Although there is no concrete evidence that they met in Bonn, past biographers have pondered the possibility. Suchet does not hesitate to fill in the gap: “I shall now shamelessly indulge in speculation,” he informs us, before placing Beethoven at the event and manufacturing an exchange with Haydn that might have taken place. “I confess the conversation and that last quote are drawn from my imagination,” he admits upon finishing the story. This broad interpretation of the facts is typical of Suchet’s approach.

In the case of Eleonore von Breuning, or “Lorchen,” the personable young daughter of the von Breuning family to whom Beethoven gave piano lessons in Bonn, Suchet proposes not only that Beethoven fell in love with his pupil soon after commencing instruction (she was only 16 at the time) but that he attempted to put his feelings into action with an unwanted kiss. This she rejected, Suchet reasons, causing Beethoven to write her later from Vienna, apologizing for the earlier offense. The letter, containing a reference to a disagreement, exists; the physical attraction and attempted caress are pure hypothesis. “I imagine he made an ungainly lunge at her, which she rejected and which left her seriously upset,” Suchet writes, after warning us at the start that “we are in the realm of conjecture now, but I make no apologies for what follows.”