Glimpses of Beethoven in society and with friends | BTHVN2020 | DW | 09.09.2011
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Glimpses of Beethoven in society and with friends

He's been placed firmly on the pedestal of music history and been glorified in the form of countless marble busts. But what kind of a man was famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven in reality?

Ferdinand Georg Waldmueller painted this portrait of the composer in 1823

Ferdinand Georg Waldmueller painted this portrait of the composer in 1823

John Russell, a British aristocrat and contemporary of Beethoven's, described the composer's "wild and disheveled looks", eyes "full of stormy energy" and hair that appeared not to have been "tamed by comb or scissors for years." Russell's conclusion: the gravely ill composer, clearly, was "lost to society."

Who was Ludwig van Beethoven really? What kind of a person was he in his private life?

A journey into Beethoven's childhood begins at the Beethoven House, his birthplace in Bonn. A white bust portraying Ludwig van Beethoven during his last years in Vienna stands in a tiny attic room at the very spot where his cradle is said to have rocked.

The composer's actual appearance was most probably quite different from the idealized image with which most people are familiar, director of the Beethoven House Michael Ladenburger told Deutsche Welle.

"Beethoven was only about 1.6 meters (5 feet, 2 inches) tall, an ugly man, often unkempt, with a pockmarked face," Ladenburger said. "But he had a lot of charisma, and women found him highly attractive."

The room where Beethoven was born

This is the room where Beethoven was born in 1770

A dandy in Vienna

Posterity has tended to stylize Beethoven as a musical titan, battered and buffeted by fate. But his contemporaries, his letters and the notebooks he used to communicate during the last years of his life portray him as a humorous man who loved to eat and drink, as a slovenly and rebellious tenant, a sensitive artist and a gruff but warm-hearted friend.

Crabby and short-tempered by nature, Beethoven often alienated people. All the same, when the composer moved to Vienna, he quickly found sponsors and entry into influential aristocratic circles. To better fit in and play to the gallery, he wore elegant clothes and even acquired a horse.

Eternal lovers

There remain many unanswered questions when it comes to Beethoven's relationship to women. He never married. He repeatedly fell madly in love with his aristocratic piano students, and his servant and biographer Anton Schindler believed there were several "romantic affairs." But entering into a relationship with a commoner was out of the question for the young ladies.

Even today, it is not clear when Beethoven wrote the following lines, found among documents in his estate, and for whom they were meant.

"Lying in bed, my thoughts surge to you, my eternal love, at times joyful, but punctuated also with sadness. I can only live entirely with you or not at all, yes, I've decided to wander afar until I can fly into your arms…"

A portrait of Bettina von Arnim

Was Bettina von Arnim Beethoven's "eternal love?"

On the move

The composer moved from place to place so often that he was practically a tenant nomad. In the summer, he would leave Vienna and move to the countryside, Beethoven expert Beate Angelika Kraus said.

"Then, he would move to a new apartment in Vienna in the fall," she explained. "He didn't have the means to keep up a city and a country house."

Personal objects like his elegant table grandfather clock or the travelling desk - somewhat akin to a present-day laptop - that the composer used show that Beethoven definitely had a sense of style and dignified design.

Beethoven and society

When speaking about others, Beethoven never minced words. He is said to have been quite crude once toward his friend, famed violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

"Don't you dare back come to me! You're a wretched dog, and you're about to get rounded up!" Beethoven said.

In a letter to his brother Johann dated August 19, 1823, Beethoven shows an impressive repertoire of swearwords. When translated literally, they range from "the housekeeper's arch pig" to "miserable scoundrel."

John Russel described Beethoven's regular visits to a pub "where he spent the evening in a corner, drinking wine and beer, eating cheese and kippers and reading the papers." Once, a man entered the pub whose face Beethoven didn't like; the composer spit on the floor and dashed out of the pub, crying, "What a rascally ugly face!"

Beethoven's 19th century hearing aid alongside a manuscript

Beethoven's 19th century hearing aid alongside a manuscript

Prone to disease

There were first signs of a loss of hearing as early as 1796. Beethoven felt increasingly isolated, he began to shun people and contact with the world outside his home.

In his 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter written to his brothers, the 31-year-old described the incredible dilemma that was driving him to despair, a dilemma that made him consider suicide. Born with a lively temperament, he wrote, he was then forced to live a life in solitude. He could hardly tell people to "speak louder - yell - because I am deaf!" How were people supposed to understand that a deaf musician was composing music?

The long periods of illness and his increasing deafness aggravated Beethoven's natural disposition, lending it a dark streak. Later in life, as his deafness progressed, he was forced to resort to a small notebook in order to communicate with people at all.

Weakness turns to strength

But the unfortunate twists Beethoven experienced in life and the cracks in his personality made him the man that he was, curator Ladenburger said.

"It gave him great strength because he rebelled against it and pushed himself further."

His weaknesses, Ladenburger concluded, were not just negative traits. They were "a barbed hook he fought against - with wonderful success as far as his work is concerned."

Author: Hildburg Heider, Marita Berg / db

Editor: Greg Wiser

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