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Vie de Beethoven

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.


At the time I was writing – a quarter of a year ago – my small “Vie de Beethoven,” I never dreamed of creating a work of musicology. It was in 1902. I was going through a period of torment, rich in storms that destroy and those which renew. I had fled Paris. I came to seek asylum, for ten days, close to a companion of my infancy, the one who had already sustained me more than once in the battle of life: Beethoven. I came to him at Bonn. I recognized his shadow and his old friends: the Wegelers, that I visited at Coblenz, in the person of their grandaughter. At Mayence, I listened to a music festival of his symphonies that Weingartner directed. And alone with him, I confessing, at the edge of the misty Rhine in these gray, wet days of April, completely penetrated with his pain, with his valiant nature, with his Leiden, with his Freude, kneeling and getting up by his strong hand, I baptized my little, newborn baby, the infant of Jean-Christophe, under the sign of his blessing; I took to the path of Paris, comforted, having signed a new lease with life, and singing a “Dankgesang” of convalescence to the Divinity – that “Dankgesang,” which are the pages that appear here. It was first published by the “Revue de Paris,” then taken over by Péguy. I hadn't thought that their voices had gone out to a narrow circle of friends. But “habent sua fata. . .” (according to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny. . .)

I ask pardon for these details. I am a historian, but in my own time I paid to musicological science a rigorous tribute in various books: in my “Haendel,” and in my studies on the opera. But the Beethoven novella was not written at all for science. It was a song of the wounded and suffocated soul, which regains breath, which rises again, and which thanks his Savior. I have transfigured this Savior. But it is thus from all the acts of faith and of love. And my Beethoven was that act.

The world will seize it. It will make a fortune that this little book did not at all seek. In this time of millions of beings in France, a generation of oppressed idealists wait anxiously for a liberating word. They will find it in the music of Beethoven, and they will come to beseech it. Yes, some survivors of that time don't remember those concerts of quartets. . . Those persons living today are far from the beings of yesterday. But will they be closer to persons living tomorrow? Rows have been crushed of the generation during the first years of the century. The war created an abyss where the best of their sons disappeared. My little “Vie de Beethoven” conserves their image. In a number of days, the little book will go out of an obscure shop, a book being written by an unknown, and be transmitted from hand to hand. And it will not belong any longer. I have just been reading these pages. Despite their shortcomings, I would change nothing because they should conserve their initial character and the image sacred to a great generation. At the hour of the centennial, I associate its memory to the celebration of its great companion, the master of right and sincerity, of which we learn to live and die.

Romain Rolland – March 1938

Life of Beethoven

“He was small and stocky with a strong neck and an athletic framework. A large figure, of red brick color, except at the end of his live when the tint became sickly, especially in winter, when he remained shut away far from the fields. A forehead powerful and bumpy. The hair extremely black, extraordinarily thick, where it seemed that a comb had never been passed, his hair rising up everywhere, “the serpents of Medusa.”

J. Russel in 1822 said: “Charles Czerny, a child, saw Beethoven in 1801 with a beard's growth of numerous days, a savage mane, and wearing a vest and pants in goat skin. Czerny believed to have encountered Robinson Crusoe.”

Kloeber, a painter who created Beethoven's portrait around 1818, noted: “The eyes blazed with a prodigious force, which seized all who saw him; but most were mistaken about their nuance. Since they blazed with a savage radiance in a figure brown and tragic, one generally saw black: they were not black, but blue-grey.”

Doctor W.C. Muller said: “His beautiful eyes spoke and were so graceful and tender, sometimes lost, but also menacing and terrible.” (1820).” Small and very profoundly sunken in, they opened briskly in passion or in anger, and thus rolled in their orbits, reflecting all their thoughts with a marvelous truth.”

Often his eyes turned toward the heavens with a melancholic expression. The nose was short, square, and large, the muzzle of a lion. A delicate mouth, where the lower lip tended to appear over the other. Formidable jaws, which would be able to crack a nut. A profound dimple at the chin on the right side created a strange asymmetrical impression to the face.” “He had a good smile,“ said Moscheles, “and in conversation, often an amiable and encouraging quality. On the other hand, the laugh was disagreeable, violent and grimacing – the laugh of a man who is not accustomed to joy. His expression was habitually melancholic, revealing an incurable sadness.” Rellstab, in 1825, said that he needed all his strength to stop himself from crying in seeing “his sweet eyes and their poignant pain.”

Braun von Branthal, a year later, ran into Beethoven at a café where he was seated in a corner. He smoked from a long pipe and his eyes were closed, something he would do more and more in a manner of approaching death. A friend said a word to him. Beethoven smiled sadly, pulled from his pocket a small notebook of conversation, and, with a sharp voice which the deaf often use, asked him to write down that which he wished to ask. Sometimes his face would be transfigured under the sudden inspiration that took him unexpectedly, also in the street, which astonished passers-by, as well as at the piano when he was again inspired: “The muscles of his face protruded, his veins swelled; his savage eyes became two times more terrible; his mouth trembled. He had the air of an enchanter vanquished by the demons that he had evoked. “As a figure of Shakespeare,” Julius Benedict said: “King Lear.”


Ludwig van Beethoven was born on the 16th of December 1770 in Bonn, close to Cologne, in a miserable place, under a staircase of a poor house. His origin was Flemish.

Beethoven's grandfather, the most remarkable person in the family whom Beethoven resembled the most, was born at Anvers. When he was almost 20 years old, his grandfather became Master of the Chapel of the Prince-Elect in Bonn. It is well to remember the nature of his grandfather in understanding the ardent independence of Beethoven as well as many traits of his character which are not properly German.

His father was an unintelligent and drunken tenor. His mother was a domestic. His sister was a cook and widow of a servant.

Beethoven experienced a severe infancy which lacked any family sweetness, one with which Mozart, happier, was surrounded. From the beginning, life was a sad and brutal combat for him. His father wanted to exploit Beethoven's musical gifts and exhibit him as a musical prodigy. At four years, Beethoven was fixed in front of his piano for hours by his father. Beethoven was also shut in with a violin and exhausted by work. . . It was necessary to use violence so that Beethoven would learn music. His youth was saddened by his material preoccupations, the need to earn his bread, the tasks imposed on him too early in life. At eleven years, he was part of the theater orchestra. In 1787, he lost his mother whom he adored. “She was so good, so worthy of love, my best friend! Oh, who could be happier than I, when I could pronounce the sweet name of mother, and she could hear it.” She died of consumption, and Beethoven was thought to have the same illness. He already suffered constantly. Melancholy was joined to his pain, more cruel than the pain.

He said later in 1816: “It is a poor man that does not know to die. When I was only fifteen years, I knew it already.”

At 17 years, he was the head of the family, responsible for the education of his two brothers. He had the shame of the responsibility of setting up the retirement of his father, drunk, incapable of running the house. It was to Beethoven that the pension of the father was handed over in order to avoid the funds being dissipated. Those instances of sadness left a profound mark in him.

He found affectionate support from a family in Bonn, the Breunings. They always remained dear to him. The gentle “Lorchen,” Eleonore de Breuning, was two years younger than he. He taught music to her and introduced poetry to her. She was the companion of his childhood. . . Eleonore later married Doctor Wegeler, who was one of Beethoven's best friends. . . Up to the last day, there was a peaceful friendship between them attested by the dignified and cordial letters of Wegeler and Eleonore. The affection was still more touching when the three of them grew older. . .

Beethoven, as unhappy as he had been in his infancy, did keep a tender and melancholic memory for Eleonore and for the connections that she created. Forced to leave Bonn and to spend almost all his life in Vienna and in its large frivolous and sad suburbs, he never forgot the Rhine valley and the great river venerable and paternal, “unser Vater Rhein,” as they called it, “our father the Rhine.” It was so alive, almost human in effect, like a gigantic soul where thoughts and innumerable forces pass. Nowhere was it more beautiful, more powerful, and more sweet than in delightful Bonn. . . There Beethoven had lived for his first 20 years and where the dreams of his adolescent heart were formed – in the prairies, by the languid waters and the poplars enveloped in fog – by the bushes, the willows, and the fruit trees, which soak their roots in the silent and rapid current – and on the edge, were the rather strange villages, the churches, even the cemeteries, while at the horizon, the bluish Seven Mountains' design on the sky with their stormy profiles surmounted the meager and bizarre silhouettes of old, ruined castles. To this country, his heart remained eternally faithful and even at the last instant he dreamed of seeing it again. But he was unable. “My homeland, the beautiful country where I saw the light of day – always beautiful and as clear before my eyes as when I left her.”

Beethoven had gone on a short trip during the spring of 1787. He saw Mozart, who seems to have given him little attention, and Haydn, whom he met in Bonn in December 1700. Haydn gave Beethoven some lessons. Beethoven assumed Albrechtsberger and Salieri as his masters.

The Revolution had broken out. It commenced by submerging Europe and possessed the heart of Beethoven. The University of Bonn was a center of new ideas. Beethoven was registered as a student in May 14, 1789. He took courses in German literature with the famous professor Euloge Schneider. . . When the price of the events at the Bastille was discovered, Schneider read fiery poetry from a rostrum, which evoked the student's enthusiasm. The following year, Schneider published a collection of revolutionary poetry. Among the subscribers, were the names of Beethoven, Hofmusikus, and the family Breuning.

An example of Schneiders words: “Mistrust fanaticism, shatter the scepter of stupidity, fight for the good of humanity. . .Free souls are necessary, those which love death more than flattery, poverty more than servitude. . . And know that among such souls mine will not be the last.”

In November of 1792, Beethoven left Bonn, just at the moment where the war entered. He was going to stay in Vienna, the music metropolis of Germany. On his route, he crossed the German Hessian army marching against France. Without a doubt, he was taken over by patriotic feelings. In 1796 and 1797, he created music for the warlike poetry of Friedberg: a “Chant du Depart” and a patriotic choir: “We are a great German people (Ein grosses deutsches Volk sind wir) . . . He wanted to sing about the enemies of the Revolution. . . From 1798, despite the tension of the relations between Austria and France, Beethoven enters into close relations with the French and with the ambassador in Vienna. In these conversations, republican sentiments were affirmed, which develop powerfully in Beethoven later in his life.

A design that Stainhauser made of him in that period accurately provides the image of Beethoven as he was at that time. . . Beethoven seems younger than his age, thin, straight, stiff with his high necktie, tense with a look of defiance. He knows what he wants. He believes in his strength. In 1796, he writes in his notebook: “Courage! Despite all the weaknesses of the body, my genius triumphs. . . At my twenty-five years, it is necessary that the man reveal himself entirely.”

He made his debut. His first concert as pianist took place on March 30, 1795 in Vienna. Madame de Bernhard and Gelinck say that he was very proud, had rude and sullen manners, and spoke with a strong provincial accent. But his intimate friends, alone, know the exquisite kindness that he hid behind that proud awkwardness. For example in writing to Wegeler of all his success: “I see a friend in need. If my purses does not permit me to come to his aid, I only have to work at my table, and, in a little time, I will have gotten out of the affair. . . You see how charming it is.” And a little later, he said: “My art should be consecrated to the good of the poor.” (“Dann, soll meine Kunst sich nur zum Besten der Armen seigen.”)

But the pain already had knocked at his door. It was installed in him, never to leave. Between 1796 and 1800, the deafness began its ravages. His ears heard weak sounds night and day; he was worn down by the pains in his abdomen. His hearing became progressively weaker.

In the Testament of 1802, Beethoven said that he was six years old when the illness had begun. . . The first three sonatas for piano appeared in March 1796. One can say that Beethoven's entire work was created while he was deaf.

For various years, he did not admit the truth to anyone, even to his dearest friends. He avoided the world so that his infirmity would be not noticed; he guarded his terrible secret. But in 1801, he no longer could keep silent and confided his despair to two of his friends: Doctor Wegeler and Pastor Amenda.

“My dear, my good, my affectionate Amenda. . . how often I have wished you were close to me! Your Beethoven is profoundly ill. Know that the most noble part of myself, my hearing, has greatly failed. Already at the time when we were together, I had experienced negative symptoms, and I hid them. Since then, they continue to worsen. . . Will I heal?

“I naturally hope, but not much, as these illnesses are the most incurable. I must live sadly, to avoid all that I love and all that is most dear to me, and be miserable in a world so greatly egotistical! . . . Sad resignation where I must take refuge! Without a doubt, I proposed to place myself above all this suffering, but how will it be possible for me? . . .”

And to Wegeler: “I follow a miserable life. For two years, I have avoided all society because as I am deaf, it is not possible for me to speak with people. If I had another occupation, it would still be possible, but in mine it is a terrible situation. What do my enemies say of this, enemies whose number is not small! . . . At the theater, I need to place myself very close to the orchestra in order to understand the actors. I do not hear the elevated sounds of instruments and of voices when I am farther away . . When someone speaks quietly, I hardly hear, and on the other hand, when someone cries, that is intolerable to me. . . Very soon I will have cursed my existence . . . Plutarch leads me to resignation. I wish, however, if possible, to brave my destiny. But there are some moments in my life when I am the most miserable creature of God . . . Resignation! What a sad refuge!”

This tragic sadness expresses itself in some of his works of this time: in the Sonata Pathetique, op. 13 (1799) and above all in the largo of the Third Sonata for piano,op. 10 (1798). It is a strange thing that this music is not marked with tragedy throughout as for example in the laughing Septet (1800) and the limpid First Symphony (1800) in C Major, which reflects a juvenile insouciance. . . The soul had such a need for joy that when it did not possess joy, it was necessary to create it. When the present is too cruel, one looks to the past. The happy days which existed are not effaced in one blow; their radiance persists a long time after they cease to exist. Alone and unhappy in Vienna, Beethoven takes refuge in his memories of his native country which completely impregnate his thoughts. The theme of the andante and variations of the septet are a song of the Rhine. The Symphony in C Major is also a work of the Rhine, a poem of adolescence which smiles at its dreams. It is gay and full of languor; there, one senses the desire and hope to please. But in certain passages, in the introduction, in the clearness and obscurity of certain somber base notes, in the fantastic scherzo, one can perceive in the young figure the look of the genius to come. There are the eyes of “Bimbino” of Botticelli in his “Saintes Families,” those eyes of the small infant where one already sees the tragedy to follow.

To his physical suffering was joined troubles of another nature. Wegeler said that he never knew Beethoven without his having a passion that lead to the highest degree of feeling. Those loves seemed to have always been of a great purity. There was no rapport between passion and pleasure. . . Beethoven had something of the puritan in his soul; licentious conversations and thoughts horrified him. Regarding the sanctity of love, his ideas were intransigent. It is said that Beethoven had not pardoned Mozart for having profaned his genius by writing “Don Juan.” Schindler, who was his intimate friend, states that “Beethoven experienced life with a virginal modesty and never had a weakness with which to reproach himself.” Such a man was created to be duped and to be a victim of love, and he was. Without ceasing, he fell in love furiously and again saw his happiness immediately deceived and followed by bitter suffering. It is in these alternatives of love and revolting arrogance that it is necessary to look for the source of the most prolific of Beethoven's inspiration until the age where the ardor of his nature had calmed itself with a melancholic resignation.

In 1801, the object of his passion was Giulietta Guicciardi, whom he immortalized by dedicating his famous sonata “Clair de Lune, op. 27 (1802). “ I see with a sweeter fashion,” he writes to Wageler, “and I communicate with men more. . . That change, the charm of a dear girl accomplished it; and she loves me and I love her. These were the first happy moments that I have experienced in two years.” He pays for them severely. At first that love made him experience more of the misery of his infirmity and the precarious conditions of his life, which made it impossible to marry whom he loved. Moreover, Giulietta was coquettish, childish, egotistical; she made Beethoven suffer, and in November 1803, she married Count Gallenberg.

Giulietta Guicciardi afterwards did not fear exploiting the old love of Beethoven in favor of her husband. Beethoven protected Gallenberg and said: “He was my enemy. It is exactly the reason why I do for him all the good possible,” he said to Schlindler. But ultimately Beethoven scorned Count Galienberg.

Such passions devastate the soul; and when the soul is already enfeebled by sickness as was that of Beethoven, it risks being ruined. That was the sole moment in his life where he seemed to have been on the point of succumbing. He went through a desperate crisis expressed by a letter to his brothers, Carl and Johann. It is “The Testament of Heiligenstadt” and includes these instructions: “To be read and executed after my death.” It was a cry of revolt and of heart-rending pain. One cannot know of this without being overwhelmed by pity. He was entirely ready to end his life. Only his inflexible moral feelings stopped him. “It is virtue that sustains me in my misery. It is to virtue as well as to my art that I owe my not having terminated my life by suicide.”

His last hopes of being healed disappeared. “Even the great courage which sustained me has vanished. O Providence, appear to me once a day, a sole day of true joy! It has been so long; the profound sound of true joy is now a stranger! When, oh! When, my God, would I be able to encounter it again? . . . Never? – No, that would be too cruel!”

It is a cry of agony. However, Beethoven lives twenty-five years longer. His powerful nature was not able to resign himself to succumb under the trial. He wrote to Wegeler: “My physical strength believes with my intellectual power more than ever . . . My youth, yes, I sense it, does not but commences. Each day I reproach myself of the goal that I glimpse without the power to define it. Oh, if I were delivered from the pain, I would embrace the world! . . . Moment of repose! I do not know another kind of repose but that of sleep; and I am sufficiently unhappy of the task to accord more time to it. Oh, that I experienced half of my pain: and then! . . . No, I will not support it. I want to seize destiny by the throat. There will be no success with my succumbing. . . Oh! This is so beautiful, to live a life thousand times over!”

That love, that suffering, that will, those alternations of painfulness and pride, and that interior tragedy are found in the great works written in 1802: the Sonata with funeral march, op. 26, and the Sonata “Clair de Lune,” op. 27, Sonata Number 2, op. 31 with its dramatic recitatives that seem to be a desolate and magnificent monologue; the Sonata in C minor for violin, op. 30, dedicated to Emperor Alexander; the Sonata @ Kreutzer, op. 47; the six heroic and poignant religious melodies on the words of Gellert, op. 48. The Second Symphony from 1803 reflects more his juvenile love. One senses that he will rise above. A force irresistibly sweeps away the sad thoughts. An effervescence of life lifts up the finale. Beethoven will be happy; he does not want to consent believing his misfortune irremediable: he wants healing, he wants love: he overflows with hope.

In many of his works, one is struck by the energy and the insistence of his marching and combat rhythms. That is notable above all in the allegro and the finale of the Second Symphony, and still more in the first section, superbly heroic in the Sonata to Emperor Alexander. A fighting character, particular to that music, reflects the present time. The Revolution has arrived in Vienna and Beethoven was carried away by it. “In intimate surroundings, he expressed his opinions on political events with pleasure,” said Knight de Seyfried, which he judged with a rare intelligence in a blink of an eye -- clear and definite. “All his sympathies followed revolutionary ideas.” He loved republican principles,” said Schindler, the friend who knew him best in the last period of his life. “He was a partisan of liberty illuminated with national independence. . . He wanted all people to jointly govern the State. . . He wanted universal suffrage for France, and he hoped that Bonaparte would establish it, thus creating thus the basis of happiness for mankind. Roman revolutionary, nourished by Plutarch, he dreamed of a heroic Republic, founded by the god of Victory – the first Consul. Blow upon blow, he forges the Symphonie Heroique, Bonaparte (1804), the Iliad of the Empire, and the final of Symphony in C minor (1803-1808), the epic poem of Glory.”

One knows that the Heroic Symphony was written for and under Bonaparte's time and that the first manuscript had the title: “Bonaparte.” Just at that moment, Beethoven learned of the crowning of Napoleon. He became furious: “He is nothing but an ordinary man” he cried, and using a pen, he angrily crossed out the name of Napoleon so vigorously that the pen ripped through the title page. He then wrote a title that was vengeful and touching at the same time: “Heroic Symphony . . . to celebrate the memory of a great Man.”

It was the first truly revolutionary music. He sees with intensity and purity one of the greatest events . . . whose impressions are not lessened by a contact with reality. The figure of Beethoven was colored with reflections of epic wars. They were manifest everywhere, perhaps unaware, in the works of this period: in the overture of Coriolan (1807), where the tempests blow; in the fourth quartet, op. 18; in the first part which greatly reflects that overture; in the Appassionata Sonata, op. 57 (1804) of which Bismark said: “If I suddenly heard it, I would always be very valiant.” In the score of the Egmont; and in certain concertos for piano, in the Concerto in E Flat, op. 73 (1809), where the virtuoso itself appears heroic, where the armies pass. . .”

Robert de Kendell played the Appassionata Sonata at Bismarck on an unsatisfactory piano on the 30th of October 1970 at Versailles. Bismark said of the last phrase of the work: “They are the battles and the blood of all of life.” He preferred Beethoven above all other musicians, and more than once affirmed: “Beethoven was the most suitable for my nerves.”

It is General Hulin, the winner at the Bastille, who was installed at Lobkowitz. He was friend and protector of Beethoven to whom was dedicated the piece entitled “The Heroic” and the C Minor. . .

Soon Beethoven hated the conquering French. But he did not feel the fever of their epic less.


Beethoven quickly interrupts the Symphony in A Minor in order to write a piece without his habitual sketches – the Fourth Symphony. Happiness itself had appeared. In May 1806, he becomes engaged to Thérèse de Brunswick. She had loved him for a long time, ever since she was a young girl and had taken piano lessons with him during his first stay in Vienna. Beethoven was friends with her brother, Count Frances. In 1806, he was the host at Mártonvásár in Hungary, and it was there, Beethoven and Thérèse fell in love. The memory of their happy days is preserved in various stories of Thérèse. “One evening in December” she said, “after dinner in the light of the moon, Beethoven sat at the piano. At first, he placed his hand flatly on the piano. We recognized that, Francis and I; it was in this way that he began to play everything. Then he struck some base notes chords and, slowly, with a mysterious solemness, played a song of Johann Sebastian Bach: “If you wish to give me your heart at first in secret and our thoughts commune, no one will be able to guess.”

“My mother and the curate were asleep; my brother looked in front at him gravely; and I, penetrated by his song and his expression, felt life in its plenitude. The next evening, we met again in the park. He said to me: 'I am presently writing an opera. The principal figure is in me, before me, around where I go, everywhere where I remain. Never have I existed at such a height. All is light, purity, clarity. Up to the present, I had resembled that child in fairy tales who collected stones and did not see the splendid flower opening on his path. . . '” It was the month of May in 1800 that he became her fiancé with only the consent of her beloved brother Francis.”

The Fourth Symphony, written this year, is a pure flower, that retains the perfume of those calmer days of his life. It was said: “The preoccupation of Beethoven was thus to conciliate as much as possible his genius with that which was generally known and loved in the forms transmitted by his predecessors.” The same conciliating spirit, coming from love, had an effect on his manners and his way of life. Ignaz von Seyfriend and Grillparzer described Beethoven “as being full of drive, vivacious, joyous, spiritual, courteous in the world, patient with annoying persons, as well as dressed in a careful fashion. He created the illusion to others that they did not perceive his deafness. They also say that he was prepared for his weak eyesight.” It is also similar to the impression of him appearing in an elegant, romantic portrait by Maehler, with Beethoven being somewhat dressed up. Beethoven wanted to please, and he knew that he did. The lion is in love: he retracts his claws. But one sees under this impression, under the fantasies and the tenderness, the formidable force, the capricious humor, and the colorful jests in The Symphony in B Flat.

That profound peace was not to last, but the beneficial influence of love lasted until 1810. Beethoven was without a doubt the master of himself who produced with his genius most perfect fruits: the classic tragedy, the Symphony in A Minor – and that divine dream of a day in spring: The Pastorale Symphony (1808), and the Appassionata, inspired by Shakespeare's “Tempest,” which he regarded as the most powerful of his sonatas. It appeared in 1807 and was dedicated to the brother of Thérèse. To Thérèse herself, he dedicated the dreamy and fantastic sonata, op. 78 (1809). An undated letter addressed to “Immortal Love,” expresses no less the intensity of his love than in the “Appassionata”:

“My angel, my all, my friend . . . My heart is filled with too much more than I can tell you!. . . Ah! Where I am, you are also with me . . . I cry when I think that you will probably not receive the first news from me before Sunday. – I love you as you love me, but much stronger . . . Ah! God! Such a life! Without you! – So, close, so far away. . . My ideas hurry toward you, my immortal love (meine unsterbliche Geliebte) sometimes joyful, then afterwards sad, asking destiny, demanding of it to answer our prayers. --I cannot live but with you, or I do not live . . . Never another will have my heart. Never! – Never! – O God! Why is it necessary that there is such distance when one loves someone? But, however, my life at present is a life of sadness and pain. Your love made me the most happy and the most unhappy of men at the same time. . . . Be peaceful … – be peaceful – love me! – Today – yesterday – that ardent aspiring, that of tears toward you! --- you --- you --- my life – my all! Adieu! – oh! Continue to love me – never misjudge the heart of your beloved. – Eternally to you – eternally to me eternally to us.”

What mysterious reason prevented the happiness of these two beings who loved each other? Perhaps the lack of fortune or the difference in their conditions. Perhaps Beethoven revolted against the long wait that was imposed on him, and revolted against the humiliation of having to keep his love secret.

Perhaps, violent, ill, and misanthrope, he made whom he loved to suffer, despairing of it. The union was broken and yet neither one seemed to have ever forgotten his love. Up to the last day until she died in 1861 Thérèse de Brunswick loved Beethoven.

And Beethoven said in 1816: “In thinking about her, my heart beats as strongly as the day when I saw her for the first time.” Of that same year, the six melodies were created “to the distant beloved” (“an die ferne Geliebte), op. 98, having a quality so touching and profound. He wrote in his notes: “My heart spills over at the presence of that admirable nature. Although she is not here, she is close to me! – Thérèse had given her portrait to Beethoven with the dedication: “To rare genius, to a great artist, to a good man. T.B.” That portrait is still found today in Beethoven's house in Bonn. It has been reproduced in “Vie de Beethoven” by Frimmel, p. 29, and in the “Musical Times” of December 15, 1892.

In the last year of his life, a friend unexpectedly appeared to Beethoven while he was alone and found him embracing that portrait and crying. He said loudly as was his habit: “You were so beautiful, so great, so like the angels!”

The friend stepped away for a while then came back a little later finding Beethoven at the piano. He said to Beethoven: “Today, my old friend, there is no diabolical expression on your face.” Beethoven responded: “It is because my good angel has visited me.” The wound was profound. “Poor Beethoven,” he said to himself, “there is no happiness for you in this world. Only in the region of the ideal, will you find friends.”

He wrote in his notes: “Submission, profound submission to your destiny; you can no longer exist for yourself, but only for others. For you, there is no longer happiness except for your art. O God, give me the power to overcome!”


He is thus abandoned by love. In 1810, he is found alone; but glory came in the feeling of his power. He feels the power of the age. He acquiesces to his violent and savage moods not caring about anything, nor conventions, nor the judgments of others. What did he have to fear or to care for? . . . His strength is all that remained, the joy of his strength, and the need to use it to almost abuse it. “The strength is where the morale of men exists, those men who distinguish themselves from the common men!” He fell back into the neglect of his appearance and his liberty of manners became much bolder than formerly. He knew that he had the right to say all, even to the greatest people. “I do not recognize other signs of superiority but kindness,” he writes on July 17, 1812.” “The heart is the leveler of all that exists of the great.” (to Giannatasio del Rio.”)

Bettina Brentano who saw Beethoven at that time said that “no emperor, no king had such an awareness of his power.” She was fascinated by his power: “As I saw it for the first time,” she writes to Goethe, “the universe disappeared entirely for me. Beethoven made me forget the world, and you, yourself, oh Goethe. . . I do not think I am mistaken in affirming that this man is far in advance of modern civilization.”

Beethoven greatly admired the genius of Goethe. It is remarkable that despite his neglected education, the literary taste of Beethoven was sound. . . Outside of Goethe, he loved three men: Homer, Plutarch, and Shakespeare. Of Homer, he preferred the “Odyssey.” He continually read Shakespeare in the German tradition, and one knows the tragic grandeur in these works which he translated into the music of “Coriolanus” and “The Tempest.” In reference to Plutarch, he nourished himself with the words of the Revolution. Brutus was his hero as was Michelangelo. He loved Plato and dreamed of establishing his Republic in the entire world. “Socrates and Jesus were his models,” he said in conversations of 1819-20.

“The poems of Goethe make me happy,” wrote Beethoven to Bettina Brentano in February 19, 1911, and then “Goethe and Schiller are my favorite poets, with Ossian and Homer, that I am not unhappy to read, but only in some translations. (Breitkopf and Haertel, August 8, 1809 –Nohl, “Neue Brief,” Liii).

Goethe wished to meet Beethoven. They did meet at the baths of Boeheme at Toeplitz in 1812 and did not get along with each other. Beethoven's character was too free and too violent to accommodate itself to that of Goethe and to avoid offending him. Beethoven described a walk that they took together where republican pride gave a lesson in dignity to the counsel of the Grand Duke of Weimar. Goethe never pardoned Beethoven for that.

“Kings and princes could well be professors and secret counselors. They are able to amass titles and decorations, but they cannot be great men, spirits which rise above the bird excrement of the world; . . . and when two men are together, such as myself and Goethe, these men necessarily feel their grandeur. Yesterday, we encountered all of the imperial family as they were leaving. We saw them from a distance. Goethe detached himself from my arm in order to position himself on the side of the road. I could have well said anything that I wanted and I could not take another step. I shoved my hat on my hat more firmly, buttoned my long coat, and placed my arms behind my back. I pushed myself into the most crowded area of the group. Princes and members of the court formed a line; Duke Rodolphe raised his hat to me. The Empress was the first to salute me. The great recognized me. For my amusement, I saw the procession march past Goethe. He remained on the edge of the road, profoundly bent, his hat in his hand. I later gave him a piece of my mind; I did not spare him anything. . .”

Goethe never forgot this.

Read Part II

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.


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