top of page
  • Translation

Vie de Beethoven II

Vie de Beethoven” by Romain Rolland was published for the first time in January 1903. Translation was done by Diana Stockwell in January and February, 2023.

Read part I here

Mendelssohn writes that at first he did not want to hear Beethoven spoken of, but when Mendelssohn walked by and happened to hear the first section of the Symphony in C Minor, he was strangely moved. But Mendelssohn then said, “That is not at all touching. It was created merely to surprise.” But after a time, the words of Mendelssohn changed: “It is imposing, extraordinary; and one would say that the house is going to collapse.” During a dinner, after having shared his thoughts about Beethoven with a friend, Mendelssohn remained very pensive. . . When his thoughts returned to Beethoven, he began to interrogate and examine his friend. The effect that was being produced in Mendelssohn was clear.

Basically, Beethoven admired, but feared Mendelssohn's music, and it troubled Beethoven. He feared that he would lose the calmness of his soul, which he had gained at the price of so much pain. A letter from the young Felix Mendelssohn innocently penetrated the profound nature of Beethoven's troubled and passionate soul, one that Goethe described as reflecting a passionate and masterful intelligence.

Beethoven said of the following composers: “My heart beats for the high and grand art of Sebastian Bach, that Patriarch of harmony.” “Among the ancient masters, only Handel and Sebastian Bach reflect genius.” “At all times, I have been the greatest admirer of Mozart and I will remain so until my last breath.”

Symphonies Seven and Eight were written in 1812 at Toepliz. The “Orgie of Rhythm and the Humoresque Symphony are works where he is shown perhaps most natural, and, as they say, the most “unbuttoned” (aufgeknoepft), with transports of gaiety and of furor, unexpected contrasts, his designs disconcerting and grandiose, his titanic explosions which plunged Goethe and Zelter into fear, and caused them to say of the Symphony in A, in “L'Allemagne du Nord,” that it was the work of someone inebriated. Of an inebriated man, but with force and genius.

Beethoven said to himself, “I am the Bacchus who brews the delicious wine for humanity. It is I who gives men the divine frenzy of spirit.”

I do not know if Beethoven had planned to paint a Dionysian celebration in the finale of his Symphony. It is, in any case, a subject on which Beethoven thought because we find in his notes and, particularly, in his projects for the “Tenth Symphony.”

Above all, I recall in that festive fugue the mark of his Flemish heredity, the same that I I find in the origins of his audacious liberty of language and manners, ringing superbly in his discipline and obedience. Frankness and freed power appear best in no other place than in Symphony A. It is a mad expenditure of superhuman energy without aim except that of pleasure, the pleasure of a river which overflows and inundates. In the “Eighth Symphony,” the force is less grandiose, but still strange, and more characteristic of the man, mixing tragedy with farce, and a Herculean vigor with the caprice of a child.

1814 marks the peak of Beethoven's fortune. At the Congress of Vienna, he was treated as a glorious European. He took an active part in the festivals. The princes rendered him homage; and he proudly let himself be courted by them, as he boasted to Schindler.

He was inflamed by the war of independence. In 1813, he wrote a symphony, “The Victory of Wellington,” and at the beginning of 1814, a military chant: “Renaissance of Germany (Germanias Wiedergeburt). November 29, 1814, he conducted in front of a public of kings, a patriotic lyric song: “The Glorious Moment” (Der Glorreiche Augenblich), and in 1815, he composed for the captivation of Paris. “All is achieved!” (Es ist vollbracht!) Those works contributed more to his reputation than all of the rest of his music.

The engraving of Blasius Hoefel inspired by a design of Français Letronne, and the fierce mask molded on the face by Franz Klein in 1812, gave a vivid image of Beethoven at the time of the Congress of Vienna. The dominant trait of that face was that of a lion with clenched jaws, in folds of disquietude, and a will – a Napoleonic will.

But his kingdom was not of this world. “My empire is in the air,“ as Francois de Brunkswick wrote. (Mein Reich ist in der Luft.)

That hour of glory was succeeded by a miserable period.

Vienna was never sympathetic to Beethoven. A genius, proud and free as he could not please in that artificial city of superficiality, which Wagner so severely marked with his contempt. Beethoven never lost any opportunity to distance himself from Vienna and close to 1808 he seriously dreamed of leaving Austria to go to the court of Jerome Bonaparte, king of Westphalia.

King Jerome had offered Beethoven an amount of six hundred ducats of gold for life and a travel allowance of 150 ducats to engage him to play before him, and to direct his concerts of chamber music, which should not be too long, nor too frequent. Beethoven was ready to leave.

But Vienna had abundant musical resources. Dilettante nobles, who appreciated the grandeur of Beethoven and wanted to render him justice as well as spare their country from the shame of losing him, decided to act. In 1809, three of the richest lords of Vienna, the Archduke Rodolph, student of Beethoven, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky offered to provide an annual pension of 4,000 florins on the sole condition that he stay in Austria. They said that as Beethoven has demonstrated, it is not possible for him to devote himself to art and produce his sublime works – the glory of art – without his being freed of all material concerns. The signers formed the resolution to take away the miserable obstacles that would interfere with the growth of Beethoven's genius.

Unfortunately, they did not meet their promises. The pension was not paid regularly and soon it ceased entirely. The friends and protectors of Beethoven dispersed or died: Prince Kinsky in 1812, Lobkowitz in 1816. Rasumowsky, for whom Beethoven had written his admirable quartets, op. 59, gave his last concert in February 1815.

In 1815, Beethoven lost his brother Karl: “He held so fast to life, so much so that I would have willingly lost my life,” Beethoven wrote to Antonia Brentano.

After the Congress of 1814, Vienna's character had changed. The society was distracted from art by politics and the musical taste spoiled by Italian art; Rossini was fashionable. Beethoven was treated merely as a pedant.

Beethoven gave his last concert as pianist in 1814. The deafness was now complete.

His health became worse from day to day. Since October 1816, he was very ill with an inflamed cataract. During the summer of 1817, his doctor told him that he had a chest illness. In the winter of 1817-1818, he was tormented with so-called pulmonary tuberculosis. Then, there was acute rheumatism in 1820-1821, jaundice in 1821, and conjunctivitis in 1823.

Since Autumn of 1815, he had no connection with other people except by writing to them. The oldest notebook of conversation was dated 1816 where one reads the painful recitation of Schindler on the performance of “Fidelio” in 1822.

“Beethoven insisted on directing the general rehearsal. From the duet of the first act, it was evident that he was unable to hear anything of what occurred. He slowed down the movement considerably. And to the extent that the orchestra followed his baton, the singers sped up. A general confusion resulted. The orchestra conductor, Umlauf, suggested a moment of repose without mentioning the reason. After some words were exchanged with the singer, they recommenced. Again, the same disorder occurred. A second pause was necessary. The impossibility of continuing under the direction of Beethoven was evident, but how to make him understand? No one had the heart to tell him: “Withdraw, poor unhappy one, you are not able to direct.” Beethoven, anxious, agitated turned his head to the right and the left, trying to read the expression of various faces, and to understand where the obstacle came from. And from all sides there was only silence. All of a sudden, he called me in an imperious fashion. When I was next to him, he presented his notebook. I read his words: ‘I beg you not to continue. I will explain why at home.’ “With a leap, he jumped onto the floor and cried out 'Leave quickly!' Without stopping, he ran to the house where he entered and remained inert on a divan while covering his face with his two hands.He remained like that until dinner time. At dinner, he was unable to say a word and retained an expression of dejection and profound pain. After dinner, when I wished to leave him, he retained me, expressing the desire not to be alone. At the moment, I was leaving, he had me accompany him to his doctor, one who had a great reputation for ear illnesses. . . In all my following meetings with Beethoven, I cannot find a day to compare with this fatal day of November. His heart had been struck and until the day of his death, he lived under the memory of that terrible scene.

Two years later on May 7, 1824 he directed “Symphony with Choirs” (or rather as listed in the program he is described as “taking part in the direction of the concert”). He heard nothing of the roar of the crowd coming from the entire room, the crowd which was acclaiming him. One of the singers took him by the hand and turned him toward the public so that he could see the listeners who were standing, moving their hats, and beating their hands.

Walled into himself and separated from the rest of men, his only consolation was nature. “She was his sole confidant,” said Thérèse of Brunswick. Nature was his refuge.Charles Neate, who knew Beethoven in 1813, said that he had never seen a person who so perfectly loved the flowers, the fog, and nature. He seemed to live in nature. “No one on earth can love the country as much as I,” wrote Beethoven. . . “I love a tree more than a man.” – Each day in Vienna, he made a tour of the country. From daybreak until evening he would walk in the country, alone, without a hat, under the sun or the rain. “In the woods I am happy woods, where each tree speaks to you of God. Oh, God what splendor. In these forests and on the hills! There is calm, the calm to serve you.”

He loved creatures and had pity for them. The mother of historian von Frimmel recounted that for a long time she had an involuntary hatred for Beethoven because when he was a young boy by using his handkerchief he chased away all of the butterflies that she wanted to capture.

His apprehension did find a respite. Continually finding himself poorly lodged, he changed his apartment in Vienna 30 times in 35 years.

He was plagued by worries about money. He wrote in 1818: “I am almost reduced to begging and forced to create the impression that I do not lack what is necessary.” . . . “The sonata op. 106 was written in these pressing circumstances. It is a difficult thing to work to earn one's bread.” Spohr said that often Beethoven was unable to go out due to the holes in his shoes. He owed significant debts to his editors, and his works did not bring in any money. The “Mass in D, which was placed in subscription, gathered seven subscribers of which not one was a musician. He would receive barely thirty or forty ducats for his admirable sonatas, one of which had cost him three months of work. Prince Galitzin asked him to compose quartets, op. 127, 130, and 132, his most profound works perhaps and which seemed to have been written with his blood; but he was not paid for these works. Beethoven was consumed with endless domestic difficulties, finally to obtain the pensions which were owed to him, or to conserve the guardianship of a nephew, the son of his brother Charles, who died of tuberculosis in 1815.

Toward this child, he had expressed the need for devotion of which his heart overflowed. But in store for himself was still more cruel suffering. He felt it necessary to fight for little Karl against the indignant mother. . . He wrote: “O my God, my wall of defense, my only refuge! You read in the depths of my soul and you know the pain that I feel when it is necessary to cause suffering to those who wish me to fight with my Karl, my treasure. Hear me, be that which I do not know how to name. Answer the ardent prayer of the most unhappy of your creatures!”

“O God! Please help me! You see me abandoned by entire humanity because I do not want to practice injustice. Answer the prayer that I make to you, to live with my Karl! at least for the future. . . O cruel destiny, implacable destiny! No, no, my misfortune will never end.”

Then, that nephew, passionately loved, showed himself unworthy of the faith of his uncle. The correspondence of Beethoven with him is painful and revolting as that of Michelangelo with his brothers, but more naive and more touching:

“Should I again be paid by the most abominable ingratitude? Oh, well, if the connection should be broken between us, then be it.” (All impartial people who know him hated him.) “If the pact that connects us weighs heavily on you, in the name of God, be it according to your wish; I abandon you to Providence. I have done all that I could; I can appear before the Supreme Judge. . .”

“Spoiled as you are, it is not bad finally to try to be simple and true. My heart has suffered too much by your hypocritical conduct in relation to me, and it is difficult for me to forget . . God is my witness, I do not dream but to be a million miles from you and of that sad brother, and of that abominable family. . . I can no longer believe in you.” And he signed it: “Unhappily, your father, or better, not your father.”

But pardon came soon: “My dear son! – Not a word more. Come into my arms and you will not hear another harsh word. . . I will receive you with the same love. That which is to done for you in the future we will speak about amicably. My word of honor, no reproaches! They serve nothing. You have only to expect from me solicitude and the most loving aid. – Come – Come to the faithful heart of your father, Beethoven. Come, soon after the receipt of this letter, come to the house.” (And on the address, in French, were the words: “If you do not come, you will surely kill me.”) “Do not lie, he begged, always remain my beloved son! What horrible dissonance exists, and you pay me with hypocrisy. . . Goodbye, that which did not give you life, but which had certainly took all possible care of your moral development, with an affection more than paternal, coming from the bottom of my heart to follow the only true way of the good and the just. Your loyal, good father.”

After having nurtured all sorts of dreams for the future of his nephew, who was not unintelligent and who wanted to move toward a university career, Beethoven consented to be a negotiator. But Karl by frequenting the gaming tables, created debts.

By way of a sad phenomenon, more frequent that one believes, the moral grandeur of his uncle, instead of doing him good, did him evil, exacerbated him, pushed him to revolt as he said . . . “I have become worse because my uncle wishes me to be better.” In the summer of 1826 , he shot himself in the head with a pistol. He did not die; but it was Beethoven who almost died and never got over that dreadful emotion.

Schindler, who saw him then, said that Beethoven had become suddenly like an old man of seventy years, wounded, without strength, and without will. He would die if Karl died. He died a few months after.

But Karl was cured. He lived just to the end to cause suffering to his uncle. . . and he was not close to him at the hour of Beethoven's death. “God has never abandoned me,” wrote Beethoven to his nephew, some years before. “He has found someone to close my eyes,” but it was not to be the person that Beethoven had called “his son.”

At the abyss of sadness, Beethoven undertakes to celebrate joy. From 1793, he considered singing the “Ode to Joy” and making it the crown of one of his great works. But all his life, he had hesitated as he tried to find the exact form of the hymn and to decide in which work to place it. Even in the Ninth Symphony, he was far from having decided – until the last instant when he was on the verge of putting the “Ode to Joy” into a Tenth or Eleventh Symphony. . . In July 1822, Beethoven still thought of creating an instrumental finale, which he later employed in the quartet, op. 132. Czerny and Sonnleithner assure that even after the execution in May 1821, Beethoven had not abandoned that idea.

In his notebooks and numerous essays, Beethoven writes of the great technical difficulties in introducing the choir to the symphony. He refers to this difficulty a number of time as he attempts to have the voices enter in various places. Regarding his sketches of the second melody in the adagio, he wrote: “Perhaps the choir can conveniently enter there.” But he cannot decide to separate himself from his loyal orchestra. “When an idea comes to me, I hear it in an instrument, never in voices.”). During this time as he starts to employ the voice, he recoils and instead chooses an instrument – not only for the recitatives of the finale, but also for the theme of “Ode to Joy.”

It is necessary to go to the past for an explanation of those hesitations. The cause is of a more profound nature. Always tormented by grieving, he had always aspired to sing the excellence of “Ode to Joy.” From year to year, he resumed the task, ceaselessly affected by his whirlwind passions and his melancholy. It was only on the last day that he succeeded. But with such grandeur!

The moment where the theme of “Ode to Joy” appears for the first time, the orchestra stops suddenly. The silence which occurs gives the entrance of the chant a mysterious and divine character. And the theme is precisely a god. The “Ode to Joy” descends from the heavens, enveloped in a supernatural calm. The sound whispers softly, caressing the nature of suffering. Its first contact is so tender that when it moves to the convalescing heart of Beethoven, 'one has a desire to cry, in seeing his two eyes.' When the theme passes next to the voice, it is the bass that presents itself first, serious in nature and somewhat oppressive. Little by little, the Joy takes hold and is present. It is a conquest, a war against pain. There are the rhythms of a march, the armies in movement, the ardent chant of the tenor. . . One hears the breath of Beethoven, the rhythm, respiration, and his inspired cries as he moves across the fields, transported with a demonic fury like old King Lear in the middle of the storm.

The work of the Titan was not well received by a mediocre public. The frivolity of Vienna created an instant crisis; people were devoted to Rossini and to Italian operas. Beethoven, humiliated and saddened, planned to establish himself in London and to present the Ninth Symphony there. A second time, as in 1809, a number of friends of the nobility ask him (in a manner one would ask a sovereign) not to leave Vienna. Here are their words: “We know,” they have said, “that you are writing a new composition of sacred music where you have expressed the sentiments that your profound faith has inspired and which was illuminated by the supernatural light of your great soul. We also know that the crown of your great symphonies is augmented with an immortal flower. . . Your absence during these last years has saddened all those whose eyes have turned toward you. All think with sadness that the man of genius placed so high among the living, rests silent, while a genre of strange music seeks to be transplanted on our earth, causing the productions of German art to fall forgotten. . . Of you alone, the nation waits for a new life and a new reign of the true and the beautiful despite the world of today. . . Give us the hope to see our desires satisfied soon. . . And then the spring which comes will flower again doubly, thanks to your gifts for us and for the world.”

That generous address reflects not only artistic but moral power, which Beethoven brought to bear in the German elite. The first word which came to mind to his admirers to praise his genius was not that of science, nor of art. It was that of faith.

Beethoven was profoundly moved by these words. He stays. On May 7, 1824, the first performance of the Mass in D and the Ninth Symphony took place. The success was triumphant and even assumed a revolutionary character. When Beethoven appeared, he was acclaimed by five series of applause. The custom in that country of etiquette was to give only three series of applause for the entrance of the imperial family. The police were called in to put an end to the demonstration.

The symphony aroused a frenzied enthusiasm. Many cried. Beethoven fainted after the concert. He was carried to Schindler, where he rested there asleep, completely dressed, without eating or drinking throughout the night, nor the following morning. But triumph was fleeting and provided no financial profit for Beethoven; the concert provided him nothing. The material difficulties of his life had not changed. He found himself poor, ill, alone – but victorious, victorious against the mediocrity of men, victorious of his own destiny, victorious of his suffering.

On April 1, 1825; the Ninth Symphony was executed for the first time in Frankfurt, Germany; in London from March 25, 1825; on March 27, 1831 in Paris at the Conservatory. On November 14, 1826, Mendelssohn, who was 17 years of age, gave a performance on the piano at the Jaegerhalle in Berlin. Wagner, a student at Leipzig, copied the score entirely by hand. In a letter dated October 6, 1830 to the editor Schott, Wagner offered a transcription of the symphony for piano for four hands. One can say that the Ninth Symphony determined the life of Wagner.

In August of 1821, Beethoven was haunted by the fear of dying suddenly of an attack “as had my dear grandfather with whom I have a great resemblance.”. . .

He suffered a great deal with stomach problems and was very ill during the winters of 1824-1825. In May of 1825, he was spitting up blood and having nosebleeds. On June 9, 1825, he wrote to his nephew: “My weakness frequently becomes extreme. . . The man with the scythe will not delay in coming . . .”

“Sacrifice, sacrifice always the foolishness of life to your art! Oh God above all!” (“O Gott uber alles!”). . . Joy comes. . . Will Beethoven stay at the summit of the soul which dominates the tempests? – He fell again subjected to his ancient anguish. It is certain that his last quartets are full of strange shadows. However, it seemed that the victory of the Ninth Symphony had left in him its glorious mark. He had these projects for the future: The Tenth Symphony, an overture on the name of Bach, the music for “Melusine de Grillparzer, for “Odysseus de Korner, and “Faust,” by Goethe, the biblical oratorio on “Saul and David, indicating that his spirit was attracted to the powerful serenity of the great and old German masters, Bach and Handel, and again, toward the light of midday, versus the South of France, or directed toward Italy where he dreamed of visiting.

“Apollo and the Muses will not come to deliver me to death because I want it so much! It is necessary that before my departure for the Champs-Elysées, that I leave before me that which the Spirit inspires in me and tells me to achieve, but it seems to me that I have hardly written the notes.”

Beethoven wrote to Moschelse on the 18th of March 1827: “In my mind is an entirely exquisite symphony with a new overture.” He said that he wished to accomplish in the Tenth Symphony “the reconciliation of the modern world with the antique world, that which Goethe had attempted in his “Second Faust.”

The subject of “Melusine de Grillparzer” is the legend of a Lord who is in love with and the captive of a fairy. . . There are some analogies between the poem and that of “Tannhauser. . . Beethoven had since 1808 created the design for the music of “Faust.” The first part of “Faust” appeared under the title of “Tragedy” in autumn of 1807. It was his most precious project. (“Was mir und der Kunst das Hoechste ist.)

Doctor Spiller, who came to him in 1826, said that his face had become joyful and jovial. The same year when Grillparzer spoke with him for the last time, it was Beethoven who gave energy to the exhausted poet. “Ah,” said Grillparzer, “if I had a millionth of your power and your determination!” The times were difficult; the reaction of the monarchy oppressed the spirit. “The censure is killing me,” moaned Grillparzer. It is necessary to go to North America if one wishes to speak and think freely.” But no power was able to gag the thought of Beethoven. “The words are chained, but the sounds of happiness are still free,” he wrote the poet Kuffner. Beethoven is the great free voice and perhaps the only one expressing German thought. He sensed it. He often spoke of the responsibility that was imposed on him to act by the means of his art, “for poor humanity,” and for the “humanity to come.” (der künftigen Menschheit) as well as to render goodness and courage to humanity, to shake them out of their passiveness, and to flagellate their cowardliness.” He wrote to his nephew, “Our time needs robust spirits to whip those miserable beggars of human souls.” Doctor Müller said in 1827 that “Beethoven always liberally expressed himself regarding the government, the police, the aristocracy, even the public.” The police knew it, but they tolerated his criticism and his satires as inoffensive reveries and left the man in peace whose genius had such an extraordinary brilliance.

In 1819, he was almost hunted down by his having said too loudly: “After all, Christ was nothing but an educated Jew.” But he next wrote the Mass in D. Not less free politically, among other things, he reproached the court system as arbitrary and servile, hindered by long procedures, a baroque bureaucracy, and inertia that killed all individual initiative and paralyzed action. He called out the privileges of a degenerate aristocracy that stubbornly took it upon themselves the highest responsibility of the State.

Since 1815, his political views were for England. He read avidly, said Schindler, including the accounts of Parliament. He was passionately in support of the English opposition. When the director of English music, Cipriani Potter, came to Vienna in 1817, he said: “Beethoven has used the most critical words possible in describing the Austrian government. He was inflamed with the desire to go to London and see the London chambers.”

Nothing was capable of subjugating that indomitable force, which seemed to be playing with pain. The music written in his last years, despite the painful circumstances caused by the suicide of his nephew, was often characterized by a new irony and of scorn, both heroic and joyful. Four months before his death in November 1826, he ended his last piece, the new finale of the quartet, op. 130. It is very gay, but, truthfully, that gaiety is not of this world. Sometimes it is a bitter and jerky laugh of which Moscheles spoke. Sometimes the moving laugh was made of a great deal of vanquished suffering. But he is victorious. He did not believe in death.

It came however. At the end of November 1926, he experienced a chilling pleurisy and fell ill in Vienna when he returned from a voyage that he took in winter in order to assure the future of his nephew. His friends were far from him. He put his nephew in charge of seeking a doctor. His nephew indifferently forgot and did not remember for three days. The doctor came too late and Beethoven's condition had worsened. For three months, his athletic constitution fought again his illness. On January 3, 1827, he appointed his nephew power of rights.

He thought of his dear Rhine friends and again wrote to Wegeler: “How I wish to speak with you, but I am too weak. I can only embrace you with my heart, you and your Lorchen.” “The misery darkened his last moments without the generosity of his English friends. He became very sweet and very patient. Ludwig Cramolini, a singer, remembers and recounts a moving visit to Beethoven during his last illness where Beethoven demonstrated serenity and a touching kindness. (Frankfurter Zeitung of September 29, 1907).

On February 17, 1827, on his bed of agony after having three operations and waiting for the fourth, he wrote with serenity: “I am patient and I think: All the bad brings with it something good.” The good created deliverance. It was the end of the play, the tragedy, his life.

He died during a storm, during a tempest of snow and a burst of thunder. A stranger's hand closed his eyes on March 26, 1827.

The young musician Anselm Hüttenbrenner wrote: “God be praised! We thank Him for bringing an end to his long and painful martyrdom.”

All of Beethoven's manuscripts, books, and furniture were sold at auction for 1,575 florins. The catalog was composed of 252 numbers of manuscripts and musical books not equaling the sum of 982 florins 37 kreutzer. The notebooks of conversation and the daily record (Tagebucher) were sold at 1 florin 20 kreutzer. Among his books, Beethoven possessed: Kant, “Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels; Bode, “Anleitung zur Kenntnis des gestirnten Himmels: Tomas von Kempis, “Nachfolge Christi” . . . Seume, “Spaziergang nach Syrakus”; Kotzebue, “Uber den Adel;” Fessler, “Ansichten von Religion und Kirchentum.”


Dear Beethoven! Many others had praised his artistic grandeur, but he is much more than the finest of musicians. He is the most heroic of modern art. He is the greatest and best friend of those who suffered and who fought. When we are unhappy by the miseries of the world, it is he who comes close to us, as he came to sit at the piano with a mother in mourning, and, without a word consoles that person who cries with a chant of his moaning resignation. And when exhaustion overwhelms us during our eternal combat against mediocrity to reveal vices and virtues, it is inexpressibly good to enter that ocean of will and of faith. It frees you to experience bravery, a happiness throughout the battle, and an exultation of a conscience which feels itself a God.

“I am happy every time I surmount something” he wrote in a letter to the immortal Aimée: “I would like to live my life a million times. . . I am not at all made for a tranquil life.” (A Wegeler, November 16, 1801.)

In communing with nature, he finished by assimilating profound energy. Grillparzer, who admired Beethoven with a sort of fear said of him: “He went just to the formidable point where his art descended with savage and capricious elements. Schumann wrote similarly of the Symphony in A Minor: “If one often hears him, it exerts an invariable power, so sublime does the phenomenon of nature appear. . . one is always filled with fear and astonishment.” And Schindler, Beethoven's confidant, said: “His music is seized with the spirit of nature. . . Beethoven is a force of nature. And the spectacle has a Homer-like grandeur of that combat between elementary power and the rest of nature.”

All his life is similar to a stormy day. At the beginning, a young limpid morning appears, then some subtle breaths of languor. But already, in the immobile air, there is a secret menace, a loud presentiment. Briskly, the great shadows pass, the tragic rumbling occurs, and the formidable silences, the furious blowing of the wind is heard, that is found in the “Heroic” and in the A Minor. However, the purity of the day is still not attained. The joy rests; sadness always retains a hope.

But, after 1810, the balance of his soul broke. The light became strange. The clearest of thoughts are seen as mounting vapors. They dissipate, they reform, they obscure the heart of their melancholic and capricious trouble. Often the musical idea disappears entirely, blurred after having once or twice emerged from the mist. The idea does not appear again until at the end of the piece but by appearing as a gust of wind. Even the gaiety assumes a sharp and savage quality. A poisonous fever mixes with all feelings. The storm amasses to the measure that the evening descends. And there, the heavy clouds swell with flashes of lightning, blackness of night, loud tempests, with the commencement of the Ninth. Suddenly during the strongest of the storm's appearance, the shadows tear themselves away, the night is dispelled of the sky, and the serenity of the day is returned by an act of will.

“Oh! Life is so beautiful, but mine is always poisoned,” Beethoven wrote in a letter dated May 2, 1810 to Wegeler.

What conquest is worth this, what battle of Bonaparte, what sun of Austerlitz attains the glory of that superhuman effort, of that victory, the most radiant that was won by the Spirit. A man, unhappy, poor, infirm, alone and lonely, the pain made man, at whom the world refused joy, creating Joy himself in order to give it to the world! He forged it with his misery as he said with a proud word as he resumed his life, and which is the motto for all heroic souls.

“Joy through Suffering” (Durch Leiden Freude). To Countess Erdödy on October 10, 1815.


Heiligenstadt Testament

For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven.

O, you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me; you do not know the secret causes of my seeming to be so. From childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will. I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds. But now I reflect that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, and finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or perhaps be ineffectual). But I was born with an ardent and lively temperament even susceptible to the diversions of society. Unfortunately, early on I was compelled to isolate myself and to live in loneliness. At times, when I tried to forget all this, how harshly I was reproached by the experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to men to speak louder or shout for I am deaf. Ah, how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than any others – a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed. Therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would rather gladly mingle with you. My misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood. For me there can be no recreation in society with my fellows, nor refined intercourse, nor the mutual exchange of thought. There is only as little as my greatest needs require me to mix with society. I must live as in exile. If I approach people, a hot terror seizes me and the fear of the danger of letting my condition be observed. It has been this way during the last half year which I spent in the country where I was commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible. This advice almost reflected my present natural disposition. However, I sometimes ran counter to it by yielding to my inclination for society. What a humiliation it was when someone stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance while I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair. A little more and I would have put an end to my life — It was only Art that withheld me because I felt it impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was called upon to produce. And so I endured this truly wretched existence having an excitable body where a sudden change could transform my state from the best to the worse state.

It is said that I now must choose patience for my guide. I have done so. I hope that my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable fates to break the thread. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not. I am prepared. In my 28th year, I was forced to become a philosopher. O, it is not easier for the artist than for anyone else — Divine One, thou looks into my inmost soul. Thou knows it. Thou knows that love of man and the desire therein to do good. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that you did me wrong. Let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his own kind who despite all obstacles of nature did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You, my brothers Carl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead, if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that as the world at least may become reconciled with me as much as possible after my death. At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if it can be called so). Divide it fairly. Bear with and help each other. Know that what injury you have done me was long ago forgiven. To you brother Carl, I give special thanks for the warm feelings of attachment that you have displayed towards me as of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than mine was. Recommend virtue to your children. It alone can provide happiness, not money. I speak from experience. It was virtue that upheld me in misery. I owe it and to my art the fact that I did not end my life with suicide. — Farewell and love each other — I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid — I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you. But let no quarrel result from this. Thus as soon as they can serve you better, sell them. How glad I will be if I can still be helpful to you from my grave. With joy, I hasten towards dearth. If it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities, I would consider its coming too early for me. This is true despite my hard fate. But even then I am satisfied. Will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will and I shall meet thee bravely. — Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead. I deserve this of you as I had often thought of how to make you happy in life. Be so.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Heiligenstadt October 6 1802

About the translator: Diana Stockwell's father spoke to her in French and English since she was a child, he being fluent in three languages. She took French courses in high school and college. French became her lifetime study. All her vacations - except for one - were spent in Paris. “Vie de Beethoven” appeared in her life when her husband thoughtfully gave the book to her. After having read it, she decided to do a translation for their friend, the Reverend Bob Wilson.


Jul 18, 2023

It's nice to be reminded of the sufferings of this great soul, if only because it puts one's own relatively minor difficulties in perspective.

David Gosselin
David Gosselin
Jul 18, 2023
Replying to

One of the greatest Prometheans in our history.

bottom of page