V. BEETHOVEN AND GOETHE: 1809–12

In 1809 Austria was again at war with France. In May French cannonballs were dropping on Vienna; court and nobility fled; Beethoven sought refuge in a cellar. The city surrendered, the victors taxed the commonalty a tenth of a year’s income, the well-to-do a third. Beethoven paid, but, from a safe distance, shook his fist at a patrolling Gaul, and cried, “If I, as a general, knew as much about strategy as I, the composer, know about counterpoint, I’d give you something to do! “36

Otherwise, the period from 1809 to 1815 shows Beethoven in relatively good spirits. In those years he often visited the home of Franz Brentano, prosperous merchant and patron of art and music, who sometimes helped Ludwig with a loan. Franz’s wife, Antonie, was at times confined to her room with illness; more than once, during such spells, Beethoven came in quietly, played the piano, then left without a word, having spoken to her in his own language. On one such occasion he was surprised, as he played, by hands placed upon his shoulders. Turning, he found a young woman (then twenty-five), pretty, her eyes glowing with pleasure over his playing—even over his singing, to his own music, Goethe’s famous lyric about Italy, “Kennst du das Land.” She was Elisabeth—”Bettina”—Brentano, sister to Franz, and to the Clemens Brentano whom we shall meet as a famous German author. She herself was later to produce a number of successful books presenting autobiography and fiction in a now inextricable mixture. She is our only authority for the story just told, and for the later episode in which, at a party in Franz’s home, she heard Beethoven discourse not only profoundly, but with an order and elegance not generally ascribed to him, though sometimes appearing in his letters. On May 28, 1810, she wrote enthusiastically about him to Goethe, whom she knew not merely through neighborly relations with his family in Frankfurt, but through a visit with him in Weimar. Some excerpts from this famous letter:

When I saw him of whom I shall now speak to you, I forgot the whole world. … It is Beethoven of whom I now wish to tell you, and who made me forget the world and you…. He stalks far ahead of the culture of mankind. Shall we ever overtake him?—I doubt it, but grant that he may live until the… enigma lying in his soul is fully developed,… then surely he will place the key to his heavenly knowledge in our hands….

He himself said, “When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken…. I have no fear for my music—it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with them….

“Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life. I should like to talk to Goethe about this—would he understand me?… Speak to Goethe about me;… tell him to hear my symphonies, and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge.”

Bettina transmitted to Goethe these raptures of Beethoven, and added: “Rejoice me now with a speedy answer, which shall show Beethoven that you appreciate him.” Goethe replied on June 6, 1810:

Your letter, heartily beloved child, reached me at a happy time. You have been at great pains to picture for me a great and beautiful nature in its achievements and its striving. … I feel no desire to contradict what I can grasp of your hurried explosion; on the contrary I should prefer for the present to admit an agreement between my nature and that which is recognizable in these manifold utterances. The ordinary human mind might, perhaps, find contradictions in it; but before that which is uttered by one possessed of such a demon, an ordinary layman must stand in reverence…. Give Beethoven my heartiest greetings, and tell him that I would willingly make sacrifices to have his acquaintance…. You may be able to persuade him to make a journey to Karlsbad, whither I go nearly every year, and would have the greatest leisure to listen to him and learn from him.37

Beethoven was unable to get to Karlsbad, but the two supreme artists of their time met at Teplitz (a watering place in Bohemia) in July, 1812. Goethe visited Beethoven’s lodgings there, and gave a first impression in a letter to his wife: “A more self-centered, energetic, sincere artist I never saw. I can understand right well how singular must be his attitude toward the world.”38 On July 21 and 23 he spent the evenings with Beethoven, who, he reported, “played delightfully.” Familiar the story how, on one of their walks together,

there came towards them the whole court, the Empress [of Austria] and the dukes. Beethoven said: “Keep hold of my arm, they must make room for us, not we for them.” Goethe was of a different opinion, and the situation became awkward for him; he let go of Beethoven’s arm and took a stand at the side with his hat off, while Beethoven with folded arm walked right through the dukes and only tilted his hat slightly while the dukes stepped aside to make room for him, and all greeted him pleasantly; on the other side he stopped and waited for Goethe, who had permitted the company to pass by him where he stood with bowed head. “Well,” Beethoven said, “I’ve waited for you because I honor and respect you as you deserve, but you did those yonder too much honor.”39

This was Beethoven’s account, according to Bettina, who adds: “Afterward Beethoven came running to us and told us everything.” We do not have Goethe’s account. Perhaps we should be skeptical, too, about the story—variously and inconsistently related—that when Goethe expressed vexation at interruptions of their conversation by greetings from passersby, Beethoven answered him, “Do not let them trouble your Excellency; perhaps the greetings are intended for me.”40

Dubious as they sound, both stories harmonize with authentic expressions in which the two geniuses summarized their meetings. On August 9 Beethoven wrote to his Leipzig publishers, Breitkopf and Härtel: “Goethe is too fond of the atmosphere of the court, more so than is becoming to a poet.” On September 2 Goethe wrote to Karl Zelter:

I made Beethoven’s acquaintance in Teplitz. His talent amazed me. Unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but who does not make it any the more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude. He is very excusable, on the other hand, and much to be pitied, as his hearing is leaving him, which, perhaps, mars the musical part of his nature less than the social. He is of a laconic nature, and will become doubly so because of this lack.41

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