Beethoven: Communicator of Passions

He’s been called a misanthrope, and worse. The same man who created the exultant Ode To Joy struggled with health problems and battled feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Even when Beethoven’s career was well established to the point that he was able to maintain a decent living, supporting himself by composing and the occasional performance, he struggled. At the height of his powers, despite coping with health problems, Ludwig Van Beethoven forged onward. In an 1810 letter to Nikolaus Zmeskall Von Domanovetz, he writes:

Meanwhile, everything else, too, is going topsy turvy with me; his Highness wants my company, and so does Art. I am half at Schoenbrunn, half here. Every day there are new enquiries from foreigners, new acquaintances, new relationships, even with regard to art.

Yet the great master battled feelings of depression and fear. In the same letter, he writes:

Sometimes my undeserved fame is enough to drive me mad: fortune is seeking me out, and this almost makes me fear some new misfortune.

Burdened with unpredictable health and overwhelming emotions, Ludwig was prolific, producing a staggering nine symphonies, eight concertos, fourteen string quartets, ten violin sonatas, thirty two piano sonatas, and a variety of other works — despite suffering progressive hearing loss beginning in his twenties that also made it difficult for him to socialize. (For a comprehensive list of works by Beethoven, please see: ).

An “Extraordinary Man”
Beethoven’s single-minded need for solitude was not lost on his peers, including Viennese poet and playwright Franz Grillparzer who, in 1810, recalling a childhood memory, wrote:

Our apartment faced the garden, while Beethoven had rented the rooms facing the street. A communal passage, leading to the stairs, connected the two partitions. My brothers and myself cared little for this extraordinary man – he had grown stouter in the meantime and walked about in untidy, even dirty clothes – when, grunting, he shot past us; but my mother, a passionate music-lover, from time to time, when she heard him play, yielded to the impulse to step into the communal passage, not near his door but immediately in front of ours, and listen with religious awe. (From “Recollections of Beethoven.”)

The composer of Ode To Joy and The Moonlight Sonata was by all accounts, mercurial, and a demanding conductor of his works, in many ways typifying the iconic image of the composer utterly consumed by passion. In Theodor Von Frimmel’s biography of Beethoven, he tells of Karl Friedrich Hirsch’s account of a notorious incident:

As far as the externals of these lessons are concerned, we are told that Beethoven, already very hard of hearing at this time (Hirsch says: already at that time one had to speak to him very loudly), used to keep his eyes fixed upon his pupil’s hands and would break out into violent rages when a wrong note was struck, whereupon he would grow very red in the face while the veins on his temples and forehead began to swell; also, in his irritation or impatience he would pinch the artistic novice in a most ungentle manner; indeed, on one occasion he even bit his shoulder.

Surely, the aforementioned poor health, and their impact on his comfort and ability to create contributed to his irascible temperament. His hearing loss made it necessary for Beethoven to communicate with friends using conversation books (many of these he later destroyed, to protect himself from embarrassment). These difficulties, combined with his immense popularity kept Beethoven in a state of stress. It’s no wonder then, that his music reflects these passions so clearly.


Letters excerpted from: Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, edited and translated by Michael Hamburger. 1992, Thames and Hudson.

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