If mu­sic be the food of love, play on

Who was Beethoven’s im­mor­tal beloved? The mys­tery per­sists two cen­turies later

Vancouver Sun - - YOU - RUTH PADEL

In July 1812, Lud­wig van Beethoven was 41. Ten years be­fore, when he had started to lose his hear­ing, he had con­tem­plated sui­cide. But he de­cided to live for his art and went on to write many mas­ter­pieces, in­clud­ing his Third, Fifth and Ninth sym­phonies, Fifth Pi­ano Con­certo, Wald­stein and Ap­pas­sion­ata pi­ano sonatas and five ground­break­ing string quar­tets.

His per­sonal life, how­ever, was a mess. His deaf­ness was wors­en­ing, he had gas­tric trou­ble and didn’t get along with his younger broth­ers, his only re­main­ing fam­ily. Karl, the next in age, had a wife Beethoven dis­liked. Jo­hann, the youngest, lived in Linz, Ger­many, with a house­keeper, Therese, and her il­le­git­i­mate child, fa­thered by an­other man. Beethoven thought this deeply im­moral. He him­self lived alone in Vi­enna.

Since his teenage years, ac­cord­ing to a friend, he had been “al­ways in love.” But no love ever lasted. His most re­cent in­fat­u­a­tion, with the teenage daugh­ter of a rich mer­chant, had ended in tears. But in the au­tumn of 1811, he had made the ac­quain­tance of An­tonie Brentano, wife of a Frank­furt busi­ness­man.

Brentano was stay­ing in Vi­enna that year to clear her dead fa­ther’s house. Beethoven be­gan vis­it­ing her. He played to her when she was ill, composed a piece for her daugh­ter to play and wrote a song called For the Beloved. When she asked for the man­u­script score, he gave it to her.

In June 1812, Beethoven took off for the Bo­hemian spa of Teplitz, but stopped over in Prague. On July 1, Brentano and her hus­band Franz, trav­el­ling to an­other spa, also made a stopover in the city. One of the mys­ter­ies of Beethoven’s life is what hap­pened in Prague on the night of July 3.

We do know that Beethoven failed to keep a busi­ness ap­point­ment that evening. We even have his hand­writ­ten apol­ogy, though it doesn’t say what he was do­ing in­stead. He left Prague the fol­low­ing day, ar­rived in Teplitz on July 5, and on July 6 wrote a pas­sion­ate let­ter, in pencil, to a woman. He does not name her, but the let­ter says she lent him that pencil. He ad­dresses her as his “im­mor­tal beloved.”

It seems un­likely this let­ter was ever sent; it was found in Beethoven’s desk af­ter his death. But it does im­ply that he spent at least part of the night of July 3 with the woman he was writ­ing to.

Who was she? Schol­ars have de­bated this ques­tion for cen­turies. In 1994, the film Im­mor­tal Beloved made an un­con­vinc­ing case for one woman.

Biog­ra­phers have ar­gued the case for oth­ers. An­tonie Brentano was cer­tainly in Prague that night, but so was her hus­band, who Beethoven con­sid­ered a friend. If she was his im­mor­tal beloved, how did he square his high mo­ral stan­dards with his love?

Who­ever she was, Beethoven’s im­mor­tal beloved pre­cip­i­tated a cre­ative cri­sis that took him four years to re­solve. Af­ter 1812, he en­tered the most bar­ren era of his life. Biographie­s speak of para­noia, al­co­holism or de­pres­sion. At one point he tried to starve him­self to death.

For four years, he was not re­ally com­pos­ing. He spent months alone, read­ing, with only cheap red wine for com­pany. The break­through came in 1816, when he wrote a song cy­cle called An die ferne Geliebte (To the Dis­tant Beloved). Per­haps it brought him the emo­tional clo­sure he needed. Per­haps it ex­pressed his fi­nal ac­cep­tance that it was time to move on from his “im­mor­tal” love. Two years later, be­gin­ning with Pi­ano Sonata Opus 101, he wrote him­self into the as­tound­ing burst of cre­ativ­ity that would pro­duce his Ninth Sym­phony.

This was his “late style,” the most sub­lime of all Beethoven’s mu­sic. But there had been a glim­mer of it, late in 1812, his year of cri­sis, in three, small, eerie Equali for Four Trom­bones.

An equale was a spe­cialty of Linz — a piece played by a trom­bone quar­tet at fu­ner­als and on All Souls’ Night. Beethoven wrote his Equali three months af­ter his pas­sion­ate let­ter. They would be played at Beethoven’s fu­neral in 1827 and, later, at the fu­neral of Ed­ward VII, when they were praised for their “weird sim­plic­ity and ex­quis­ite pathos.”

In minia­ture, these poignant evo­ca­tions fore­shadow the glo­ri­ous late style of his fi­nal quar­tets. They are the sound of a man re­lin­quish­ing any hope of his longed­for love. Who­ever the im­mor­tal beloved was, there were to be no more women af­ter her. Per­haps, to their com­poser, these lit­tle pieces marked the death of love it­self.

Biographie­s speak of para­noia, al­co­holism or de­pres­sion. For four years, he was not re­ally com­pos­ing. He spent months alone, read­ing, with only cheap red wine ...

Lud­wig van Beethoven wrote a pas­sion­ate let­ter to his “im­mor­tal beloved” in 1812. For cen­turies, schol­ars have de­bated the iden­tity of the woman.

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