II. PROGRESS AND TRAGEDY: 1792–1802

Arrived in Vienna, he found the city alive with musicians competing for patrons, audiences, and publishers, looking askance at every newcomer, and finding no disarming beauty in the youth from Bonn. He was short, stocky, dark-complexioned (Anton Esterházy called him “the Moor”), pockmarked, front upper teeth overlapping the lower, nose broad and flat, eyes deepset and challenging, and head “like a bullet,” wearing a wig and a van. He was not designed for popularity, with either the public or his competitors, but he was rarely without a rescuing friend.

Soon came news that his father had died (December 18, 1792). Some difficulty having developed about Beethoven’s share in his father’s small annuity, he petitioned the Elector for its continuance; the Elector responded by doubling it, and adding: “He is further to receive three measures of grain… for the education of his brothers” (Karl and Johann, who had moved to Vienna).7 Beethoven, grateful, made some good resolutions. In a friend’s album, May 22, 1793, he wrote, using the words of Schiller’s Don Carlos: “I am not wicked—Hot blood is my fault—my crime is that I am young….

Even though wildly surging emotions may betray my heart, yet my heart is good.” He resolved “to do good wherever possible, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth, even before the throne.”8

He kept his expenditures to a stoic minimum: for December, 1792, fourteen florins ($35?) for rent; six florins for rent of a piano; “eating, each time 12 kreuzer” (six cents); “meals with wine, 6½ florins” ($16.25??). Another memorandum lists “Haidn” at various times as costing two groschen (a few cents); apparently Haydn was asking little for his lessons. For a while the student accepted correction humbly. But as the lessons continued, Haydn found it impossible to accept Beethoven’s reported deviations from orthodox rules of composition. Toward the end of 1793 Beethoven quit his aging master, and went three times a week to study counterpoint with a man more famous as teacher than as composer, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Concurrently, three times a week, he studied violin with Ignaz Schuppanzigh. In 1795, having taken all that he felt need of from Albrechtsberger, he applied to Antonio Salieri, then director of the Vienna Opera, for instruction in composition for the voice. Salieri charged nothing to poor pupils; Beethoven presented himself as such, and was accepted. All four of these teachers found him a difficult disciple, bursting with ideas of his own, and resenting the formalism of the musical theory offered him. We can imagine the shudders generated in “Papa Haydn” (who lived till 1809) by the irregularities and sonorities of Beethoven’s compositions.

Despite—perhaps because of—his deviations from traveled roads, Beethoven’s performances won him, by 1794, a reputation as the most interesting pianist in Vienna. The pianoforte had won its battle with the harpsichord; Johann Christian Bach in 1768 had begun performing solos on it in England; Mozart adopted it, Haydn followed suit in 1780, Muzio Clementi was composing concertos definitely designed for the piano and its new flexibility between piano and forte, between staccato and sostenuto. Beethoven made full use of the piano’s powers and his own, especially in his improvisations, where no printed notation hampered his style. Ferdinand Ries, pupil of both Haydn and Beethoven, later declared: “No artist that I ever heard came at all near the height which Beethoven attained in this branch of playing. The wealth of ideas which forced themselves on him, the caprices to which he surrendered himself, the variety of treatment, the difficulties, were inexhaustible.”9

It was as a pianist that the patrons of music first appreciated him. At an evening concert in the home of Baron van Swieten, after the program had been completed, the host (biographer Schindler relates) “detained Beethoven and persuaded him to add a few fugues of Bach as an evening blessing.”10 Prince Karl Lichnowsky—the leading amateur musician in Vienna—so liked Beethoven that he regularly engaged him for his Friday musicales, and for a time entertained him as a house guest; Beethoven, however, could not adjust himself to the Prince’s meal hours, and preferred a nearby hotel. The most enthusiastic of the composer’s titled patrons was Prince Lobkowitz, an excellent violinist, who spent nearly all his income on music and musicians; for years he helped Beethoven, despite quarrels, and he took in good spirit Beethoven’s insistence on being treated as a social equal. The ladies of these helpful nobles enjoyed his proud independence, took lessons and scoldings from him, and allowed the poor bachelor to make love to them, in letters.11They and their lords accepted his dedications, and rewarded him moderately.

So far his fame was only as a pianist, and, as such, it reached Prague and Berlin, to which he made visits as a virtuoso in 1796. But meanwhile he composed. On October 21, 1795, he published, as his Opus I, Three Grand Trios, about which Johann Cramer, after playing them, announced, “This is the man who is to console us for the loss of Mozart.”12 Stimulated by such praise, Beethoven wrote in his notebook: “Courage! Despite all bodily weaknesses my spirit shall rule…. This year must determine the complete man. Nothing must remain undone.”13

In 1797 Napoleon, unseen, first came into Beethoven’s life. The young general, having driven the Austrians from Lombardy, had led his army over the Alps, and was nearing Vienna. The surprised capital extemporized defense as well as it could with guns and hymns; now Haydn wrote Austria’s national anthem-“Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, unsern guten Kaiser Franz”; and Beethoven produced music for another war song—”Ein grosses deutsches Volk sind wir.” These spirited compositions were later to be worth many regiments, but they did not move Napoleon, who exacted a humiliating peace.

A year later General Bernadotte came to Vienna as the new French ambassador, and shocked the citizens by raising from his balcony the French Revolutionary tricolor flag. Beethoven, who had frankly expressed republican ideas, openly declared his admiration of Bonaparte, and was often seen at the ambassador’s receptions.14 Apparently it was Bernadotte who suggested to Beethoven the idea of a composition honoring Napoleon.15

Seeking to tap nearer services, Ludwig in 1799 dedicated his Opus 13, “Grande Sonate Pathétique,” to Prince Lichnowsky, in gratitude for favors received or hoped for. The Prince responded (1800) by putting six hundred gulden at Beethoven’s disposal “until I obtain a suitable appointment.”16 This sonata began simply, as if in humble filiation from Mozart; then it proceeded to a difficult intricacy that would later seem simple beside the almost aggressive complexity and power of the Hammerklavier Sonatas or the “Appassionata.” Still easy on eyes and hands were the First Symphony (1800) and the “Moonlight Sonata” in C sharp minor (1801). Beethoven did not give the latter piece its famous name, but called it “Sonata quasi Fantasia.” Apparently he had no intention of making it a love song. It is true that he dedicated it to the Countess Giulia Guicciardi, who was among the untouchable goddesses of his reveries, but it had been written for another occasion, quite unrelated to this divinity.17

To the year 1802 belongs one of the strangest and most appealing documents in the history of music. This secret “Heiligenstadt Testament”—which was not seen by others till found in Beethoven’s papers after his death—is intelligible only through a frank confrontation of his character. There had been many pleasant qualities in it in his youth—a buoyancy of spirit, a fund of humor, a devotion to study, a readiness to help; and many of his Bonn friends—his teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe, his pupil Eleonore von Breuning, his patron Count von Waldstein—remained devoted to him despite his growing bitterness against life. In Vienna, however, he alienated one friend after another until he was left almost alone. When they heard that he was dying they came back, and did what they could to ease his pains.

His early environment scarred him lastingly; he could never forget, and never forgive, the toilsome, anxious poverty, or the humiliation of seeing his father surrender to failure and drink. He himself, as the years saddened him, yielded more and more to the amnesia of wine.18 In Vienna his stature (five feet five inches) invited wit, and his face was no fortune; his hair thick, disheveled, bristling; his heavy beard spreading up to his sunken eyes, and sometimes allowed to grow to half an inch before shaving.19 “Oh God!” he cried in 1819, “what a plague it is to one when he has so fatal a face as mine!”20

These physical disadvantages were probably a spur to achievement, but, after the first few years in Vienna, they discouraged care of his dress, his body, his rooms, or his manners. “I am an untidy fellow,” he wrote (April 22, 1801); “perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order.” He earned enough to keep servants, but he soon quarreled with them, and seldom kept them long. He was brusque with the lowly; with the highborn he was sometimes obsequious, often proud, even arrogant. He was merciless in assessing his rivals, and was rewarded by their almost unanimous dislike. He was severe with his pupils, but taught some of them without charge.21

He was a misanthrope, judging every man basically base, but fondly forgiving his troublesome nephew Karl, and loving every pretty pupil. He gave to nature the unquestioning affection that he could not offer to mankind. He frequently fell into melancholy moods, but almost as frequently had spells of raucous jollity, with or without wine. He had an often inconsiderate sense of humor (e.g., Letters 14, 22, 25, 3022), punned at every opportunity, and invented sometimes offensive nicknames for his friends. He could laugh more readily than he could smile.

He tried, through worried years, to conceal from the world the affliction that embittered his life. In a letter of June 29, 1801, he revealed it to a friend of his youth, Franz Wegeler:

For the last three years my hearing has become weaker and weaker. The trouble is supposed to have been caused by the condition of my abdomen, which… was wretched even before I left Bonn, but has become worse in Vienna, where I have been constantly afflicted with diarrhea, and have been suffering in consequence from an extraordinary disability…. Such was my condition until the autumn of last year, and sometimes I gave way to despair.

I must confess that I lead a wretched life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession I might be able to cope with my infirmity; but in my profession it is a terrible calamity. Heaven alone knows what is to become of me. Already I have cursed my Creator and my existence … I beg you not to say anything about my condition to anyone, not even to Lorchen [Eleonore von Breuning].

Apparently in hopes of profiting from its sulfur baths, Beethoven spent part of 1802 in Heiligenstadt, a small village near Göttingen. Wandering in nearby woods, he saw, at a short distance, a shepherd playing a pipe. As he heard no sound, he realized that now only the louder sounds of an orchestra would reach him. He had already begun to conduct as well as to perform and compose; and the implications of this peasant’s unheard pipe threw him into despair. He went to his room and composed, on October 6, 1802, what is known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a spiritual will and apologia pro vita sua. Though he captioned it “For my brothers Carl and——Beethoven,” he carefully concealed the document from all eyes but his own. It is here transcribed in its essential lines:

O ye men who think and say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you who do not know the secret cause of my seeming so. From childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feeling of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for 6 years I have been in a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians,… finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady… Born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others … O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you…. What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing.… Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life—only art it was that withheld me, ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce. … O Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, and thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good lives therein. O men, when someday you read these words, reflect that ye did me wrong…. You my brothers Carl and——as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death. At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs of my small fortune. … It is my wish that your lives may be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in my misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life by suicide—Farewell and love each other… with joy I hasten toward death.

In the margin he wrote: “To be read and executed after my death.”23

It was not a suicide note; it was both hopeless and resolute. Beethoven proposed to accept and transcend his hardship, and bring to other ears than his own all the music that lay silent within him. Almost at once—still in Heiligenstadt in November, 1802—he composed his Second Symphony, in D, wherein there is no note of complaint or grief. Only one year after his cry from the depths he composed his Third Symphony, the Eroica, and entered with it his second and most creative period.

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