What was Beethoven doing in ….

… May?

At Easter one of my friends was visiting the house before our 3.15am departure to Heathrow for a week of Important Research in Vienna. This friend of mine has a remarkable gift for reading aloud (particularly from the works of Trollope, but also from other literature) and she came across a volume of Beethoven’s letters on the extensive stairway shelving system.  Such riches lay within this volume, and thanks to R.’s renderings of Beethoven’s volatile epistolary style, I was rendered helpless with mirth all over the house.  The most notable letter was, of course, the first of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letters. Not so much for the mysterious recipient, but for Beethoven’s habit of making tremendously rapid segues from matters of heartfelt passion to, well, other matters:

‘July 6, in the morning
My angel, my all, my very self – Only a few words today and at that with pencil (with yours) – Not till tomorrow will my lodgings be definitely determined upon – what a useless waste of time – Why this deep sorrow when necessity speaks – can our love endure except through sacrifices, through not demanding everything from one another; can you change the fact that you are not wholly mine, I not wholly thine – Oh God, look out into the beauties of nature and comfort your heart with that which must be – Love demands everything and that very justly – thus it is to me with you, and to your with me. But you forget so easily that I must live for me and for you; if we were wholly united you would feel the pain of it as little as I – My journey was a fearful one; I did not reach here until 4 o’clock yesterday morning. Lacking horses the post-coach chose another route, but what an awful one; at the stage before the last I was warned not to travel at night; I was made fearful of a forest, but that only made me the more eager – and I was wrong. The coach must needs break down on the wretched road, a bottomless mud road. Without such postilions as I had with me I should have remained stuck in the road. Esterhazy, traveling the usual road here, had the same fate with eight horses that I had with four – Yet I got some pleasure out of it, as I always do when I successfully overcome difficulties – Now a quick change to things internal from things external […]’ 

In various other notes Beethoven switches rapidly between matters aesthetic and spiritual to sudden demands for new neckties, or he requests that some pleasant young woman should knit him a new angora waistcoat.  And so, on Holy Saturday and Easter Day, 2015, R. found all the best examples of Beethoven’s literary modulations, and read them aloud as we either howled with laughter  or wailed with grief.

Yesterday, while finding material for a programme note on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109, I found that there are a number of his letters available through Project Gutenberg, and today – because I am sleepy and suffering from a lack of motivation – I thought it would be fun to see what Beethoven was doing in the third week of May over a number of years. There are too many letters to include here, but 1826 yielded a series of short notes from Beethoven to his nephew, many of which are concerned with the composer’s flagging health.

  • May 19.

    Ask the house agent about a lodging in the Landstrasse, Ungargasse, No. 345, adjoining the Bräuhaus,–four rooms and a kitchen, commanding a view of the adjacent gardens. I hear there are various others too in the Hauptstrasse. Give a gulden to the house agent in the Ungargasse, to promise me the refusal of the lodgings till Saturday, when, if the weather is not too bad, I mean to come on to fetch you. We must decide to-morrow whether it is to be hired from Michaelmas or now. If I do come on Saturday, take care that I find you at home.

    Your attached

  • Baden, May 23.

    I have been assured, though as yet it is only a matter of conjecture, that a clandestine intercourse has been renewed between your mother and yourself. Am I doomed again to experience such detestable ingratitude? No! if the tie is to be severed, so be it! By such ingratitude you will incur the hatred of all impartial persons. The expressions my brother made use of yesterday before Dr. Reissig (as he says); and your own with respect to Schönauer (who is naturally adverse to me, the judgment of the Court being the exact reverse of what he desired), were such, that I will not mix myself up with such shameful doings! No! never more!

    If you find the Pactum oppressive, then, in God’s name, I resign you to His holy keeping! I have done my part, and on this score I do not dread appearing before the Highest of all Judges. Do not be afraid to come to me to-morrow; as yet I only suspect; God grant that those suspicions may not prove true, for to you it would be an incalculable misfortune, with whatever levity my rascally brother, and perhaps your mother also, may treat the matter to the old woman. I shall expect you without fail.

  • Baden, May 31, 1825.


    I intend to come to town on Saturday, and to return here either on Sunday evening, or early on Monday. I beg you will therefore ask Dr. Bach [advocate] at what hour I can see him, and also fetch the key from brother Bäcker’s [a brother-in-law of Johann Beethoven’s], to see whether in the room inhabited by my unbrotherly brother, the arrangements are such that I can stay a night there; and if there is clean linen, &c., &c. As Thursday is a holiday, and it is unlikely that you will come here (indeed I do not desire that you should), you may easily execute these two commissions for me. You can let me know the result when I arrive on Saturday. I don’t send you money, for if you want any, you can borrow a gulden at home. Moderation is necessary for young people, and you do not appear to pay sufficient attention to this, as you had money without my knowledge, nor do I yet know whence it came. Fine doings! It is not advisable that you should go to the theatre at present, on account of the distraction it causes. The 5 florins procured by Dr. Reissig, I will pay off by instalments, punctually every month. So enough of this! Misled as you have been, it would be no bad thing were you at length to cultivate simplicity and truth, for my heart has been so deeply wounded by your deceitful conduct, that it is difficult to forget it. Even were I disposed to submit like an ox to so hard a yoke without murmuring, if you pursue the same course towards others, you will never succeed in gaining the love of any one. As God is my witness, I can think of nothing but you, and my contemptible brother, and the detestable family that I am afflicted with. May God vouchsafe to listen to my prayer, for never again can I trust you!

    Your Father, alas!
    Yet fortunately not your Father.

These few examples demonstrate the tension between Beethoven and Karl, the uncle’s attempts to do the right thing for his nephew, but also show how difficult it must have been to be Beethoven’s ward. Karl’s announcement that he wanted to have a military career caused his uncle rage and distress, just as Karl’s visits to his mother did.  While reading these documents cannot really bring us any closer to the characters involved, they do provide a fascinating glimpse of humanity, the complexity of family relationships, and a sense of  affinity with the struggle of Beethoven and Karl to reach understanding.


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