Columns > Published on March 26th, 2015

LURID: My Man Ludwig Van - The Tortured Genius of Beethoven

"Beethoven" by Joseph Karl Stieler

What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought — Ludwig Van Beethoven

On this day in 1827, in the middle of a thunderstorm – as legend has it, at the exact same moment as a tremendous clap of thunder – Ludwig Van Beethoven died.  He was the most celebrated composer in Europe, and his work had transformed every genre of classical music. He breathed his last in agony, racked by the abdominal disease that had plagued him for decades.  News of his demise traveled fast. A day later, the corpse had been plucked bald by souvenir-seekers who coveted a lock of Maestro’s hair. More than 20,000 mourners lined the streets of Vienna for his funeral, on the 29th.

Beethoven was revered for far more than his music. Almost two centuries later he still stands as the epitome of Artistic Genius, the ultimate wild-haired, big-browed, bruise-eyed, creatively supreme being, the vessel chosen by God to transmit music to us mortals from a much higher sphere. His tortured existence is intrinsic to his Art: without suffering disease, deafness, isolation and poverty, he would not have written such impassioned and heart-breaking compositions. He’s celebrated as much for his infamous rages and his ‘Raptus’ trances as he is for his exquisite command of chromatic and diatonic harmonies.  A child of the Enlightenment, he is remembered as the archetypal Romantic hero, conveying the most intense thoughts and feelings through the power of his work, a paradigm for artists of all types.

In his life as in his music, Beethoven broke and rewrote the rules, blundering, bellowing, through the salons of Viennese princes.  He radiated charm and caused offense with equal intensity, depending on his oscillating mood.  Consequently, the Archduke Rudolph declared that normally rigid court etiquette did not apply to the composer: brilliance got a free pass for behavior that might have caused a lesser individual to be thrown in jail.  Beethoven set the standard for the next two centuries: since then, true artistic genius has been expected to embrace eccentricity from every angle (see: Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Friedrich Nietzsche, H.P. Lovecraft, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Jimi Hendrix et al). Go big, or go home.

The next time your struggle seems a bit too real, you may want to compare your plight to Beethoven’s, and take a step back.

We can’t all commit to wholehearted genius-hood – modern life is rubbish like that – but we can still learn from Beethoven’s passion. Writers who include the Late Quartets in their  ‘Writing Jams’ on Spotify, or have the Moonlight Sonata on repeat when plumbing the depths, or blast the Fifth Symphony as they triumph over the final chapter, already know they carry a little Beethoven in their souls.  However, his legacy goes beyond his presence in your playlists.  The music is just the beginning.  His story is one for the ages. His prodigal persona has inspired writers from E.T.A. Hoffmann to Antony Burgess to Ralph Ellison to Monty Python.  Even if you can’t sing along to the Missa Solemnis, you will surely find something that resonates within Beethoven’s travails.

Genius is Both Born AND Made

The spark of genius might be innate, but it has to be carefully incubated, trained almost from birth.  Beethoven was aligned by circumstance for a career in music, but he was dedicated to that career almost as soon as he could walk and talk. He was born in Bonn, in 1770, into a family of professional musicians.  His grandfather, Ludwig, was the highly regarded Kapellmeister, the director of music for the Elector’s court.  His father, Johann, was a passable singer and music teacher but his mediocre musical career was never quite going to fund his drinking. Nonetheless, Johann recognized the potential in his infant son and began teaching him the clavichord, violin and viola when he was four or five years old. 

Johann’s goals were financial. This was the era of Wolfgang Mozart (born 1756) and his sister Maria Anna (born 1751), who toured Europe as child prodigies, delighting monarchs in London, Munich, Paris, The Hague and Vienna performing and composing – employing party tricks such as improvising on a suggested theme, or playing blindfolded to wow audiences further. Johann Beethoven, always on the lookout for alternative revenue streams, thought he might cash in as Leopold Mozart had.  He pushed young Ludwig to perform at court and in public, advertising him as a year younger than he really was (as six instead of seven), but he lacked Leopold’s killer showbiz instincts.  Ludwig performed regularly, but he lacked the personal charm of the Mozart siblings, and his father did not have the connections to take him far from the Bonn court. By the time the boy was eight years old, he had outgrown his father as a teacher and mentor, but he was well on his way to being the main breadwinner for his family – a habit that would last a lifetime.

By the time he hit puberty, Beethoven was a full time musician, playing at court, taking lessons from the best teachers his family connections could provide, and, mostly in private, composing.  As his father sank deeper into alcoholism, the younger Beethoven’s music was his only source of spiritual and physical sustenance.  Given this total dedication to his art from such a young age, it’s impossible to say if Beethoven’s genius sprang from nature or nurture. His superlative musicianship came about as a combination of innate gifts, tens of thousands of hours of study, and the urgent need to succeed or starve. 

Hitch Your Wagon To A Star

When he was twenty-one, Beethoven made the move to the centre of European music, Vienna. Within Bonn, his reputation as a musician surpassed his late grandfather’s, but he was no small town boy, content to follow in the family trade. He wanted to earn true renown in the only city that mattered.  Vienna offered glittering opportunities in the form of wealthy patrons, concerts, distinguished teachers and lucrative students.  Much like a modern day New York or Los Angeles, wannabes flocked to the city hoping for fame and fortune. Again, much like New York or Los Angeles today, success depended on earning the patronage of wealthy VIPs, the noblemen who positioned themselves as cultural gatekeepers. The best way to show off your wealth, taste and connections – and to lord it over your rivals – was to have the best musicians in Vienna perform in your palace for your guests.  Naturally, money was involved. Patronage came as performance fees for playing in a salon or ballroom, or payment for lessons for younger members of the family, commissions, or, ultimately, an annual stipend.  Even a wildly acclaimed musician and composer of Beethoven’s caliber would be dependent on the grace and favor of patrons for the rest of his life. 

Beethoven learned the hard way that patronage cannot be taken for granted, and he who pays the pianist calls the tune.  One of the first noblemen to champion Beethoven was Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky (who had previously supported Mozart), and, for a long time, he was a most generous and loyal supporter.  In 1800, he offered Beethoven the unprecedented annual stipend of 600 florins to support his musicianship.  However, after a heated argument in 1806, when the Prince commanded Beethoven to perform for some French officers during a late night drinking session, and he refused in a most churlish manner, the stipend was withdrawn. Legend has it that Beethoven returned to Vienna and smashed a bust of his former patron: later, realizing he couldn’t take the financial hit, he tried to make it up with the Prince, but relations remained cool between the two men and Beethoven struggled to make ends meet.

Go To Eleven. Always

From his earliest days in Vienna, Beethoven acted up in order to stand out. He was best known for playing the pianoforte, at that time a relatively new instrument still seen as secondary to the long-established harpsichord. So, with few challengers, Beethoven rocked the piano’s extended keyboard and pedals like no one else in town, playing so forcefully and so fast he shattered hammers and snapped strings – preempting Pete Townshend and Keith Moon’s onstage antics with The Who by 170 years.

Beethoven excelled at the piano duel. As part of the evening’s entertainment, two virtuosos would be invited to compete against each other and win the favor of the assembled audience by demonstrating their skills in performance, composition, and sight-reading.  After showing off by playing a well known piece or two, the duelers would be asked to improvise on a theme – which usually resulted in elegant mathematical variations. Beethoven dazzled in this context and usually crushed the opposition. Leading Viennese pianist, Abbé Joseph Gelinek, had this to say about meeting him in battle:

That young fellow must be in league with the devil. I’ve never heard anybody play like that! …he manages difficulties and effects at the keyboard that we never even dreamed of.”

Piano duels were a great way for Beethoven to showcase his gifts as virtuoso, teacher and composer – and he needed all three revenue streams to survive.  He parlayed his combative, challenging reputation in the city’s drawing rooms into commissions for compositions, requests for lessons and further invitations to perform.  If he had played nice at this stage, offering up conventional compositions that were easy for his students to play, while sustaining his own reputation as a keyboard wizard, he could have spent the rest of his life as a wealthy, fêted man. 

Beethoven was driven by a higher, furioso purpose, however, unwilling to kowtow or compromise. While other court musicians sought to delight and entertain their aristocratic audience, Beethoven had other goals in mind.  Born in a revolutionary era, and maturing as Bonaparte redrew the map of Europe, he yearned for change.  Stasis could not satisfy him.  Once his career as a composer began to take off, he pushed every limit of instrument and form, rewriting the rules of harmony and rhythm, producing pieces that were so complicated and difficult that they baffled even professional musicians.  When he premiered his new sonatas, concertos and symphonies – now staples of the classical repertoire – the audience greeted them with polite bewilderment.  Critics were also unsure what to make of this rebel music.  One wrote (about the Op. 10 Piano Sonatas):

His abundance of ideas …still too often causes him to pile up ideas without restraint and to arrange them in a bizarre manner so as to bring about an obscure artificiality or an artificial obscurity…”

But Beethoven didn’t care.  He might explode with rage at a snippy review, but he soon continued along his creative path, guided by his inner vision rather than the reaction of others. He knew what he was doing, even if lesser mortals could not yet see the light.   This immutable inner conviction was never more apparent than in the concert he arranged on 22 December, 1808 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.  On a freezing night, in an unheated auditorium, he subjected his audience to four hours of premieres, including the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, selections from the C Major Mass, and the Choral Fantasy.  The concert was not a huge success: the orchestra only had one rehearsal beforehand, but nonetheless it must have been mind-blowing to witness – and exhausting. Those who made it through to the end exited the theatre in a state of confusion: the story goes that one rival composer was so bowled over that, in attempting to put on his hat, he was unable to find his head.

Love Not Wisely, But Too Well

Even Beethoven’s friends described him as ugly. His looks, coupled with his bad temper, chronic diarrhea (and reluctance to empty his chamber pot, much to the disgust of visitors), and his habit of losing himself to the world in a creative trance, often for hours on end (his “Raptus”), meant he wasn’t exactly Bachelor of the Year.  Perhaps more problematically, his fame as a composer conferred little in the way of social status. To the end of his days he was a commoner, a mere servant, albeit an exalted one, and no noblewoman could risk her reputation by being associated with him too closely.

This was a shame, because Beethoven fell for more of his share of high-class skirt. Although he was not aristocratic, he moved within their circles, attended their evening soirees, and, during the day, visited their homes to teach lessons. Many of his students were female. Playing piano was one of the few creative outlets available to a Viennese lady, and many were as accomplished as their male counterparts. While they would not perform in a public theatre, these women enjoyed demonstrating their skill at private concerts in palaces – the mainstay of the Viennese musical whirl.

So, Beethoven spent long hours in the company of beautiful, talented women, hoping to find one who would look beyond his lowly birth, his pockmarked face, his diminutive stature (he was 5’2”), his unkempt clothing and his toxic flatulence, and see the poetry in his soul. He had many female admirers, drawn by his passion and mystery, who enjoyed his company for a time but he had no luck in real love.

One of the first objects of his affection was the teenage Giulietta Guicciardi (“a dear charming girl who loves me and whom I love”) but the difference in their social class meant that nothing could come of the relationship – other than the Moonlight Sonata, which he dedicated to her. Beethoven turned romantic defeats into musical triumphs, channeling heartbreak and loss through his keyboard. Another potential love, the widowed Countess Josephine Deym, professed great admiration and fondness for Beethoven but, ultimately, backed away.  Her rejection led to perhaps his greatest piano sonata, Op. 57 Appassionata, which plunges tumultuously from the bottom keys to the top, transmitting anguish, pain and suffering in every arpeggio.

Then, of course, there is Unsterbliche Geliebte, “Immortal Beloved”, the unknown addressee of a fragmentary love letter found among Beethoven’s papers after his death. This unknown woman is his mature love, the culmination of his romantic hopes.  He was in his early forties when he wrote to her in July 1812, pouring out his heart to “My angel, my all, my self”. He tells her:

I can only live wholly with you or not at all… yes, I have resolved to wander about in the distance, until I can fly into your arms, and can call myself entirely at home with you, can send my soul embraced by you into the realm of spirits…

He ends “Forever yours, forever mine, forever us.”  But it didn’t work out.  Whoever she was, the breakdown of their affair also triggered two years of depression and near-silence from Beethoven, exacerbated by grinding poverty (he could not leave the house, he wrote to a friend, because his only pair of boots was “in tatters”) and the terminal illness of his brother Carl.

Beethoven gave up on the ideal of romantic love that had fuelled him for so long, and his music after this point starts to explore profounder concepts: the politics of revolution, and the essence of God.  For him, there was to be no enabling, infuriating, confounding soul-mate such as Mozart found in his Constanze, or fiery, independent muse, such as Liszt had with Marie d'Agoult. As a human, he was devastated, yet his artistic legacy was forever shaped, and enhanced, by his unrequited heart.

‘…Only art it was that withheld me’

Part of Beethoven’s fascination, the compulsiveness of his persona, comes from the manner he was gifted and cursed in equal measure. His mind was attuned to the divine, able to access and organize the glorious into notes on a stave, but his body was a pathetic vessel, unsightly, plagued with disease.  His music may have channeled the voice of God, but, as everyone from Icarus to Faustus has discovered, the mortal who brushes against the divine always has to pay a terrible price.

The price exacted from Beethoven was his hearing. He was at the height of his powers in 1798, the darling of the Viennese musical set, a popular teacher and performer gaining steady accolades for his compositions. Then, after an argument with an opera singer, he fell to the floor. When he got up, his ears were ringing and he was deaf.  Although degrees of his hearing would come and go for the next few years, he would never again be free of a maddening vibration in his inner ear.

We can only speculate about the potential causes: typhus, smallpox, syphilis, lead poisoning, a birth defect, or unknown virus. Whatever the problem was, medicine at the time could offer no remedy. At twenty-seven years old, Beethoven, the greatest musician of his generation, faced total ruin. His career as a virtuoso performer was doomed – he could not play in public if he could not hear.  The outlook for a deaf composer was equally grim.  Fatalism crept into his music almost immediately, in the Pathetique, Op. 13., but it took four years before he finally acknowledged his fate.

A letter to his brothers, Johann and Caspar, dated October 6, 1802, is part will, part suicide note.  Known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, it sets out his state of mind as he considers how he is “hopelessly afflicted”, and acknowledges he is on the brink of ending it all.  It begins with a searing plea (“O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me”), then goes on to outline the specifics of his suffering (“what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing …such incidents brought me to the verge of despair”).  Yet, he affirms his commitment to his art, and the purpose it gives him:

Patience - it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable Parcae to break the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else - Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein.

This letter was never sent, but it stayed with Beethoven’s possessions till he died, the truest articulation of how he felt about his creative genius, a force strong enough to push back Death.  He had no way of knowing at the time, but, despite his growing disability, his greatest work still lay ahead of him.  Had he given in to hopelessness, he would have denied the world his Third through Ninth Symphonies, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto, the Waldstein, Appassionata and Hammerklavier piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations and the Missa Solemnis, plus many other now-renowned works.  There would be no Alex in A Clockwork Orange, extemporizing on Ode To Joy:

Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

The next time your struggle seems a bit too real, you may want to compare your plight to Beethoven’s, and take a step back.

There are many ways for writers to be inspired by Beethoven’s genius.  His music runs the gamut, from the delicacy of the early piano sonatas to the heavy metal posturing of the Ninth Symphony, and there are countless versions available free online (YouTube returns “about 4,520,000 results”).  The 1994 movie, Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman, explores the potential identity of Beethoven's secret love, and reviews his life in the process. There are some excellent biographies available, including Jan Swafford’s epic 1000+ page tome published last year (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph), although the leaner classic is Maynard Solomon’s Beethoven.  Also published in 2014, Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman is a fictionalized version of Maestro’s final year, constructed from handwritten notes in the many ‘conversation books’ used by family, friends and tradespeople to communicate with him once he completely lost his hearing. Although Beethoven’s responses are implied, never written, his irascible nature, as always, is palpable on the page.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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