The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Beethoven, Part II.

by Frank Barton, F.R.C.O.
Volume 5, 1894, pg. 127-133

[John Frank Barton, 1855-1915, was a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and musical scholar. He and his wife Susannah had a son named Frank Barton, aged 8 when this article was published, who grew up to be a schoolmaster.]

This first visit to Vienna lasted only about three months, after which he returned to Bonn. This year must have been one of great domestic trouble for him, as, shortly after his return home, his mother, of whom he was very fond, died, leaving a family of young children; and the family affairs fell from bad to worse, his father growing more and more irregular in his habits. But gloomy as was the prospect at this time, it was not wholly unenlivened by a gleam of light, for he made some acquaintances who were afterwards of the greatest use to him, and who remained his faithful friends to the end of his life. One of these was the Von Breuning family, the members of which were highly refined and intellectual people, who exercised a powerful influence for good over the mind of the youth. The other was the Count von Waldstein, a young nobleman eight years his senior, a devoted amateur musician, whose acquaintance at this time was perculiarly useful to Beethoven, as owing to his great wealth and power he was able to give him pecuniary help--under the guise of allowances from the Elector--and also--under some pretext or other--a piano upon which to practise. It is pleasant to notice that the benefit of this friendship was not to be all on one side, and that in after life, Beethoven repaid these early kindnesses by rendering the Count von Waldstein's name immortal in dedicating to him the great Sonata in C major, which is now known amongst musicians as the Waldstein.

Beethoven resided in his native town of Bonn until his 22nd year, and it is noteworthy that during this early part of his career, nothing of importance was composed by him; in fact, he seemed to be solely employed in gathering experience and in carefully studying the art of composition, presenting in this respect a striking contrast to other composers of the first rank, such as Mozart, Schubert, or Mendelssohn, all of whom had composed a large nubmer of imporant works before they had attained to the same age.

The second period of his life commences towards the close of the year 1792, when Beethoven left Bonn for ever, and took up his residence in Vienna. This step appears to have been taken at the wish of the Elector, who at length began to recognise the great genius of his young organist. It is uncertain what amount of pecuniary aid the Elector gave him, but it is supposed that for some time he was allowed to draw his modest salary of about £30 a year, which was due to him as Court Organist.

Beethoven went to Vienna with good introductions to many of the music-loving nobles from the Elector and from his influential friend, Von Waldstein: and such was the immense power of his genius, and the mysterious fascination which it exercised upon all with whom he came in contact, that in spite of his low origin and his almost innumerable personal drawbacks, he was able to bridge over the gulf which separated the low-born musician from the proudest aristocracy of Europe, and to live at their houses with them on terms of perfect equality. That this should have been done is almost unintelligible, when we remember that in addition to holding most advanced Republican principles--which he took every opportunity of avowing--his personal manners were almost those of a savage. "His sensitiveness was extreme, his temper ungovernable, and his mode of expression often quite unjustifiable." Playing once in a duet with his pupil Ries, at the palace of Count Browne, a young nobleman persisted in talking to a lady at the other end of the room. All attempts at quieting him having failed, Beethoven suddenly lifted his hands from the piano, and saying, in a loud voice, "I play no longer for such hogs," refused to touch another note, although entreated to do so by all. On another occasion, during a rehearsal of the great Leonora overture, the third bassoon player was found to be absent, at which Beethoven was perfectly furious. His friend, Prince Lobkowitz, who was with him, tried to laugh off the matter, saying that as the first and second bassoon players were there, the absence of the third could not be of any great consequence. But this untimely suggestion only infuriated him the more, so that in crossing the square, after the rehearsal, he could not be restrained from running over to the great gate of the Lobkowitz Palace, and shouting after the Prince, "Ass of a Lobkowitz."

In addition to the eccentricities of his nature, his personal appearance was not very attractive. He was below the middle height, being only about five feet five inches; very broad across the shoulders, and the image of strength. When he first went to reside in Vienna, he attempted to dress in accordance with the fashion of the day; but dress was as unbearable to him as was etiquette, and it is not surpriseing to find that he soon relapsed into very untidy habits in that respect. The Countess of Gallenburg--a great admirer of him -- says in a letter to a friend that "he was meanly dressed, and very ugly to look at"; and Czerny, the musician, who visited him at his rooms, compares him to a Robinson Crusoe, with his clothes made of some rough, hairy material, his ear filled with wool, his hair standing in a thick shock, and his beard nearly half an inch long. But if his face was ugly, it was remarkably expressive -- his general expression when lost in thought, as he so often was, was gloomy; but at times his face would light up with a particularly winning smile. His head was large, and he had a high forehead, whilst the hair was very abundant, and, during his early years, very black; in later years it became quite white, forming a strong contrast with his bright coloured complexion.

There are numerous busts and portraits of him extant, but they are nearly all to blame for giving him too idealized an expression--there is no doubt that his face was a very difficult one to take, owing to the constant variety of emotions to which it was subject, and also the restlessness of the sitter.

These and many more similar anecdotes which might be told of him do not make up for our hero a very attractive personality, and in hearing them we are wholly at a loss to understand the secret of the strange influence which he certainly possessed over the hearts of all those with whom he became acquainted. No doubt, in the first instance, he was sought after for the sake of his wonderful power of improvizing on the piano, but afterwards there must have been some deeper spell than this, to cause high-born princes to compete with each other for the honour of having him to live with them, even when he habitually refused to play for them. When he first went to live in Vienna, he took lessons from Haydn, but the old master and the new do not appear to have agreed well together. Probably the young and impetuous Beethoven could not confine himself readily to the formal rules of the veteran Haydn, and Haydn, in his turn, could not brook the daring, revolutionary ideas of his young pupil.

At this point in the story of Beethoven's life, it will be well to point out one important feature in the manner in which he composed, which distinguishes him from any other of the great composers with whose method we are acquainted. No music sounds so spontaneous and natural as does that of Beethoven, and it might surely be thought that it had been produced with the greatest ease and on the spur of the moment, as was the case with Mozart; but it was far from being the case, no composer ever taking such laborious pains over every melody as did Beethoven. It was his custom to write down a musical thought as it occurred to him on some tablet which he always carried about with him wherever he went, and, as many of these sketch books are still in existence, it has been possible to trace out exactly his manner of working. A melody is found undergoing,through many years, all kinds of transformations. In the first place it appears as a very commonplace subject, but gradually it is improved, bit by bit, until at length it appears as we now have it, in the state which it may be supposed satisfied our composer's critical judgment, and stands out with all the effect of a most spontaneous idea.

Beethoven was an early riser, and from a very early hour in the morning until dinner time--which in those days was generally at noon--he was employed in elaborating and "working up," as it is technically called, his previously written sketches into great musical compositions. He appears to have worked at several of these at a time. After dinner (when he remembered to have any) he used to set out with his sketch books in his hand for a long walk in the suburbs of Vienna, and it was whilst thus walking amongst the woods and fields in which he delighted that he received most of his musical inspirations, which were then jotted down on the first page which came to hand, to be afterwards amended until he was quite satisfied with them. Beethoven was perhaps as untidy a man as ever lived, and it is not astonishing therefore to find his sketch books so confusedly kept as to be almost as hard to decipher as an ancient hieroglyphic inscription. He was never married, but he appears to have been continually falling in love, generally with ladies of high rank, and several times he was on the point of being married. He made no secret of his attachments, making them known in fact to all futurity by means of the dedications of his pianoforte sonatas, many of which works may be looked upon as his outpouring of love to the ladies to whom they are dedicated. On the whole, the first few years of Beethoven's life in Vienna must have been happy ones; he himself was quite satisfied with his pecuniary position, and he was most cordially received by the musical aristocracy of the town through whom he was enabled to make known to the public his now fast appearing compositions.

But in the midst of this sunshine, the clouds were gathering which were soon to involve him in that misfortune which rendered his life so sorrowful a one. Of all physical infirmities, the loss of hearing must be the worst to a musician, and more especially to such a musician as Beethoven, whose whole existence was bound up in that art whose sweet sounds he was never more to hear. The first mention which is found of the progress of this malady is in the year 1798, when he was 27 years old. He then complains, in a letter to a friend, of a constant singing and buzzing in his ears, and of a loss of power to distinguish words, and great dislike to sudden loud noise. Except to one or two of his most intimate friends, he seems to have concealed the fact as much as possible; it was indeed a subject of the greatest pain to his sensitive nature, and plunged him into a state of great melancholy. He took the best available advice, but all was of no use. The use of the right ear was soon entirely lost, whilst that of the left grew more and more defective, until at length he completely lost the sense of hearing. After this, all communication was carried on with him by means of writing, for which purpose he always carried with him a book of stout paper and a pencil. Cruel as this misfortune was to Beethoven, it is questionable whether the art of music has not been a gainer by it, as he was led by his increasing deafness to abstract himself more and more from the world, and to give vent to his emotions in a musical language of his own, freed from the restrictions of current usage. All the colossal works which mark Beethoven as the greatest of instrumental composers were composed after he had become deaf.

In addition to his physical infirmity, the last ten or eleven years of his life found Beethoven involved in domestic troubles with his family. His brother John had become an apothecary in Vienna, and had accumulated a considerable amount of money by his business. He appears to have been in every way different to his elder brother and to have looked upon him with much contempt. His only talent lay in money-getting, in which he seems to have been clever enough, but his unkind, harsh behaviour to his brother Ludwig has handed down his memory in a very unenviable manner. There is an amusing story told which well illustrates the character of the two brothers. It appears that on some fête day John had called upon his brother, leaving his card upon which was written, "John Van Beethoven, Gutsbesitzer,"--land proprietor, or owner, upon seeing which Ludwig at once wrote upon the back, "Ludwig Van Beethoven, Hirnbesitzer," brain proprietor, and returned it to his brother. It is very certain that Beethoven knew the strength of his own intellect, and was always ready to assert his claims to respect on that account. In some law proceedings, in which he was once engaged, his case had been brought before one of the superior courts on the assumption that the Van before his name indicated nobility. This was disputed by his opponent, and on being examined on this Beethoven confirmed the argument by pointing proudly to his head and his heart and saying, "My title to nobility is here and here."

Another of the domestic troubles which, more than any other, embittered his last years arose from his adoption of a nephew, Karl, whose father, a younger brother of Ludwig, had died in 1815. This lad Beethoven loved as his own child, and did all that lay in his power to educate him, but the boy proved quite unworthy of his great uncle's care, and it is most probable that the constant worry and disappointment to which he was subjected from this source led to his death, which took place in Vienna on March 26th, 1827, at the age of 56. As a sign of the great respect in which Beethoven was held by all classes, it must be noticed that his funeral was attended by an immense mass of people, the crowds in the streets being so enormous that soldiers had to be called in to clear a way for the funeral procession, which even then took an hour and a half in traversing the short distance from the house to the cemetery.

Beethoven was essentially a composer of instrumental music; and as such may be regarded as the ne plus autre of absolute music. His vocal compositions are few in comparison, although what there are of them are works of the greatest magnitude. But it would appear that his free spirit could ill bear the restrictions to which a composer must submit when writing for the limited range of the human voice, and, accordingly, the full orchestra, with its innumerable combinations of tone and limitless powers of expression, became his favorite medium. All pianoforte players owe a double debt of gratitude to Beethoven; in the first place for providing them with a supply of the greatest music, and in the second for bringing about a great improvement in the construction of the piano. This instrument, as he found it, was widely different, with its thin, wiry tone, to that of our day, and no little of the credit is due to our composer who wrote many of his greatest works for it--works which require all the power and resources of our present instruments; and is it largely owing to the demands made upon the piano by Beethoven that its makers have been constantly striving to improve its mechanism in every possible way.

Typed by Rondalyno, Aug 2018; Proofread by LNL, May 2021