If music be the food of love, play on
Who was Beethoven’s immortal beloved? The mystery persists two centuries later
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 ...