Beethoven going for a stroll in Heiligenstadt, Germany
December 17, 2019
Look out for all kinds of Beethoven-related concerts and events once we hit 2020 – more information on that in the new year.
When I was a piano student, I kept toggling between the sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. Tackling Mozart was like trying to bake a soufflé – both must be light, airy, and perfect, without collapsing. When I had enough of that, I’d switch over to Beethoven, which felt more like attempting a beef wellington with a side of potatoes. I would feel through the notes under my fingertips Beethoven’s struggles and how he musically shook his fist at the universe. This is, of course, when I wasn’t shaking my own fist at the score, wondering how the hell I’d learn this time in time for the Kiwanis Festival and RCM exam.
So much has been written about Beethoven, and most people know of his story. When I first learned of the Heiligenstadt Testament it became my go-to for inspiration. When I’m having a bad time of it, I just have to read this document; my perspective bounces back immediately.
This extraordinary letter was written in October 1802 in Heiligenstadt, a Vienna suburb where Beethoven lived for a few months on doctor’s orders. He references his contemplation of suicide but decides he must live for his art. It was addressed to his brothers Karl and Johann, when Ludwig was 32. He was already living with hearing problems for six years; in another fourteen, he’d be completely deaf.
Here is an edited version of this life-changing statement:
Think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady.
Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly I was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.
But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended me life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. Forced to become a philosopher, oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else.
Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery. Thanks to it and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide. Farewell and love each other.
Ludwig van Beethoven
October 6th, 1802
The famous Kreutzer Sonata for Violin and Piano was written the same year as the Heiligenstadt Testament. Here it’s performed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis.
Beethoven was baptized December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany, and died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria.