Ludwig van Beethoven. Found in the Collection of Philharmonie de Paris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
On Music

A genius who could say “no”

The things Beethoven never did

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Is it possible to be world famous all your life and yet remain completely unknown?

When Ludwig van Beethoven died on 26 March, 1827, nobody knew what to say about him. He had a small handful of life-long friends and a wider circle of musical acquaintances but not even the most fluent or self-advertising among his circle could find words to describe him. “Oh, the great man, the pity of it!” is the general tenor of comment.

Beethoven lays traps for pursuers; he is not what he seems

It fell to the national poet, Franz Grillparzer, to compose the graveside eulogy and he fell back mostly on poetic cliché. But in one stanza Grillparzer, who knew Beethoven from 1805 onwards, touched on the very reason that he eluded everyone: “He fled the world because he did not find, in the whole compass of his loving nature, a weapon with which to resist it. He withdrew from his fellow men after he had given them everything and had received nothing in return.”

This is harsh and not completely true, but Grillparzer is right in stating that Beethoven made himself deliberately unknowable, holding himself apart from the world so that its chatter did not distract him.

Norman Lebrecht’s Why Beethoven is published by Oneworld, £20

Unknowability is the assumption that every responsible biographer must accept. Those who try to draw character from incidents and anecdotes end up undone. Beethoven lays traps for pursuers; he is not what he seems. In my three-year quest, I decided to proceed strictly through the music — the hand on the page which, in these times, is often visible online. Here, there are plenty of clues — inspirations, erasures, second guesses.

Why, for instance, does he strike out the movement titles in the Pastoral Symphony? He is unhappy about something — either the over-simplistic storyline, or something in the symphony itself which he ends almost without resolution. When he shows us his reworkings, we come very close to seeing the real Beethoven at work.

Here too, however, we must beware of rapid diagnosis. When he scrawls “Must it be? It must be” in his valedictory string quartet, is he engaged in existential mediation, or technical self-questioning? Often with Beethoven, the signpost points both ways.

Aside from studying the music, I added a counterintuitive wrench to my toolkit. Instead of looking at what Beethoven did, I made a categorical list of the things that Beethoven did not do.

He never, for instance, went to church. In the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, he abstained from the social rituals of the state religion. As an artist, Beethoven can get away with it — just. But he is also making a statement about the privacy of faith.

We see it once more when, meticulous in delivering commissions on time, he brings forth one work unforgivably late — three years late, in fact. It is the Missa Solemnis, written for the ascendance of his friend Archduke Rudolf to the archbishop’s seat at Olmütz. Epileptic and rumoured to be gay, Rudolf was Beethoven’s close confidant. He hated losing him to God.

When Beethoven decided an activity was extraneous or deleterious to his core purpose, he shut it down

There is one stringed instrument for which Beethoven never writes a solo. He turns out sonatas for violin and cello, but not a whisper for viola. Yet viola was the instrument that Beethoven, aged 14, played in order to obtain his first paid position in Bonn. It brought him to the ruler’s attention and helped raise funds to send him to Vienna to study with Haydn.

Away from home, it would have been easy to knock off a couple of viola solos that would showcase his virtuosity. But this is Beethoven: he does not do easy. By abjuring the viola he slams the door on his brutalised childhood and remakes himself in Vienna. Add to the list of things he never did — he never returned to Bonn.

Nor did he go pretty much anywhere else — except, on doctor’s orders, to summer spas, where he dallied with holidaymakers and made himself thoroughly miserable. In his life of 56 years, he never saw the sea. He never visited Paris or Rome, summits of civilisation. Haydn and Mozart profitably toured great capitals and crossed the sea. Not Beethoven. His was a life of single-minded dedication, not a moment to be wasted.

There is one other thing he never did, and that is have sexual relations. In his teens, late twenties and again as he turned 40, he fell in love repeatedly and obsessively with pretty young debutantes who toyed with his affections but made sure it went no further. They were two social classes above him, out to catch a rich count or a prince.

Beethoven chose them for their unattainability. He needed to experience romantic love as a resource for his creative imagination, but he recoiled from physical contact and did nothing (such as washing) to make himself desirable. When love ends, his pain is brief. The famous letter to an “immortal beloved” is most significant in that it was never sent. They found it unopened in a drawer when he died.

If he never bedded any of his beloveds, might he have paid for sex? A cello-playing official, Nikolaus Zmeskall, tried to tempt him on a brothel crawl but the only response from Beethoven was that he had no interest in such “swampy places”, a phrase psychiatrists will recognise. His autopsy was clear of venereal disease.

His reasons for all of these abstentions are numerous and complex, but the pattern of conduct is admirably clear. When Beethoven decided an activity was extraneous or deleterious to his core purpose, he shut it down — be it a viola, a vacation, a votive offering or a roll in the hay. The greatest strength of his character was its force of principle, his ability to say, “No.”

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