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What I am reading (formerly Book of the Week)


Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, edited by Michael Hamburger (Anchor books, 1960).

In a month when Google has just introduced another online service that is based on instant electronic communication between millions of people, I picked up a volume of letters written by Beethoven, selected from the thousands that he wrote during his life. This is not a great number for a busy, educated, and famous man living between 1770 and 1827, when a letter was the only way to communicate with absent friends or business partners, even those who lived in the same city. As this volume shows, Beethoven’s daily life involved not just writing music, but sending the manuscripts out to copiers, communicating with his publishers, his aristocratic patrons, musical societies and orchestras across Europe that wanted to perform his works, his family, his would-be lovers, dealing with solicitations from people who wanted to visit him – all of which required a written note, from a few lines to pages of detailed instructions.
This volume concentrates less on the letters devoted to his music-business dealings and more on those that bring alive his voice and his character. On this, my third, re-reading, what I find most fascinating are the accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by other people. The editor’s decision to include these next to the contemporaneous letters written by Beethoven provide a consistent picture of the composer’s life, particularly after the serious deterioration in his hearing around 1805. Here is an extract from a little later, written by Beethoven's friend Gerhard van Breuning:
Click to enlarge
Apparently Beethoven had always lived a disorderly life: visitors describe the dust everywhere in his apartment, the chairs, tables, and even the piano piled high with papers, clothing, plates with scraps of food on them, the floor covered in puddles of water due to his habit of emptying a jug of water over his head to cool off and just letting it splash wherever it landed. In this chaotic setting, they tell of his launching into loud talk as soon as visitors entered his chambers, monopolizing the ‘conversation’ because he could not hear anyone else when they spoke. He would offer people a slate and chalk to write down questions, and would start to answer as soon as he recognized enough of the words. This picture of Beethoven talking endlessly without being able to hear his own voice, and talking obsessively about the same subjects (always complaining bitterly about the Viennese and lauding the English, whom he was convinced were more appreciative of his music) – this brought home to me how lonely his condition must have made him.
He was no saint: the letters concerning his nephew Karl, whom he took from Karl’s mother by a form of legal abduction, show him to be overbearing, domineering, even cruel when he felt that he was being crossed. But in general the letters give one a sense of the conditions that gave rise to such conduct, the difficulty of enduring a life under the worst affliction that a musician could suffer, and the amazing fortitude that it took to continue creating such idealistic music without lapsing into despair.


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