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Did Beethoven have a daughter?

Anastassia Boutsko rf
April 13, 2020

The composer's private life is a recurring theme in the anniversary year 2020. One little-known subject is an illegitimate child that Ludwig van Beethoven is said to have fathered with one of his lovers.

Kombo Minona von Stackelberg und Ludwig van Beethoven

On April 8, 1813, Maria Theresia Selma Arria Cornelia Minona was born in Vienna. Two centuries later, Minona von Stackelberg, as the lifelong unmarried woman was later called, would have been completely forgotten — if she wasn't presumed to be Ludwig van Beethoven's biological daughter.

The rather unusual name can also be read backwards, as "Anonim" — the (slightly misspelled) German word for anonymous. Now, during the Beethoven anniversary year 2020, as people are trying to better understand the human being behind the music legend, the issue of Minona is taking on a new dimension. 

So what leads experts to the claim that the woman was Beethoven's daughter?

Ladies' man

In the spring of 1827, Beethoven's secretary and estate administrator, Anton Schindler, found a letter in a secret compartment of the deceased composer's desk, next to bank stocks and miniature portraits of two unknown women. 

Known today as the letter to the Immortal Beloved, Beethoven's scribbled lines were painstakingly deciphered to reveal the depths of his passion and pain: "My angel, my everything, my I. (...) Can our love exist other than through sacrifice? (...) Can you change that you are not quite mine and I'm not entirely yours." The letter makes at least one thing clear: Beethoven was deeply in love. But with whom?

Beethoven's letter to the 'Immortal Beloved'
'My life, my everything, my I': Beethoven's letter to the 'Immortal Beloved' — Beethoven's letter to the 'Immortal Beloved'Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

The question is not easy to answer. Even though Beethoven wasn't particularly good looking, he seemed to be constantly falling in love, and many women reciprocated his feelings. The composer and pianist was clearly a womanizer, as one would call him today, or simply a man of love. Love was the source of his creativity, his daily bread — and women could feel that. 

Beethoven researchers identified a long list of possible "Immortal Beloved" candidates — all beautiful and exciting women — and most of them from high nobility.

Who was the 'Immortal Beloved'?

The mysterious love letter from the secret compartment was written in three parts, but it is not known if a copy was ever sent to anyone. Based on Beethoven's date entry, "July 6, morning," and then "Monday evening," as well as other indications, it was dated to the summer of 1812. In July that year, while Napoleon was starting his fatal campaign in Russia, the 41-year-old composer went to a health resort northwest of Prague. He also traveled in the region and spent time in Karlovy Vary, a popular resort town.

It is determined that two of Beethoven's lady friends were also in that area at the time: Antonia Brentano and Josephine Brunsvik.

Josephine Brunsvik
Gentle and spirited: Josephine Brunsvik Image: gemeinfrei

For decades, researchers of the composer's love life fell into two camps: the "Brentanists" and the "Josephinists." Over time, the Josephine camp gained the upper hand.

It is believed that Countess Josephine de Korompa was 19 years old when she captured Beethoven's interest. The composer gave free piano lessons to the Brunsvik girls every day — he was also infatuated with Josephine's sister, Therese. All three would also go on long excursions in the woods together.

Beethoven's numerous musical declarations of love include the six variations "Ich denke dein" (I think of you), which are officially dedicated to Josephine and Therese, and the Andante favori, whose initial motif is interpreted as an encrypted version of the name "Jo-se-phii-ne." 

Before Minona's birth

Josephine then married a count, as befitting her status — a hard blow to the composer. After the death of Josephine's first husband, Count von Deym in 1804, their love flared up again. Passionate letters from Beethoven to Josephine, written between 1804 and 1809, came to light in the 1970s. The language in them resembles that in the letter from the secret compartment. Then Josephine broke up with the composer — but maybe not for the last time.

Read moreWhat Beethoven, Goethe and others wrote to their distant loved ones

Josephine Brunsvik seems to have been a passionate woman: During her 42-year life, she gave birth to eight children of different men. At least two of them, her daughters Marie Laura and Emilie, were illegitimate. The fathers of these girls, Christoph von Stackelberg and Karl Eduard von Andrehan, were both Brunsvik's private piano tutors, just like Beethoven — a striking pattern. 

In that summer of 1812, Josephine had been abandoned by her second husband and, by her sister Therese's account, felt confused and lonely.

Regensburg Theater - Minona. Ein Leben im Schatten Beethovens
Minona's life inspired an opera in 2020Image: Jochen Klenk

Minona kidnapped by her 'father'

Minona, Josephine's seventh child, was born in early April 1813 — nine months after the letter to the "Immortal Beloved." On paper, she was the daughter of Christoph von Stackelberg, then married to Josephine. 

Therese Brunsvik observed that her sister was hardly interested in the baby and that she practically gave up the little Minona to her sister, who had to borrow a goat from farmers to feed her.

Minona, together with her sister Marie von Stackelberg, was later taken away from the mother by the police. Their father kidnapped the girls and took them to Estonia. They grew up in social isolation in Tartu and were raised by Stackelberg in a strictly Pietist spirit. 

It was only after his death that Minona returned to Vienna, got the job of a lady's companion and died in 1897 at age 84. All her life she spoke with a Baltic accent and was considered eccentric. 

Minona von Stackelberg
Described as an odd bird: Minona von StackelbergImage: Gemeinfrei

Minona's rather unfortunate fate inspired the Estonian composer Jüri Reinvere to create the opera "Minona," which premiered in Regensburg in January 2020. During his research for the libretto, Reinvere discovered exciting archive material in his homeland: Minona is said to have been lively and musically gifted as a child, and rebelled against Stackelberg's upbringing methods — although he apparently managed to break her strong will in the end. Reinvere portrays Minona's fate as having been determined by two idealistic, rigorous men: Beethoven and Stackelberg.

Even though Christoph von Stackelberg would be described today as a tyrant father, in his time, the political reformist, inspired by the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, was seen as a thoroughly progressive man. Having founded schools for farmers' children and promoted the Estonian language, he is remembered in Estonian history as the instigator of the national school system.

But was Minona von Stackelberg Beethoven's child? Her youth photo, the favorite piece of evidence by the Minona investigators, shows that she did look a little bit like the composer, at least based on pictures from his own youth. That can obviously be interpreted however one may want.

Ultimately, only a genetic analysis would clarify the issue, but paternity tests aren't expected to be ordered by courts anytime soon.